The Washington Post this week released a blockbuster expose called “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.”
After a lengthy legal battle, the Post got hold of documents compiled by SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. John Sopko, the Inspector General, interviewed over 600 people connected to the Afghan war effort to prepare a series of reports called “Lessons Learned,” which purported to explain what had gone wrong since America’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
The “Lessons Learned” reports were critical, but “left out the harshest and most frank criticisms from the interviews,” the Post wrote.
The Post sued to get hold of the underlying material, finally obtained it, and is now releasing its contents.
The United States spent a trillion dollars prosecuting an occupation that has to date claimed 157,000 lives, yet our presence in Afghanistan has been an abject failure.
The major revelation of the Afghan papers is a rehash of a story Americans became familiar with in the Sixties and Seventies, when leaders covered up our policy failures in Vietnam by creating bogus metrics for success.
In Vietnam, the primary “objective” was the protection of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government (not only from North Vietnamese, but from South Vietnamese rebels). Because it was not easy to measure how much the presence of the American military was helping, the Department of Defense infamously decided to measure success in the number of enemy dead, using “body counts, “truck kills,” “kill ratios” and other such “score cards.”
Defining progress in kills a) made us seem like insane ghouls to the human beings on the ground whose “hearts and minds” we were supposed to be winning, and b) led us to think we were succeeding when we were not.
Leaders then worsened the problem by “encouraging data,” i.e. inflating their numbers. We created dumb metrics, then faked the metrics. Fans of the show The Wire will recognize a phenomenon also seen in police departments: “juking the stats.”
Military leaders would send cheery reports home, as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara did in 1962 when he said, “I am delighted with the progress made since my last trip.”
The Afghan papers discovered the same problem. American officials insisted throughout we were doing well:
2008: Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser says, “We’re making some steady progress.” 2011: General David Petraeus says, “The past eight months have seen important but hard-fought progress.” 2012: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta insists, “The campaign… has made significant progress.” And so on.
The major architect of the initial Afghan war effort was Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a former electronics company CEO who had the same quantitative corporate approach to war.
He encouraged officials to stress statistics. Speed on Afghan roads was up 300 percent! 19,000 Afghan women had been trained in “improved poultry management”! 14 million head of cattle have been “vaccinated or treated”!
Meanwhile senior officials were desperately trying to come with a way to measure progress in a country beset with factionalism and guerilla combat. As one senior National Security Council official told SIGAR:
“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 metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”
This was the same game as Vietnam: a complex human equation that American leaders halfway around the world wanted to boil down to numbers they understood.
We invaded Afghanistan without the most basic understanding of who its people were, who was or was not on our “side,” or whether the enemy was al-Qaeda or the Taliban or even the warlords our own CIA was funding.
In the report, an unnamed “former adviser to the Army Special Forces explained the futility of trying to explain Afghanistan to American leaders:
They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live… At first, they just kept asking: ‘But who are the bad guys, where are they?’ ”
The Afghan Papers reveal a flawed strategy we keep repeating all over the world, from Vietnam to the Middle East to the ex-communist countries of Eastern Europe.
We enter a country in triumph, either after an invasion or following an “invitation” by a new “democratic” government. To preserve our territorial gains, be they political or military, we end up supporting a cadre of America-friendly local politicians, with money, arms, training, and political support.
If and when these local politicians prove corrupt — as was the case with Afghanistan, where the government of Hamid Karzai “self-organized into a kleptocracy” — it inevitably inspires anti-American sentiment, and helps rebels with recruitment.
This in turn forces us to spend more money on weapons and training, which in turn leads to more combat and instability and repression, leading to more discontent and more violence, and so on.
This stupidity cycle is the hallmark of American foreign policy. We enter places we don’t understand, create anti-American sentiment with our presence and through the backing of corrupt locals, then are forced to create phony success metrics to cover up the worsening failure.
Absent better ways to measure non-existent success, spending money and lives itself becomes the measure, as it proves you’re doing something, even if you don’t know what.
Mirroring a phenomenon also seen in Iraq, we ended up hurling ungodly sums at the region in a desperate effort to do something. The Post describes an incredible example:
One unidentified contractor told government interviewers he was expected to dole out $3 million daily for projects in a single Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county. He once asked a visiting congressman whether the lawmaker could responsibly spend that kind of money back home: “He said hell no. ‘Well, sir, that’s what you just obligated us to spend and I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.’ ”
You will end up spending $3 million a day to get nothing done if you have no clear mission nor any understanding of how to define one. In Afghanistan all of this was exacerbated by massive cultural ignorance, which went hand in hand with a failure to understand how things would be received.
So for instance, the British tried to pay farmers to destroy their opium crops, which naturally resulted in their growing more opium to be destroyed. The U.S. then tried to destroy opium fields without compensation, which infuriated farmers and led to defections to the Taliban. We ended up spending $9 billion on opium eradication and for our trouble massively increased opium production: Afghanistan is now where 82 percent of the world’s opium is grown.
Similarly, Americans have been trying for over two decades to build a strong central government in a country that has no history of central government. As one State Department official put it, “The timeframe for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn’t have.”
As one official put it, the only real measure of success is violent death. If there are many, you’re failing. If there are few, you’re succeeding.
There were 3,804 civilian deaths in Afghanistan last year, the most in a year since the U.N. began counting over a decade ago, which is proof that we’re not only not accomplishing anything, we’re making things worse. It’s a long, expensive, bloody trip backwards, with no end in sight.