A U.S. soldier after a suicide attack at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in Nangarhar province in 2014. (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)
After a three-year legal battle, The Washington Post newspaper obtained records from more than 400 of the “Lessons Learned” interviews, conducted by the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The 2,000 page document reveals that those directly involved in the war were doubting the US strategy and its mission.
For nearly two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, U.S. leaders have said they were making progress. In fact, they were aware that they were not (making progress), as documented government interviews show.
The Lessons Learned interviews reveal there was no consensus on the war’s objectives, let alone how to end the conflict. The newspaper also obtained hundreds of confidential memos by former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld from the National Security Archive, referred to as the “snowflake” memos.
Rumsfeld’s memos are brief instructions and comments that the Pentagon leader dictated to his subordinates as the war unfolded. Altogether they show how the US administration has failed, during three presidential periods, to end the war in Afghanistan.
A secret history of the war
The documents, obtained after the Washington Post went to federal courts to ask for the interview transcripts twice, identify only 62 of the people interviewed. A total of 366 other names were redacted after SIGAR insisted they should be treated as whistleblowers and informants.
“Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public,” the Post reported. “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.”
Douglas Lute, a lieutenant general who served as the White House Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told interviewers in 2015: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing.”
Lute 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.”
“What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” Lute said in 2015, according to the Post.
In another example, Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, bemoaned the cost of the war to interviewers, asking, “What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?” the Post said.
“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 former SEAL said, according to the paper.
The interviews published today have shown numerous admissions that the government routinely trumpeted statistics that officials knew were misrepresented, deceptive or outright false. One individual identified as a senior National Security Council official said, according to the paper, that “even when casualty counts and other figures looked bad … the White House and Pentagon would spin them to the point of absurdity.”
The 2,000 page of document reveals the bleak and unvarnished views of many insiders in a war which has cost $1tn, and killed more than 2,300 US servicemen and women, leaving more than 20,000 injured. The documents echoe the Pentagon Papers – the US military’s secret history of the Vietnam war – which were leaked in 1971 and told a similarly troubling story of the cover-up of military failure.
The first interviews for the report were conducted in 2014, according to the Post, which said seven parts of the report have been published since 2016.
The paper said the interviews “bring into sharp relief the core failings of the war that persist to this day” as “U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation.”
The Washington Post said its investigation includes information from previously unreported memos written between 2001 and 2006 by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
In one of his memos, Rumsfeld wrote: “I may be impatient. In fact I know I’m a bit impatient … We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave.”
Michael Flynn, the retired three-star Army general who briefly served as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, also provided candid thoughts on the war effort to interviewers, questioning in 2015 why officials were touting it as successful, according to the Post.
“From the ambassadors down to the low level, [they all say] we are doing a great job,” Flynn told interviewers, the Post said. “Really? So if we are doing such a great job, why does it feel like we are losing?”
The Post said that John Sopko, the head of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which oversaw the “Lessons Learned” project, told the paper that the report shows “the American people have constantly been lied to.”
18 years of false information
The 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 clear pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence that winning the war had become unattainable.
The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. The (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 reveal information that 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became entangled in nearly two decades of warfare.
However, The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.
“I do think the key benchmark is the one I’ve suggested, which is how many Afghans are getting killed,” James Dobbins, the former US diplomat, told a senate panel in 2009. “If the numbers going up, you’re losing. If the number’s going down, you’re winning. It’s as simple as that.”
Last year, 3,804 Afghan civilians were killed in the war, according to the United Nations. That is the most in one year since the United Nations began tracking casualties a decade ago.