Newly obtained documents reveal details of how the U.S. was dishonest about the Afghanistan war to paint it in a positive light.
A trove of 2,000 pages obtained by The Washington Post documenting 400 interviews with military officials, diplomacy experts, and more identified behind-the-scenes admissions on failures that contradicted what officials were saying publicly, including then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The Post fought a three-year legal battle to obtain the documents under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The interviews were conducted by the U.S. government agency Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) for a project called “Lessons Learned” to identify failures in Afghanistan that could be avoided in future situations.
Rumsfeld, who served from 2001 to 2006, complained in one memo, “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are,” echoing the widespread dilemma of the U.S. military – they couldn’t distinguish friend from enemy on the battlefield.
Rumsfeld’s own staffer delivered a 40-page report on failures, including the Taliban’s growth despite the U.S. mission, but he continued to speak favorably of the U.S. efforts to the public, touting good news in the form of progress and optimism.
Leon Panetta, who later served as Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013 also referred to “significant progress” in the public eye, despite narrowly missing a suicide bombing attack during a visit to Afghanistan.
Army Gen. Douglas Lute, who was the Afghan war chief under former Presidents Bush and Obama, said in 2015, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing. 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, attributing U.S. service member deaths to “bureaucratic breakdowns” within the U.S. government.
Additional interviews reveal an effort to “deliberately mislead the public” to convince the American people that the U.S. was making progress in winning the war and was a worthwhile cause, all while efforts were saturated in failures.
The ruse even included distorting statistics.
Army Col. Bob Crowley, a senior counterinsurgency advisor in 2013 and 2014, said “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible.”
“Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone,” Crowley added.
“It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture,” a senior National Security Council official said in 2016. “The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. was failing at developing war strategies, countering corruption, supporting Afghanistan’s military and law enforcement, or combating its opium trade – and it was spending hundreds of billions in doing so.
Although the U.S. has not released official cost figures for the war in Afghanistan, appropriations are in a range of $934-978 billion, according to estimates by Brown University’s the Costs of War Project.
An unnamed U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) executive said, “We were burning $400 million per month at one point. We lost objectivity. We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason.”
Despite all the money spent, U.S. military leaders said the Afghan military was incompetent and unmotivated, and likely incapable of defeating the Taliban on their own, pointing to an “unsustainable” casualty rate.
Since the war began in 2001, more than 157,000 people are estimated to have died – 107,000 of which are Afghan military and civilians. More than 2,300 U.S. troops have died and more than 3,800 U.S. contractors.