At war with the truth Democracy dies in darkness

war

US officials constantly said they were making progress – They were not, and they knew it

By Craig
Whitlock

A
confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post
reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in
Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they
knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become
unwinnable. The documents were generated by a federal project examining the
root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more
than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who
played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and
Afghan officials.

The U.S.
government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those
interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post
won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a
three-year legal battle. In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained
criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became
mired in nearly two decades of warfare. With a bluntness rarely expressed in
public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and
confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting. “We were devoid of a
fundamental understanding of Afghanistan 
we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army
general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and
Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What
are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were
undertaking.”

“If the
American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction. . . 2,400 lives lost,”
Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic
breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say
this was in vain?” Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to
Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were
wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures. The interviews,
through an extensive array of voices, bring into sharp relief the core failings
of the war that persist to this day. They underscore how three presidents  George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald
Trump  and their military commanders have
been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan.

With most
speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S.
officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed
and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan
into a modern nation. The interviews also highlight the U.S. government’s
botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army
and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade. The
U.S. government has not carried out a comprehensive accounting of how much it
has spent on the war in Afghanistan, but the costs are staggering. Since 2001,
the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International
Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion,
according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a
political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at
Brown University.

Those
figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the
Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for medical care for
wounded veterans. “What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1
trillion?” Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush
and Obama, told government interviewers. He added, “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.” The documents also
contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military
commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were
making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting. Several of those
interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to
deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military
headquarters in Kabul and at the White House 
to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning
the war when that was not the case.

“Every data
point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army
colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military
commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for
instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing
was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.” John Sopko, the head of
the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged to The Post that
the documents show “the American people have constantly been lied to.” The
interviews are the byproduct of a project led by Sopko’s agency, the Office of
the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Known as SIGAR,
the agency was created by Congress in 2008 to investigate waste and fraud in
the war zone. In 2014, at Sopko’s direction, SIGAR departed from its usual
mission of performing audits and launched a side venture. Titled “Lessons
Learned,” the $11 million project was meant to diagnose policy failures in
Afghanistan so the United States would not repeat the mistakes the next time it
invaded a country or tried to rebuild a shattered one.

The Lessons
Learned staff interviewed more than 600 people with firsthand experience in the
war. Most were Americans, but SIGAR analysts also traveled to London, Brussels
and Berlin to interview NATO allies. In addition, they interviewed about 20
Afghan officials, discussing reconstruction and development programs. Drawing
partly on the interviews, as well as other government records and statistics,
SIGAR has published seven Lessons Learned reports since 2016 that highlight
problems in Afghanistan and recommend changes to stabilize the country. But the
reports, written in dense bureaucratic prose and focused on an alphabet soup of
government initiatives, left out the harshest and most frank criticisms from
the interviews. “We found the stabilization strategy and the programs used to
achieve it were 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,” read the introduction to one report released
in May 2018.

The reports
also omitted the names of more than 90 percent of the people who were
interviewed for the project. While a few officials agreed to speak on the
record to SIGAR, the agency said it promised anonymity to everyone else it
interviewed to avoid controversy over politically sensitive matters. Under the
Freedom of Information Act, The Post began seeking Lessons Learned interview
records in August 2016. SIGAR refused, arguing that the documents were
privileged and that the public had no right to see them.

The Post had to sue SIGAR in federal
court twice  to compel it to release the
documents

The agency
eventually disclosed more than 2,000 pages of unpublished notes and transcripts
from 428 of the interviews, as well as several audio recordings. The documents
identify 62 of the people who were interviewed, but SIGAR blacked out the names
of 366 others. In legal briefs, the agency contended that those individuals
should be seen as whistle blowers and informants who might face humiliation, harassment,
retaliation or physical harm if their names became public. By cross-referencing
dates and other details from the documents, The Post independently identified
33 other people who were interviewed, including several former ambassadors,
generals and White House officials. The Post has asked a federal judge to force
SIGAR to disclose the names of everyone else interviewed, arguing that the
public has a right to know which officials criticized the war and asserted that
the government had misled the American people. The Post also argued the
officials were not whistle blowers or informants, because they were not
interviewed as part of an investigation.

A decision
by Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Washington has been
pending since late September. The Post is publishing the documents now, instead
of waiting for a final ruling, to inform the public while the Trump
administration is negotiating with the Taliban and considering whether to
withdraw the 13,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan. The Post attempted
to contact for comment everyone whom it was able to identify as having given an
interview to SIGAR. Their responses are compiled in a separate article. Sopko,
the inspector general, told The Post that he did not suppress the blistering
criticisms and doubts about the war that officials raised in the Lessons
Learned interviews. He said it took his office three years to release the
records because he has a small staff and because other federal agencies had to
review the documents to prevent government secrets from being disclosed.

“We didn’t
sit on it,” he said. “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 interview records are
raw and unedited, and SIGAR’s Lessons Learned staff did not stitch them into a
unified narrative. But they are packed with tough judgments from people who
shaped or carried out U.S. policy in Afghanistan. “We don’t invade poor
countries to make them rich,” James Dobbins, a former senior U.S. diplomat who
served as a special envoy to Afghanistan under Bush and Obama, told government
interviewers. “We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic.
We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in
Afghanistan.”

To augment
the Lessons Learned interviews, The Post obtained hundreds of pages of
previously classified memos about the Afghan war that were dictated by Defense
Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld between 2001 and 2006. Dubbed “snowflakes” by
Rumsfeld and his staff, the memos are brief instructions or comments that the
Pentagon boss dictated to his underlings, often several times a day. Rumsfeld
made a select number of his snowflakes public in 2011, posting them online in
conjunction with his memoir, “Known and Unknown.” But most of his snowflake
collection an estimated 59,000 pages 
remained secret. In 2017, in response to a FOIA lawsuit filed by the
National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute based at George
Washington University, the Defense Department began reviewing and releasing the
remainder of Rumsfeld’s snowflakes on a rolling basis. The Archive shared them
with The Post.

Together,
the SIGAR interviews and the Rumsfeld memos pertaining to Afghanistan
constitute a secret history of the war and an unsparing appraisal of 18 years
of conflict. Worded in Rumsfeld’s brusque style, many of the snowflakes
foreshadow problems that continue to haunt the U.S. military more than a decade
later. “I may be impatient. In fact I know I’m a bit impatient,” Rumsfeld wrote
in one memo to several generals and senior aides. “We are never going to get
the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is
something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for
us to leave.”

“Help!” he
wrote.

The memo was dated April 17, 2002 six
months after the war started

WHAT THEY SAID IN PUBLIC April 17, 2002

“The
history of military conflict in Afghanistan has been one of initial success,
followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure. We’re not going to
repeat that mistake.”

 President George W. Bush, in a speech at the
Virginia Military Institute

With their
forthright descriptions of how the United States became stuck in a faraway war,
as well as the government’s determination to conceal them from the public, the
cache of Lessons Learned interviews broadly resembles the Pentagon Papers, the
Defense Department’s top-secret history of the Vietnam War. When they were
leaked in 1971, the Pentagon Papers caused a sensation by revealing the
government had long misled the public about how the United States came to be
embroiled in Vietnam. Bound into 47 volumes, the 7,000-page study was based
entirely on internal government documents diplomatic cables, decision-making
memos, intelligence reports. To preserve secrecy, Defense Secretary Robert
McNamara issued an order prohibiting the authors from interviewing anyone.
SIGAR’s Lessons Learned project faced no such restrictions. Staffers carried
out the interviews between 2014 and 2018, mostly with officials who served
during the Bush and Obama years. About 30 of the interview records are
transcribed, word-for-word accounts. The rest are typed summaries of conversations:
pages of notes and quotes from people with different vantage points in the
conflict, from provincial outposts to the highest circles of power.

Some of the
interviews are inexplicably short. The interview record with John Allen, the
Marine general who commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to
2013, consists of five paragraphs. In contrast, other influential figures,
including former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker, sat for two interviews that
yielded 95 transcribed pages. Unlike the Pentagon Papers, none of the Lessons
Learned documents were originally classified as a government secret. Once The
Post pushed to make them public, however, other federal agencies intervened and
classified some material after the fact.

The State
Department, for instance, asserted that releasing portions of certain
interviews could jeopardize negotiations with the Taliban to end the war. The
Defense Department and Drug Enforcement Administration also classified some
interview excerpts. The Lessons Learned interviews contain few revelations
about military operations. But running throughout are torrents of criticism
that refute the official narrative of the war, from its earliest days through
the start of the Trump administration. At the outset, for instance, the U.S.
invasion of Afghanistan had a clear, stated objective to retaliate against
al-Qaeda and prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Yet the
interviews show that as the war dragged on, the goals and mission kept changing
and a lack of faith in the U.S. strategy took root inside the Pentagon, the
White House and the State Department.

Fundamental
disagreements went unresolved. Some U.S. officials wanted to use the war to
turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Others wanted to transform Afghan culture and
elevate women’s rights. Still others wanted to reshape the regional balance of
power among Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia. “With the AfPak strategy there
was a present under the Christmas tree for everyone,” an unidentified U.S.
official told government interviewers in 2015. “By the time you were finished
you had so many priorities and aspirations it was like no strategy at all.”

The Lessons
Learned interviews also reveal how U.S. military commanders struggled to
articulate who they were fighting, let alone why. Was al-Qaeda the enemy, or
the Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? What about the Islamic
State and the bewildering array of foreign jihadists, let alone the warlords on
the CIA’s payroll? According to the documents, the U.S. government never
settled on an answer. As a result, in the field, U.S. troops often couldn’t
tell friend from foe. “They thought I was going to come to them with a map to
show them where the good guys and bad guys live,” an unnamed former adviser to
an Army Special Forces team told government interviewers in 2017. “It took
several conversations for them to understand that I did not have that
information in my hands. At first, they just kept asking: ‘But who are the bad
guys, where are they?’ ” The view wasn’t any clearer from the Pentagon. “I have
no visibility into who the bad guys are,” Rumsfeld complained in a Sept. 8,
2003, snowflake. “We are woefully deficient in human intelligence.”

WHAT THEY SAID IN PUBLIC Dec. 1, 2009

“The days
of providing a blank check are over. . . . It must be clear that Afghans will
have to take responsibility for their security and that America has no interest
in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.”

President Barack Obama, in a speech at
the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

As
commanders in chief, Bush, Obama and Trump all promised the public the same
thing. They would avoid falling into the trap of “nation-building” in
Afghanistan. On that score, the presidents failed miserably. The United States
has allocated more than $133 billion to build up Afghanistan  more than it spent, adjusted for inflation,
to revive the whole of Western Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War
II. The Lessons Learned interviews show the grandiose nation-building project
was marred from the start. U.S. officials tried to create from scratch a
democratic government in Kabul modeled after their own in Washington. It was a
foreign concept to the Afghans, who were accustomed to tribalism, monarchism,
communism and Islamic law.

“Our policy
was to create a strong central government which was idiotic because Afghanistan
does not have a history of a strong central government,” an unidentified former
State Department official told government interviewers in 2015. “The time frame
for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn’t have.”
Meanwhile, the United States flooded the fragile country with far more aid than
it could possibly absorb. During the peak of the fighting, from 2009 to 2012,
U.S. lawmakers and military commanders believed the more they spent on schools,
bridges, canals and other civil-works projects, the faster security would
improve. Aid workers told government interviewers it was a colossal
misjudgment, akin to pumping kerosene on a dying campfire just to keep the flame
alive.  One unnamed executive with the
U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), guessed that 90 percent of
what they spent was overkill: “We lost objectivity. We were given money, told
to spend it and we did, without reason.”

Many aid
workers blamed Congress for what they saw as a mindless rush to spend. One
unidentified contractor told government interviewers he was expected to dole
out $3 million daily for projects in a single Afghan district roughly the size
of a U.S. county. He once asked a visiting congressman whether the lawmaker
could responsibly spend that kind of money back home: “He said hell no. ‘Well,
sir, that’s what you just obligated us to spend and I’m doing it for
communities that live in mud huts with no windows.’ ”

The gusher
of aid that Washington spent on Afghanistan also gave rise to historic levels
of corruption. In public, U.S. officials insisted they had no tolerance for
graft. But in the Lessons Learned interviews, they admitted the U.S. government
looked the other way while Afghan power brokers 
allies of Washington  plundered
with impunity. Christopher Kolenda, an Army colonel who deployed to Afghanistan
several times and advised three U.S. generals in charge of the war, said that
the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai had “self-organized into a
kleptocracy” by 2006  and that U.S.
officials failed to recognize the lethal threat it posed to their strategy. “I
like to use a cancer analogy,” Kolenda told government interviewers. “Petty
corruption is like skin cancer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll
probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like
colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably ok.
Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.”

By allowing
corruption to fester, U.S. officials told interviewers, they helped destroy the
popular legitimacy of the wobbly Afghan government they were fighting to prop
up. With judges and police chiefs and bureaucrats extorting bribes, many
Afghans soured on democracy and turned to the Taliban to enforce order. “Our
biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the
development of mass corruption,” Crocker, who served as the top U.S. diplomat
in Kabul in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012, told government interviewers. He
added, “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.”

WHAT THEY SAID IN PUBLIC Sept. 4, 2013

“This army
and this police force have been very, very effective in combat against the
insurgents every single day. And I think that’s an important story to be told
across the board.” Then-Army Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley, praising the Afghan
security forces during a press briefing from Kabul. Milley is now a four-star
general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Year after year, U.S.
generals have said in public they are making steady progress on the central
plank of their strategy: to train a robust Afghan army and national police force
that can defend the country without foreign help. In the Lessons Learned
interviews, however, U.S. military trainers described the Afghan security
forces as incompetent, unmotivated and rife with deserters. They also accused
Afghan commanders of pocketing salaries paid by U.S. Taxpayers for tens of
thousands of “ghost soldiers.”

None
expressed confidence that the Afghan army and police could ever fend off, much
less defeat, the Taliban on their own. More than 60,000 members of Afghan
security forces have been killed, a casualty rate that U.S. commanders have
called unsustainable. One unidentified U.S. soldier said Special Forces teams
“hated” the Afghan police whom they trained and worked with, calling them
“awful the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of
the barrel.” A U.S. military officer estimated that one-third of police
recruits were “drug addicts or Taliban.” Yet another called them “stealing
fools” who looted so much fuel from U.S. bases that they perpetually smelled of
gasoline. “Thinking we could build the military that fast and that well was
insane,” an unnamed senior USAID official told government interviewers.
Meanwhile, as U.S. hopes for the Afghan security forces failed to materialize,
Afghanistan became the world’s leading source of a growing scourge: opium.

The United
States has spent about $9 billion to fight the problem over the past 18 years,
but Afghan farmers are cultivating more opium poppies than ever. Last year,
Afghanistan was responsible for 82 percent of global opium production,
according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In the Lessons
Learned interviews, former officials said almost everything they did to
constrain opium farming backfired. “We stated that our goal is to establish a ‘flourishing
market economy,’ ” said Douglas Lute, the White House’s Afghan war czar from
2007 to 2013. “I thought we should have specified a flourishing drug trade this
is the only part of the market that’s working.” From the beginning, Washington
never really figured out how to incorporate a war on drugs into its war against
al-Qaeda.

By 2006,
U.S. officials feared that narco-traffickers had become stronger than the
Afghan government and that money from the drug trade was powering the
insurgency. No single agency or country was in charge of the Afghan drug
strategy for the entirety of the war, so the State Department, the DEA, the
U.S. military, NATO allies and the Afghan government butted heads constantly.
“It was a dog’s breakfast with no chance of working,” an unnamed former senior
British official told government interviewers. The agencies and allies made
things worse by embracing a dysfunctional muddle of programs, according to the
interviews.

At first,
Afghan poppy farmers were paid by the British to destroy their crops which only
encouraged them to grow more the next season. Later, the U.S. government
eradicated poppy fields without compensation which only infuriated farmers and
encouraged them to side with the Taliban. “It was sad to see so many people
behave so stupidly,” one U.S. official told government interviewers.

WHAT THEY SAID IN PUBLIC Sept. 8, 2008

“Are we
losing this war? Absolutely no way. Can the enemy win it? Absolutely no way.”

 Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, commander
of the 101st Airborne Division, in a news briefing from Afghanistan

The specter
of Vietnam has hovered over Afghanistan from the start.

On Oct. 11,
2001, a few days after the United States started bombing the Taliban, a
reporter asked Bush: “Can you avoid being drawn into a Vietnam-like quagmire in
Afghanistan?” “We learned some very important lessons in Vietnam,” Bush replied
confidently. “People often ask me, ‘How long will this last?’ This particular
battlefront will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qaeda to justice. It may
happen tomorrow, it may happen a month from now, it may take a year or two. But
we will prevail.” In those early days, other U.S. leaders mocked the notion
that the nightmare of Vietnam might repeat itself in Afghanistan. “All together
now quagmire!” Rumsfeld joked at a news conference on Nov. 27, 2001. But
throughout the Afghan war, documents show that U.S. military officials have
resorted to an old tactic from Vietnam manipulating public opinion.

In news
conferences and other public appearances, those in charge of the war have
followed the same talking points for 18 years. No matter how the war is going
and especially when it is going badly they emphasize how they are making
progress. For example, some snowflakes that Rumsfeld released with his memoir
show he had received a string of unusually dire warnings from the war zone in
2006. After returning from a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan, Barry
McCaffrey, a retired Army general, reported the Taliban had made an impressive
comeback and predicted that “we will encounter some very unpleasant surprises
in the coming 24 months.” “The Afghan national leadership are collectively
terrified that we will tip-toe out of Afghanistan in the coming few years
leaving NATO holding the bag and the whole thing will collapse again into
mayhem,” McCaffrey wrote in June 2006.

Two months
later, Marin Strmecki, a civilian adviser to Rumsfeld, gave the Pentagon chief
a classified, 40-page report loaded with more bad news. It said “enormous
popular discontent is building” against the Afghan government because of its
corruption and incompetence. It also said that the Taliban was growing
stronger, thanks to support from Pakistan, a U.S. ally. Yet with Rumsfeld’s
personal blessing, the Pentagon buried the bleak warnings and told the public a
very different story. In October 2006, Rumsfeld’s speech writers delivered a
paper titled “Afghanistan: Five Years Later.” Brimming with optimism, it
highlighted more than 50 promising facts and figures, from the number of Afghan
women trained in “improved poultry management” (more than 19,000) to the
“average speed on most roads” (up 300 percent). “Five years on, there is a
multitude of good news,” it read. “While it has become fashionable in some
circles to call Afghanistan a forgotten war, or to say the United States has
lost its focus, the facts belie the myths.”

Rumsfeld
thought it was brilliant. “This paper,” he wrote in a memo, “is an excellent
piece. How do we use it? Should it be an article? An Op-ed piece? A handout? A
press briefing? All of the above? I think it ought to get it to a lot of
people.” His staffers made sure it did. They circulated a version to reporters
and posted it on Pentagon websites. Since then, U.S. generals have almost
always preached that the war is progressing well, no matter the reality on the
battlefield. “We’re making some steady progress,” Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser,
commander of the 101st Airborne Division, told reporters in September 2008,
even as he and other U.S. commanders in Kabul were urgently requesting
reinforcements to cope with a rising tide of Taliban fighters. Two years later,
as the casualty rate among U.S. and NATO troops climbed to another high, Army
Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez held a news conference in Kabul.

“First, we
are steadily making deliberate progress,” he said.  In March 2011, during congressional hearings,
skeptical lawmakers pelted Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S.
and NATO forces in Afghanistan, with doubts that the U.S. strategy was working.
“The past eight months have seen important but hard-fought progress,” Petraeus
responded. One year later, during a visit to Afghanistan, Defense Secretary
Leon Panetta stuck to the same script 
even though he had just personally dodged a suicide attack. “The
campaign, as I’ve pointed out before, I think has made significant progress,”
Panetta told reporters. In July 2016, after a surge in Taliban attacks on major
cities, Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of U.S. forces in
Afghanistan at the time, repeated the refrain. “We are seeing some progress,”
he told reporters.

WHAT THEY SAID IN PUBLIC March 27, 2009

“Going
forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear
metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable.”

Obama, in remarks from the White House

During
Vietnam, U.S. military commanders relied on dubious measurements to persuade
Americans that they were winning. Most notoriously, the Pentagon highlighted
“body counts,” or the number of enemy fighters killed, and inflated the figures
as a measurement of success. In Afghanistan, with occasional exceptions, the
U.S. military has generally avoided publicizing body counts. But the Lessons
Learned interviews contain numerous admissions that the government routinely
touted statistics that officials knew were distorted, spurious or downright
false. A person identified only as a senior National Security Council official
said there was constant pressure from the Obama White House and Pentagon to
produce figures to show the troop surge of 2009 to 2011 was working, despite
hard evidence to the contrary. “It was impossible to create good metrics. We
tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and
none of it painted an accurate picture,” the senior NSC official told
government interviewers in 2016. “The metrics were always manipulated for the
duration of the war.”

Even when
casualty counts and other figures looked bad, the senior NSC official said, the
White House and Pentagon would spin them to the point of absurdity. Suicide
bombings in Kabul were portrayed as a sign of the Taliban’s desperation that
the insurgents were too weak to engage in direct combat. Meanwhile, a rise in
U.S. troop deaths was cited as proof that American forces were taking the fight
to the enemy.  “It was their
explanations,” the senior NSC official said. “For example, attacks are getting
worse? ‘That’s because there are more targets for them to fire at, so more
attacks are a false indicator of instability.’ Then, three months later,
attacks are still getting worse? ‘It’s because the Taliban are getting
desperate, so it’s actually an indicator that we’re winning.’ ” “And this went
on and on for two reasons,” the senior NSC official said, “to make everyone
involved look good, and to make it look like the troops and resources were
having the kind of effect where removing them would cause the country to deteriorate.”

In other
field reports sent up the chain of command, military officers and diplomats
took the same line. Regardless of conditions on the ground, they claimed they
were making progress. “From the ambassadors down to the low level, they all say
we are doing a great job,” Michael Flynn, a retired three-star Army general,
told government interviewers in 2015. “Really? So if we are doing such a great
job, why does it feel like we are losing?” Upon arrival in Afghanistan, U.S.
Army brigade and battalion commanders were given the same basic mission: to
protect the population and defeat the enemy, according to Flynn, who served
multiple tours in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer. “So they all went in
for whatever their rotation was, nine months or six months, and were given that
mission, accepted that mission and executed that mission,” said Flynn, who
later briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser, lost his job in a
scandal and was convicted of lying to the FBI. “Then they all said, when they
left, they accomplished that mission. Every single commander. Not one commander
is going to leave Afghanistan. . .and say, ‘You know what, we didn’t accomplish
our mission.’ ” He added: “So the next guy that shows up finds it their area
screwed up . . . and then they come back and go, ‘Man this is really bad.’ ”
Bob Crowley, the retired Army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser
in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers that “truth was
rarely welcome” at military HQ in Kabul.

“Bad news
was often stifled,” he said. “There was more freedom to share bad news if it
was small  we’re running over kids with
our MRAPs armored vehicles  because those
things could be changed with policy directives. But when we tried to air larger
strategic concerns about the willingness, capacity or corruption of the Afghan
government, it was clear it wasn’t welcome.” John Garofano, a Naval War College
strategist who advised Marines in Helmand province in 2011, said military
officials in the field devoted an inordinate amount of resources to churning
out color-coded charts that heralded positive results. “They had a really
expensive machine that would print the really large pieces of paper like in a
print shop,” he told government interviewers.

“There
would be a caveat that these are not actually scientific figures, or this is
not a scientific process behind this.” But Garofano said nobody dared to
question whether the charts and numbers were credible or meaningful. “There was
not a willingness to answer questions such as, what is the meaning of this
number of schools that you have built? How has that progressed you towards your
goal?” he said. “How do you show this as evidence of success and not just
evidence of effort or evidence of just doing a good thing?” Other senior
officials said they placed great importance on one statistic in particular,
albeit one the U.S. government rarely likes to discuss in public.

“I do think
the key benchmark is the one I’ve suggested, which is how many Afghans are getting
killed,” James Dobbins, the former U.S. diplomat, told a Senate panel in 2009.
“If the number’s going up, you’re losing. If the number’s going down, you’re
winning. It’s as simple as that.” Last year, 3,804 Afghan civilians were killed
in the war, according to the United Nations. That is the most in one year since
the United Nations began tracking casualties a decade ago. If you have
information to share about The Afghanistan Papers, contact The Post. Were you
or one of your family members involved in the Afghanistan war? Tell us about
your experiences.

Craig
Whitlock is an investigative reporter who specializes in national security
issues. He has covered the Pentagon, served as the Berlin bureau chief and
reported from more than 60 countries. He joined The Washington Post in 1998.

Source: The
Washington Post.

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