The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion There must be a public accounting for the Afghanistan failure

A boy scavenges for goods in the ruins of the old royal palace in Kabul. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)

What in the world should be done about senior U.S. officials who failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable?

Those findings appear in a six-part Post investigative series on the Afghanistan war. It took three years, and three federal lawsuits, for The Post to obtain 2,000 pages of internal records on the Afghanistan war. The series laid bare — in stunning, depressing, sickening detail — the gargantuan failures and lies about the longest armed conflict in U.S. history.

The war in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. troops. Nearly 21,000 have been wounded in action, and nearly $1 trillion has been squandered on a haphazard nation-building mission that should not have been undertaken in the first place.

U.S. policymakers at the highest levels made possible this enormous waste in lives, treasure and national honor. Are they going to be let off the hook with “oops, sorry, better luck next time” — the attitude that settled over official Washington after the Vietnam and Iraq debacles?

Or, unlike the Vietnam and Iraq post-mortems, will there finally be a public accounting for the damnable Afghanistan failure?

America has been down this road before.

The U.S. policymakers behind Vietnam and Iraq had no idea what they had gotten themselves into. Both became wars in which senior military and civilian leadership bowed to self-censorship and uncritical acceptance of groupthink.

As time went on, both also had their share of arrogance, duplicity and outright lies. But these were supposed to be things of a past well behind us.

Vietnam was going to be the last of the quagmires, until it wasn’t.

Iraq made sure of that. The endless 18-year Afghanistan war picked it up from there.

And now, as was true with Vietnam and Iraq, U.S. leaders, finding things going badly in Afghanistan, still won’t own up to the truth. They keep up the pretense that the war is going pretty well. That it’s all a simple matter of winding down and handing things over to the Taliban and what passes for a government in Kabul. Those U.S. leaders know they have troops stuck on the ground, being sacrificed for a mission that cannot be accomplished, as the Post series shows. Will those leaders be allowed to get away with that pretense?

Think of what the sacrifices were for. Today’s Vietnam is a Marxist-Leninist one-party communist government. Iraq in 2019 is not the country we dreamed of at the outset of the 2003 invasion. It’s more the country that Iran dreamed of having as a next-door neighbor.

The Post’s Afghanistan revelations land hard.

Ten years ago, to almost this very date, President Barack Obama, standing before military cadets at West Point, announced his new Afghanistan war strategy — a troop surge.

In the space of 18 months, Obama promised, tens of thousands of U.S. troops (at a cost of $34 billion) would sweep into Afghanistan, reverse the Taliban’s momentum, get Afghan security forces up to speed, bring agriculture to Afghanistan’s poppy fields and convert Afghan ministries, governors and local chieftains into symbols of corruption-free zones. And, after that year and a half, they would “begin to come home.”

I wrote at the time that some of us worried that Obama, the fresh, think-outside-the-box leader brimming with energy and ideas, was delivering a war message “to national security think-tankers who have been banging their spoons for escalation, to Republicans who demand that he give the generals what they want, and to conservatives who say he is a ditherer, not a doer.”

I feared he had taken on the ways of this town, thinking in conventional terms dictated by self-serving, entrenched Washington interests — a development that might lead to “a military miscalculation.”

And that’s what we got.

In October 2015, six years later, Obama announced that 9,800 troops would remain during much of 2016, with 5,500 remaining in 2017.

Today, 12,000 troops are in Afghanistan, the poppy fields are thriving, the Taliban (Afghanistan’s Viet Cong) is in negotiations with the Trump administration on a face-saving U.S. exit strategy, and kleptocracy reigns supreme.

They lied about the Afghanistan war. They painted rosy pictures over ugly truths, and they hid “unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable” even as U.S. tax dollars were being stolen and American bodies fell to the ground.

Some “senior U.S. officials,” for goodness’ sake, should be in the docks for that.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

Read more:

Ryan Crocker: I served in Afghanistan. No, it’s not another Vietnam.

Zarlasht Halaimzai: The United States’ fatal flaw in Afghanistan? Excluding Afghans.

The Post’s View: Dear Democrats: The U.S. needs plans, not platitudes, on Afghanistan

Jarrett Blanc: We need to take the best deal we can get in Afghanistan