December 9, 2019 4:05PM

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan: “The American People Have Constantly Been Lied To.”

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.

July 3, 2019 2:58PM

A Different Sort of 4th of July Celebration

On July 4, 1821, then‐​Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, delivered a now‐​famous address here in Washington, DC. I discuss the speech in my latest book, Peace, War, and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy, and it is featured in this “Liberty Chronicles” episode (dramatic reading starts around the 17 minute mark).

If you haven’t read the speech in its entirety, you might find it worthwhile. Some are familiar with Adams’s admonition that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” The veteran diplomat and scholar George Kennan invoked that passage in an essay in Foreign Affairs, and it even serves as one of the founding principles for a new organization named after John Quincy. Others have scorned Adams’s sage advice as synonymous with “cowardice and dishonor,” arguing instead that America is made great by frequent monster‐​searching and destroying. That they cling to such beliefs despite the counterproductive military adventures of the last several decades suggests that no amount of pleading could convince them of Adams’s timeless wisdom.

But there’s so much more to the speech! To be sure, some elements are anachronistic, or just downright bizarre (e.g. Themistocles? fustian romance and lascivious lyrics!?). And Adams certainly wasn’t aiming for brevity. This kind of thing simply can’t be crammed into even a hundred 240‐​character tweets. But his words are important because they spell out so clearly a positive vision for America’s role in the world. He speaks eloquently of what America can accomplish, and what Americans are for, not merely what we’re against.

For example, if the philosophers and inventors “of the older world” ever asked, “What has America done for the benefit of mankind?” Adams had a ready answer.

America, he said:

has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to [other nations] the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, equal justice, and equal rights.


Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.…She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. 


Her glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her declaration: this has been…her practice.

There’s been a fair amount of commentary about the way that the current occupant of the White House plans to celebrate the 4th. I’m reasonably confident that JQA wouldn’t approve. You decide. 

March 29, 2018 10:57AM

Explaining the Bolton Appointment, and Why It’s Dangerous

Ever since President Trump appointed John Bolton to be the new national security advisor last week, a torrent of commentary has poured forth about the hawkish Fox News pundit and American Enterprise Institute senior fellow, who once served as United Nations Ambassador for 18 months in the George W. Bush administration. Two pieces published today, however, stand out for their precision and insight. 

The first is by The Atlantic's Peter Beinart, whose central argument is that Bolton is not the learned foreign policy scholar many believe him to be. While Bolton certainly has years of experience, it hasn't been of the right kind. Bolton's "militancy," his "incessant, almost casual, advocacy of war," Beinart argues, is positively "Trumpian: The less evidence you have, the more certain you sound."

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December 19, 2017 2:26PM

Trump’s New National Security: Literally and Seriously Awful

National security strategies are strange beasts. Their glittering generalities and kitchen sink approach to detailing threats, interests, and priorities can make it difficult to know how literally, or seriously, to take them. All strategies reflect on the importance of American leadership and bask in the warmth of American values. And thanks to the growing bipartisan consensus around primacy since the end of the Cold War all strategies have more or less looked the same. Each one promises a stronger and safer America with help from our trusted allies. Given this, most Americans would be hard pressed to tell one national security strategy from the next.

Sadly, Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy contains not only the worst elements from the past, namely the pursuit of primacy and a commitment to an endless war on terrorism, but also charts new territory by embracing a new nationalism that unnecessarily elevates immigration to a national security threat and retreats from the post-World War II commitment to free trade.

Though Trump’s penchant for military solutions has always been obvious, the extent to which his new security strategy embraces primacy is disappointing. As a candidate, Trump railed against the war in Iraq and nation building abroad. The national security strategy, however, calls for the United States to “compete with all tools of national power to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power.” The strategy also calls for an expanded – and unending – war on terrorism. In short, Trump intends to commit the United States not only to a globe-straddling military presence and to counterproductive and unending military intervention, but also to risking conflict with nations like China over regional issues that mean very little for American national security. 

Unsurprisingly, given the turn to primacy, Trump’s strategy also calls for “rebuilding” America’s military, despite the fact that the United States already possesses the world’s most powerful military, spends more on defense than the next seven nations combined, and enjoys an alliance system that far outstrips those of Russia or China. In the end, any boost in defense spending will only add to the national debt while doing little for American security.

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September 15, 2016 1:21PM

Hacking and the Era of Fragile Secrets

Written with Christopher E. Whyte of George Mason University

What would it mean if a country couldn’t keep any secrets? 

The question may not be as outlandish as it seems. The hacks of the National Security Agency and the Democratic National Committee represent only the most recent signposts in our evolution toward a post-secrecy society. The ability of governments, companies, and individuals to keep information secret has been evaporating in lock step with the evolution of digital technologies. For individuals, of course, this development raises serious questions about government surveillance and people’s right to privacy. But more broadly, the inability for governments to keep secrets foreshadows a potential sea change in international politics.

To be sure, the U.S. government still maintains many secrets, but today it seems accurate to describe them as “fragile secrets.” The NSA hack is not the first breach of American computer networks, of course, but the nature of the hack reveals just how illusory is our ability to keep secrets. The Snowden affair made clear that the best defense isn’t proof against insider threats. The Shadow Brokers hack – against the NSA’s own top hacker group – has now shown that the best defense isn’t proof against outsider threats either. Even if the Shadow Brokers hack is a fabrication and the information was taken from the NSA in other ways – a traditional human intelligence operation, for instance, where a man with a USB drive managed to download some files – it seems clear that we’re in an era of informational vulnerability.

And what is true for the federal government is even more clearly true for private organizations like the Democratic National Committee. The theft and release of the DNC’s email traffic – likely carried out by Russian government hackers – illustrates that it’s not just official government information at risk. Past years have made it clear that civil society organizations – both venerable (political parties, interest groups, etc.) and questionable (the Church of Scientology, for instance, was the target of a range of disruptive attacks in 2008-‘09) – are as often the targets of digital intrusion as are government institutions.

At this point, it seems fair to think that there is no government or politically-relevant information that couldn’t, at some point, find its way into the hands of a hacker. From there, it is just a short hop into the public domain.

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August 24, 2016 12:10PM

Make America (Realize It’s) Safe Again

Donald Trump keeps insisting we live in dangerous times. “I don't think America is a safe place for Americans” he said earlier this year. And most Americans agree with him. In June 71% of Americans said they expected further terrorist attacks in the United States over the next several weeks. And 53% recently said they worry a great deal about crime while 70% believe that there is more crime in the United States than there was a year ago.

It may have been smart politics for Trump to use Make America Safe Again as the theme for the opening day of the Republican National Convention. The facts, however, suggest Americans are already quite safe.

Take crime, for example. The statistics suggest that the public has it entirely backwards. In 2013 and 2014 Americans experienced their safest years on record. The murder rate per hundred thousand was 4.5, well below half of what it was at its worst point in the 1980s and early 1990s, lower even than the murder rate in 1963, the previous safest year on record. The numbers are nearly identical for other types of violent crime. According to the FBI’s crime statistics, the past five years have been the safest of the last half century.

Terrorism is another case where the numbers don’t support the heightened level of fear. The attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando certainly set people on edge, but Americans have a better chance of being killed by lightning or drowning in their own bathtubs than being killed by a terrorist.

Over the past two decades, the tragic attacks of 9/11 included, Muslim extremists were responsible for less than one percent of murders in the United States. And in the past 10 years that number has dropped substantially, with radical Islamists responsible for less than one-tenth of one percent of the killings in America.

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June 9, 2016 2:45PM

The American Public Is Not Very Hawkish on China

China’s economic rise over the past decades has been meteoric, during which time the volume of rhetoric about the “China threat” has also grown at historic rates. In the early 1990s the Pentagon needed a new superpower rival to justify Cold War-sized defense budgets. But displays of American military power in the first Gulf War and the 1995-96 crisis in the Taiwan Strait also prompted China to develop a military strategy designed to keep American forces out of its neighborhood. Now, with counterterrorism missions in Iraq and Afghanistan down from their peak and China’s military posture maturing significantly, the U.S. military has been devoting more time and resources to figuring out ways to counter China’s new strategy.

Beyond the military, political hawks have been quick to draw attention to the China threat. During last weekend’s Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said that China has a choice between peaceful cooperation and engaging in a “zero-sum game for regional power and influence.” Even academics have gotten in on the game, with many arguing that China’s rise will not be peaceful.

Though China’s saber rattling in East Asia and the South China Sea hasn’t made a big splash in the 2016 presidential campaign so far, the question of how the United States should respond to China’s rising military and economic power is one of the most important foreign policy challenges the next president will face.

Both candidates have staked out aggressive positions on China. Trump has promised to impose steep tariffs on Chinese imports, suggested that South Korea and Japan should acquire nuclear weapons, and has called for a strong military presence in Asia to discourage “Chinese adventurism.” Clinton, for her part, was a lead architect of the “pivot to Asia” as Secretary of State, redirecting U.S. military and diplomatic efforts from the Middle East to Asia to confront China’s rise.

A close look at public opinion, however, reveals that although complex, the American public’s attitudes towards China are more sanguine than those of its fearful leaders.

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