Afghanistan Papers: U.S. officials acted as colonial overlords

This is part one of a three-part series on the Afghanistan Papers. Read part 2 here and part 3 here

In December 2019, amid the din of impeachment, and with the United States in peace talks with the Taliban, The Washington Post released a six-part series of internal government reports titled “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.” It is an exposé revealing persistent lies to the public regarding the conflict (Part I), unfocused and ever-shifting strategies (Part II), the failure to “nation-build” in Afghanistan despite vast monetary expenditures (Part III), rampant corruption in the country (Part IV), the inability for U.S. and aligned forces to train their Afghan security force replacements (Part V), and the explosion of the opium industry since the beginning of the war (Part VI). 

With the exception of the more than century-long wars against Indigenous peoples, the Afghanistan War is the United States’ lengthiest armed conflict (in excess of 18 years, so far). The war, like the other Post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, has differed from many previous conflicts in that, after so many years, it barely occupies a place in the discourse and consciousness in the United States. While the selling of and opening salvos of these conflicts enjoyed robust media coverage and outbursts of jingoism, the profound lack of expected buy-in from the general public has pushed the wars to the back pages of newspapers and rarely are discussed on 24-hour news outlets.

According to The Washington Post, the report originates from “a confidential trove of government documents … 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 They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials … The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.” The documents themselves largely come from an internal review by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), later released as a “Lessons Learned” report by the agency. 

Participants in this review spoke freely on the assumption that their names and comments would never be published publicly. The series name hearkens back to the “Pentagon Papers,” a 1971 New York Times report which similarly exposed government lies and manipulations with regard to the Vietnam War.

Imperial arrogance on full display

Parts I and II of the report reveal tremendous dysfunction, lack of coherent strategy and, above all else, hubris from the commanders in chief (Bush, Obama, Trump) down through the commanders of the forces in Afghanistan. All the while, presidential administrations and high-level commanders repeatedly misled the public, overstating the “progress” made (always “progress”) on whatever objectives they claimed as the focus at the time. Far from being able to actually “win” the war, there has never been a clear definition as to what winning the war would even mean. 

Originally sold to the public as a revenge mission following the events of September 11, 2001, most people in the United States and military personnel believed the mission was to bring Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda to justice. But the report notes that, “as the war dragged on, the goals and mission kept changing and a lack of faith in the U.S. strategy took root” while wrangling between using “the war to turn Afghanistan into a democracy…,” transform Afghan culture and elevate women’s rights…,” or “to reshape the regional balance of power.”

Elsewhere, a state department official said “our policy was to create a strong central government” while three-star general Douglas Lute remarked “we stated our goal is to establish a ‘flourishing market economy.’” Regardless, whatever the goals, the policy goals in Afghanistan were always the morphing preferences of Washington and not based upon the needs, consult or desires of the Afghan people.

Speaking to Liberation News, Jovanni Reyes, a U.S. Army medic from 1993-2007, observed the self-serving nature of commanders illustrated in “The Afghanistan Papers:” 

“Officials were putting career, their face, and their egos ahead of what was actually going on. How they actually lie to Congress, lie to the public, and keep that lie going because they didn’t want to be the officers who come out and say we’re being defeated here or this fight is lost. They didn’t want to do that, so they’d rather prolong it. That’s one of the things that was in the Pentagon Papers. Johnson knew that the fight was lost, but he chose to prolong it. He didn’t want to be the president that lost in Vietnam. That’s routine. It’s common.”

Similarly, in Parts III-V, the documents further reveal the extreme chauvinism and arrogance U.S. policy makers brought with them to Afghanistan. With limited exceptions, most of the U.S. military and government figures interviewed bemoan the corruption of Afghans or the perceived double-game of Pakistan.

There is only one reference to how Afghanistan represents a U.S. conflict dating back to 1979, when the United States supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan via Operation Cyclone with the explicit purpose of dragging the Soviet Union into a quagmire. Ambassador Ryan Crocker repeats a statement by Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s Intelligence Chief: ”One day you’ll be gone again, it’ll be like Afghanistan the first time, you’ll be done with us, but we’re still going to be here because we can’t actually move the country” 

Part III in particular, titled ‘How U.S. Efforts to Rebuild Afghanistan Backfired,’ illustrates Washington’s dictatorial attitude and hostility to Afghan self-determination, even from those it trusted within the country. 

Meanwhile, The Washington Post shows its complicity in making excuses for this abject failure. National Security Adviser under Bush, Stephen Hadley remarks, “We just don’t have a post-conflict stabilization model that works… I don’t have any confidence that if we did it again, we would do any better.”  Yet  somehow The Washington Post shortly after still writes “no nation needed more building than Afghanistan. Desperately poor, it had been consumed by continuous warfare since 1979, when it was invaded by another superpower, the Soviet Union” without mentioning the United States’ destabilizing role in that invasion. 

Confusingly, The Post also writes, “several U.S. officials told government interviewers it quickly became apparent that people who would make up the Afghan ruling class were too set in their ways to change” before delivering the quotes to illustrate the point:

Rather than the report’s diagnosis, these comments better describe an invading force which is too set in its own ways to allow Afghans to determine their method of government or economic system. The United States even had a president picked out for the newly “free” country.

This is part one of a three-part series on the Afghanistan Papers.

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