'Truth was rarely welcome': US officials held bleak view of war in Afghanistan, documents reveal

William Cummings, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Many top U.S. officials held sharply negative views of the U.S. entry into Afghanistan and bleak assessments of the prospects for success – views that were often at odds with public pronouncements – a trove of documents obtained by The Washington Post revealed.

The Post gained access to more than 2,000 pages of interviews on the war in Afghanistan through a Freedom of Information Act request. John Sopko – who heads the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which conducted the interviews – told the newspaper that the documents show "the American people have constantly been lied to" since U.S. troops first arrived there 18 years ago. 

"If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction ... 2,400 lives lost. Who will say this was in vain?" retired Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who served as an adviser on Afghanistan under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said in February 2015 in an interview published by the Post.  

"Truth was rarely welcome" by officials at headquarters in Kabul, retired Army Col. Bob Crowley, who served as a counterinsurgency adviser in Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014, told interviewers in August 2016. Crowley said they "just wanted to hear good news, so bad news was often stifled." 

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"Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible," Crowley said. "Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right, and we became a self-licking ice cream cone." 

"Operational commanders, State Department policymakers and Department of Defense policymakers are going to be inherently rosy in their assessments," retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who briefly served as President Donald Trump's national security adviser, said in an interview in November 2015

"We were basically fighting the wrong way," Flynn said. "We are not really here to win." 

Flynn said the "rosy" assessments, which conflicted with "hard-hitting intelligence" reports, were the product of "political bias" and the "lack of courage in senior government officials to tell the truth." 

The Pentagon late Monday issued a statement in response to the report, saying there had been no intent to deceive Congress or the public. The interviews in the study have been used by the military to revise its strategy and to seek a negotiated settlement to the war, said Army Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Defense Department spokesman.

The Pentagon "has been very clear that this war will not end on the battlefield," Campbell said.

The interviews began in 2014 for "Lessons Learned" reports produced by SIGAR in an effort to avoid repeating the mistakes of Afghanistan in future conflicts. According to the Post, more than 600 people were interviewed for the project, and the newspaper obtained notes and transcripts from 428 of them. 

The paper said most of the interview subjects' names were omitted from the files, but 62 of them were identified and the paper was independently able to identify an additional 33 from the information given. 

The interviews reveal that officials saw fatal flaws in virtually every aspect of the U.S. approach to Afghanistan, from the initial invasion and decision to topple the Taliban with a light force to the failure to tackle corruption and the drug trade. They decried the unwillingness or inability of U.S. leaders to stop their Pakistani allies from lending support to the Taliban forces. 

There was widespread pessimism about the prospects of training Afghan military and police units or finding reliable political partners. 

Most of the opinions confirm what retired officials and experts have long said about the bleak prospects for the country's future and the consequences of not having an effective strategy in place to meet clearly established objectives. 

"This stuff has been known," said retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who outlined many of the same concerns covered in the SIGAR interviews in a 2012 article for Armed Forces Journal titled, "Truth, lies and Afghanistan: How military leaders let us down."

He said the report made it clear "just how far" pessimism about the war went. 

"It was known at all levels," he said. "They have known from the beginning that the war was unwinnable, but they continued to say the exact opposite." 

Davis lamented that his report did not lead to any changes on the ground in Afghanistan, but he told USA TODAY, "I hope something happens now." 

"How many more men still have to die before we finally do the right thing?" Davis asked. 

Retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who served as NATO supreme allied commander from 2009 to 2013, disputed the notion that officials withheld the truth about the conflict. 

"It sounds quite implausible from my perspective," Stavridis told USA TODAY. "I think the Afghan government is in reasonable shape, it has reasonable control of its borders, Afghan security forces are doing the fighting. I’m not sure what the big secret is that the U.S. would be withholding from the American people." 

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghanistan: Documents reveal officials doubted war was worth the cost