Newly revealed government documents show that senior U.S. officials painted an overly optimistic picture of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan that some officials said amounts to lying to the American public.
The more than 2,000 pages from a federal investigation examining what went wrong during the 18-year conflict in Afghanistan, the longest armed conflict in American history, contain candid observations from more 400 people close to the conflict expressing frustrations and doubts about the U.S. role in the region. The Washington Post obtained the documents following a three-year Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
“The American people have constantly been lied to,” said John Sopko, head of the agency conducting oversight on Afghanistan reconstruction, which conducted the interviews.
U.S. officials disagreed from the beginning regarding the purpose of the war, some saying it should result in a democratic government in Afghanistan, others pushing for cultural change, and others hoping it would shake up the power balance between Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and India.
“With the AfPak strategy there was a present under the Christmas tree for everyone,” an unidentified U.S. official told investigators in 2015. “By the time you were finished you had so many priorities and aspirations it was like no strategy at all.”
Three-star Army general Douglas Lute, a senior advisor to the Bush and Obama administrations on Afghanistan and Iraq, said the U.S. lacked “a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan” and “didn’t know what we were doing.”
“Who will say this was in vain?” Lute wondered. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
Meanwhile, officials said the U.S. government was consistently misleading the public on the situation, even going so far as to skew data, in order to convince voters that the war would be successful.
An unnamed National Security Council official said that the Obama White House pressured the Pentagon to produce statistics that would back up their public claims of progress, and manipulated statistics when they did not paint a sufficiently optimistic picture.
“It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture,” the senior NSC official told government interviewers in 2016. “The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”
The senior NSC official explained that Pentagon and White House officials at all levels developed convoluted explanations when confronted with clearly negative results such as increases in American casualties or suicide bombings.
“It was their explanations,” he said. “For example, attacks are getting worse? ‘That’s because there are more targets for them to fire at, so more attacks are a false indicator of instability.’ Then, three months later, attacks are still getting worse? ‘It’s because the Taliban are getting desperate, so it’s actually an indicator that we’re winning.’ ”
“And this went on and on for two reasons,” he continued, “to make everyone involved look good, and to make it look like the troops and resources were having the kind of effect where removing them would cause the country to deteriorate.”
More than 775,000 U.S. troops have been sent to Afghanistan since 2001, resulting in 2,300 deaths and and 20,589 soldiers wounded in action, according to the Defense Department.