The Washington Post recently published “The Afghanistan Papers” — hundreds of interviews collected by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction and obtained by the Post after a three-year court battle. The bottom line, according to Richard Boucher, an assistant secretary of state between 2006 and 2009: “We did not know what we were doing.”
The real story behind Boucher’s admission is nearly two decades of misrepresentation by U.S. military and civilian leaders that the Afghan war was being won. Quite simply, the American public was misled. The hard costs: 150,000 people dead, including more than 4,000 U.S. troops and “civilian contractors,” more than 60,000 Afghan troops, and at least 38,000 Afghan civilians — at a cost of at least $1 trillion, over the course of three U.S. presidencies.
What began as a war to “take the fight to Al Qaida” after 9/11 and to install democracy, security, and basic human rights in Taliban-run Afghanistan failed. But no one involved was willing to admit it.
During the 18 years of fighting, the U.S. poured money into Afghanistan while ignoring rampant corruption. Massive rebuilding projects backfired. So did attempts to end opium farming. All the while, U.S. officials made “rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and (hid) unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable,” the Post reported.
So what went wrong? And why were we knowingly misled? More importantly, what lessons can be learned from the near two decades of failures in Afghanistan to inform present and future U.S. engagement abroad? And how can we ensure a more honest accounting of such activities to the public? We leave the answers to those questions to the experts, but we join the call for full accountability.
The Pentagon has brushed aside concerns about the Papers. Indeed, Defense Secretary Mark Esper initially reacted by saying he hadn’t read them, and implied that he had no plans to do so. That’s disappointing. Instead, we encourage the Trump administration to take a hard look at the entire Afghanistan record in order to determine how things could or should have been handled differently. Such an analysis would help inform the terms of U.S. involvement in other foreign engagements, and could give the American public a degree of confidence that future, similar involvements will be handled with greater transparency and public honesty. And that would be a good thing.