The Afghanistan Papers, Part 1: At War With the Truth

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: U.S. officials knew that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable almost from the start and repeatedly lied to the public about this and other crucial facts.

The Washington Post has released "The Afghanistan Papers," "more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials."

The papers were generated by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction as part of an $11 million project meant to "diagnose policy failures in Afghanistan" called "Lessons Learned."

The Post has chosen to publish these documents, which reveal the extent of fraud and mismanagement surrounding U.S. involvement in Afghanistan while the Trump administration is negotiating withdrawal.

The documents from the "Lessons Learned" project revealed, in the words of one general interviewed for the project, that U.S. officials "were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan [and] we didn't have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking."

Officials lost sight of the end goal in Afghanistan shortly after the invasion. It wasn't clear if the United States was committed to nation building, defeating terrorists, or providing aid. This led to an unclear military landscape in which "U.S. troops often couldn't tell friend from foe" in battle.

It also led to runaway expenses. The papers reveal that as part of its failed nation building attempt, "the United States flooded [Afghanistan] with far more aid than it could possibly absorb." One official predicted that 90 percent of money spent building schools, roads and bridges was "overkill."

The United States failed to establish an effective Democratic government in Afghanistan, as President Hamid Karzai's government "'self-organized into a kleptocracy' by 2006." Efforts to build up an independent Afghan military were similarly ill-fated, with military officials accusing Afghan commanders of theft and lamenting the "unsustainable" casualty rate, with 60,000 Afghan security forces already killed.

The papers reveal that despite these high levels of failure and confusion, there existed "explicit and sustained efforts…to deliberately mislead the public" at the highest level of government. The Department of Defense under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld began pushing an optimistic narrative in 2006 and "since then, U.S. generals have almost always preached that the war is progressing well, no matter the reality on the battlefield."

The papers reveal that U.S. officials consistently misconstrued statistics, including casualty counts, to fit the narrative of sustained U.S. progress and success. Officials even managed to put a positive spin on increased enemy attacks, claiming they were signs that "the Taliban are getting desperate."

The entire misinformation enterprise can be summed up in a quote from one Navy War College strategist interviewed for the "Lessons Learned" project, who said "officials in the field devoted an inordinate amount of resources to churning out color-coded charts that heralded positive results."

Read the summaries of Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

Access the full report here.