Americans feared their government was lying about the Afghan war -- and it was. That’s the takeaway from a new Washington Post investigation that found a clear divide between the assurances U.S. officials were making and the reality on the ground in Afghanistan. This duplicity will only further erode public trust in government and support for the Afghan mission.
For almost two decades, the Post reported, U.S. military commanders assured the public that America’s military mission was leading to a stabler, stronger Afghanistan. Launched in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaida, the operation was aimed at uprooting the terrorist network and ousting the Taliban in favor of a Western-backed government that could provide its own security and regional stability.
But a trove of confidential government interviews obtained by the Post explains how America’s short-term military victory withered on the vine. As the United States quickly shifted its military focus to Iraq, the Afghan mission lost urgency, plagued by inept planning and a sluggish response as Taliban forces rebuilt. While U.S. officials assured the public the campaign was on track, they offered bleaker assessments privately. In 2005, for example, President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, circulated a confidential report on the Afghan National Police, titled “ANP Horror Stories." It described how most of the police were illiterate and poorly trained and equipped. One month later, in another confidential memo, Rumsfeld warned he was “ready to toss in the towel,” complaining the U.S. program to train Afghan police was going nowhere.
The interviews were conducted by the office of a special inspector general created by Congress to uncover fraud and waste in the Afghan mission. As part of a project called Lessons Learned, the office interviewed more than 600 people who played a direct role in the conflict to examine policy failings in the war. The documents and interviews offer a huge disconnect between the picture officials were painting at the time to maintain public support and their private apprehensions over the conduct of the war. Afghan commanders were so corrupt that U.S. officials demanded fingerprints to verify the number of soldiers in uniform. The Kabul government was so concerned about upholding morale that it kept secret the high casualties among the Afghan Army and police.
U.S. military advisers called the Afghan soldiers “stealing fools” and the Afghan police predatory bandits and “the most hated institution” in the country “because they are corrupt down to the patrol level.” Meanwhile, news reports made clear that Afghan security forces were struggling to hold back the Taliban. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” Douglas Lute, a retired three-star Army general, told government interviewers in 2015.
Even after 18 years and spending nearly $2 trillion in Afghanistan, the United States has little to show from a conflict that has killed more than 2,400 Americans. The American public has been lied to, the results have been dispiriting and the outcome is still uncertain with the Taliban growing stronger. That will only complicate the work of refining a mission for the 13,000 U.S. troops still there.
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