Earlier this week, we learned that our leaders also knew the war was a fiasco, doomed to fail. But, unlike many of us, they chose not to speak out. Instead, as The Washington Post revealed in a series of stunning articles based on what it has labeled the Afghanistan Papers—a trove of previously classified documents that it is calling a “secret history of the war”—dozens of consecutive generals and senior US officials had repeatedly lied about, omitted, and obfuscated the facts to give an illusion of progress in that war.
Examples abound. As early as 2003, Bush’s hawkish secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, apparently admitted, “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are” in Afghanistan. More than a decade later, during the late Obama years, retired Army Lt. Gen. Doug Lute (once the Afghan War “czar”), conceded to one of the interviewers, “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” Perhaps even more troubling, in a throwback to Vietnam War–era stat-fudging, one unnamed army colonel confessed, “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible.”
As I read through these confessions, I felt somewhat vindicated, but mostly I felt deeply sad. What had it all been for—the 2400 American lives lost, the trillion dollars spent? And what of the cost to the real victims—the Afghan people? More than 100,000 Afghan civilian and security force personnel have been killed thus far. The US military wasn’t responsible for all those deaths—the vicious Taliban have been gleeful contributors to the carnage—but 2018 wasn’t just the deadliest year of the war; it was also the first in which American and allied Afghan troops killed more civilians than the Taliban did.
The Afghanistan Papers don’t try to answer these bigger questions, and perhaps they can’t, but their significance is nonetheless profound. At 2,000 pages, they are nothing less than the Pentagon Papers of my generation. These documents, however, are hitting the news in a very different time and context. In 1971, there were still tens of thousands of anti-war protesters in the streets, and Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the documents inflamed the movement. Today, in the absence of a broad military draft, and with President Trump’s impeachment-as-entertainment hearings dominating the airwaves, I’m not so sure the Afghanistan Papers will make much of a splash.
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