Spearhead Analysis-11.12.2019

The Pentagon Papers blew the lid off the twenty-five-year war in Vietnam that ended with US defeat and ignominious withdrawal. That story was serialized graphically on television and can be seen on Netflix. The film The Post also brilliantly exposed the lies, manipulations and wheeling dealing during the Vietnam disaster.

Now we have The Afghanistan Papers—an investigative story published three days ago by the Washington Post. Ishaan Tharoor and Ruby Mellen have reported on the story. Below are some excerpts from their analysis that give the gist of the Post report.

“On Monday, The Washington Post published a blockbuster investigation that amounted to what my colleagues dubbed “a secret history” of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And its clear why American authorities sought to keep this history “secret.” In private testimony as part of an internal government review, hundreds of U.S. officials and insider experts admitted confusion over a war that has lasted 18 years with no end in sight. They expressed despair over the failure of U.S. strategy to push back the Taliban and exasperation with the mass corruption enabled by American funding of the Afghan government.”

“ questioned the reason for thousands of U.S. lives lost and billions of dollars squandered by both Republican and Democratic administrations in nation-building projects in Afghanistan, as well as the ever-growing death toll of Afghans caught in an interminable conflict.”

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

“U.S. officials also acknowledged they routinely issued “rosy pronouncements” about their progress in Afghanistan, even when they knew such statements were “false,” and they “hid unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”

“It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture,” a senior National Security Council official told government interviewers in 2016. “The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”

“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” said Bob Crowley, a retired Army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser at U.S. military headquarters in Kabul from 2013 to 2014, in a similar interview.

— “U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation.”

The documents highlight the hollow bravura of Bush administration officials who scoffed at concerns that the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan could turn into an extended “quagmire.” They show how myriad U.S. officials doubted the Bush administration’s nation-building goals in Afghanistan, which is still racked by internal strife in Kabul and a Taliban insurgency that holds sway over vast tracts of the country.

“Our policy was to create a strong central government which was idiotic because Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central government,” an unidentified former State Department official told government interviewers in 2015. Other officials and advisers all noted that widespread corruption, catalyzed by vast sums of U.S. aid money pouring into the country, undermined the efficacy of U.S. counterterrorism operations.

American attempts to train Afghan security forces also foundered. The documents reveal a deep frustration among U.S. military officials tasked with this training. One unidentified U.S. soldier said Special Forces teams “hated” the Afghan police whom they trained, and called them “awful — the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of the barrel.” Another officer estimated that one-third of police recruits were “drug addicts or Taliban.” Yet another mocked them as “stealing fools” who looted gasoline from U.S. bases.

As a follow-up of the Post report the US Armed Services Committee member has written the letter reproduced below:

Ishaan Tharoor comments that “Yet in Washington, there remains a vocal constituency among policy elites and lawmakers in Congress who champion a seemingly indefinite U.S. presence in Afghanistan, insisting that withdrawal would simply invite further disaster. The revelations within the documents suggest that many U.S. officials — perhaps even some of the same ones advocating the war effort’s continuation into a third decade — doubt in private what they push for in public.”

The Post report also quotes a US official as saying that “we never knew whether to consider Pakistan as an enemy or an ally.” This is true and the reason is that Pakistan while siding with the US never compromised on its own security and national interests. The US did not understand this reluctance and also never took seriously the Pakistani view that the uncertainty created by US policy in Afghanistan was the main reason for Pakistan’s concerns. This uncertainty has been highlighted by the Post report. President Trump has removed the uncertainty by consistently and clearly stating that the US wants to exit from Afghanistan but he has introduced unpredictability by scrapping the US-Taliban talks when progress was being made. The talks have now resumed and expectations are high. Afghanistan needs a different format and only an inclusive government in Afghanistan can give it that.

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to an individual)