The Washington Post has obtained a huge cache of internal government documents containing hundreds of interviews with U.S. officials on the war in Afghanistan. The documents reveal a broadly shared official view that America’s longest war has been a failure, essentially from the start. Over the years, official assessments of the war were consistently positive, optimistic, hopeful, and confident in the progress being made on the ground. But behind closed doors, official assessments were starkly different. Post reporter Craig Whitlock writes:
Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.
“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 in 2013 and 2014, 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.”
…[The] interviews contain numerous admissions that the government routinely touted statistics that officials knew were distorted, spurious or downright false.
A person identified only as a senior National Security Council official said there was constant pressure from the Obama White House and Pentagon to produce figures to show the troop surge of 2009 to 2011 was working, despite hard evidence to the contrary.
“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,” the senior NSC official told government interviewers in 2016. “The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”
I would like to say that I was surprised by such shameless and cynical manipulation, but I wasn’t. Earlier this year, I published a Cato Policy Analysis with my co‐author John Mueller, entitled Overcoming Inertia: Why It’s Time to End the War in Afghanistan. National leaders, we wrote, “have rather persistently depicted a rosier picture than the facts warranted.” This dishonesty, in fact, is a big part of why the war persists “despite the telltale signs of mission failure.” Our paper also included criticisms of the very issues – aid distribution, corruption, the failure of the train and equip mission, confusion about objectives, etc. – at which these mostly anonymous officials took aim.
The Post story draws on interviews conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). John Sopko, the Special Inspector General, admitted to the Post that the documents show “the American people have constantly been lied to.” When asked why he refused to include the damning interviews in SIGAR reports, Sopko explained, “My job and my people’s job was to try to get the information to try to come up with best practices.” In other words, he viewed his job as scrutinizing the war effort only in the service of informing policymakers on how to better carry it out, not whether it should be, or even could be, carried out.
A senior National Security Council official fleshes this out a bit: “Bad news was often stifled. There was more freedom to share bad news if it was small — we’re running over kids with our MRAPs [armored vehicles] — because those things could be changed with policy directives. But when we tried to air larger strategic concerns about the willingness, capacity or corruption of the Afghan government, it was clear it wasn’t welcome.”
Again, minor tactical criticisms were acceptable. Raising questions about “larger strategic concerns,” not so much.
Apparently, two considerations outweighed the public’s interest in knowing the truth about the war. According to the NSC official, lying about the progress of the war “went on and on for two reasons…to make everyone involved look good, and to make it look like the troops and resources were having the kind of effect where removing them would cause the country to deteriorate.”
To review: (1) narrow self‐interest discourages anyone from blowing the whistle; (2) only operational criticism, not strategic criticism, is welcome; and (3) the U.S. government’s top priority is to uphold the erroneous idea that withdrawing from Afghanistan is not a viable option. Together, these imperatives made systematic lying about the war a virtual inevitability.
On Afghanistan policy, as on many issues in Washington, DC, people often talk past each other. On the one hand, the publicly available evidence has long convincingly demonstrated that the war cannot be won and is in many ways illegitimate. And yet, critics of the war tend to face an impenetrable wall of reality‐denying officials and their non‐governmental counterparts, most of whom toe the line about how we’re making progress. They are willing to continue to expend taxpayer dollars and human life for a lost cause. It doesn’t make for constructive policy debate.
CNN’s Jim Sciutto called this latest document reveal “a Pentagon Papers moment.” In a sense, he’s right. The Pentagon Papers revealed that government officials systematically lied to the American people about the Vietnam War and the prospects for victory. But as Micah Zenko put it in reaction to the Post story: “US civilian and military officials have misled the public for every war I’ve studied (Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, ‘non‐battlefield’ drone wars).” Which is to say, the key lesson here is not just that officials consistently lied to the public in order to continue a war in Afghanistan that they privately acknowledged looked like a failure, but rather a broader point: credulously accepting official justifications for war goes against the advice of history.