The Afghanistan war is more than a $1 trillion mistake. It's a travesty

Ben Armbruster
Photograph: Charles Dharapak/AP

The American people have known that the war in Afghanistan was a lost cause for quite some time. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans’ views of the war started to go south right around the end of 2011, until eventually a majority started seeing the writing on the wall about two years later.

That’s why the Washington Post report this week on the so-called “Afghanistan Papers”, detailing how US officials “deliberately mislead the public” on the war’s progress, is almost sort of unremarkable. If the piece took away any shred of innocence left from this ghastly enterprise, it’s that perhaps some of us thought our leaders, while failing miserably at building a nation thousands of miles away, were at least acting in good faith.

At the same time, the Post report is rage inducing, not just because of the sheer stupidity of American leaders continuing to fight a war they knew they could not win, but also how their unwillingness to take responsibility for a failed policy caused so much death, destruction and heartbreak, particularly among those American families who have admirably dedicated their lives to serving their country, and the countless number of Afghan civilians trapped in a cycle of endless war they have nothing to do with.

Of course, the “Afghanistan Papers” immediately recalled memories of the Pentagon variety leaked to the New York Times nearly a half century ago because they too were government documents outlining how numerous American administrations had lied to the public about Vietnam – another long, costly and unnecessary war with no military solution.

But there’s one major difference: the war in Afghanistan doesn’t have as direct an impact on the lives of everyday Americans as the Vietnam war did, when the military draft meant that everyone had to deal with the cold war proxy conflict in south-east Asia one way or another. Therefore, it’s entirely possible, likely even, that this major and important report from the Post will drift into the wilderness just like the dozens of Trump-era stories that would have, for example, taken down any other US president in “normal times”.

But there’s one big question the Post report raises but does not address: why? Why did so many people – from government contractors and high-ranking military officers, to state department and National Security Council officials – feel the need to lie about how the war in Afghanistan was going?

The easy answer is that there’s a long tradition in Washington, particularly among the foreign policy establishment, that self-reflection, taking responsibility and admitting failure is a big no-no. Heck, you can get convicted of lying to Congress about illegal arms sales, and cover up brutal atrocities and still get a job at the state department. Did you torture anyone? No problem.

While DC’s culture of no culpability certainly plays a role in this case, the more compelling answer lies somewhere near the fact that once the American war machine kicks into gear, no amount of facts undermining its very existence is going to get in the way.

Indeed, the United States has so far doled out nearly one trillion dollars for the war in Afghanistan (the true cost of the war will be trillions more) and everyone’s on the take: from defense industry executives, lobbyists and US political campaign coffers to Afghan government officials and poppy farmers to anyone and anything in between.

What’s more is that this military-industrial-congressional complex is largely insulated from public accountability, so what’s the incentive to change course? The Pentagon’s entire budget operates in much the same way: unprecedented amounts in unnecessary appropriations resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars in waste, fraud and abuse. Yet Congress continues to throw more and more money at the defense department every year without ever requiring it to account for how it spends the money. In fact, the war in Afghanistan is small potatoes by comparison.

The bottom line is that the Afghanistan Papers clearly show that a lot of people were killed, injured and subject to years, if not lifetimes, of psychological trauma and financial hardship because a bunch of men – yes, mostly men – in Washington didn’t want to admit publicly what they knew privately all along. If we don’t start holding these people to account – and it’s not just about Afghanistan – the DC foreign policy establishment will continue to act with impunity, meaning that it’s probably more likely than not that in 50 years there’ll be another batch of “papers” revealing once again that we’ve failed to learn obvious lessons from the past.