'The Afghanistan Papers' a sordid tale of beneficiaries becoming foes (Book Review)

'The Afghanistan Papers' a sordid tale of beneficiaries becoming foes (Book Review)
Source: IANS

By Vishnu Makhijani
New Delhi, Aug 30 (IANS) "It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it," General Douglas MacArthur, the legendary World War II military commander, had once famously declared. This is a bitter pill that Washington has had to swallow twice in the past half century as the Taliban swept into Kabul on August 15, two weeks before the US was to end its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan in what was euphemistically termed the Global War on Terror in the wake of the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Centre.

But then, there were portends of the capitulation of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, trained by US and NATO forces, as far back as 15 years ago with innumerable instances of fratricide against their benefactors, rampant corruption and even ghost soldiers as a new book details sordid stories of beneficiaries becoming foes of their benefactors and in fact, being hand-in-glove with the Taliban all along.

There were "basic flaws that undermined the effort in Afghanistan. In a jarring disconnect, the United States and its allies could not agree whether they were actually fighting a war in Afghanistan, engaged in a peacekeeping operation, leading a training mission, or doing something else. The distinctions were important because some NATO allies were only authorised to engage in combat in self-defence", Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post writes in "The Afghanistan Papers - A Secret History Of The War" (Simon & Schuster) that details how three successive Presidents, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and their military commanders deceived the public year after year about the longest war in American history.

The two decades of conflict is estimated to have cost the US taxpayer a staggering $2 trillion, of which the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), created at the behest of Congress, identified at least $15.5 billion in "waste, fraud and abuse" from 2008 through 2017, representing almost 30 per cent of the $52.7 billion in public spending that it studied.

Of the $15.5 billion, $3.5 billion is associated with 643 instances of waste, fraud and abuse, including bribes, kickbacks, theft and other unlawful acts ranging from $6,800 to $1 million. This includes $486 million for the procurement of 20 aircraft for the Afghan Air Force, which "did not meet operational requirements" and 16 of which "were sold and scrapped in Afghanistan for approximately 6 cents a pound; $335 million for the construction of a power plant that has been operating at less than one percent of its capacity since construction; and $129 million in overbillings by a contractor".

The additional $12 billion, the SIGAR Report states, is attributable to: $4.7 billion spent on "stabilization programs" from that were "largely unsuccessful in building and reforming government institutions"; and $7.3 billion spent on counternarcotics programmes that "have done very little to stem the production and exportation of illicit drugs".

The cost in terms of lives lost has been enormous: nearly 2,500 US service members and 4,000 civilian contractors killed; more than 66,000 Afghan military and personnel killed; and, by a conservative estimate, 47,600 civilians killed and double the number injured.

Unlike the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the US invasion of Afghanistan had near unanimous public support so "how had the war degenerated into a stalemate with no realistic prospect for an enduring victory", Whitlock asks.

"The United States and its allies had initially crushed the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2001. What went wrong? No one had conducted a thorough public accounting of the strategic failures or provided an unsparing explanation of how the campaign fell apart.

"To this day, there has been no Afghanistan version of the 9/11, which had held the government responsible for its inability to prevent the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Nor has Congress convened an Afghanistan version of the Fulbright Hearings, when senators aggressively questioned the war in Vietnam. With so many people from both parties responsible for a multitude of errors, few political leaders have wanted to assign or accept blame," Whitlock writes.

Ironically enough, the answers came from the interviews of hundreds of participants that SIGAR had conducted for a project titled Lessons Learned which was intended to diagnose policy failures in Afghanistan so that the US would not repeat the same mistakes in the future.

In September 2016, SIGAR published watered down versions of the interviews and The Washington Post had to file two federal lawsuits to compel it to release the documents in toto. After a three-year legal battle, SIGAR finally disclosed more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with 428 people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.

At first, the goals in Afghanistan were straightforward and clear: to defeat Al Qaeda and prevent a repeat of 9/11. Yet soon after the US and its allies removed the Taliban from power, the mission veered off course and US officials lost sight of their original objectives. Distracted by the war in Iraq, the US military became mired in an unwinnable guerrilla conflict in a country it did not understand. But no president wanted to admit failure, especially in a war that began as a just cause. Instead, the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations sent more and more troops to Afghanistan and repeatedly said they were making progress, even though they knew there was no realistic prospect for an outright victory.

Just as the "Pentagon Papers" changed the public's understanding of Vietnam, "The Afghanistan Papers" contains startling revelation after revelation from people who played a direct role in the war. In unvarnished language, they admit that the US government's strategies were a mess, that the nation-building project was a colossal failure, and that drugs and corruption gained a stranglehold over their allies in the Afghan government.

All told, the account is based on interviews with more than 1,000 people who knew that the US government was presenting a distorted, and sometimes entirely fabricated, version of the facts on the ground. Documents unearthed by The Washington Post reveal that President Bush didn't know the name of his Afghanistan war commander and didn't want to make time to meet with him. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted he had "no visibility into who the bad guys are". His successor, Robert Gates, said: "We didn't know jack s**t about Al Qaeda". "The Afghanistan Papers" is a shocking account that will supercharge a long overdue reckoning over what went wrong and forever change the way the conflict is remembered.

"Many of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the US government to deliberately mislead the public. They said officials at military headquarters in Kabul, and at the White House, routinely distorted statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was plainly not the case.

"Astonishingly, commanding generals admitted they had tried to fight the war without a functional strategy.

"Other officials said the United States flubbed the war from the start, committing mis-steps on top of miscalculations on top of misjudgements," Whitlock writes.

"This book does not aim to provide an exhaustive record of the US war in Afghanistan. Nor is it a military history that dwells on combat operations. Rather, it is an attempt to explain what went wrong and how three consecutive presidents and their administrations failed to tell the truth," he adds.

Spanish philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) summed it up quite succinctly: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at [email protected])