Long after most supporters of the invasion of Iraq conceded that the war was a bloody error, the war in Afghanistan benefited from more conciliatory coverage. It was the necessary war. Perhaps it was even a good war. A brutal enemy had attacked the U.S., and who could defend the Taliban? Their cruelty and radicalism made them an ideal target, and in the wake of September 11, a target is exactly what the administration of George W. Bush needed.
The war in Afghanistan is now old enough to vote, pay taxes, and enlist. Barack Obama pledged to end it, but didn’t; Donald Trump, despite some anti-interventionist rumbling on the campaign trail, has also kept American troops in the country. The war is a quagmire we cannot win, and according to a new report from the Washington Post, the American government has known this for a long time. Officials had no “clear objective” from the beginning of the invasion, and struggled to understand the forces they intended to fight. Despite evidence that the war had become a black hole, sucking in money and lives, officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations flooded Afghanistan with troops and aid.
The Post says it obtained around 2,000 pages of interviews from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which it published on Monday after a three-year legal battle. The paper also acquired a collection of formerly classified memos written by Donald Rumsfeld, then the secretary of Defense, and one of the principal architects of the war. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general and the Afghan war czar to both Bush and Obama, told SIGAR in 2015. “If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction … 2,400 lives lost,” he continued. “Who will say this was in vain?”
Nobody, at least in public. As officials insisted in speeches and briefings that the U.S. was making “some progress” in its mission to break Al Qaeda and rebuild Afghanistan, they scrambled, in private, to fabricate proof. Sources in the military and in the Bush and Obama administrations said the U.S. government promoted statistics that were “distorted, spurious or downright false.” The parallels to Vietnam are obvious and disturbing, as the Post itself notes. To make it look as though U.S. troops could triumph over the Vietcong, the Pentagon relied on dubious body-count statistics, sometimes inflating them. Decades later, the great strategists responsible for victory in Afghanistan clung to the same basic practice. In 2016, an anonymous National Security official told SIGAR that “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.”