James Mattis: Afghanistan papers not 'revelatory'

Former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisLawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown Overnight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request Trump called top military brass 'a bunch of dopes and babies' in 2017: book MORE said Friday he did not consider a bombshell report on the Afghanistan war released this week to be particularly "revelatory," while defending U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn country.

The Washington Post this week published a series of articles showing that American officials in the Bush and Obama administrations lied about progress in what's now become an 18-year-long war, painting a far rosier picture that glossed over massive misuse of funds and ill-conceived ideas.

“Well, it is investigative reporting. I think it's been well done in that sense. But I have a hard time seeing it as all that revelatory,” President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' MORE's former Pentagon chief said at a Washington Post event, noting that he had read the series in full.

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“The difficulty of Afghanistan was well understood very early on,” he added. “The idea that there was any kind of an effort to hide this perplexes me.”

The articles drew on private interviews, conducted by a government watchdog, with officials from the Bush administration through the Trump presidency that revealed a bleak outlook in private. But in public “every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” one official said.

Across 428 interviews, U.S. officials acknowledged confusion and failure in Afghanistan, with one official saying the strategy included “so many priorities and aspirations, it was like no strategy at all.”

Mattis, who served as Defense secretary until December 2018, highlighted progress in fighting the Taliban following the U.S. military’s invasion after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“The Taliban's goal is to take over this country and they've been stopped in that at great cost to the Afghan people, at great cost to the Afghan army," he said. "If you read [the articles], you'd almost think it's a total disaster, and it's not that at all. It's been hard as hell but it’s not just one undistinguished defeat after another. They are the ones on the back foot.”

He noted other gains as well, including an increase in the number of educated Afghan women and populations that have received better access to medical care.

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“I think when you look at the progress — and there is undeniable progress in education, in public health and other areas — and there has been terrible consequences under violence,” he said.

But he acknowledged that defense officials have “also taken our eye off the ball at times,” pointing to the shift to the Iraq War in 2003.

“I was there in 2001, early 2002, and I was one of those pulled out to prepare for the invasion of Iraq,” said Mattis, who later became the head of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013.

“We had to try to do something in nation-building, as much as some people condemn it,” in pouring funds into the country, Mattis said. “We probably weren’t that good at it.”

He indicated that he does not see U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan anytime soon.

“We'll need to keep counterterrorism troops there for some time to keep al Qaeda from regenerating and to keep ISIS down,” Mattis said.