Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff pushes back on Afghanistan reports

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The military’s top uniformed official pushed back on last week’s reports that found that the Pentagon for years lied about progress in the 18-year Afghanistan War, calling the findings a “mischaracterization.”

“I know there’s an assertion out there of some sort of a coordinated lie over the course of, say, 18 years. I find that a bit of a stretch; more than a bit of a stretch, I find that a mischaracterization, from my own personal experience,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told reporters at the Pentagon.

Milley argued that the sheer number of agencies and officials that worked on the strategy in Afghanistan would make it too difficult to coordinate on a message to deceive the American people.

“You’re looking at probably hundreds of general officers, State Department employees, CIA, the Department of Defense folks. I just don’t think that you can get that level of coordination to do that kind of deception,” he said.

The Washington Post last week released a series of articles that found that officials in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations when presenting information to the public altered data on the progress of the war that began in 2001, making it seem like the conflict was going far better than in was.

Using more than 400 private interviews — conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) for a 2014 initiative called “Lessons Learned” — the reports revealed that officials frequently acknowledged in private a lack of strategy and progress in the war while regularly describing it publicly as being on the brink of success.

The bombshell reports had largely been sidestepped by defense officials when speaking to lawmakers and the media, and Friday was the first time they have addressed them head on.

“I know that I and many, many others gave assessments at the time based on facts that we knew at the time, and those were honest assessments and they were never intended to deceive neither the Congress nor the American people,” Milley said.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who spoke alongside Milley, insisted that with the sheer amount of reporting and congressional oversight on the conflict over 18 years, “some type of insinuation that there’s been this large-scale conspiracy, to me is just ridiculous.”

“This has been a very transparent — it’s not like this war was hiding somewhere and now all of a sudden that there’s been a revelation,” Esper said.

Milley also insisted that the war had in fact been successful in its original objective to “prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a platform to launch terrorist attacks on the continental United States.”

In addition, the four-star general said it was unfair to compare the so-called Afghanistan Papers with the Pentagon Papers of the Vietnam War.

The Pentagon Papers “were multiple volumes — I think it was 50 or 60 volumes of these things — and they were contemporary papers written in advance of decisionmaking,” while the Afghanistan Papers “was an attempt by SIGAR in about 2,000 pages or so to do post facto interviews looking backwards to determine lessons learned for the force as we go to the future.”

“I think they’re fundamentally different in both nature and scale and scope.”

Asked whether American lives had been lost in vain — to date more than 2,300 American troops have lost their lives in the war — Milley responded, “Absolutely not.”

“This is a very difficult, complicated situation, but at the base of it, for the United States of America it has to do with our vital national security interests to protect our people. And our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have given their lives in Afghanistan have not given their lives in vain, in my view.”

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan Papers Afghanistan War Mark Esper Mark Milley
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