A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post 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.
This is the opening paragraph of an explosive report published on Monday afternoon in the Washington Post, based on the Post’s review of thousands of pages of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, all previously unreleased until the paper recently won a multi-year court case on Freedom of Information Act grounds. And the report only gets more damning as it goes on. For example, in describing the gulf between what the public has been told throughout the 18 years of this war and what the American government knew at the time, the report states:
The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting. Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case … John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged to The Post that the documents show 'the American people have constantly been lied to.'
I am old enough to remember the same public lying about Vietnam when my peers were dying, along with millions of Vietnamese. Many of us remember Iraq, where deliberate misrepresentation of the facts justified the unnecessary deaths in that generation too. When I first read the report on Tuesday, my initial reaction was one of sadness and anger, once again — but not surprise. In fact, this report confirms some of the suspicions and even predictions many of us had since the war began nearly two decades ago, and which have only grown steadily in the years since. Writing in the December 1998 issue of Sojourners magazine, three years before 9/11 but in the wake of the embassy bombings carried out by al-Qaeda, I described my concern with the responses then envisioned by the Clinton administration. Looking back today, these words seem disturbingly prescient:
Military responses generally have not been effective in combating terrorism. The full force of the Soviet army was unable to defeat the guerrillas bunkered down in the mountains of Afghanistan. Why do we think the United States can be successful in defeating the same people now become anti-American terrorists? Where has a purely military strategy worked? ... Terrorism could become the new enemy that we have "lacked" since the fall of communism, bringing the needed excuses for more military build-ups and weapons systems, more simplifying of complicated realities, more means-justifies-the-ends thinking and acting, and more violent conflict. With more strikes against U.S. citizens, the public clamor for more counter-strikes will grow; and with them the demand for more retaliation from the aggrieved parties in the Middle East will increase.
Though the threat of terrorism is very real, and none of us will ever forget where we were on 9/11, the ongoing threat to Americans from terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere has indeed been consistently leveraged to justify massive and endless troop deployments, expenditures, and the deaths of both troops and civilians. In both the lead up to the Iraq War and the debate when President Obama first took office about what to do regarding the war in Afghanistan, I often quoted the aphorism, “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” By that I meant that for decades, our government — and, if we’re honest, the American people — has had a failure of imagination in addressing threats like terrorism in anything but military terms. As I said in January of 2008, “A new foreign policy that emphasizes diplomacy addressing global poverty over militarism and endless wars is now urgently needed. We must move beyond a foreign policy that sees war as the only way to confront real evil.”
My favorite quote thus far to the public indictment of the Washington Post revelations was from Peter Lucier, a Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan:
These papers cast profound doubt on key tenets of the “just war” theory. If there was never a reasonable chance of success, war cannot be just … All violence stands in the way of human connection. War is the ultimate denial of others’ humanity, and all war needs to be mourned and lamented. However, Afghanistan, in particular, is a lingering wound for so many who fought there, because it hasn’t ended and because no one in government speaks to what so many of us know to be true about the conflict. As a Catholic, I believe the first steps toward healing require accountability and lament. Hopefully, “The Afghanistan Papers” brings us closer as a country to taking that first step.
I did have friends who were forced to fight in Vietnam. Some became members of the anti-war movement inside the military as some of us did on the outside. One, a former Green Beret and high school friend who came to see me when he returned, gave me the leaflet that they used in Vietnam which simply said, “The Whole Damn Thing Was a Lie.” Indeed, that always seems to be the case when it comes to justifying war and the whole war system we are addicted to. And always, the loss of lives, both among our own family members and innocent civilians, are the consequence.