Afghanistan documents reveal pain and familiar frustrations

In a photo taken on Oct 7, 2011, members of the 77th Field Artillery Regiment fire a barrage at Forward Operating Base Tillman in Afghanistan. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Lawmakers, veterans and experts have expressed shock and resignation after a Washington Post report on Monday (Dec 9) unveiled 18 years of distortion by US officials over the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.

The documents - 2,000 pages of confidential notes and interviews from 400 people, from ambassadors to troops on the ground - exposed a constant parade of failures while three presidential administrations insisted the war was moving in the right direction.

"We must end the vicious, lethal cycle of misinformation and unspecified, unsupported strategies," Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in response, calling for public hearings with Defence Secretary Mark Esper and other officials.

"The Senate Armed Services Committee should hold hearings on the state of the Afghanistan conflict and the infuriating details & alleged falsehoods reported today," said Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican and member of the committee.

"The time to end this war and bring our troops home honourably is now," said Representative Max Rose, a New York Democrat and Afghanistan veteran.

Statements from lawmakers came amid veterans reconciling their war with a new lens through which to view it.

For Marine Corps veteran Dustin Kelly, the story reignites the agony of not knowing precisely what comrades gave their lives for.

"The most traumatic experiences of our lives didn't have to happen, our friends didn't have to die on the other side of the planet," Mr Kelly, who served as a mortar man in Helmand province in 2010 to retake the Taleban's stronghold, told The Post on Monday.

The Pentagon denied intentions to mislead lawmakers and the public and said the "hindsight" from the Lessons Learned, the confidential records collected by the Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, helped revise and inform their strategy.

"There has been no intent by DoD to mislead Congress or the public," Lt Col Thomas Campbell, a Defence Department spokesman, said in a statement.

"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. The information contained in the interviews was provided to SIGAR for the express purpose of inclusion in SIGAR's public reports."

"We remain in Afghanistan to protect our national interests and ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as a safe haven for terrorists who threaten the United States," Lt Col Campbell said.

Gen (Retd) David Petraeus defended the reports he made from Afghanistan during his tenure there as commander of US forces in 2010 and 2011.

"I stand by the assessments I provided as the commander in Afghanistan," Gen Petraeus said, in a statement e-mailed to The Daily Beast, saying improvements, "while very hard fought and fragile, were indisputable".

He added that "there was undeniable progress on the security front, and I stand by what I told Congress and the national security team during that time".

Mr Rob Williams, a former Army infantryman who served in two deployments to Afghanistan, said the mission wasn't any clearer years after Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself couldn't identify the enemy.

"We didn't know who we were fighting," Mr Williams told The Washington Post on Monday, describing deployments in 2007 and 2011.

Mr Williams and other veterans wondered if the revelations in the report were not obvious to veterans the entire time.

Mr Kelly, the Marine Corps veteran, saw through one common Pentagon talking point - that fierce fighting indicated the desperation of insurgents - once his unit understood their Afghan mission was to essentially become a tourniquet on a war that had gone from bad to worse.

"Nobody could have possibly looked at that and thought, 'yeah, we're winning,'" he said.

Defence officials, commanders and government staffers, from the start, underestimated the complexities of the fight, the documents revealed, and it spiralled out of control when the mission to dislodge Al-Qaeda fighters and Taleban militants morphed into something else.

The mission became nation-building on top of a superstructure of "kleptocracy" and mind-bending corruption, even down to the police patrolman level.

The result: 43,074 Afghan civilians killed, 2,300 US troops dead and 64,124 Afghan troops and police killed in the insurgency that may be as strong as it ever was.

A central tenet for the Pentagon's strategy - build the capacity of Afghan forces - was often rejected by commanders more attuned to fighting than training foreign troops.

That may have helped "doomed the whole effort from the start", said Mr Charles Duncan, a former Army signals intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan in 2013.

"I thought the war's absurdity was only visible to those of us at the lower levels," Mr Duncan said. "Now I know that our pessimism was shared by officials all the way up the chain of command, and yet we all acted as though the war were winnable."

Lawmakers used the report to call for ending the war in Afghanistan and to repeal the president's broad authority to strike terrorist groups that critics say has kept the war on terror on an endless trajectory.

Senator Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, said the story signals "it is time to conduct serious oversight and work to responsibly bring our troops home from Afghanistan".

Representative Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and Iraq veteran on the House Armed Services Committee, said he was not shocked by the report but laid failures at the feet of commanders making rosy pronouncements and lawmakers for deferring to them.

"Every general and policymaker has been focused on not being the last one to be known as the 'the person that lost Afghanistan' instead of the person that ends this quagmire," he told The Washington Post on Monday.

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, tweeted: "No working strategy - and no transparency. The war in Afghanistan is the longest armed conflict in US history, costing the lives of thousands of US service members and Afghan civilians. It's time to bring our troops home."

Mr Andrew Exum, a former Obama defence official and Afghanistan veteran, said fierce reactions from lawmakers was "disingenuous", given their oversight duties and access to SIGAR's reports for years.

The revelations in the Post reports stung security analysts concerned about how relations between uniformed personnel and civil servants could be further strained.

"One of the biggest limitations of the US national security apparatus is that it is not a learning institution," said Ms Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former Obama defence official and civil-military relations expert at the Centre for a New American Security.

"The worst part of this story is not that we failed in so many ways, which is bad enough, but the huge difference between what officials felt privately and what they said to each other and the public. What this ends up translating to is a willingness to blame others."

Mr Joe Kent, a former Green Beret who served in Yemen and parts of Africa, said the public's disengagement from Afghanistan allowed three presidents to tiptoe through the war without any pressure from voters.

In 2009, he watched President Obama discuss ending the war in Afghanistan - from his combat deployment in Iraq.

"And here we are, ten years later," he said.

His wife, Navy cryptologist Shannon Kent, was killed in a suicide bombing in Syria this year.

Mr Joe Kent has called for the United States to withdraw from Syria, Afghanistan and other war zones where the United States has been mired, where he believes officials keep buying into a gambler's fallacy of blood that will eventually justify the sacrifice.

"That's not a reason to stay," he said.

It is too early to tell if the revelations will affect policymaking or the ongoing negotiations with the Taleban.

"A negotiated political settlement that includes the Afghan government, protects the achievements of the last 18 years, and respects the integrity of the Afghan people is the only solution," said Lt Col Campbell, the Pentagon spokesman.

Mr Williams, now a PhD student of military history at Ohio State University, said it may help strengthen the Taleban's bargaining power after the 18-year war has been shown in disarray despite official statements to the contrary.

"The documents will be good for historians to digest later," he said. "I think it's sad. There was a lot of hope going in."

What do veterans do with this now?

Mr Kelly has struggled to explain his combat to an ever-narrowing slice of Americans who never served and don't know anyone else who does.

"I keep thinking that if I read enough about war, and rationalise and intellectualise enough then something will snap, and the knots will untie and I'll understand it all," he said.

"I think I'll spend the rest of my life trying to figure out why the hell any of us were in Afghanistan."

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