The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Rather than focus on how the U.S. got out of Afghanistan, focus on how it got in

A balloon and flowers are left among the gravestones in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday. Section 60 is where the men and women who died in America's most recent wars, especially Iraq and Afghanistan, are buried. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Comment

While politicians and pundits debate “who lost Afghanistan,” that question will likely seem very distant from many Americans’ lives. Indeed, more than two-thirds supported the decision to withdraw. If anything, most Americans might wonder how the United States came to be in the position to “lose” Afghanistan in the first place?

There should be a serious accounting for the Afghanistan debacle. The United States waged its longest war in a distant, impoverished country of only minimal strategic importance. After two decades, more than 775,000 troops deployed, far more than $1 trillion spent, more than 2,300 U.S. deaths and 20,500 wounded in action, tens of thousands of Afghani civilian deaths, the United States managed to create little more than a kleptocracy, whose swift collapse culminated in the death and panic seen at the Kabul airport on Monday.

Rather than focusing on how we got out, it would be far wiser to focus on how we got in. The accounting can draw from the official record exposed by The Post’s Afghanistan Papers project. The papers come from an internal investigation by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, based on interviews with hundreds of officials who guided the mission. Their words are a savage and telling indictment.

Under President George W. Bush, the early mission — to defeat al-Qaeda and get Osama bin Laden in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — quickly turned to nation-building. The United States would seek to build a democratic state in an impoverished country with entrenched divisions and cultural, language and religious traditions of which U.S. national security managers and military officials remained utterly ignorant.

That mission was an abject failure from the beginning. Adjusted for inflation, the United States spent more money developing Afghan institutions than it had spent to help all of Western Europe after World War II. Yet as Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan concluded, the “single biggest project” stemming from the flood of dollars “may have been the development of mass corruption.” Decades and millions of dollars devoted to building up the Afghanistan military produced forces that U.S. military trainers described as incompetent and unmotivated, with commanders making off with millions from the salaries of tens of thousands of “ghost soldiers.”

The effort to build a “flourishing market economy” led to, as Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House’s Afghan war czar under Bush and President Barack Obama, reported, “a flourishing drug trade — the only part of the market that’s working.” Nearly $10 billion was spent to eradicate poppy production but as of 2018, Afghan farmers produced more than 80 percent of the global opium supply. The reality, Lute admitted, was that “we didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

To sustain the fiasco, presidents, generals, civilians and uniformed military up and down the line reported “progress” in a war that they knew was not being won. While avoiding enemy body counts after Vietnam, they puffed up figures — schools built, troops trained, women educated, roads laid — that were both exaggerated and irrelevant. Each commander claimed that his objectives were met on his watch. Each president offered a new strategy that would make a difference.

Even now, at the end, hawks such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) tout a new strategy, claiming aggressive U.S. air power plus a small number of U.S. troops could fend off the Taliban for years or decades at little cost and little controversy. To what end? So the corruption could continue, the casualties mount up, the fraud be sustained? To his credit, President Biden knew better, saying Monday in perhaps the most powerful and clear-eyed speech he’s ever given that “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”

Now, partisan politicians, reporters, pundits and armchair strategists have begun to issue dark warnings about a blow to U.S. credibility, another echo of Vietnam. But surely U.S. credibility suffered more from sustaining the debacle for years than it will from ending it. Ruinous and wrongheaded interventions — destabilizing the Middle East in Iraq, discrediting humanitarian intervention in Libya — erode our credibility far more.

Progressive activists often call for “speaking truth to power.” The Afghanistan Papers show however that those in power often know the truth, but hide it from the American people. Accountability and truth-telling could begin with the media. Why are those who have consistently lied to the American people populating news talk shows as supposed experts? Why are those who got it right, such as Andrew Bacevich, Matthew Hoh, Phyllis Bennis or Danny Sjursen, largely shunned? Why are networks — not just Fox News, but CNN, MSNBC and others — part of the culture of misleading Americans?

We also need accountability and truth-telling in Congress. As Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) has proposed, it’s time for public hearings to probe the bureaucracy about its pattern of lying, while strengthening the War Powers Act and congressional oversight. A special committee should investigate the abject failure of Congress to do its job. Having had the courage to end the war, Biden could launch an internal investigation of the national security bureaucracies to figure out how to root out the culture of lying and end the promotion of buck-passing officers pretending to achieve fanciful goals. At the very least, Biden might ensure that those who promoted, defended and lied about the Afghanistan folly have the opportunity in private life to reflect on their failures.

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