Howard Machtinger’s commentary on the Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers,” published March 2, 2020 at Portside.com.
No one can blame the antiwar movement for the failure of the US war in Afghanistan, since, although there have been antiwar voices, there has been no effective antiwar movement. But one can blame the lack of an antiwar movement in part for the failure to stop the war sooner, the price Afghanis and Americans have paid for this failure, and the ceding of credit for US withdrawal to President Trump.
The Washington Post’s exposure of the failure of this war  — in its publication of selections from interviews by the government-instituted Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) as part of its “Lessons Learned” project, as well as confidential emails from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — has attracted amazingly little notice in the reality show that characterizes contemporary American politics. This not only demonstrates the short attention span of the news media, its failure to distinguish what is important from trivial entertainments in its infatuation with the horse race of electoral politics, but the lack of an antiwar movement to ensure public awareness. Despite important similarities, the release of these documents has not constituted a Pentagon Papers moment, but merely another episode in the normalization of war.
The release of the classified Pentagon Papers — documenting US political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967 — in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg and others marked a turning point in the movement against the American war in Vietnam, and aroused passionate public discussion. The Washington Post series documents clearly demonstrate not only the failure of the war, the lack of political and military accountability, the arrogance of imperial power, but most deeply the irrelevance of reality to modern war making and imperial aggression. But they have been largely ignored in public discourse.
As the possibility of US withdrawal from Afghanistan is now on the horizon, at the same time as the US continues to carry on aggressive policies toward Yemen, Iran, and in Latin America and Africa, while maintaining hundreds of bases in over a hundred nations, it is crucial that we draw out some of the lessons that these documents purport as well as a more detached and anti-imperial perspective. So long as the US only tries to learn how to fight these wars more efficiently instead of understanding their folly and danger, we will not make any real progress.
The focus of the Washington Post series by Craig Whitlock and others, is on the hypocrisy of government officials who in public were optimistic about US prospects, while harboring deep doubts; in other words, official lies to ward off public accountability.
“The Lessons Learned interviews contradict years of public statements by presidents, generals and diplomats. The interviews make clear that officials issued rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hid unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable. Several of those interviewed described explicit efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public and a culture of willful ignorance, where bad news and critiques were unwelcome.”
This may not come as a shock to an increasingly cynical American public, but cynicism should not diminish the importance of documenting toxic government propaganda. The articles set the context by noting the scale of the war.
“Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures. The U.S. government has not carried out a comprehensive accounting of how much it has spent on the war in Afghanistan, but the costs are staggering.
Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University…. The United States has allocated more than $133 billion to build up Afghanistan — more than it spent, adjusted for inflation, to revive the whole of Western Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II… More than 60,000 members of Afghan security forces have been killed, a casualty rate that U.S. commanders have called unsustainable.”
The US estimates that over 43,000 civilians have been killed, surely an underestimate. 2018 was the deadliest year for civilians — 3,804 Afghan civilians were killed in the war, according to the United Nations.
The articles go on to list a litany of predictable problems:
- Secretive, slow moving and remote bureaucracy
- Lack of coordination between the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and numerous other government agencies
- A rushed and short-term timetable geared to the US electoral cycle
- Lack of institutional memory as advisors and military men came and went
- A lack of clarity about strategic goals— was the US engaged in counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, or nation and army building?
- the loss of focus as the Bush administration shifted its focus to Iraq
- confusion about who among the Afghanis were allies, opportunists, or enemies
- a lack of understanding of Afghani culture and society while trying to impose an alien political and economic system
- rampant corruption as huge amounts of money were thrown around without accountability.
- In some interviews, there surfaces the standard imperial disdain for the people that the US is purportedly supporting and defending. Afghanis are primitive, corrupt, incompetent, two-faced and so on.
What jumps out at this reader, and what is missing—unsurprisingly as the sources are US policy makers and military men—is how these shortcomings are the result of an imperial perspective with a concomitant imperial blindness burnished by grandiose arrogance. The interviews are full of lamentations about naivete and unintended consequences. But the war cannot be understood as a case of good intentions gone bad.
The ghosts of the American war in Vietnam haunt these interviews, though it is mentioned only parenthetically, as in the debate over whether to aerial spray opium crops. Some feared a repeat of inflicting Agent Orange-like effects on US soldiers if crops were sprayed. But many of the reported problems of the Afghan war bring back seemingly repressed memories of the war in Vietnam. As in Vietnam, the US could only claim success by the creation of a stable pro-American political system that could stand on its own. “Instead of bringing stability and peace, … the United States inadvertently [sic] built a corrupt, dysfunctional Afghan government that remains dependent on U.S. military power for its survival. Assuming it does not collapse, U.S. officials have said it will need billions more dollars in aid annually, for decades.” The dysfunction of the Afghan government continues to this day. As the US negotiates with the Taliban, the election of 2019 is still being contested between incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, though Ghani has been declared the winner (as of today, the US has not recognized his election). Who will be the Afghani government representative in upcoming negotiations with the Taliban is up in the air.
Initially intended to smoke out Al Qaeda and remove its Taliban allies from power, the war morphed into an attempt to remake Afghani society. Imperial logic dictated that a destabilized Afghani society would lead to the comeback of Al Qaeda and other like-minded groups. At the same time, the Bush administration had its eyes set on bigger goals— as part of the ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT), remaking the Middle East initially by overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq and then building on that success eventually moving on to attack Iran.
The quintessential imperial problem is the inability to distinguish friend from foe amongst local people. “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are,” Donald Rumsfeld complained in… Sept. 8, 2003…, “We are woefully deficient in human intelligence.” The SIGAR interviews mention the difficulties of the US alliance with the Northern Alliance warlords, but fall short of exploring how systematically the Northern Alliance manipulated the American military to its own ends. As Rory Stewart points out in his review of Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes; after a particularly egregious attack in early 2003 on non-Taliban forces, “It turned out, as in hundreds of others, that an Afghan ‘ally’ had falsely informed the US that his rivals were Taliban in order to have them eliminated.” “To many Afghans, the warlords were cruel despots whose misrule helped destroy the country. So it didn’t help the Americans to be viewed as the warlords’ allies.” “To purchase loyalty and information, the CIA gave cash to warlords, governors, parliamentarians, even religious leaders…The U.S. military and other agencies also abetted corruption by doling out payments or contracts to unsavory Afghan power brokers in a misguided quest for stability.”
The initial US point person was Hemad Karzai — a CIA asset who had once been rescued from death.by a CIA operative — who became President of Afghanistan from 2004=2014. “But relations gradually soured. Karzai grew outspoken and criticized the U.S. military for a surge of airstrikes and night raids that inflicted civilian casualties and alienated much of the population. Meanwhile, U.S. officials chafed as Karzai cut deals with warlords and doled out governorships as political spoils.” The 2009 election, which returned Karzai to office, was obviously corrupt. On the other hand, Barnett Rubin, a former adviser to the United Nations and State Department. complained
“I tried to convince Holbrooke that he was blaming Karzai for problems whose source was the U.S. Given the system we had set up of off-the-books money for counterterrorism forces and militia leaders, Karzai could not compete politically without getting access to the same sources of money himself. The ‘official’ political system of elections and so on was a facade for the real power game. The former was supported by the State Department, the latter was run by CIA and the Defense.”
We will return to the issue of endemic corruption.
Similarly, the United States could not decide whether neighboring Pakistan was a friend or an adversary. Pakistan provided two routes to supply US and NATO forces, especially for transporting fuel. “Because of people’s personal confidence in [Pakistani Prime Minister] Musharraf and because of things he was continuing to do in helping police up a bunch of the al-Qaeda in Pakistan, there was a failure to perceive the double game that he starts to play by late 2002, early 2003,” Marin Strmecki, a senior adviser to Rumsfeld, told government interviewers. Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, then Pakistan’s intelligence chief, admitted:
“You know, I know you think we’re hedging our bets. You’re right, we are, because one day you’ll be gone again, it’ll be like Afghanistan the first time, you’ll be done with us, but we’re still going to be here because we can’t actually move the country. And the last thing we want with all of our other problems is to have turned the Taliban into a mortal enemy, so, yes, we’re hedging our bets.”
The US electoral system also posed a peculiar sort of imperial conundrum; during the war in Afghanistan, there has been a Republican President, followed by a Democrat, followed by a Republican. They all orchestrated a bipartisan chorus of American success in Afghanistan. George W. Bush rode a wave of post-Cold War triumphalism into Afghanistan, claiming premature victory and underestimating the tenacity of the Taliban. Obama, while gesturing toward withdrawal, initiated a surge of troops which failed to turn the tide, and Trump tried the Nixon strategy of increased bombing before turning to negotiations. It is indicative of the terms of American politics that since WW II, Democrats feel politically vulnerable if they try to negotiate their way out of a problematic war. As Republicans, Eisenhower with respect to the Korean war, Nixon with Vietnam, and now Trump with Afghanistan can initiate withdrawal negotiations without fear that their militaristic manhood credentials will be questioned. Barnett Rubin, a former adviser to the United Nations and State Department, suggests that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared these fears in In particular, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was “very reluctant to move on [negotiations with the Taliban]” because of her presidential aspirations.
Imperial hubris was also on full display. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” Yet the US carried on heedlessly.
The imperial illusion that military dominance alone would win the day was also called into question. “Lulled into overconfidence by the apparent ease of conquering Afghanistan, the Bush administration refused to sit down with defeated Taliban leaders to negotiate a lasting peace — a decision U.S. officials would later regret.” As in Vietnam, “despite years and years of war, the United States still did not understand what was motivating its enemies to fight.” An Army civil-affairs officer added: “You don’t know your enemy — [you’re just] tearing things down and pissing people off.”
The inability to understand the fundamental political nature of the struggle was compounded by the fantasy that ‘money makes the world go round’. The availability of seemingly limitless cash, fueled systemic and endemic corruption, rather than providing resources to win friends and rebuild Afghanistan. As Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan put it, “You just cannot put those amounts of money into a very fragile state and society, and not have it fuel corruption. You just can’t.”
“The scale of the corruption was the unintended result of swamping the war zone with far more aid and defense contracts than impoverished Afghanistan could absorb. There was so much excess, financed by American taxpayers, that opportunities for bribery and fraud became almost limitless, according to the interviews… To purchase loyalty and information, the CIA gave cash to warlords, governors, parliamentarians, even religious leaders, according to the interviews. The U.S. military and other agencies also abetted corruption by doling out payments or contracts to unsavory Afghan power brokers in a misguided quest for stability.”
“In 2002 and 2003, when Afghan tribal councils gathered to write a new constitution, the U.S. government gave ‘nice packages’ to delegates who supported Washington’s preferred stance on human rights and women’s rights, according to a U.S. official who served in Kabul at the time. The perception that was started in that period: If you were going to vote for a position that [Washington] favored, you’d be stupid to not get a package for doing it,” the unnamed official told government interviewers…. “So from the beginning, their experience with democracy was one in which money was deeply embedded.”
The interviewees also complain about the inappropriateness of trying to impose a “free market” economy on Afghanis. “Washington foolishly tried to reinvent Afghanistan in its own image by imposing a centralized democracy and a free-market economy on an ancient, tribal society that was unsuited for either.” “‘Economic policies that might have helped Afghanistan slowly emerge from penury, such as price controls and government subsidies, were not considered by U.S. officials who saw them as incompatible with capitalism,’ said Barnett Rubin.”
While there is no doubt that the attempt to superimpose an alien market economy was a hubristic policy, ironically, in many instances Afghanis showed a more sophisticated understanding of market incentives than the outsiders.
“In the spring of 2002, British officials floated an irresistible offer. They agreed to pay Afghan poppy farmers $700 an acre — a fortune in the impoverished, war-ravaged country — to destroy their crops. Word of the $30 million program ignited a poppy-growing frenzy. Farmers planted as many poppies as they could, offering part of their yield to the British while selling the rest on the open market. Others harvested the opium sap right before destroying their plants and got paid anyway.”
Also “in Helmand province, the epicenter of the poppy belt, USAID and the U.S. military paid Afghans to dig or renovate miles of canals and ditches to irrigate fruit trees and other crops. But the canals worked just as well to irrigate poppies — which were much more profitable to grow. Similarly, USAID invested millions of dollars to entice Helmand farmers to start wheat-growing operations. While wheat production increased, farmers relocated their poppy fields to other parts of the province. Between 2010 and 2014, poppy cultivation across the country nearly doubled, according to U.N. estimates.” The effect as Douglas Lute (an Army lieutenant general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama) lamented that instead of creating a “flourishing market economy” US policy actually resulted in “a flourishing drug trade” “Last year, Afghanistan was responsible for 82 percent of global opium production, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.”
US counter-narcotics strategy would have shamed the Keystone Kops.
In conclusion, the Afghanistan Papers reveal an insider perspective on a failed war that has dragged on for 18 years. Like the Pentagon Papers, these interviews and emails expose a long-term duplicitous policy that kept the truth from the American people and derailed any real accountability for the futility of the warmakers’ efforts. The futility of the war is amply demonstrated. Like the Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post series also fails to understand the war in the context of an American imperial trajectory. This, of course, is not to be expected of government operatives or mainstream media, but is the work of an authentic antiwar movement. Our goal is not to improve American techniques of intervention and counterinsurgency, but to end imperial wars and to undermine the notion that the US has the right to run the world. We should project a vision of an American role in the world that sees the US not as dominator with a right to intervene anywhere in the world, but as part of a more just order.
 To gain access to the SiGAR documents, the Washington Post, making requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), engaged in a three-year public records with SIGAR that continues to this day.
 These routes were vulnerable to Taliban attacks and were closed from November, 2011 thru July, 2012 after an attack on Pakistani troops by US-led NATO troops (the Salala incident). Pakistan obtained an apology from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.