Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: The Politics of the Afghanistan Papers

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“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” said one official. Another called the assessment shop, “more of a PR shop.” The revelations unearthed in the Washington Post’s release of 611 documents last week as part of “The Afghanistan Papers” are in many cases shocking. The trove — a combination of interview notes, memos, and emails — strongly suggests that the U.S. government systematically misled the American people about military, diplomatic, and economic progress in Afghanistan. The documents shine a spotlight on civilian and military leaders across two administrations who found themselves mired in a complex war without a viable strategy to win it. In a situation that harkens back to the outrage caused by the release of the Pentagon Papers, it appears that civilian and military leaders alike regularly manipulated measures of progress in order to maintain public support for a war they knew they could not win.

While some have challenged the Post’s assertion that the officials deliberately lied, it is apparent from the documents that many officials in power attempted to “spin” a spiraling Afghanistan conflict for the public in ways that many find ethically questionable. The reason why they did this, however, has little to do with malintent or morality. Instead, these senior officials simply responded to institutional pressures with the tools they had.




And while the revelations of the papers may seem old hat to those who have been following the conflict closely, their implications should not be overlooked. The documents — and the legacy of the war in Afghanistan more broadly — will likely have an impact on public trust in government, the military, and the political-military relationship that is so crucial to the decision-making process. The only solution, then, is more accountability and transparency in real time.

How Did We Get Here?

Despite efforts by some to paint officials in the Bush and Obama administrations as deliberate liars who carelessly sacrificed thousands of lives, Americans should instead be asking what led dedicated public servants to mislead the public so systematically over 18 years. In fact, the U.S. government has every incentive to paint a better picture of progress than is the reality on the ground.

First, the research shows that success matters in maintaining public support. And not just overall success, but smaller measures of progress in war. While in conventional wars progress is easy to distinguish in terms of territory controlled, asymmetric wars do not come with bright lines on the battlefield. My own research suggests that when the voters can’t identify clearly articulated measures of progress — as in a counter-insurgency campaign where winning means changing hearts and minds — they rely on casualty counts.

In Vietnam, the Johnson administration attempted to coopt this tendency by publishing “body counts” to show that the government was killing enemy combatants faster than they could kill Americans. Under Bush, Obama, and into the Trump administration, it is clear that military and civilian leaders from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Gen. David Petraeus sought to divert attention away from casualties by developing metrics that minimized loss and measures that favored U.S. relative strengths. One military officer remarked to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, “As assessments were being passed up… some of our division staff members would ask, ‘Can we find a little more green in there?’”

Senior officials can do this because the government has information advantages during war, and especially in asymmetric conflicts. The government and its leaders have access to classified information and direct knowledge of battlefield operations that journalists and the public can’t know. What’s more, when progress in war isn’t easily tracked, metrics themselves become subjective and easily politicized. As a result, the government is able to control the initial narrative, which is important to shaping an overall narrative of the war.

These incentives aren’t just limited to politicians, however. Senior military officers have strong structural incentives to politicize military operations and reporting as well. Promotions are based upon achievement, success, and progress. New research in psychology shows that those who give negative feedback are more likely to be marginalized in future interactions — leading to strong incentives to present information with a positive spin.

These pathologies are well known and well documented. Indeed, to many who have been closely observing the war, the Afghanistan Papers reveal very little that wasn’t already established. Leaders systematically proclaimed assessments of the war that were different from the actual situation on the ground. Reconstruction efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan were wasteful, highly responsive to bureaucratic pressures, and in many cases ended up actually increasing violence. And despite over a decade’s worth of theory, research, and experimentation on counter-insurgency strategy, the only factor that we know has an impact on national violence levels is the one option that was politically impossible: a major commitment of forces willing to use coercive violence that could establish and maintain security guarantees over time.

What Does It Mean?

This is not to say that American citizens should let these officials off the hook, however, or that the release of the papers is meaningless. The cost of Afghanistan to the American public, the military, and the government writ large has been tremendous. Almost $1 trillion spent in federal money, over 2,300 lives lost and another 20,000 wounded, and two generations of Afghans destroyed is arguably too high a price to pay for a war it appears the country cannot win.

The full impact of the papers will be felt not in their immediate effect but — as in the Pentagon Papers before them — in their long-term effect on the relationship between society, political officials, and the military. While public trust in government remains near historic lows, public confidence in the military remains high. And while elites have been aware of the numerous problems in Afghanistan for years, a Pew survey taken last year reveals that less than half of Americans believed the U.S. had “mostly failed” in Afghanistan. Indeed, it actually appears that American views of Afghanistan have been becoming more, not less, positive over the last four years. While reality eventually catches up to the narrative, it has been slow in coming.

The revelation that both military and civilian leaders have not just been having trouble with the strategy, but deliberately obfuscating the realities of Afghanistan could therefore have significant impacts on public support for the conflict, public perceptions of government, and public confidence in elected officials. And while views about the war are traditionally filtered through a partisan lens, the cross-party, cross-agency scope of the papers suggests that public confidence should decline across the board.

More critically, the report may diminish public confidence in the military. While Kori Schake and Jim Mattis found in their 2013 survey that just 26 percent of Americans believed the military gave an accurate picture of the war in Afghanistan, public confidence in the institution puzzlingly remains at a virtually all-time high. Revelations of deliberate deception, incompetence, or partisanship could shatter the social pressure toward expressing confidence in the military. Moreover, most research finds that a military that is seen as political and/or partisan also coincides with decreased public confidence and credibility. If the public loses confidence in the military or begins to see it as a political or partisan instrument, this could have significant and negative effects on the military’s relationship with the society it is tasked with protecting.

Where Do We Go from Here?

It would be easy to declare that, given the structural incentives to mislead the public and the potential problems associated with such deception, the United States should simply no longer engage in nation-building projects. Indeed, this is exactly what the U.S. Army attempted to do as it exited the Vietnam era and moved on to AirLand Battle and the Powell Doctrine. Scholars see the same patterns today with a Department of Defense eager to switch over to great-power competition and investing in expensive, high-tech weapon platforms focused on multidomain joint operations.

But simply forgetting is a bad strategy no matter what battle you face. Afghanistan will not be the last counter-insurgency the United States fights, and the government as a whole must take pains to ensure that the kind of deception and mismanagement that occurred throughout the entirety of the war cannot be repeated in the next conflict — whether it be in cyber, space, or remote villages in the Hindu Kush. The SIGAR was right to conduct its “lessons learned” interviews — the problem was that the public never got the message.

Only the public can truly hold a president accountable for waging forever war. Institutions must be reformed to allow the public to exercise that control in an informed and timely manner. This means more transparency, more access, and more thorough, thoughtful discussion in public about the merits and expected costs of conflict. Anything less invites yet another 18-year lie.




Carrie A. Lee is the course director of National Security Decision-Making at the U.S. Air War College, where she teaches on civil-military relations, decision-making, and global security. Her book manuscript, The Politics of Military Operations, examines how leaders influence military operations in response to domestic political pressure. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Air War College, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.

Image: (photo by R. D. Ward)