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The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, to capture al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban government that had let Osama bin Laden operate his terrorist group from the country. While we were there, we decided to stick around for a while, like 18 years so far, to create a stable democracy and defeat the Taliban some more, and then defeat ISIS, which showed up out of nowhere, and also to train the Afghan military so it could protect the country that may or may not be stable enough to stand on its own. Oh yes, and we freed women from the Taliban's insane version of fundamentalism, and that sort of worked, in some places, so good on us. And for all that time, US military and political leaders, through three presidential administrations, have reassured us that conditions in Afghanistan are getting steadily better, and no way is Afghanistan an impossible quagmire like Vietnam, nope.

And now the US war in Afghanistan has its very own Pentagon Papers. The Washington Post yesterday published what it's calling "The Afghanistan Papers," a collection of some 2,000 pages of documents in which military and diplomatic officials frankly discuss just how badly things went (and are going) in Afghanistan.


Unlike the Pentagon Papers, the materials here weren't classified, but to obtain them, the Post had to sue under the Freedom of Information Act to get the government to release them. But like the earlier secret history, the Afghanistan files make clear the reality, as seen by those in charge of fighting the war, has been far less optimistic than the reassurances of "steady progress." Imagine that.

The interviews that make up the archive were conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an agency created by Congress to reduce waste and fraud in the Afghanistan war and reconstruction effort. In 2014, SIGAR started an $11 million project called "Lessons Learned," an attempt 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.

Again, that's largely what Robert McNamara had in mind for the series of reports that became the Pentagon Papers. Where McNamara explicitly barred his staff from conducting any interviews, for the sake of secrecy, the Lessons Learned review was based primarily on a wide-ranging set of interviews with all sorts of military, diplomatic, and other insiders involved in shaping and implementing policy toward Afghanistan -- to the extent there was any coherent policy.

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.

SIGAR did publish a series of reports based on the interviews and other documentation, but the Post notes they were "written in dense bureaucratic prose and focused on an alphabet soup of government initiatives," not at all reader-friendly to the general audience. (If you look through the Post's database -- and you should! -- you'll want to keep a tab open for military acronyms.) Worse, the Post says, those official reports "left out the harshest and most frank criticisms from the interviews."

For instance, this sentence, from the intro to one unflattering report, identifies some big failures, but it's couched in very careful bureaucratic terms:

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.

Contrast that with the language in some of the interviews, where participants spoke more freely since they had no expectation their comments would become public.

"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?"

Gratuitous format nerding: The WaPo stories don't just quote from and link to the interviews. They make good use of the available tech, so mousing over the text brings up images of the actual documents, just a click away. It's a very reader-friendly way to present a dense trove of documents that weren't designed to be especially accessible.

Several of the interviews reveal that, at every opportunity, the government presented the sunniest possible interpretation of what was going on.

"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 [SIGAR] that conducted the interviews, acknowledged to The Post that the documents show "the American people have constantly been lied to."

We should note that in an interview on NPR yesterday, Gen. Lute confirmed his bleak assessment of the US's knowing what it was doing in Afghanistan, but disputed the idea that everything in Afghanistan was a bright shining lie. Instead, he said most officials tried to acknowledge the challenges and to find a "sort of balance between optimism and skepticism or optimism and realism."

But the Post's reporting offers plenty of examples of how the government tried to spin information as "progress," like the constant sunny assessments that Afghan military and police were getting stronger and more able to fight without US backing. The spin went to ridiculous lengths at times:

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.

Not that any of this is necessarily a surprise -- after all, in WWI, some British generals saw vast numbers of their own troops' deaths as a measure of just how well the army was taking the fight to Johnny Hun.

Also included in the collection are a trove of memos from GW Bush's defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, shared by the National Security Archive. In one, Rummy complains that there's just no plan to WIN, damn it:

"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.

Then comes the kicker: WaPo points out the memo is "dated April 17, 2002 — six months after the war started."

It's a very eye-opening report, and with another story out today, specifically about the changing attempts to define an overall strategy for fighting the war, the analysis of the documents is just getting started. Maybe in another 50 years, we can all cite both the Pentagon Papers and the Afghanistan Papers when asking why nobody in government learned a goddamn thing before America went to war in [Location of war to be determined].

[WaPo / NPR / Wapo / Afghanistan Papers database]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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