Why the United States has remained in a state of war in Afghanistan for 18 years is not clear. It is not clear to the American people. Nor is the purpose clear to U.S. military and Foreign Service leadership, much less Congress. And the reasons for the longest war in our history remain clouded after the publication by The Washington Post this week of a massive set of previously secret government documents. In short, when Americans were told we were winning the war in Afghanistan, we were being lied to.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Gen. Douglas Lute, retired, who worked in the Bush and Obama administrations.
After a three-year legal battle, The Post obtained about 2,000 pages of interviews with hundreds of people with firsthand experience, some anonymous, many not, of key players in U.S. strategy and combat in Afghanistan. In extremely candid detail, the documents outline how the war shifted from counterterrorism during the George W. Bush administration to a massive counterinsurgency during President Obama’s time in the White House to Donald Trump’s “fight to win.” What the Afghanistan papers show is that what the Pentagon and White House were saying in public was entirely contradicted by what they were telling investigators in private.
Among those who gave frank and dire assessments of the Afghanistan war in the “Lessons Learned” reporting were Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. The contrast between what the commanders were saying in public could not have been starker. Progress was being made, they said. It was not. It was going according to plan, they said. There was no strategy. “We had no idea what we were doing,” the top Afghanistan official in the Bush and Obama White Houses told investigators. Bad decisions and no decisions at all “doomed our mission,” another top leader said.
The war began under President Bush with a retaliatory expedition on Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden for the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Al Qaeda was rapidly routed — it turned out later that bin Laden had relocated to Pakistan. From there, the U.S. target was the Taliban, which had emerged in Afghanistan after the Islamist mujahedeen chased the Soviets away in the late 1980s.
“Why did we make the Taliban the enemy when we were attacked by Al Qaeda? Why did we want to defeat the Taliban?” Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House official under Bush and Obama, said in an interview. But Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state and preparing for a presidential run, opposed talks with the Taliban to end the fighting on the assumption that as a female candidate, she would have to appear the toughest person in the room. Despite 2,300 U.S. dead and more than 20,000 wounded and nearly $2 trillion spent, the Taliban is today stronger than it was in 2001.
The documents obtained by The Post also show how, after Al Qaeda was chased into hiding, the Bush White House turned its attention to invading Iraq, the president declining to meet with the U.S. generals running the war in Afghanistan, according to a memo from Secretary Rumsfeld. In another memo from about that time, Mr. Rumsfeld candidly stated, “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are.”
Few of the observations gathered from the interviews made it into a series of official “Lessons Learned” reports that simply whitewashed the hard truth that the Afghanistan effort had failed.
With the news so focused on the Trump impeachment proceedings, the Afghanistan disclosures are not drawing the same outrage they might at another time. But it is important that they get the attention they truly deserve as there still is no end in sight to the conflict nor anyone with a clear idea even of what that would look like.