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A startling trove of documents reveals the truth about Afghanistan

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Terry H. Schwadron
Terry H. Schwadron

The disclosures are extreme, but, sadly, what we have come to expect of government–across administrations.

The Washington Post obtained 2,000 documents showing that over years, news of U.S. military deployment to Afghanistan was routinely and repeatedly manipulated to reflect a rosier picture than what was happening on the ground. Further, the documents show that there was confusion about military mission and what would amount to success across the 18 years of deployment under the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations.

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“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,” says the Post, which spend three years seeking the document trove.

U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

The documents are presented in sortable files, but it is hard to find any good news here other than the obvious. In all the years of deployment, American troops helped keep terrorist forces from forming and training. Other than that, the government sold us stories in telling us that there was any real progress there.

The Afghan wars have brought about 2,000 American deaths as well as 38,000 Afghans, and countless problems for veterans. They have cost $2 trillion, have unearthed international corruption, narcotics trade and terrorist plots, as well as helping Afghan girls return to school between outbreaks of violence.

More Peace Efforts

The disclosures coincide with the announcement of renewed attempts by the Trump administration to reach an agreement with the Taliban insurgents trying to oust the government of Afghanistan. Trump has demanded a cease-fire in place to re-open negotiations that he had halted this summer.

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Of course, the disclosures also coincide with the impeachment efforts in Washington and the release of a Justice Department Inspector General’s report on investigations into Russian interference – clear examples where any sense of singular Truth has been reflected as some kind of relic of endangered human species.

During his Thanksgiving trip to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan over the Thanksgiving holiday, Trump said that the United States will stay in Afghanistan “until such time as we have a deal, or we have total victory, and they want to make a deal very badly.” Trump also reaffirmed that he wants to reduce the American military presence from 13,000 by 4,000 troops.

That need to declare “total victory” is what this report is all about, as if, as a nation or a society, we cannot handle a more ambiguous reality.

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As Peter Baker noted in a New York Times essay, trust itself, in government and basic institutions, is under scrutiny or even posted as a target as almost never before. We see it in Congress, in the military, in presidential tweets, in the marketplace, in science, medicine, health care and, of course, the news media. Set aside impeachment, do you want to be the first to step on a Boeing 787 Max?

In its place, we are seeing increasingly shaky reliance on “alternative facts” or conspiracy theories or plain old lies by officials in government, business and culture.

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Examining the Failures

These Afghan documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include 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, said The Post.

The documents and interviews were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and years of legal back-and-forth with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR, according to The Post. That is a government watchdog for the war in Afghanistan, releasing reports quarterly on the war’s progress, many of which clearly depicted the shortcomings of the effort.

According to the Post, after a quick but short-term victory over the Taliban and Al Qaeda in early 2002, and as the Pentagon’s focus shifted toward Iraq, the American military’s effort in Afghanistan became a hazy spectacle of nation building, with a small number of troops carrying out an unclear mission. Even after the Taliban returned, American officials almost always said that progress was being made.

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The documents quote generals and national security staff acknowledging confusion and pressure from the presidents, including Obama, who had ordered a surge in U.S. troops, to show good results. That pressure may have been reflected in interviews with national security staff, but it was felt all the way down the line, to the military units deployed.

This is like a bad move script, a re-run of Mission Accomplished video clips, a disappointment in our government’s ability, regardless of party, to tell us the hard truth. Our troops deployed there deserve better, and we as citizens deserve better. You should read the report.

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