U.S. government has misled public throughout Afghanistan deployment: report
Washington Post obtained thousands of pages of documents quoting officials over many years
The U.S. government, across three White House administrations, misled the public about failures in the war in Afghanistan, often suggesting success where it didn't exist, according to thousands of pages of documents obtained by the Washington Post.
The documents reveal deep frustrations about the U.S.'s conduct during the war in Afghanistan, including the ever-changing U.S. strategy, the struggles to develop an effective Afghan fighting force, and persistent failures to defeat the Taliban and combat corruption throughout the government.
"We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn't know what we were doing," Douglas Lute, a three-star army general who served as the White House's Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015.
The interviews were conducted as part of a Lessons Learned project by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction over the past several years. SIGAR has produced seven reports from the more than 400 interviews and several more are in the works. The Post sought and received raw interview data through the Freedom of Information Act and lawsuits.
The documents quote officials close to the 18-year war effort describing a campaign by the U.S. government to distort the grim reality of the war.
"Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible," Bob Crowley, an army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers, according to the Post. "Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone."
The Pentagon released a statement Monday saying there has been "no intent" by the department to mislead Congress or the public.
I'm glad this report is out, and I hope this becomes an eye-opener to the American people and that the U.S. government begins to change its attitude now toward Afghanistan.- Hamid Karzai, former Afghanistan president
U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) officials "have consistently briefed the progress and challenges associated with our efforts in Afghanistan, and DoD provides regular reports to Congress that highlight these challenges," said Lt.-Col. Thomas Campbell, a department spokesperson. "Most of the individuals interviewed spoke with the benefit of hindsight. Hindsight has also enabled the department to evaluate previous approaches and revise our strategy, as we did in 2017 with the launch of the president's South Asia strategy."
SIGAR has frequently been vocal about the war's failures in reports going back more than a decade, including extensive questions about vast waste in the nearly $1 trillion spent on the conflict.
The Post said John Sopko, head of SIGAR, acknowledged the documents show "the American people have constantly been lied to." SIGAR was created by Congress in 2008 to conduct audits and investigations into waste of government spending on the war in Afghanistan.
Gillibrand calls for new hearings
Democrats on Capitol Hill were quick to endorse the story's findings.
California congressman Ted Lieu tweeted: "The war in Afghanistan is an epic bipartisan failure. I have long called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that quagmire. Now it appears U.S. officials misled the American public about the war. It is time to leave Afghanistan. Now."
With today's new reporting about the Afghan War, one thing remains clear: <br><br>This conflict has lasted for nearly two decades, with thousands of lives lost and no end in sight.<br><br>We need fundamental reform to ensure that we don't embroil ourselves in another never ending war. <a href="https://t.co/gqT5ZLmt5T">pic.twitter.com/gqT5ZLmt5T</a>—@SenGillibrand
Ro Khanna, also serving in a California district in the House, said in a tweet that "775,000 of our troops deployed. 2,400 American lives lost. Over 20,000 Americans wounded. 38,000 civilians killed. Trillions spent. [Donald] Rumsfeld in 2003:
I have no visibility into who the bad guys are."'
New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of her chamber's armed services committee, called for new hearings in the wake of the report.
"The committee owes it to the American public to hold hearings to examine the questions raised by this reporting and provide clarity with respect to our strategy in Afghanistan, a clear definition of success, and an honest and complete review of the obstacles on the ground," she wrote in a letter to the Republican chair of the committee, Oklahama's Jim Inhofe.
'What could we do?': Karzai
Afghanistan's former president said Tuesday that Washington helped fuel corruption in his nation by spending hundreds of millions of dollars over the past two decades without accountability.
Hamid Karzai said the documents obtained by the Post confirm his long-running complaints about U.S. spending.
The documents also describe Karzai, Afghanistan's president for 14 years, as having headed a government that "self-organized into a kleptocracy." Karzai has denied wrongdoing but hasn't denied involvement of officials in his government in corruption.
Karzai became Afghanistan's president after a 2001 U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban government. The documents obtained by the Post portray U.S. governments lying about successes and hiding failures. After 18 years and over $1 trillion dollars in U.S. taxpayer money spent on the war, the Taliban is now at its strongest and controls or holds sway over half the country.
Karzai said the U.S. spent hundreds of millions of dollars in its war on terror, with the money flowing to contractors and private security firms, and that this fostered corruption.
"What could we do? It was U.S. money coming here and used by them and used for means that did not help Afghanistan," Karzai said.
He argued that there was no accountability.
"I'm glad this report is out, and I hope this becomes an eye-opener to the American people and that the U.S. government begins to change its attitude now toward Afghanistan," he said.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center has said, "I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that the U.S. used corruption as a tool, but it has long been suspected — and these new documents make quite clear — that U.S. officials have thrown huge amounts of money at Afghanistan knowing full well that this would lead to more corruption than development or peace."
Speaking from Ottawa in response to the report, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan defended Canada's military and development record in Afghanistan.
Sajjan, who did three tours of Afghanistan as an intelligence liaison and later as an adviser to American commanders, said Monday he personally saw progress throughout his time there.
Canada's mission in Afghanistan, which was based for the most part in Kandahar province, ended in 2014.
With files from CBC News