U.S. war in Afghanistan marked by confusion, failure and lies, Pentagon report shows

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

A trove of documents obtained and published by the Washington Post detail how the United States’ nearly two-decade involvement in Afghanistan wasted billions of dollars, cost nearly 2,400 American lives and implicated three presidential administrations in lies to the public about military progress.

The Post obtained the documents after a legal battle with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which spent $11 million on a Lessons Learned project that involved interviews with over 600 people with firsthand experience with the country the U.S. invaded in 2001. SIGAR published sanitized reports based on their findings, but the underlying commentary from the Americans, NATO allies and Afghan officials they interviewed provided deeper insight into the war that began as an effort to topple the Taliban government, which had been harboring the terrorist network al-Qaida.

The disclosures are reminiscent of the “Pentagon Papers,” the Defense Department study of the origins of the U.S. war in Vietnam, which was leaked to the New York Times by researcher Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 and showed, according to the Times, that the administration of President Lyndon Johnson "systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress."

A U.S. soldier shields himself after being dropped off for a mission near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, December 2014. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged to the Washington Post that the documents show “the American people have constantly been lied to.”

“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. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking. … If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction ... 2,400 lives lost.”

Here are some of the key findings of the Post’s reporting, by reporters Craig Whitlock, Leslie Shapiro and Armand Emamdjomeh.

The Bush White House loses interest

President George W. Bush addresses U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, December 2008. (Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

President George W. Bush attacked Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, targeting the al-Qaida terrorist organization and the Taliban leadership of the country. When asked about the potential of a Vietnam-like quagmire days after the bombing began in October 2001, Bush said the operation could take up to a year or two.

“We learned some very important lessons in Vietnam,” Bush replied. “People often ask me, ‘How long will this last?’ This particular battlefront will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qaida to justice. It may happen tomorrow, it may happen a month from now, it may take a year or two. But we will prevail.”

Operation Enduring Freedom ousted the Taliban government in Kabul, the capital, within a few months.

But according to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, by the next year Bush lost interest and the administration turned its attention to the upcoming invasion of Iraq. Rumsfeld attended several hours of White House meetings about Iraq on Oct. 21, 2002. He asked the president if he’d like to arrange a meeting with Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill, who had been serving as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan for the previous six months. Per a newly released memo that Rumsfeld wrote later that afternoon, Bush was confused and uninterested.

“He said, ‘Who is General McNeill?’” Rumsfeld wrote. “I said he is the general in charge of Afghanistan. He said, ‘Well, I don’t need to meet with him.’”

In his SIGAR interview, McNeill said that “there was no campaign plan in [the] early days,” adding that “Rumsfeld would get excited if there was any increase in the number of boots on the ground.”

At the time, McNeill commanded about 8,000 U.S. troops. Five years later, he was named NATO commander in Afghanistan, giving him control of 50,000 combined U.S. and NATO troops. By 2007, there was still plenty of confusion over strategy and end goals in the country.

“I tried to get someone to define for me what winning meant, even before I went over, and nobody could. Nobody would give me a good definition of what it meant,” McNeill told government interviewers. “Some people were thinking in terms of Jeffersonian democracy, but that’s just not going to happen in Afghanistan.”

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, right, and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hold a news briefing, March 25, 2002, in Washington. (Joe Marquette/AP Photo)

“I may be impatient. In fact, I know I’m a bit impatient,” Rumsfeld wrote in an April 2002 memo six months after the bombing began as the Bush White House projected success in the invasion. “We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave.” 

Since October 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many multiple times. According to Pentagon figures, 2,300 died while serving and over 20,000 more came home wounded. In addition, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and police force members have died in the longest war in American history.

James Dobbins, a career diplomat who served as a special envoy for Afghanistan under Bush and President Barack Obama, pointed out that opening multiple fronts in a global “war on terror” made things harder.

“First, you know, sort of just invade only one country at a time. I mean that seriously,” said Dobbins, according to a transcript of his remarks. “They take a lot of high-level time and attention and we’ll overload the system if we do more than one of these at a time.”

Obama policy failures

Many of those interviewed for the Lessons Learned review were critical of Obama’s strategy of announcing a surge in troops but adding a deadline of 18 months. Before the December 2009 announcement of an increase in troops, there was an assessment from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces.

Obama had said that the goal was to “disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al-Qaida,” but the first draft of McChrystal’s policy review didn’t mention the terrorist group, because it was mostly gone from the country. An unnamed NATO official who participated in McChrystal’s review said edits were then made. 

President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, right, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter, speaks about Afghanistan on Oct. 15, 2015, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

“In 2009, the perception was that al-Qaida was no longer a problem,” the NATO official told government interviewers. “But the entire reason for being in Afghanistan was al-Qaida. So then the second draft included them.”

The review also had to work around the fact that legal advisers didn’t want the Afghanistan presence to be known as a war, so per the NATO official, it was referred to as “not a war in a conventional sense.”

Obama announced his plan to deploy 30,000 more U.S. troops than initially approved by Bush in a counterinsurgency push. But he added a late qualifier that confused some officials: Those troops would begin coming home in 18 months.

“The timeline was just sprung on us,” Army Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command at the time, said in his SIGAR interview. “Two days before the president made the speech, on a Sunday, we all got called and were told to be in the Oval Office that night for the president to lay out what he would announce two evenings later. And he laid it out, there it is.” 

Barnett Rubin, an Afghan expert advising the State Department, said he and others were “stupefied” at the decision. While it was understandable that Obama wanted to assert that Americans wouldn’t fight forever, “there was a mismatch between deadline and strategy,” Rubin added. “With that deadline, you can’t use that strategy.”

Officials interviewed by SIGAR said that the search was then on for data to prove that the surge was working even if that wasn’t the reality on the ground.

“It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory, and none of it painted an accurate picture,” a senior National Security Council official told government interviewers in 2016. “The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”

The official said that suicide bombings in Kabul were portrayed as a sign of desperation from the Taliban, while U.S. troops dying were pointed to as evidence that Americans were on the offensive. 

“And this went on and on for two reasons,” the senior NSC official said, “to make everyone involved look good and to make it look like the troops and resources were having the kind of effect where removing them would cause the country to deteriorate.”

Soldiers carry the remains of Sgt. 1st Class Elis Barreto Ortiz on Sept. 7, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Ortiz was killed by an IED near Kabul, Afghanistan, two days earlier. (Cliff Owen/AP Photo)

Retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who later advised President Trump’s campaign and briefly served as his national security adviser, said diplomats and military commanders in the field also painted rosier pictures.

“From the ambassadors down to the low level, [they all say] we are doing a great job,” said Flynn in a 2015 interview. “Really? So if we are doing such a great job, why does it feel like we are losing?”

Of the leaders who rotated through the country, Flynn recounted, “they all said, when they left, they accomplished that mission. Every single commander. Not one commander is going to leave Afghanistan . . . and say, ‘You know what, we didn’t accomplish our mission.’ ” 

“Bad news was often stifled,” said Bob Crowley, a retired Army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014. “There was more freedom to share bad news if it was small — we’re running over kids with our MRAPs [armored vehicles] — because those things could be changed with policy directives. But when we tried to air larger strategic concerns about the willingness, capacity or corruption of the Afghan government, it was clear it wasn’t welcome.” 

‘A dark pit for endless money’ 

U.S. soldiers from D Troop of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment near forward operating base Gamberi in Afghanistan, December 2014. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Multiple reports across the two decades show how much money was wasted in the country. Beyond direct military expenditures, the U.S. and its allies spent $133 billion on nonmilitary aid — more, adjusted for inflation, than the amount spent rebuilding Europe after World War II. One program was the Commander's Emergency Response Program, which was funded by Congress for $3.7 billion. The military could spend only $2.3 billion of the amount, and the Pentagon was able to provide financial details for only $890 million worth of projects in a 2015 audit. An unidentified NATO official called the program “a dark pit of endless money for anything with no accountability.”

One unnamed contractor said he was expected to distribute $3 million daily for projects in a single Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county. He once asked a visiting congressman whether he could responsibly spend that kind of money back home: “He said hell no. ‘Well, sir, that’s what you just obligated us to spend, and I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.’ ”

The money fueled corruption in the country, from President Hamid Karzai stuffing the ballot box for his 2009 reelection to Karzai’s brother and other political allies receiving hundreds of millions in loans from the country’s largest bank. In addition, politicians (including Karzai, who said the CIA delivering bags of cash to his office was “nothing unusual”) and warlords received large sums intended to keep them on the United States’ side. Some officials said that by distributing the money in Afghanistan instead of to consultants in Washington, it at least had a chance of having a positive effect. 

“I want it to disappear in Afghanistan, rather than in the Beltway,” said Richard Boucher, who served as assistant secretary of state for South Asia during the Bush administration. “Probably in the end it is going to make sure that more of the money gets to some villager, maybe through five layers of corrupt officials, but still gets to some villager.” 

Since 2001, the United States has spent nearly $9 billion on attempted drug enforcement in the country, whose poppy fields supply 80 percent of the world’s heroin. Despite that massive investment, SIGAR described the efforts as a “failure” in a report last year.

Those interviewed by SIGAR recounted smaller examples of money being spent to no end: One Army brigade built 50 schools, but due to a lack of teachers, many of the buildings were not used and some were even turned into bomb workshops for the Taliban. Lute, the general who worked under both the Bush and Obama administrations, told a story of a new police station opening that included an atrium, but the chief couldn’t open the door because he had never seen a doorknob like it.

“We are a rich country and can pour money down a hole and it doesn’t bust the bank. But should we? Can’t we get a bit more rational about this?” said Lute.

“What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?” Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, told government interviewers, adding, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”

The current Trump policy on Afghanistan is muddled: The U.S. commander in Afghanistan has said the number of U.S. troops in the country has been reduced by 2,000 over the past year, but Trump abruptly cut off peace talks with the Taliban in September before saying they were back on last month. He has called for a ceasefire, but experts say there would be little compelling the Taliban to accept that concession.

“The Americans walked away from the negotiating table, and now the ball is on their side — it is up to them to come back if they want to solve this and get the document to signing and to the stage of implementation,” Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban’s negotiation team, told the New York Times. “Our positions remain the same.”

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