Written by Adam Perkinson
Following a three-year legal battle, the Washington Post has uncovered countless confidential government documents detailing interviews of U.S. officials who were involved in the Afghanistan conflict.
The Afghanistan Papers, as they’re being called, are a 2,000-page collection of interviews conducted during a federal project to find the root cause of the United States’ failures in Afghanistan. The interviews were never intended to become public, but following a court ruling in late November, every page was published on December 9th, 2019 in a special story ran on the Washington Post website.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Douglas Lute, a three-star general who served in Afghanistan from 2002 – 2016, directly contrasting the ever-repeating mantra we were being fed every time the conflict was brought up: progress, the enemy is retreating, we know what we’re doing. The papers paint a different picture, not of the rosy landscape of won battles and utter dominance that we were fed by the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, but rather one of utter confusion, wasted money, and lives lost.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders during the Obama administration, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.” It was not the fact that military commanders were ill-advised in what they were doing; they acknowledged and communicated problems they knew about, but it was the policymakers failing to coordinate solutions to those problems.
Despite the similar names, the Pentagon Papers and the Afghanistan Papers (AP) don’t share much more than an argument made by Leslie Gelb, the director for the Pentagon Papers, that presidents knew the Vietnam War was in no way, shape, or form winnable but yet aimed to win it regardless. Asfandyar Mir, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, pointed out two ways the Afghanistan Papers differ. Firstly, there was a dramatically large percent of political and military leaders who believed that the war was winnable. Secondly, and most importantly, there was no clear objective for the war. Whereas in Vietnam, there was a very obvious objective — to stop the spread of communism and to promote democracy in Southeast Asia. Simply, the Afghanistan War is different.
Firstly, The only enemy was described in the moniker given to the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the “War on Terror.” And even then, there is no clear enemy — for example, the Bush administration focused primarily on what was happening in Iraq, while the Obama administration focused primarily on defeating Al-Qaeda. There was also no clear policy for what to do. Throughout the war, the importance of the Afghan Taliban constantly changed as military leaders came and went. As a result, the desires of bureaucracies took precedent at the cost of US military members, taxpayers, and civilians. And since there was no objective to measure success against, there was no real progress made. The only metric we had to measure our impact in Afghanistan was the number of dead Afgans, which Tanisha Fazal, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, points out has two major flaws — the first being that comparing the number of Americans and Afghans killed obscures perhaps one of the biggest developments to come out of the conflict. The ratio of Americans wounded to killed has more than tripled, reflecting a drastic improvement in military medicine. Secondly, it reflects the biggest lie to come out of Washington since Watergate — that we have no clue what we’re doing in, and thus, have no way to leave the Middle East.
We’ve tried leaving the Middle East before to no avail. On May 23, 2013, President Obama announced the removal of US troops from Afghanistan. However, this created a power vacuum that ultimately led to the rise of ISIS, which led to the reintroduction of US troops just over a year later in Operation Inherent Resolve. It’s been almost 6 years now, and despite President Trump’s claims that ISIS is 100% defeated, the reality is much more grim.
And how grim can it get? As it stands now, there’s no end in sight for our involvement in the Middle East. The Trump Administration’s objective is “to defeat ISIS,” but again, there is no clear metric to judge it against. It is also bound to change if Trump loses next November and is replaced by a Democrat. Speaking of the 2020 election, however, nearly all of the Democratic candidates share the same philosophy when it comes to Afghanistan — Get. Out. None of them have expressed any tangible plans to do so, however, and it all will hinge on how the 2020 election pans out.