The Washington Post last week published a series, “The Afghanistan Papers,” that made the case that U.S. officials consistently lied about the prospects for success in Afghanistan and deliberately misled the public. As someone with an intimate knowledge of the effort described in the reporting, there is a recurring line I find particularly problematic: that officials hid “unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” That was not the problem. The problem was that for so long many officials believed that the war was winnable.
I have been working on Afghanistan since before the war even started, in different capacities for different organizations since the mid-1990s. I have been involved enough to know almost everyone cited in the papers and have been interviewed for more than one of the SIGAR reports that are the basis of the Post’s expose.
What We Already Knew
The “Afghanistan Papers” are not the “secret history” the Post says they are. What struck me as I read them, was how drearily familiar it all was. In 2014, when SIGAR’s lessons-learned project began, I was the director of USIP’s Afghanistan program. We had numerous events and publications describing critically what was going wrong in Afghanistan. Our events featured many of the people cited in the “Afghanistan Papers” saying many of the same things they supposedly said “in secret.” In March 2015, we hosted a lessons-learned symposium that included some of those quoted in the Washington Post report. USIP published a study in 2016 based on the symposium that highlighted many of the issues revealed by the Post four years later.
The Post quotes Shahmahmood Miakhel, who at the time was USIP’s country director in Kabul and is now the governor of Nangahar province. Miakhel describes an encounter with tribal elders who had gathered in Kabul. He asked how it was possible that security forces could not defeat the Taliban when they generally outnumbered them six to one in the area. The elders responded that the government troops were not defending the people but selling their weapons and fuel. This highlighted both the problem of government corruption and the ineffectiveness of state security forces—an important point, but hardly a secret. In a Foreign Policy article in 2013, published four years before this interview, Miakhel wrote exactly the same thing.
There are many more examples of people telling SIGAR in private what they had already said in public. The Washington Post could have written an almost identical story using open source material. What the “Afghanistan Papers” describe is not a concerted attempt by Washington insiders to coordinate a set of lies to the public but a rehashing of countless policy disagreements that took place behind the scenes. But that is how policy is made: the best arguments are put forward, and ultimately someone has to decide how to proceed. Then once the decision is made and the policy is implemented, the rosiest picture is presented.
To take one instructive example: In 2009, when the surge was being hotly debated within the Obama administration, then Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was a powerful dissenting voice. But he does not appear in the Washington Post’s reporting. From Kabul, Eikenberry argued in a cable that President Karzai was an unreliable partner on whom the vast resources of the surge would be wasted. Eikenberry lost the debate—the surge happened with all of the unfortunate consequences documented by the Washington Post—but arguably was right in retrospect. During the debate on the surge his cable was leaked, seriously undermining his relationship with Karzai. That is one reason why in diplomacy one does not always say in public what one believes in private. Incidentally, Eikenberry gave an insightful keynote address at USIP’s 2015 lessons-learned event and wrote about his criticisms of the U.S. counterinsurgency effort in a 2013 Foreign Affairs article.
We Didn’t Understand Afghanistan
Our policy in Afghanistan was based on the reasonable presumption that only a stable Afghanistan could ensure an unthreatening Afghanistan, and stability could only be achieved through an effective and legitimate government. Either we had to work with existing political elites or risk instability by ignoring them or trying to undermine them. At dawn on September 11, 2001, Afghanistan was among the least understood countries by the State Department and one of the least important. Within hours it had become the most important but still the least understood. At the beginning we had to take decisions based on very limited knowledge. Later we were trapped by these decisions. If we had cut our losses and left Afghanistan much earlier, the country would have remained a safe haven for terrorists.
So, we stayed, carried out a policy review, tried to identify and correct our mistakes, and hoped that this time the policy would work. I was guilty of that as well. Others, for example nine former U.S. ambassadors to Kabul, continue to believe that even if the war is not winnable it is still worth fighting.
One of the reasons it has been so hard to leave Afghanistan is because of the generation of young Afghans who want and have worked for the kind of country and society we and they have tried to build. Unfortunately, an Afghanistan that results from a political deal with the Taliban is unlikely to be that sort of country in the short term. But the cost of the current war is too high, in terms of resources, foregone opportunities, and, above all, lives. A negotiated and responsible withdrawal that leaves behind a stable Afghanistan that can resolve its internal conflicts without violence remains the best option.
What should we take from all of this? Among other things, this underscores the need for shared, coherent, government-wide strategies for addressing complex challenges—we never had that for Afghanistan. The problem was not deceit or supposedly “unmistakable evidence” that the war cannot be won being ignored. What emerges from the “Afghanistan Papers” is a picture of government institutions that are ill-suited for nation-building but, once committed to it for reasons of perceived vital national interest, are incapable of recognizing and addressing their unsuitability. Our military is not a state-building force. Our aid legislation often incentivizes wasteful spending. Our interagency decision-making process is frequently not strategic. Our legislative institutions can encourage the over-simplification of thorny issues. These ingrained, flawed features of our political system seem to me to be a much more fundamental issue in this age of global instability. The real problem is not that bureaucrats and politicians lied to the public, but that the institutional incentives of our foreign policy often encouraged them to lie to themselves.