Afghanistan study commission can show Americans what was done in their name

The U.S. congress wants to get to the bottom of the Afghanistan debacle. 

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have introduced bills to establish a non-partisan commission to report to the public on the mistakes made by the four presidential administrations that fought the war. The bills vary in details, such as the number of commissioners and the term of the commission, but the intent is clear: to force a public examination of how and why the U.S. project in Afghanistan failed.

The commission will be expensive. But it will be money well spent if it thoroughly examines the relevant military, intelligence, development, and diplomatic activities from 9/11 to the fall of Kabul, then tells the story of the mis- and malfeasance of the Afghanistan adventure — what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff called a “strategic failure” — by examining some discrete issues, for example:

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The “original sin” of the 2001 Bonn Conference. Why did the U.S. block the attendance of the Taliban delegation? Why was Washington opposed to a role in the new government for the well-regarded former monarch, Zahir Shah, in favor of America’s choice, Hamid Karzai? Who advocated this policy and why?

Likewise, why did the U.S. not insist the Kabul government join the Doha negotiations with the Taliban? Did the U.S. have any options to press the Taliban if they refused to deal with Kabul? If so, why were they not used?

After the initial success in 2001-2002, what was the strategy and mission? How and why did the perceived mission evolve to the U.S. conducting counterinsurgency operations? Why did the U.S. deploy large numbers of troops after bin Laden was killed? Who made those decisions and why?

U.S. interference in Afghanistan’s elections ensured Afghan leaders Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were “selected, not elected.” What was the effect of the resulting credibility deficit on the leaders’ ability to govern? What was the propaganda value to the Taliban of U.S. machinations? 

What are the differences between sworn, public testimony of military and civilian officials and their private, off-the-record interviews with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, also known as the “Afghanistan Papers”? If there were any differences, did officials subsequently correct the public record?

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What was the impact of the extended conflict on readiness and material condition of U.S. forces?  For example, the U.S. Navy assigned an aircraft carrier battle group to the vicinity of the conflict for the duration. Was this intense deployment schedule responsible for the degraded readiness that caused the fatal collisions of U.S. naval warships and merchant vessels in 2017?

In 2017, the U.S. government classified information on the readiness and performance of the Afghan security forces. Who directed the classification and why? How does the readiness information square with the sworn testimony of senior officials, especially when the Afghan forces’ readiness was likely evident to every allied NCO and the Taliban?

What is the true cost of the war? Brown University’s Costs of War Project has been a benefit for the public and for Congress, but is there an official, public U.S. government accounting of the cost of the Afghanistan conflict, including that the cost of debt financing (interest payments) of the Afghanistan war will rise to $6.5 trillion by 2050? 

Does the U.S. have an accounting of the equipment that was abandoned as the U.S. forces evacuated Afghanistan? How will it contribute to the military capacity of the Taliban and other extremist groups in Afghanistan and the wider region? Did Afghan government officials sell or transfer U.S.-supplied equipment to the Taliban? Are those officials now living in the U.S.?

How many innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan were killed by drone strikes? Did the U.S. consider the impact on regional public opinion and Washington’s regional political strategy of errant attacks? How do the U.S. numbers of dead and wounded square with the studies by independent groups such as Airwars? What corrective action was taken in the wake of mistaken killings?

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As the U.S. was planning the invasion of Iraq, did it evaluate the impact of shifting resources away from Afghanistan on the likely success or failure of the effort? Who was for and against the shift in assets? What were their arguments?

In the final days of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said the Afghan forces numbered 300,000. Given the well-documented “ghost soldier” problem, how inflated was the 300,000 number? Did the U.S. government know the real number of soldiers and police present at their duty stations?

Regarding other instances of public corruption, did the U.S. overlook or ignore documented cases of corruption of Afghan government officials? Did the U.S. government attempt to recoup the funds for the benefit of the Afghan people or U.S. taxpayers? Did the U.S. government facilitate the evacuation of known corrupt officials to the U.S.?

How ready was the State Department to conduct an evacuation of U.S. citizens? Was the embassy’s F-77 “Report of Potential Evacuees” accurate?

Why did intelligence agency reporting fail to predict the Taliban’s rapid victory? What corrective action was taken to correct erroneous analytic techniques? Are the intelligence agency managers who approved the misleading reporting still in positions of authority?

And, what was the nature of U.S. government collaboration with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, believed to be the patron of Sirajuddin Haqqani and the Haqqani Network, which is thought to control the Taliban leadership structure?

The commission will be an opportunity to explain what happened to the American and Afghan people, the allied veterans who fought the war, and the citizens of Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East who will live with the aftershocks of the war long after the U.S. forces returned to their safe redoubt in North America.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).