The Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” story was disheartening and in many ways infuriating, but it was not shocking or even surprising. The grim facts are familiar. Eighteen years of war, 2,300 U.S. troops killed and 20,000 wounded. The Afghans, of course, have suffered even more. There has been little prospect of “victory” since the initial defeat of Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in 2002. That military operation was justified by the attacks of 9/11, but the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan was unnecessary and insupportable, especially after George W. Bush launched the calamitous invasion of Iraq.
More than $1 trillion has been spent, and at present the resurgent Taliban controls or contests most of the country. Efforts to recruit and train army and police forces loyal to the Kabul government and effective in the field have largely failed. It has been clear for more than a decade that the “mission” in Afghanistan, as far as the U.S. military and presidential administrations of both parties were concerned, was not to win but rather to avoid being blamed for losing. Truth, it is often said, is the first casualty of war. But by any measure, eighteen years of futility and lies are an indictment not just of the U.S. military, but of American politicians and a complacent American public as well. Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us eighteen times…
According to the Post, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has been interviewing U.S. military officers and civilian officials about the progress of the war since 2008. In public, the military and both the Bush and Obama administrations claimed the battle against the Taliban, reconstruction of the country, and the viability of Kabul’s government were all making headway. In private, they reported a very different story. As early as 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld complained he had no idea who the enemy was in Afghanistan. Douglas Lute, a retired three-star Army general, advised both the Bush and Obama administrations. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing,” he told the special inspector general in 2015. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
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