The Washington Post in early Dec’19 ran a series of articles called “The Afghanistan Papers – A Secret History of the War”. The articles were based on documents obtained from Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), after a protracted legal battle, and contained explosive interviews with senior U.S. officials and others directly involved in the conflict. These documents clearly highlight the disjuncture between the situation on ground in Afghanistan and what the US officials and politicians in power have been saying, thus constantly misleading and deceiving the public. These shocking revelations seem to have confirmed the worst fears about the true state of affairs in Afghanistan; however, the fallout of the exposé, for the moment, seems muted at best. But will a diminished fallout ensure that no lessons are learnt, and it is business as usual in dealing with Afghanistan?
The Afghanistan Papers
To diagnose policy failures in Afghanistan, SIGAR was tasked to publish “Lessons Learned” and since 2016 it has published seven such documents1. These bring out the problems in Afghanistan and recommend changes. The 2000 pages of documents obtained by the Washington Post are the interviews carried out for this and give a candid assessment of the Afghan war by senior US officials and details how they kept the truth from the public. They are thus much more hard hitting and stark than the watered-down version of the reports published by SIGAR.
The Afghanistan Papers essentially comprise a six-part investigative series, with the first three dealing with the ‘war with the truth’, lack of strategy for dealing with Afghanistan at the highest level and the failure in ‘Nation Building’. As per the article “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 case2”. Another article, based on the interviews, expounds the problems arising from having expanded the scope of the mission and adopting ‘fatally flawed warfighting strategies based on misguided assumptions about a country they did not understand3’. Boucher, a career diplomat who also served as the Chief State Department spokesman under Bush, said “U.S. officials did not know what they were doing4…”. Both President Bush & Obama as per the officials, inspite of having ‘polar opposite’ plans to win the war failed to devise clear-cut strategies. In addition, despite all US Presidents from Bush to Trump promising that they would not do ‘Nation Building’, they did just that, without much success and as per Richard Kraemer, from the National Endowment for Democracy “. . . dogmatic adherence to free-market principles led to our inability to adopt a nuanced, balanced approach to what Afghanistan needed5”.
The next three articles in the series cover causes for the rampant corruption in Afghanistan, building up of the security forces and the failed war on the drug trade. The papers blame the US for the corruption, as they flooded Afghanistan with money and used it to purchase loyalty and information, “….the CIA gave cash to warlords, governors, parliamentarians, even religious leaders, according to the interviews6”. The Afghan security forces suffer from pandemic problems including corruption, poor training, lack of motivation as well as strategic mistakes involving their raising and numbers. General Douglas Lute, who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, told government interviewers that “If the U.S. government had ramped up training between 2002 and 2006, when the Taliban was weak and disorganized, things may have been different, instead, we went to Iraq7….”. The US has spent nearly $9 billion on its war on drugs in Afghanistan and has still not been able to stop the drug trade from flourishing. The Afghan papers clearly highlight the short term vision, changing strategies and failure of the military to realize the importance of the drug trade in financing the Taliban, as some of the reasons for the failure to control opium production, which has skyrocketed since 20028.
While most people have reacted with outrage and anger on reading about the mishandling of the situation in the Afghanistan Papers, the overall reaction has not been what one would have expected, despite it being compared to the “Pentagon Papers”. However that was basically a top-secret study of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam, whose publication in 1971, by the New York Times, stirred an international controversy, while the Afghanistan Papers consist of candid interviews of people who didn’t expect to be quoted.
More importantly, people in general have known that things were not going as per plan in Afghanistan, despite all the statements by the US government, and thus the Afghanistan Papers have not come as such a surprise. However the systematic manner in which the shortcomings were covered up, the impact of the flip flop strategy, the utter wastage of funds and the US role in the deep seated corruption are aspects which cannot be ignored and must be addressed. It brings to fore the aspect of the government lying to the public and maybe even to the Congress and the inherent penalties / corrective actions associated with the same.
Howeve,r with the American public engrossed in the Trump impeachment proceedings and the Presidential primaries, these papers have not yet gained centre stage. Moreover since the articles implicate both the Republican and Democrat Presidents & their administrations, none of the parties can use it to their advantage, especially in the upcoming Presidential elections.
The real beneficiary of the exposé may in the end, turn out to be President Trump and his efforts to the strike a deal with the Taliban. The grim picture painted in the Afghanistan Papers will help in convincing even the bitterest of critics to the peace deal, that no military solution is possible and this may be the only way to extricate USA out of Afghanistan.
Irrespective of the fallout of the Afghanistan Papers, they give a clear insight into the makings of the present situation in Afghanistan and thus cannot be ignored. They help in chronicling the various strategies put into place, be it of Nation building or war on drugs and their actual impact on ground, thus dispelling the official fallacy of progress being achieved and goals being met.
The Afghanistan Papers per-se do not give out a way forward but the frank and outspoken revelations definitely give enough material to draw out lessons and take corrective actions. Some of the aspects which clearly stand out include the fact that there has to be continuity in strategy in dealing with Afghanistan & the Taliban, that the endemic corruption there needs to be addressed and the inability to address the drug trade, fuels narco- terrorism, strengthening the Taliban. Most importantly all policies / strategies to deal with any of these problems or a myriad of others, has to be in an overarching background which keeps the traditional, cultural, ethnic dynamics at play in Afghanistan and their way of functioning, in mind. The problems in Afghanistan cannot be tackled with a western mindset, giving homegrown models to be replicated; rather, the solutions need to be tailor-made to suit the requirements of Afghanistan and it’s people.
The Afghanistan Papers clearly underline the fact that various American Governments seem to have misinterpreted the facts about the situation in Afghanistan by downplaying the negatives and highlighting the positives. The papers also help in establishing the stark reality of the situation on ground and how they got to it. There are thus some important lessons to be learnt from them and a reality check could help in charting a clearer way forward, in dealing with the imbroglio in Afghanistan.
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-confidential-documents/, The Afghanistan Papers Part I ; At War With the Truth, dated 09 December 2019, accessed on 15 December 2019.
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-strategy/, The Afghanistan Papers Part II ; Stranded Without a Strategy, dated 09 December 2019, accessed on 15 December 2019.
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-nation-building/?tid=top_nav, The Afghanistan Papers Part III; Built to Fail, dated 09 December 2019, accessed on 17 December 2019.
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-corruption-government/?tid=top_nav, The Afghanistan Papers Part IV; Consumed by Corruption, dated 09 December 2019, accessed on 17 December 2019.
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-army-police/?tid=top_nav, The Afghanistan Papers Part V; Ungaurded Nation, dated 09 December 2019, accessed on 17 December 2019.
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-opium-poppy-production/?tid=top_nav, The Afghanistan Papers Part VI; Overwhelmed by Opium, dated 09 December 2019, accessed on 17 December 2019.