WaPo's Afghanistan Papers: progress in country was all lies

 
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WaPo's Afghanistan Papers: progress in country was all lies

Washington Post had a report this week that is sure to win it numerous Pulitzers, and embarass military and civilian leadership for the last (nearly) 20 years.

From At War With the Truth by Craig Whitlock:

A confidential trove of government 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 rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.

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. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.

In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare.

With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.

“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.”

The entire thing is worth a read.  As is the follow up piece by Alex Horton at WaPo, ‘Our friends didn’t have to die’: Afghanistan Papers surface pain and familiar frustrations:

“We must end the vicious, lethal cycle of misinformation and unspecified, unsupported strategies,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in response, calling for public hearings with Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and other officials.

“The Senate Armed Services Committee should hold hearings on the state of the Afghanistan conflict and the infuriating details & alleged falsehoods reported today,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a member of the committee....

To his credit, Alex included some push back from DoD as well:

“There has been no intent by DoD to mislead Congress or the public,” Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Defense Department spokesman, said in a statement. “DoD officials have consistently briefed the progress and challenges associated with our efforts in Afghanistan, and DoD provides regular reports to Congress that highlight these challenges. The information contained in the interviews was provided to SIGAR for the express purpose of inclusion in SIGAR’s public reports.”

“We remain in Afghanistan to protect our national interests and ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as a safe haven for terrorists who threaten the United States,” Campbell said.

Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus defended the reports he made from Afghanistan during his tenure there as commander of U.S. forces in 2010 and 2011.

“I stand by the assessments I provided as the commander in Afghanistan,” Petraeus said in a statement emailed to the Daily Beast, saying improvements, “while very hard fought and fragile, were indisputable.”

I'm fairly certain none of this suprises anyone that has been paying attention.  The Duffelblog (a satirical Onion-like website) has made a living off of articles like "Fans excited for final season of Afghanistan" joking that "A media darling at launch, Afghanistan has suffered from low viewership since the first season but remains a powerhouse moneymaker with an annual budget of almost $45 billion. Producers initially promised large, exciting battles and decisive story lines but thus far have had issues delivering consistently."

As an OEF veteran myself I suppose I should be angry.  In reality though, I suppose I was responsible for the rosy projections of Afghanistan.  Bear in mind that "winning" in Afghanistan was always a fairly unclear metric.  Basically it meant us being able to leave without the whole place just becoming a terrorist haven again.  But in order to do that, there were numerous things that needed to happen, failure in any one of which would doom the whole process.  For instance, training the Afghan forces is vital.  But if they don't get paid, they won't stick around.  And having the best fighting forces around is great, but if they don't have bullets, or any resupply capabilities, then again, it falls apart.

I even wrote about that in a magazine piece I wrote 7 years ago following my visit to Afghanistan:

Maj. Jack Pippo is largely responsible for all the financial management and accounting of these large-scale logistical support operations – a mind-boggling task even if it wasn’t in a combat zone. An affable and intelligent officer, he tells me about the successes and challenges of working with ANA allies.

“We’ve done a great job of training the front-line combat units,” he says. “But on the logistics side, we are a bit behind where we need to be in terms of training them in order to leave them in a position to continue the effort after we are gone.”

I was somewhat surprised to learn that Pippo’s assessment was not apostasy against a military talking point but exactly what others had said openly. In an interview with Army Times last year, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, head of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A), disputed the notion that the Afghan supply chain was “broken.” He went even further, noting that “it’s hard to break something that’s not built.”  

To combat this challenge, the 13th ESC out of Fort Hood, Texas, was deployed to create an “Afghan Logistics University.” Efforts to fix the supply chain are ongoing, but with a literacy rate of only 14 percent among Afghan army enlistees, bringing them up to full speed may take longer than the United States has chosen to remain in the theater.

“One of the lessons we learned from Iraq was that we probably started too late,” says Col. John Ferrari, NTM-A deputy commander for programs. “They had a lot less time than they thought to develop the logistics system. They started late, thought they would have a lot more time, and then the drawdown came.”

As the war there winds down, I don't suppose we'll get either a win or a loss, merely a draw.  And an expensive draw at that.  But I'm still proud of my service there, regardless of how it turns out.  I was given a job to do, and I did it as good as I could.  As we often darkly joke, "All I know is we were winning when I left." 

Either way, somewhere in Afghanistan there is a school we supplied with stuff one day.  And in the scope of the trillions of dollars spent in the effort, that makes for some pretty expensive school supplies.  But, they at least got them, so when I think of my time there, I'll try to focus on this.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.