What could you buy with a trillion dollars? Give that money to any rando on the street, and bet on him or her spending it with better effect than the US has in Afghanistan over the past 18 years. After fighting for three years to get its hands on a confidential report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) called “Lessons Learned,” the Washington Post published its findings this morning.
In its thoroughly depressing report, the Post lays out just how futile the Afghanistan war has been ever since the first mission creep took it from a punitive action against al-Qaeda to a plan to modernize territory that can barely call itself a country:
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.
The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials. …
“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.”
“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”
What happens when government operations — especially in war — fail? Usually, one of two outcomes occur: either everyone makes excuses for the failure, or they simply call it a conditional success and demand more money to finish the job. At least according to what the Post calls “the Afghanistan Papers,” this war produced both reactions. Repeatedly.
The SIGAR conclusions and quotes are far too extensive to adequately excerpt here, but it has a couple of brief moments of overall clarity. Read it all today in order to get a sense of just how broad the internal consensus of failure actually has been for several years. (Be sure to catch some especially sharp comments from Michael Flynn.) One Army colonel summed up the effort with a memorable metaphor:
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.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” 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.”
Recalling the question asked at the top of this post, the US government didn’t literally give a trillion dollars to someone. However, they did give a number of people millions of dollars to spend without much guidance, as a means to identify and resolve local issues to improve the quality of life for ordinary Afghans. In theory, that may have sounded like a good idea, but it went badly wrong in practice:
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.”
Many aid workers blamed Congress for what they saw as a mindless rush to spend.
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.’ ”
Despite all of its best efforts, the US government has not been able to sustain the idea that the Afghanistan war is winnable. It’s tough to imagine not losing it these days, with the Taliban increasing its strength and the central government weakening even after a generation of US military operations and training to develop it. At some point in eighteen years, Americans have guessed at most of this, even if it hadn’t been confirmed with confidential investigations such as “Lessons Learned.”
The Post takes great pains to lay all of this on the administration of Donald Trump as well as those of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. However, Trump has personally always sounded skeptical of the war in Afghanistan and has (publicly, at least) gone the farthest to try to get the US out. Three months ago, his plan to invite the Taliban to Camp David for negotiations around the anniversary of 9/11 set off political condemnations and likely led to the departure of John Bolton, but this blockbuster report shows that it was only a tactical error in the end. Trump appears to have gone the farthest so far in being educated by “Lessons Learned,” even if it hasn’t yet resulted in an end to the effort, or apparently not an end to the deceptions over the self-licking ice cream cone either. Still, the main thrust of this article actually validates Trump’s campaign criticism of the war as a colossal waste of US money and resources and the folly of aggressive interventionism in general.
The irony of that will be that if Trump succeeds in cutting a peace deal in Afghanistan, he’s the one that will pay the political price when the Taliban inevitably return to power. That desire to avoid political accountability for an impossible nation-building project was the driving force that created the self-licking ice cream cone in the first place.