What to Make of the ‘Afghanistan Papers’

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In this photograph taken on November 25, 2019, Afghan security forces take part in an ongoing operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in the Achin district of Nangarhar province. – Afghan farmer Gulnar Malik had seen her share of hardships as war ravaged her country over four decades — but nothing prepared the mother of five for the arrival of the Islamic State group. (Photo by NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP) / TO GO WITH: Afghanistan conflict IS, FOCUS by Noorullah Shirzada (Photo by NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP via Getty Images)

The “Afghanistan Papers,” as the Post calls the report, have drawn comparisons in their scope and granular detail with the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers, published in the New York Times in 1971. In both wars, “The presidents and the generals had a pretty realistic view of what they were up against, which they did not want to admit to the American people,” Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, told CNN’s Brian Stelter.On Monday, the Washington Post published what it calls a “secret history” of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, comprising 2,000 pages of interviews with senior U.S. officials and others directly involved in the conflict. The debriefs, part of a confidential government review on the war effort, contain candid and shocking revelations about how U.S. politicians and generals misled the world about the status of the war.

Positivity bias. Michael Flynn, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, was the director of intelligence for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. He provides just one of many disturbing takes on the U.S. war effort. “There is an inherent bias in the intel community because they want to get money, they want to exist, and they want to grow,” he said in an interview.

Expanding on why field intelligence reports were more negative than the upbeat progress reports presented to the U.S. public, Flynn said that policymakers “are going to be inherently rosy” in their assessments. Later in the interview, he said, “There is a machinery that is behind what we do, and it keeps us participating in the conflict because it generates wealth.”

Fuzzy metrics. Another interview with an unnamed National Security Council official reveals a clear attempt to spin the war effort as a success. “It was impossible to create good metrics,” said the official. “We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture … And this went on and on for two reasons: 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.”

Lasting legacy. It is worth sparing a thought for the people of Afghanistan amid this new trove of information. Not only is Washington once again trying to set up peace talks with the Taliban, but democratic exercises in that country have also proved inconclusive. September’s presidential elections did not yield a clear winner, and with the Afghan winter approaching, a runoff has been postponed to sometime next year. Eighteen years on from the start of the war, that is Washington’s real legacy.




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