Our Lying Military, Our Lying Government
Everybody’s talking about the FBI report today, but as far as I’m concerned, this long piece in the Washington Post is the real news. Here’s how it begins:
The documents include transcripts of interviews with soldiers, diplomats, and others with direct experience in the war effort. Excerpts:
“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 did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?” Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. He added, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”
The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting.
Look at this:
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.”
As commanders in chief, Bush, Obama and Trump all promised the public the same thing. They would avoid falling into the trap of “nation-building” in Afghanistan.
On that score, the presidents failed miserably. 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.
The Lessons Learned interviews show the grandiose nation-building project was marred from the start.
If you can get through it all, good for you. I got so mad that I had to quit reading not long after the paragraph above. We have lost about 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, and sustained about 21,000 casualties of war. (Not to mention all the dead innocent Afghan civilians, and the dead and wounded troops of our NATO allies.) We have spent altogether almost $1 trillion on that country. The Afghan officials stole a fortune from us. We never knew what to do there. And every one of our leaders lied about it. Lied! All those brave American soldiers, dead or maimed for life, for a war that our leaders knew that we could not win, but in defense of which they lied.
It’s the Pentagon Papers all over again. You know this, right.
Trump is negotiating now with the Taliban over the possibility of US withdrawal. The story says US officials fought the Post in court over these documents, and have said most recently that publishing them would undermine the administration’s negotiating position. I don’t care. Tell the truth, for once. Let’s cut our losses and go before more Americans die in this lost cause. Poor Afghanistan is going to fall under the tyrannical rule of the mullahs. But if, after 18 years, a trillion dollars, and all those dead and wounded Americans, we couldn’t establish a stable and decent Afghan regime, it’s not going to happen.
If any of my children want to join the US military, I’m going to go to the mat to talk them out of it. I do not want them, or anybody’s sons or daughters, sent overseas to die in hopeless countries in wars that we cannot win, and shouldn’t have fought, but kept doing because of bipartisan Establishment foreign policy delusions. To be clear, we should have bombed the hell out of Afghanistan after 9/11. The Taliban government gave shelter to Al Qaeda, and brought retribution upon itself. But the Bush Administration’s nation-building insanity was never going to work. Eight years of Obama did not fix this. Nor, so far, has three years of Trump, though maybe he will be the one to stop the bleeding. If he does withdraw, I hope he blasts the hell out of his two predecessors and the military leadership for what they’ve done here.
I’ve been writing lately in this space, and in the book I’m working on, about the parallels between late-imperial Russia and our own time and place. And I’ve been writing about what Hannah Arendt had to say about the origins of totalitarianism. Arendt says that one precursor of totalitarianism is a widespread loss of faith in a society’s and a government’s institutions. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, the US military is one of the few institutions that enjoys broad confidence. How can anybody possibly believe them after this? How can we believe our Commanders-in-Chief? According to the secret documents, the men in the field have been were their commanders for a long time that this Afghan thing was not working, and wasn’t ever going to work. But they kept sending them back in.
Why? Pride? Too full of themselves to admit that it was a failure? As soldier John Kerry turned antiwar activist said back in the 1970s, about Vietnam, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” No more American dying in and for Afghanistan. Bring the troops home. They did not fail. Their superiors did.
How do you convince young people to join an institution whose leadership — civilian as well as military — is prepared to sacrifice them for a lost cause, and then lie, and lie, and lie about it? How do you convince mothers and fathers to send their sons and daughters with confidence to that military? How do you convince taxpayers to support throwing more money into the sh*thole that is the Pentagon’s budget?
The questions that are going to come up sooner than most of us think, and, in some version, from both the Left and the Right: just what kind of order do we have in America anyway? Why do I owe it my loyalty? What does it mean to be a patriot when you cannot trust the nation’s leaders and institutions?
These are the kinds of questions that, depending on how they are answered, can lead to the unraveling, and even the overthrow, of a regime. It has been said that the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was a prime mover in the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the Soviet system. We are not the Soviet Union — but I wouldn’t be so quick to take comfort in that, if I were a political or military leader.
We learned nothing from Vietnam, did we? Not a damn thing. It is beyond infuriating. It is beyond demoralizing. And you know, the only thing more infuriating and more demoralizing than this will be if there are no consequences for it, or if people fall back into partisan positions. The report makes clear that this is a disaster that was launched by a Republican administration, continued under a Democratic administration, and has been overseen by another Republican administration.
One of the reasons Donald Trump is president today, and not some other Republican, is he was the one Republican primary candidate who denounced the wars. If he can’t get us out of Afghanistan, what good is he?
UPDATE: I was just thinking about something a military friend told me almost 15 years ago, based on his direct personal knowledge of the situation: that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was lying to the nation about how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were going. And if Rumsfeld was lying, so was the administration. My friend was deeply discouraged. Rumsfeld left office in 2006 — but the habit remained with our leadership.
Evergreen tweet https://t.co/GYD8zXJOvD
— Jack Detsch (@JackDetsch_ALM) December 9, 2019
According to new WaPo report, an unnamed "senior National Security Council official" said "metrics were always manipulated" to falsely show that the Afghanistan "surge" under Obama in 2009-2011 was working. Wonder if Joe Biden has any insight into this alleged "manipulation"?
— Michael Tracey (@mtracey) December 9, 2019
UPDATE.4: The freshman GOP Senator from Missouri:
Hawley is new in Washington, but I would stand up and cheer if he establishes himself as a right-wing critic of these lying liars, and forces the Establishment to do right by the fighting men and women of this country, and their families, instead of serving the interests of these g.d. defense contractors, think tankers, the “expert” class, and the rest.
UPDATE.5: Just posted:
It’s time we addressed these questions in public. The Senate Armed Services Committee should hold hearings on the state of the Afghanistan conflict and the infuriating details & alleged falsehoods reported today
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) December 9, 2019