There Was No “Secret War on the Truth” in Afghanistan
It’s easy to criticize the American effort in Afghanistan. Among its many shortcomings, Washington has vacillated across numerous ineffective strategies, failed to fully account for the geopolitical constraints of the conflict, and consistently prioritized expediency over effectiveness. But did U.S. officials pervasively lie to the American people about the war? The Washington Post seems to think so, as evidenced by the first sentence of its “Afghanistan Papers” articles published last week: “A confidential trove of government documents … reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” It’s no surprise that the series has gotten a fair amount of attention.
But is that claim accurate? Unfortunately, it’s not. The story the Post is telling is neither wholly true, nor supported by the documents it published. Instead, the Post’s reporting puts sensationalist spin on information that was not classified, has already been described in publicly-available reports, only covers a fraction of the 18 years of the war, and falls far short of convincingly demonstrating a campaign of deliberate lies and deceit.
The Government Has Published Numerous Reports Critical of the Afghanistan War
The documents the Post was able to obtain are transcripts and notes from interviews conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known more commonly as SIGAR. These interviews were conducted as part of SIGAR’s “lessons learned” program, whose goal is “to identify and preserve lessons from the U.S. reconstruction experience in Afghanistan, and to make recommendations to Congress and executive agencies on ways to improve [U.S.] efforts in current and future operations.” Importantly, the interviews the Post obtained were conducted between 2014 and 2018, in many cases years after the people being interviewed left their positions of authority. In addition, they were conducted off the record, not for attribution, and at the unclassified (as opposed to confidential, secret, or top secret) level. And, they were used as data for the production of the eight lessons learned reports that SIGAR has already published and are available via its website.
Since 2007, I have in some form or fashion been involved in assessing progress in the war in Afghanistan — whether as an analyst embedded within the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Central Command, or as the leader of various independent assessments of Afghan security forces and the United States’ overall strategy for the war. Throughout this time, I have had the unique experience of having been interviewed by SIGAR several times for its lessons learned projects, and I have conducted exactly these types of interviews for them in support of one of their lessons learned efforts. I can therefore say with confidence that these interviews contain a mix of three types of information: interviewees’ recollections of historical actions and events (which may or may not exactly correspond to what actually happened); their opinions on what they saw, heard, sensed, and did (or didn’t) do while in their position of authority; and reflections on their own experience (which are often delivered in an air of catharsis). Because these interviews are conducted well after the fact and are off the record, interviewees are often especially candid and willing to explore their own failures and those of others, with the understanding that doing so is for the greater and future good of American policy and security, and will not directly be made public.
Thus, it is no surprise that what the Post got was a lot of post-factual reminiscing and salacious quotes, which it has been using for effect. But are its headlines accurately representing the information it has? The answer is no. Take, for example, its claim that U.S. officials have consistently lied to the American people about progress in the Afghanistan war. By my count, in the Post’s article specifically laying out this claim, it includes quotes from 17 interviewees. In a newspaper article that may seem like a lot, but in fact it is a mere 3 percent of the total number of documents it has. While some of the quotes the Post uses are salacious in nature, are they truly representative of a consistent theme of lying throughout the documents the Post received, or are they the views of a fringe group? To accurately back up their claim of a campaign of deliberate deceit, some form of thematic and textual analysis would need to be done to demonstrate the pervasiveness of this theme. The Post’s article makes no attempt to do so.
Further, to convincingly demonstrate a pattern of willful lies and deceit, one would need to show that U.S. authorities were making such decisions in real time. Policy memos, transcripts of official U.S. policy discussions, and sensitive communications among senior authorities (the vast majority of which would be classified) would be needed as evidence of such decisions. Yet, the Post has only one data source for this — a number of memos it obtained from Donald Rumsfeld’s archives. True, these memos are from the Secretary of Defense and they do call into question the wisdom of some decisions made during his tenure. But they also cover less than a third of the Afghanistan war (2001-2006) and they do not present a comprehensive picture of what was happening in other parts of the U.S. government (especially the White House). To convincingly paint a picture of the U.S. government as consistently and pervasively at “war with the truth” in Afghanistan, a much more representative trove of information would be needed.
The Afghanistan Papers are Not the Pentagon Papers
The Post seems to implicitly recognize this when it attempts to draw a comparison of the interviews it received to the infamous “Pentagon Papers.” This comparison is disingenuous, however, for three reasons. First, the Pentagon Papers consisted of far more information than what the Post has (they were 47 volumes of over 7,000 pages). Second, those papers consisted of analysis stemming from a comprehensive and representative set of internal memos and official policy documents from senior U.S. authorities that were captured in real time. And third, they were highly classified (at the level of top secret). What the Post has are interviews that were conducted after the fact, at an unclassified (though off the record) level, and were used as data for reports that are already available to the public.
Here again I will turn to my own experience. My personal observations during the roughly 12 years I have been working on assessments of the Afghanistan war are that U.S. officials have not generally engaged in a deliberate campaign of lies and deceit of the American public when it came to progress in the war. Rather, what I’ve observed is shifting (and often unclear or arguably unachievable) strategic and policy objectives combined with aggressive optimism and an overwhelming “can do” attitude on the part of U.S. government officials — especially within the military given its rigid hierarchy, and culture of following orders and vertical appeasement (as described here). In addition, the U.S. government — and particularly the Department of Defense — has consistently struggled with its own doctrine, processes, approaches, and “bureaucracy doing its thing” type challenges to assessing these non-conventional wars, as I have endeavored to show along with a host of other authors such as Ben Connable and Stephen Downes-Martin.
The combination of these factors has more often than not resulted in a situation in which U.S. officials were asked to provide their assessments of progress toward murky outcomes using primarily their own judgment. In real time, it is therefore not at all surprising that their assessments would typically follow the pattern of “progress having been made, with many challenges remaining.” It is also not surprising that in hindsight, many of these officials would recognize that their efforts accomplished less overall than they had hoped they would in real time. Does that make them liars? No. Does it mean they were delusional or professionally negligent? Some might argue so, while citing things like intelligence assessments as controverting evidence to these officials’ own assessments. In my view, however, the vast majority of these officials were not lying or delusional — they were aggressively pursuing objectives that were mostly incoherent or unachievable and doing their best to make sense of information that was, as a result, often conflicting or incoherent itself. As I often tell people who ask for my help with assessing progress, “if you don’t know where you’re going, it’s very hard to tell if you’ve gotten there, but movement in any direction will feel like you’re getting closer.”
Sometime in the future when the policy memos, intelligence products, and independent assessments are declassified and the full extent of the U.S. government’s internal deliberations are known publicly, the conclusion drawn by historians will be different than that drawn by the Post. While it is scintillating to read of allegedly-scandalous behavior on the part of U.S. officials in charge of various aspects of the war, the general and pervasive reality is far less conspiratorial — our inability to accurately assess and convey progress (or lack thereof) in the war was mostly a symptom of not having a clear and consistent vision of what we were doing and why, combined with an aggressively optimistic, “can do” culture within our implementing departments and agencies (the military especially) and an over-reliance on self-assessment. A key point here is that these aspects themselves are systemically problematic and deserving of deep analysis and introspection — exactly the kind that is evident in SIGAR’s lessons learned interviews and its already-published reports. Yet, rather than helping us address those issues, the Post’s reporting will make it harder to do this going forward. Now that everyone knows their interviews are likely to be made public and potentially used to make conspiratorial claims against them, the SIGAR lessons learned team will inevitably have curtailed access and candor from current and prior U.S. government officials going forward.
Americans Have Been Let Down, Not Lied To
I applaud efforts by the Post, SIGAR, and others to bring more of the policy discussions, decisions, and mistakes pertaining to the war in Afghanistan into the light. But as in any analysis, the conclusions drawn need to be rigorously justified by the data available. By this standard, the Post’s reporting has failed to deliver an accurate portrayal of the available information. It is further disappointing that the head of SIGAR, John Sopko, claimed on record to the Post that “the American people have constantly been lied to.” Through this statement, Sopko (who has been accused previously of “distorting the role of the inspector general” and of spinning facts to generate news stories), has significantly undermined his own lessons learned program — one that had been adhering to very rigorous analytic sourcing standards. The mission of that effort — to understand what the U.S. has done right and wrong in Afghanistan, in hopes of doing better in the future — remains valuable but is undercut by both the Post’s reporting and Sopko’s comments. I hope that both of these actors will engage in their own “lessons learned” reflections and come to the conclusion that there was no “secret war on the truth” and, as with everyone else associated with the war in Afghanistan, they have made mistakes that are worth recognizing and learning from.
Dr. Jonathan Schroden is a research program director whose work has focused on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency activities across much of the Middle East and South Asia. He has served as a strategic advisor to numerous military commands and civilian offices in, or focused on, Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his alone. You can find him on Twitter @jjschroden.