A confidential collection of US government documents from the Washington Post reveals that senior US officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan during the 18-year campaign, making positive pronouncements that they knew were false and hiding. unmistakable evidence that the war could not be won.
The documents were generated by a government project that examines the fundamental flaws of the largest armed conflict in US history. There are more than 2,000 pages of unpublished interview notes with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to assistant workers and Afghan officials.
The US government tried to protect the identities of the vast majority of respondents to the project and to hide almost all of their observations. The newspaper, however, gained access to documents based on the Freedom of Information Act, similar to the Brazilian Access to Information Act (LAI), after a three-year legal battle.
In interviews, more than 400 officials spoke about what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States got bogged down in nearly two decades of war. With a frankness rarely expressed in public, the interviews contained contained grievances, frustrations and confessions, as well as attempts at prediction and criticism.
"We were lacking a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn't know what we were doing," said Douglas Lute, a three-star army general who served as White House war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, said in 2015. He added, "What are we trying to do here? We had no idea what we were undertaking."
"If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction … 2,400 lives lost," Lute added, blaming the bureaucracy between Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department for the death of the US military. "Who says this was in vain?"
Since 2001, more than 775,000 US soldiers have been sent to Afghanistan many times. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were injured in action, according to Department of Defense data.
Interviews, across a wide range of voices, highlight the major war failures that persist to this day. They stand out as three presidents – George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump – and their military commanders were unable to deliver on their promises to win in Afghanistan.
Believing that their comments would not be made public, the American authorities acknowledged that their combat strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted huge sums of money trying to make Afghanistan a modern nation.
The interviews also highlight the US government's failed attempts to reduce uncontrolled corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and undermine Afghanistan's thriving opium trade.
The US government has not performed comprehensive accounting of how much it spent on the war in Afghanistan, but the costs are staggering.
Since 2001, the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the US Agency for International Development have spent between $ 934 billion and $ 978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate by Neta Crawford, a political science professor. and co-director of the Costs of War project at Brown University.
These figures do not include money spent by other agencies, such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is in charge of medical care for injured veterans.
"What do we get for this $ 1 trillion effort? Is it worth $ 1 trillion?" Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy and White House SEAL official from Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. He added: "After Osama bin Laden's murder, I said that Osama was probably laughing at the bottom of the sea, considering how much we spent in Afghanistan."
The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements by presidents, military commanders and diplomats reassuring Americans, year after year, that they were making progress in Afghanistan and that the war was worth it.
Several of the interviewees described explicit efforts to 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 that the United States was winning the war when this was not the case.
"All data points have been altered to give the best possible picture," Bob Crowley, Army colonel who served as senior counterinsurgency consultant to US military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. "The research, for example, was totally unreliable, but it reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a dog biting its tail."
How did the interviews come about?
John Sopko, head of the federal agency conducting the interviews, acknowledged to the Washington Post that the documents show that "lies are constantly told to the American people."
The interviews are the byproduct of a project led by Sopko's agency, the Office of Afghanistan's Special Inspector General for Reconstruction. Known as SIGAR, the agency was created by Congress in 2008 to investigate war zone waste and fraud.
In 2014, under Sopko's direction, SIGAR abandoned its usual audit mission and launched a parallel venture. Titled "Lessons Learned," the $ 11 million project aimed to diagnose political failures in Afghanistan so that the United States would not repeat the mistakes the next time it invaded or attempted to rebuild.
The team interviewed more than 600 people who experienced the war. Most were American, but SIGAR analysts also traveled to London, Brussels, and Berlin to interview NATO allies. In addition, they interviewed about 20 Afghan authorities about reconstruction and development programs.
Based partly on the interviews, as well as other government records and statistics, SIGAR has published seven Lessons Learned reports since 2016 highlighting the problems in Afghanistan and recommending changes to stabilize the country.
But the reports, written in a bureaucratic way and focused on a soup of government initiatives, left out the harshest and most frank criticism of the interviews.
"We found that the stabilization strategy and programs used to achieve it were not adequately adapted to the Afghan context, and successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians," it said. the introduction of a report released in May 2018.
The reports also omitted the names of over 90% of people who were interviewed for the project. Some officials have agreed to speak at SIGAR, but the agency said it promised anonymity to all respondents to avoid controversy over politically sensitive issues.
The documents identify 62 of the people who were interviewed, but SIGAR deleted the names of 366 others. In legal documents, the agency argued that these individuals should be viewed as whistleblowers and informants who could be subjected to humiliation, harassment, retaliation, or physical harm if their names were made public.
Through cross-references and other document details, the Post independently identified 33 other people who were interviewed, including several former ambassadors, generals and White House officials.
US Army personnel board a plane for an Afghanistan mission from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, November 6, 2014 | Photo: Washington Post / Matt McClain | The Washington Post
The newspaper appealed to federal court for SIGAR to disclose the names of all other respondents, arguing that the public has a right to know which officers criticized the war. A decision by Washington District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson has been pending since late September.
The Post is now publishing the documents, rather than waiting for a final decision, to inform the public while the Trump administration is negotiating with the Taliban and considering withdrawing 13,000 US troops remaining in Afghanistan.
"We have not invaded poor countries to make them rich," said James Dobbins, a former US senator and diplomat who served as a special envoy to Afghanistan under Bush and Obama. "We have not invaded authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We have invaded violent countries to make them peaceful and we have clearly failed Afghanistan."
To augment Lessons Learned interviews, the Washington Post obtained hundreds of pages of pre-classified memos on the Afghan war, dictated by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld between 2001 and 2006. Together, the SIGAR interviews and Rumsfeld's memos on Afghanistan is a secret history of war and an unparalleled assessment of 18 years of conflict.
Bad guys and good guys
"The history of the military conflict in Afghanistan (was) an initial success, followed by long years of failure and a final failure. We will not repeat this mistake."
President George W. Bush, speaking at Virginia Military Institute
With its direct descriptions of how the United States got …