Documents show US leaders misled public on progress in Afghanistan War: report
Senior U.S. officials knowingly lied to the public about their progress throughout the 18-year war in Afghanistan, consistently painting a rosier picture of the state of the war than they knew to be true, according to a cache of documents obtained by the Washington Post.
In private interviews conducted by a watchdog that span the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations – which the Post obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request — U.S. officials frequently acknowledged a lack of understanding, strategy and progress in a war they regularly described publicly as being on the cusp of success.
“After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan,” retired Navy SEAL Jeffrey Eggers, a White House staffer in the Bush and Obama administrations, said in a private interview.
Interviewees also describe a deliberate disinformation campaign meant to spin discouraging statistics as evidence the U.S. was prevailing in the war.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel and senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, said in an interview.
“Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone,” he added.
In 2015, Ret. Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who served as a top advisor on the war during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” according to the Post.
Lute went on to lament the deaths of U.S. military personnel that he blamed on bureaucratic entanglements between the State Department, the Pentagon and Congress.
John Sopko, head of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which conducted the interviews, told the newspaper the documents demonstrate “the American people have constantly been lied to” on Afghanistan.
SIGAR conducted more than 600 interviews for a 2014 initiative called “Lessons Learned,” meant to avoid the mistakes of the Afghanistan war for future U.S. military campaigns. These interviews included Americans, NATO allies and Afghanistan officials.
SIGAR has published seven Lessons Learned reports based on the interviews and other research, but those omitted the most blunt language and grim judgments found in the raw interviews published by the Post, boiling them down into more bureaucratic assessments.
For example, one 2018 report said the U.S. strategy was “not properly tailored to the Afghan context, and successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians.”
The newspaper obtained more than 2,000 pages of unpublished notes and more than 400 interview transcripts after suing SIGAR for them twice. Numerous names are redacted, and the Post has sued for the names to be revealed. While a decision is still pending, the newspaper wrote that it chose to publish them now amid U.S.-Taliban negotiations.
“We didn’t sit on it,” Sopko, whose office has issued some of the harshest official assessments of the war, told the Post. “We’re firm believers in openness and transparency, but we’ve got to follow the law… I think of any inspector general, I’ve probably been the most forthcoming on information.”
The Hill has reached out to the Pentagon for comment.
The United States has about 13,000 troops fighting in America’s longest war. Most are focused on training Afghan forces to fight the Taliban, while a smaller number of special forces conduct counterterrorism operations against groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration was close to a deal with the Taliban that would have seen U.S. troops withdraw in exchange for assurances from the insurgents that they would not allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for terrorists to plan attacks on the United States.
The deal crumbled after Trump invited Taliban leaders to Camp David and then disinvited them after criticism. But this past weekend, U.S.-Taliban talks resumed for the first time since the scuttled Camp David meeting, with Trump’s envoy for the talks meeting with Taliban officials in Qatar.
Trump has expressed a strong desire to withdraw from Afghanistan with or without a deal with the Taliban. But U.S. military officials have consistently warned against a “premature” withdrawal from the country, assuring that progress was being made.
“At least American participation in the war in Afghanistan comes to an end when our interests are met, and I think that’ll be met through a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, and I think we’re seeing some progress,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said this year at this confirmation hearing for the job. “I think pulling out prematurely would be a strategic mistake.”
In the interviews published by the Post, U.S. military trainers revealed little confidence in the Afghans’ ability to ever defend themselves. One unidentified U.S. soldier called Afghan police being trained by U.S. Special Forces “awful — the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of the barrel,” while a U.S. military officer said about one-third of police recruits were “drug addicts or Taliban.”
“Thinking we could build the military that fast and that well was insane,” an unnamed senior U.S. Agency for International Development official told government interviewers, according to the Post.
Meanwhile, interviewees also revealed fundamental disagreements about what the strategy in Afghanistan should be as the war evolved from a quick mission of retaliation after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to a drawn-out conflict.
“With the [Afghanistan-Pakistan] strategy there was a present under the Christmas tree for everyone,” an unidentified U.S. official told government interviewers in 2015, according to the Post. “By the time you were finished you had so many priorities and aspirations it was like no strategy at all.”
One unidentified former State Department official called the U.S. goal to build a democracy in Kabul “idiotic.”
“Our policy was to create a strong central government which was idiotic because Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central government,” the official said in 2015, according to the Post. “The timeframe for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn’t have.”
U.S. officials flooded Afghanistan with development dollars in an effort to improve security, but officials said in the private interviews that Afghanistan could not absorb the aid money and that the U.S. funds led to a historic rise in corruption.
“Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption,” former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker told the interviewers, according to the Post. “Once it gets to the level I saw, when I was out there, it’s somewhere between unbelievably hard and outright impossible to fix it.”
Updated at 10:45 a.m.
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