Here’s a fun little thought experiment: Imagine a “big government” bureaucracy embarked on a wildly ambitious project of social engineering — only to discover, almost immediately, that it had little hope of meeting its stated objectives. Reluctant to admit defeat, or jeopardize funding for its endeavors, this federal agency proceeded to deliberately mislead the public about how badly its project was going, and the likelihood of its ultimate success. Over an 18-year-period, these pointy-headed bureaucrats and their allied elected officials conspired to shovel roughly $1 trillion of taxpayer money into an initiative that exacerbated the very problems it purported to solve — and got 2,300 Americans killed in the process!
Now imagine that a major newspaper published a bombshell report meticulously documenting this bureaucracy’s conscious efforts to mislead the American people whom it claimed to serve, so as to ensure that it could carry on squandering our blood and treasure with impunity.
Would Congress reward that bureaucracy with a $22 billion budget increase hours later, with self-identified “small government” conservatives leading the call?
This week, we learned that the answer is “of course.”
On Monday, the Washington Post published “The Afghanistan Papers,” thousands of pages of war documents that our government did not want us to see, and which the paper only secured after a protracted legal battle. Those documents include nearly 2,000 pages of notes from interviews with generals, diplomats, and other officials who played a central role in waging America’s longest war. Here is some of what the Post uncovered:
Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately 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 the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.
Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged to The Post that the documents show “the American people have constantly been lied to.”
This campaign of deceit facilitated mindless misuses of public funds. The Defense Department was not directly responsible for all of this waste. And America’s civilian leadership bears primary responsibility for the war itself. But in routinely misrepresenting the state of the conflict, and lobbying for higher levels of funding for both military and aid operations in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is complicit in boondoggles like these:
During the peak of the fighting, from 2009 to 2012, U.S. lawmakers and military commanders believed the more they spent on schools, bridges, canals and other civil-works projects, the faster security would improve. Aid workers told government interviewers it was a colossal misjudgment, akin to pumping kerosene on a dying campfire just to keep the flame alive.
One unnamed executive with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) guessed that 90 percent of what they spent was overkill: “We lost objectivity. We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason.”
… One unidentified contractor told government interviewers he was expected to dole out $3 million daily for projects in a single Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county. He once asked a visiting congressman whether the lawmaker could responsibly spend that kind of money back home: “He said hell no. ‘Well, sir, that’s what you just obligated us to spend and I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.’ ”
But no detail from our misadventure in Afghanistan may do more to validate the conservative critique of “big government” excess than this one: Before the U.S. invasion, the Taliban had almost completely eradicated the opium trade in Afghanistan. After 18 years of war — and $9 billion in U.S. funding for anti-opium programs in the country — the Taliban remains in power, only now, it presides over a country that supplies 80 percent of the world’s illicit opium.
The Washington Post and New York Times aired all this dirty laundry on Monday morning. Hours later, Congress’s Armed Services Committee released a bipartisan draft of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would give the Pentagon an additional $22 billion to play with next year, bringing its annual budget to $738 billion. Before Donald Trump took office, the U.S. was already spending more on our military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan spend on theirs, combined. The Defense Department’s budget is now $130 billion larger than it was the day Trump was sworn in. Meanwhile, nearly 2 million Americans are still living in places that do not have running water.
Shortly after the Trump administration released its first budget in 2017, OMB director Mick Mulvaney defended the White House’s proposed cuts to Meals on Wheels by saying, “I think it’s fairly compassionate to … say, ‘Look, we’re not gonna ask you for your hard-earned money, anymore, single mother of two in Detroit … unless we can guarantee to you that that money is actually being used in a proper function.’” In a subsequent statement, the administration said that it had an obligation to cut spending on programs and agencies that had “failed to meet their objectives.”