The Washington Post had a coup this week when it published “The Afghanistan Papers,” a secret history of the U.S.-led war against the Taliban there.
As with the Pentagon Papers, the conclusion should be shocking. The government compiled a secret history of the war and found, in The Post’s telling, that officials told the public they were making progress in bringing it to an end even as they were not and knew they were not.
The collective response to this across the political spectrum could best be described as sarcasm along the lines of, “Yes. And water is wet.” If you want to plumb the depths of our cynicism and despair, you’ll find no better measure.
Staying is bad. Leaving may be worse. We have been lied to, again. Most people will not read the Post report because as news, it has become dog-bites-man.
The history consists partly of interviews with decision-makers conducted by the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a federal agency formed by Congress in 2008 to provide oversight on the effort to defeat the Taliban and leave a functioning government in place, which turned out to be like trying to tiptoe out of a room without disturbing a towering house of cards while fundamentalists set off a car bomb.
All the king’s horses of the George W. Bush administration could not do it. Barack Obama was elected on a promise to stop the endless wars and bring the troops home, as was Donald Trump. Today, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is making the same vow, as is Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
In 2009, The Financial Times, the British newspaper, spoke with Rory Stewart, a British diplomat who left the service to spend two years walking across Afghanistan and Iran before serving as a deputy governor of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Stewart took a post at Harvard while the Obama administration was trying to figure out Afghanistan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others were mulling sending tens of thousands more troops in pursuit of an exit, and consulted with him.
“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seat belt?’” Stewart told The Financial Times. “And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seat belt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seat belt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says ...’”
Stewart continued: “The policy of troop increases will look ridiculous in 30 years. They’re not going to make America safer from al-Qaida. The theory of state-building is suspect. ... We should be pursuing a much more conventional development strategy in Afghanistan.”
We did not. Instead, a decade on, the Trump administration has been trying to negotiate a withdrawal with the Taliban, a last resort. Last weekend, it resumed talks with the group, in the Qatari capital, “with the goal of reducing violence and laying the groundwork for peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government,” a State Department spokesperson told NBC News.
On Wednesday, a powerful suicide bomb went off near a gate at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.
Since 2001, 2,300 U.S. troops have died and 20,589 were wounded in action there, in an effort that has cost just shy of $1 trillion. In that time, more than 111,000 Afghans have been killed in the conflict. And bafflingly, there is still no end in sight.