Afghanistan Papers are both shocking yet unsurprising

Afghanistan Papers are both shocking yet unsurprising
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I worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill from 2008 through 2017, primarily as an aide to members of the Senate Armed Services and Senate Foreign Relations Committees. 

As someone who was involved in the congressional authorization and oversight of our activities in Afghanistan during this time, the recent revelations in the "Washington Post’s, "Afghanistan Papers" are at the same time both shocking yet unsurprising, as Congress and the White House largely abandoned their responsibilities to establish high-level goals and strategies and measure strategic execution.  

They are shocking because the SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) “Lessons Learned” investigation and other documents released by The Post are the most unequivocal evidence yet that government leaders engaged in the same public misinformation and manipulation campaigns with Afghanistan as their predecessors did with Vietnam.

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They did this in an age of supposedly increased transparency, and many continue to occupy positions of power in and outside the government or have retired without any hint of accountability. 

But the papers are also unsurprising, as any observer of the conflict would find glaring disparities between the eternal optimist outlook testified to in committee hearings and press events and the insatiable need for more workforce, resources, and funding to continue our mission in Afghanistan year after year.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of blame that falls on the government for allowing this tragedy to continue unabated. 

One of the most significant obstacles I witnessed on Capitol Hill was the unwillingness of the legislative branch as a whole to challenge the narrative created by military and diplomatic leaders and to question their reports and assumptions seriously.

There were undoubtedly Members asking tough questions and making public stands about issues. Still, these instances were often seeking a political end — i.e., damaging the other party — then aimed at good governance and policymaking.  

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The notion of civilian control over military and diplomatic strategy has significantly eroded over the decades. A general concept is that “civilian control” is limited to the civilians who have been appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate to steer the national security agencies.  

However, these political appointees are much more limited in their accountability to the public than members of the legislative branch; and many are retired from military or diplomatic careers or were closely affiliated to those sectors through the industry, academia, or non-profits. 

On the other hand, Members of Congress mostly come from the private sector and local or state governments—legal, business, and medical professionals; former mayors and state legislators. Many do not feel comfortable or qualified to provide oversight on the men and women who have spent their careers in the military or diplomatic corps.  

Americans hold our military members in high esteem and honor them for their sacrifices. It can feel awkward and even disrespectful to disagree with a military leader over matters of their dangerous profession, especially to politicians who themselves have not served in uniform.  

Yet this is damaging to the constitutional intentions regarding the civilian-military power structure and is a significant cause of the strategic mismanagement we see in places like Afghanistan today.

The military, diplomatic corps, and intelligence community should not be charged with determining high-level strategy — as part of the executive branch; it is their responsibility to execute the plan that is given to them. But instead, determination or approval of high-level strategy is often sought from them by elected policymakers and the White House.

In short, political leaders telegraphed what they wanted to hear, and government officials were willing to oblige them.

Such a system has the effect of incentivizing the manipulation of information or use of misinformation to paint a rosy picture to the public, and for the same reasons, makes it risky for officials to share the bad — but truthful — news. Any organization tasked with both carrying out a job and reporting their successes and failures is tempted to become the “self-licking ice cream cone,” as was described by counterinsurgency advisor Col. Bob Crowley, hence the creation of independent organizations like SIGAR which has for years taken a dimmer view of our progress on the ground.

It also creates intragovernmental conflicts that prevent the development of the sound strategy. As The Post reports – “Fundamental disagreements went unresolved. Some officials wanted to use the war to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Others wanted to transform Afghan culture and elevate women’s rights. Still, others wanted to reshape the regional balance of power among Pakistan, India, Russia, and Iran.”

This lack of direction led one U.S. official to state, “By the time you were finished, you had so many priorities and aspirations that it was like no strategy at all.” Such a failure to ground strategy in real national security interests falls squarely on the leaders at the highest levels. 

Much of the focus in the aftermath of the Afghanistan Papers will rightfully be on the misinformation campaign by government officials to Congress and the American people. But equal attention should be paid to the unwillingness of Congress and the White House to determine and authorize strategy, exercise proper oversight, and challenge an objectively flimsy narrative being told to them for nearly 20 years. 

Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities who worked for nearly a decade on Capitol Hill, most recently as a legislative assistant for Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' The 8 Republicans who voted to curb Trump's Iran war powers MORE (R-Utah) from 2013-2017.