The Afghanistan Papers: How the U.S. tried (and failed) to set up a stable puppet regime

This is part two of a three-part series on the Afghanistan Papers. Read Part 1 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 They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials … The Post won release of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.

Setting up a puppet government

The Washington Post reports in Part III, “US Leaders had a potential Afghan ruler in mind. Hamid Karzai, a tribal leader from southern Afghanistan, belonged to the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Perhaps more importantly, Karzai spoke polished English and was a CIA asset… At first, to American eyes, the new system of government led by Karzai worked. In 2004, after serving as interim leader, Karzai was elected president in Afghanistan’s first national democratic election.” As Part III and Part IV play out, however, the warm relationship between Karzai and the de facto dictators of his country, the United States, did not last. 

A lot of ink is spilled in the corporate media regarding the shock, anger or disappointment that the chosen puppet leader of a country who arrived in that position due to his proximity to the invading force, would turn out to be corrupt. However, it was not Karzai’s corruption which weakened his influence with U.S. officials, but rather that he gradually ceased operating as a puppet to the degree Washington desired due to the deteriorating military situation.

And if the United States was going to buy battlefield allies (warlord-led proxy militias), install their guy as president (Karzai), and shape the economy to their liking (“flourishing free-market economy”), they thought they may as well buy the constitution they want too. An unnamed U.S. official in Kabul said: “The perception that was started in that period: If you were going to vote for a position that [Washington] favored, you’d be stupid to not get a package [bribe] for doing it,

Throughout “The Afghanistan Papers” the SIGAR interviewees range between being perplexed, frustrated or (in hindsight) understanding that U.S. actions and dictates in Afghanistan did not turn out as rosy as expected. Without a doubt, many seem saddened by the tremendous loss of life and treasure which it wrought upon the people of the United States. According to the report, 2,300 U.S. military personnel, 3,814 U.S. contractors, 1,145 NATO and coalition forces, 424 aid workers and 67 journalists and media workers lost their lives in 18 years of conflict. 

War makers shift the blame for their failed occupation

Conversely, very little of empathy is conveyed in the reports for Afghans. More on display is a paternalistic attitude regarding Afghans as ungrateful for U.S. sacrifice and too backwards to have nice things. Part V of the report is titled “U.S. military trainers say Afghan security forces were incompetent and unmotivated, according to confidential reports,” but most of this section depicts the United States, yet again, dealing with blowback from their own short term schemes to solve problems, usually by throwing money at it. In fact, retired Lieutenant Colonel Scott Man stated, “If you use surrogates or take shortcuts, you get what you pay forYou get unaccountable militias that prey on the population… you have to commit to long-term presence and go at the pace of a population that trusts no one.” 

Elsewhere, advisor to the Afghan Interior Ministry, Shahmahmood Miakhel illustrated this point from the perspective of Afghans: “I asked the elders that ok the government is not protecting you, but you are about 30,000 people in the district. If you don’t like Taliban then you must fight against them. Their response was that we don’t want this corrupt government to come and we don’t want Taliban either, so we are waiting to see who is going to win.” 

Ryan Keen (Ohio National Guard Tanker/Infantryman 2002-2008), told Liberation News: “The most important thing, I think for the whole report is the Afghan people, the Afghan citizens. It would be interesting to have an all-encompassing review, for Afghan citizens to give their side of the story about how American imperialism has affected their daily lives.” And Jovanni Reyes also told Liberation News: “The burden on the Afghans, it’s not even mentioned, it’s not even worth mentioning. That’s unfortunate too and it’s a tell of the national supremacy of this country, which is akin to white supremacy.”

Far surpassing U.S. casualties, the report found that 64,124 Afghan security forces, 43,074 Afghan civilians, 42,100 Taliban and other insurgent fighters perished as well. Assuming those numbers are remotely correct, Afghans have endured over 95 percent of the death toll in this war which they did not choose for a system of government they did not get to determine. Yet repeatedly through the reports, even as they admit some responsibility in events, those interviewed by SIGAR project upon the Afghan people their own crimes. 

Duplicity, incompetence, short-sightedness, lack of buy-in, skimming money at every level and so much more is how the United States marched into war in Afghanistan and how they have conducted themselves in the conflict ever since.


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