EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in The Washington Post. You can find Katrina's other columns here.
More than two years ago, The Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers. Some compared these papers—drawn from interviews with general, military officials, policy-makers, soldiers, independent thinks—to the Pentagon Papers. The papers detailed the lies and disasters propping up a now-20-year-old war that has killed and maimed too many Americans—and many more Afghanis. As President Biden rightly exits the Afghan War, many argue that he is betraying America’s credibility—but maybe we should ask: What will be the accounting for the serial abuses of office that misled the American people about a war for nearly two decades?
They lied. They lied repeatedly, year after year, about America’s longest war—the Afghanistan fiasco now in its 19th year. They—presidents, department heads, generals, civilians, and uniformed military up and down the line—misled the American people, reporting “progress” in a misguided war that they knew was not being won. “At war with the truth” is the stark and inescapable conclusion of the Afghanistan Papers, dubbed this generation’s Pentagon Papers, a trove of documents brought to light by the extraordinary efforts of The Washington Post. The reality, as retired Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House czar for Afghanistan during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, admitted, “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
The House of Representatives’ vote this week to impeach President Trump will indict his dangerous abuse of power and his obstruction of the congressional investigation of that abuse. The Afghanistan Papers pose the fundamental question: What will be the accounting for the serial abuses of office that misled the American people about a war for nearly two decades?
Activists in the United States often pledge to “speak truth to power.” The sad reality, as once more exposed in these papers, is that power often knows the truth. The real question is that posed by William Greider, national affairs correspondent for The Nation and a former national political reporter for the Post: Who will tell the people?
Presidents and Cabinet officials in the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations generally knew the truth. Generals and officers knew, even though the military has perfected the transforming of ruinous realities into rosy power points, colored charts, and press briefings. Despite their supposedly surprised reactions to the release of the papers, senators and representatives—particularly those on the Armed Services Committees—knew or should have known, if they had just bothered to conduct minimum oversight.
Those who ran the war not only lied. They mocked and discredited those who told the truth. As early as November 2001, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Bush’s arrogant defense secretary, joked at a news conference: “All together now—quagmire!” As the Post’s Craig Whitlock reports, in 2006, Rumsfeld’s speechwriters delivered a paper on “Afghanistan: Five Years Later,” highlighting progress in 50 areas such as the “average speed on most roads” and concluding that “five years on, there is a multitude of good news.”
The lies had brutal consequence. Since 2001, more than 775,000 troops were deployed to Afghanistan. More than 2,300 died there, and 20,589 were wounded in action—and still counting. More than 100,000 Afghan civilians and security forces have been killed. The war has cost the United States more than $1 trillion.
The $133 billion allocated to development, according to the Post’s reporting, is greater than the sum, adjusted for inflation, spent on the Marshall Plan after World War II that helped revive the whole of Western Europe. Nine billion dollars has been spent to eradicate poppy production, yet today Afghan farmers cultivate more opium than ever, and, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, are responsible for 82 percent of global opium production.
The flush of US dollars helped turn the Potemkin democracy we set up into a “kleptocracy.” Ryan Crocker, who served as the top US diplomat in Kabul in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012, concluded that “[o]ur biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption.” Of course.
Politically, the corrosive lying about progress for nearly two decades surely helped sow the grounds for the election of Donald Trump. The serial liar promised to end the endless wars, in sharp contrast to Hillary Clinton, who strained to show how “tough” she was on national security. The con man was closer to the truth than the established candidate could admit, though in office Trump has added to troop levels and escalated the bombing. This year, the Taliban is stronger than ever, and for the first time, the United States is responsible for more Afghan civilian deaths than the Taliban.
What will be the accounting? There needs to be public investigations and systemic reform at every level. In Congress, we need, as Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) has called for, public hearings to probe the bureaucracy of lies and bring the war to an end, while strengthening the War Powers Act and congressional oversight. A special committee should investigate the abject failure of Congress to do its job.
Presidential candidates—including the current president—should be pressed on what they would do to change the culture of lies, and what they would do to transform the failed US strategy on the war on terror. Reflexive bellicose posturing should receive even more skepticism than that accorded those who had the temerity to propose Medicare for All.
If we had a functional White House, it would launch a serious internal investigation of the national security bureaucracies that would produce recommendations on how to end the culture of lying, and of buck-passing officers rising in the ranks by pretending to achieve fanciful goals.
The media, also, needs an accounting. How is it, as former Army Maj. Danny Sjursen wrote in The Nation, that those who have consistently lied to the American people—the generals, such as David H. Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal; the national intelligence operatives, such as John Brennan and James Clapper; the civilians, such as Obama’s former defense secretary, Leon Panetta—populate news talk shows as supposed experts, while those who told the truth, such as like Andrew Bacevich, Matthew Hoh, or Sjursen himself, labor in virtual obscurity? Forget about Fox News; why are the networks, CNN, and MSNBC part of the culture of misleading Americans?
Trump’s impeachment will consume the airwaves over the coming weeks. Then we will be in the heat of the presidential primaries and the general election. It will be all too easy for the Afghan revelations to be lost in the fray. Already, the generals such as Petraeus are defending their fanciful reports as accurate at the time. This cannot be allowed to pass. If there is no accounting now, the grotesque costs of this culture of lying will grow too large to bear.