The Morning Jolt

National Security & Defense

Unveiling the ‘Pentagon Papers’ of the War in Afghanistan

Sgt. William Olas Bee, a U.S. Marine from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, has a close call after Taliban fighters opened fire near Garmser in Helmand Province of Afghanistan May 18, 2008 (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Hey, did you enjoy last week’s burst of good news? Well, sorry, today brings none of that. Instead, we’ve got grim revelations about the effectiveness of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan; the country’s still evenly divided on impeachment; Chairman Nadler just tosses out his old views on impeachment from 1998; and a question of whether contempt is a side-dish or the main course in what political parties serve up these days.

Off the Record, U.S. Officials Acknowledge our Strategy in Afghanistan Is “Fatally flawed”

For the past few years, I’ve periodically checked in with the office of the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction, as several times a year they unveil a massive, in-depth review or study that generally uncovers bad news: major problems in the Afghan government’s ability to pay for basic services, the Afghan military’s ability to operate and maintain U.S.-provided equipment, efforts to control opium production and the drug trade, and any ability to utilize the country’s natural resources. Over in that faraway, deeply troubled country, the American taxpayer has paid for soybeans that won’t growweapons that Afghan military forces lost, a $2.9 million farming-storage facility that was never used, and a $456,000 training center that “disintegrated” within four months. An Afghan power plant that the U.S. helped build was operating at just 2.2 percent of power production capacity. The SIGAR office round that significant portion of the U.S.-built buildings for the Afghan military are more flammable than international building codes permit. (Hey, why would you need to worry about burning buildings in a country at war, right?)

Inspector General John Sopko and his staff operate separately from the Pentagon and have the authority to review and audit any Afghan reconstruction activity performed by the U.S. government — the Department of Defense, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development and its contractors. Whenever possible, SIGAR staff go into Afghanistan, but because of the security situation, they can’t always get access to all the sites they want. But year after year, they’ve uncovered waste, mismanagement, corruption, and all kinds of problems that no one wants to see, whatever their view of the war in Afghanistan.

Sopko has been attempting to sound the alarm on these problems for years. In 2016, he gave a largely-ignored speech, declaring, “Afghanistan has had the lead responsibility for its own security for more than a year now, and is struggling with a four-season insurgency, high attrition, and capability challenges. Heavy losses in the poppy-growing province of Helmand have required rebuilding an Afghan army corps and replacing its commander and some other officers as a result, a U.S. general said, of ‘a combination of incompetence, corruption, and ineffectiveness.’”

Today, the Washington Post unveils the “Pentagon Papers” of our era, unveiling confidential SIGAR reports that show, “with most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation.” The Post had to go through a lengthy legal battle with the SIGAR office to get the documents released, as the inspector general’s office contended they were privileged and that those who spoke freely about the shortcomings and failures of U.S. policy were entitled to whistleblower protections.

Judging from the report, the more the United States tried to fix Afghanistan, the more they complicated and worsened existing problems.

During the peak of the fighting, from 2009 to 2012, U.S. lawmakers and military commanders believed the more they spent on schools, bridges, canals and other civil-works projects, the faster security would improve. Aid workers told government interviewers it was a colossal misjudgment, akin to pumping kerosene on a dying campfire just to keep the flame alive . . .

In public, U.S. officials insisted they had no tolerance for graft. But in the Lessons Learned interviews, they admitted the U.S. government looked the other way while Afghan power brokers — allies of Washington — plundered with impunity.

This is the odd sort of bombshell scoop that tells us something we already knew, or likely suspected. The people running our military efforts in Afghanistan are not stupid. They see what we see, and a whole lot more. Each year, we hoped that this would be the year that our efforts in that misbegotten country would “turn the corner,” and every year ended with the country in more or less the same mostly-bad situation it started. The expectations got ratcheted down a little more, hoping that the Afghan government would get a little closer to something resembling a functioning state that would not collapse the moment we left.

It is not for lack of trying or lack of studying and attempting to adapt our efforts to be effective within the local culture. In 2010, the Pentagon started assembling Cultural Support Teams, a secret pilot program to insert women alongside Special Operations soldiers battling in Afghanistan. The Army reasoned that women could play a unique role on Special Ops teams: accompanying their male colleagues on raids and, while those soldiers were searching for insurgents, questioning the mothers, sisters, daughters and wives living at the compound.

The United States has allocated more than $133 billion to build up Afghanistan — more than it spent, adjusted for inflation, to revive the whole of Western Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II. Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures.

To the extent these SIGAR reports get noticed, they will be cited as a piece of evidence in the isolationist-interventionist policy battle. Those who want to withdraw from Afghanistan will point to this report and say that not only have our efforts not worked, but advocates in multiple administrations have lied to the public about how well the efforts were working. Interventionists will need to grapple with these difficult truths. Maybe we will witness the end to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan in the coming years. But we had better be ready for what follows us; based upon the history of Afghanistan, it will be ugly, and it could well end up trading one threat to Americans for another.

The stakes are high, and our leaders tend to debate these life-or-death decisions like morons. You’re not going to find good discussion of our options in Afghanistan in a Democratic presidential primary debate. In the October debate, Pete Buttigieg declared, “if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Afghanistan, from Afghanistan, it’s that the best way not to be caught up in endless war is to avoid starting one in the first place.” Did the U.S. start the war in Afghanistan? Or did al-Qaeda and the Taliban start it with 9/11?

Impeachment, the new Super-Censure

Imagine, for a moment, that the Democrats held 65 seats in the U.S. Senate, and would only need to persuade two GOP senators to remove President Trump from office. In those circumstances, we would all be riveted by every minor twist and turn in the impeachment process. All other news developments would take a metaphorical backseat, even the Democratic presidential primary. Television ratings would be higher. You would probably see loud and passionate protests for and against impeachment on Capitol Hill. Everyone in Congress and the administration would know that, to quote “Hamilton,” history had its eyes on them.

Right now, in the FiveThirtyEight aggregation of polling on impeachment, 46.8 percent support removing the president, and 44.1 percent oppose removal.* That suggests that in most polls, about nine or ten percent don’t have an opinion, or don’t know what they think. If removing President Trump from office was a realistic possibility, do you think so many people would have no opinion? Would the White House’s strategy still be “insist the whole process is illegitimate and refuse to cooperate in any fashion”?

Because almost no one believes that 20 Senate Republicans will join 47 Senate Democrats to vote for removal, the current impeachment is going through the motions. It’s supposed to be historic and dramatic but at this point the biggest question is whether removal gets 50 votes or more. (Most Senate Democrats, but maybe not Joe Manchin of West Virginia; maybe they get Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, so . . . 48 votes?) This is all about imposing a historically rare (but slowly getting less rare) symbolic rebuke to the president.

After having one attempt to impeach a president in the first 184 years of its existence, the United States has had three in 45 years. Perhaps starting with Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the process stopped being primarily an effort to remove the president and started becoming primarily a way to demonstrate the House’s vehement disapproval of a president’s actions. It’s a super-censure. It’s a small miracle that the Democratic House elected in 2006 did not attempt to impeach President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and that the GOP House elected in 2010 did not try to impeach President Obama and Vice President Biden. Someday, there will be another Republican-controlled House and a Democratic president, and that GOP House will strongly disapprove of some presidential action, contending it qualifies as a “high crime or misdemeanor.” And impeachment will become just another tool in the toolbox of partisan warfare.

*You’ll notice impeachment advocates will often say “the public favors removal,” or “public support for removing Trump from office has never been higher” or some other careful wording. “Support for impeachment is below 50 percent” is not quite as persuasive.

Chairman Nadler’s Convenient New View on the Need for Consensus

Yesterday on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd’s guest was House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Todd pointed out that 21 years ago this month, when Bill Clinton was being impeached, Nadler said:

“Impeaching a president, when you have not got a broad consensus of the American people, a broad agreement of almost everybody that this fellow has got to go, because he’s a clear and present danger to our liberty and to our constitution, without that, you cannot and should not impeach a president. Because to do so is to call into question the legitimacy of all of our political institutions.”

Obviously, Nadler no longer feels that impeaching a president without a broad agreement of almost everybody” “calls into question the legitimacy of all of our political institutions.” Confronted with the fact that he’s not meeting his old standard for impeachment, Nadler invents a new one, telling Todd “the polling now shows that 70 percent of the American people are convinced that the president has done something very wrong.”

See? Impeachment is now just a super-censure with a lot of live television coverage.

ADDENDA: Those Christmas shopping days are disappearing fast! Buy those presents while you’re still sure they’ll get delivered in time!

. . . Tulsi Gabbard, last week: “You’re never going to be able to have a dialogue . . . win support from people who you treat like garbage, who you disrespect, who you call names, who you call deplorables. But how do you expect to lead as the president of every single American in this country when you’ve thrown half of them away?”

Treating half of the country like garbage, with disrespect and name-calling, is pretty much what each party stands for right now. The Democrats’ utter contempt for “deplorables” is well-demonstrated, and it’s not like the Republican Party is brimming with good cheer for people who live in cities regardless of their views, everyone involved in colleges and universities regardless of their views, trial lawyers regardless of their views, federal government employees regardless of their views, people who make a living in the arts regardless of their views, and arguably even legal immigrants, as increasing numbers of Republicans tell pollsters that “if the United States is too open to people from around the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation.”

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