The Washington Post—where I am a columnist—spent three years fighting in court to declassify more than four hundred interviews conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) with insiders in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The result is an epic and important six-part project known as “The Afghanistan Papers” that reveals numerous missteps by U.S. military and civilian leaders, including “botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.”
All of us who have supported the war effort need to grapple with these findings even if most of them are hardly new. In 2010, when I was part of a small advisory team for General David Petraeus, then the top U.S. commander in Kabul, our top recommendation was to fight the corruption fueled by generous U.S. spending. Easier said than done!
The report’s most controversial finding is that the U.S. government deliberately misled the public “to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.” There was a process of deception, but it was mostly inadvertent. As I wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2014: “On regular visits to Iraq from 2003 on, I never heard someone giving a brief say the situation was getting worse; commanders invariably painted a picture of challenges that were being overcome. (The usual subtext: ‘The previous unit in this area really screwed things up, but we’ve got it headed in the right direction.’).”
The same tendency was evident during my visits to Afghanistan as an informal advisor to the U.S. military and observer of the war effort. Commanders who put a gloss on the war effort were not, for the most part, consciously lying. They were deceiving others because they were themselves deceived. It is inherently difficult to judge the state of a counterinsurgency; there are always conflicting data points, and can-do military commanders invariably focus more on evidence of success than on signs of failure. Their motive was less to deceive the American public than to keep up the morale of their own troops and protect their own careers; nobody was ever promoted by admitting failure, even if the cause of that failure was beyond one’s control.
At the end of the day, however, the public, lawmakers, and policymakers did not buy the military’s spin. A 2013 YouGov poll [PDF] for a Hoover Institution project found that only 26 percent of Americans thought that the military was giving an accurate picture of the war in Afghanistan. Citizens could find a bleaker and more accurate picture in news reports. Policymakers and lawmakers could receive equally pessimistic assessments from the U.S. intelligence community, as well as from many of the skeptical insiders—including some military officers—who were interviewed by SIGAR.
That is why none of the three U.S. presidents who has overseen the war in Afghanistan—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald J. Trump—has been Pollyannaish. All three were skeptical of what the military could accomplish in “the graveyard of empires.”
So why didn’t any of them simply pull U.S. troops out? For the simple reason that, just like their Vietnam-era predecessors, they feared the consequences of withdrawal more than the continuing costs of commitment. A complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would likely lead to the collapse of the pro-West government and the rise of a Taliban state that would remain closely associated with international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
So instead of exiting, U.S. leaders quietly downsized their goals—and troop levels. Instead of trying to vanquish the Taliban, they decided to focus on preventing the Taliban from taking over the whole country while striving for a negotiated settlement. (The Taliban already controls a substantial chunk of the countryside.) As one National Security Council staffer told SIGAR in 2014: “Your job was not to win, it was to not lose.”
Keeping the Taliban in check is a reasonable strategic goal when the costs of victory as well as defeat appear exorbitant. But no president has candidly explained this realpolitik policy to the public, hence the outraged reaction to the Post’s report. The country feels deceived.