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U.S. Officials Did Not Tell The Truth About War In Afghanistan, Washington Post Reports16:41
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U.S. soldiers board an Army Chinook transport helicopter after it brought fresh soldiers and supplies to the Korengal Outpost on October 27, 2008 in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. (John Moore/Getty Images)
U.S. soldiers board an Army Chinook transport helicopter after it brought fresh soldiers and supplies to the Korengal Outpost on October 27, 2008 in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. (John Moore/Getty Images)

A report from the Washington Post chronicles "a secret history" of the war in Afghanistan: "U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it."

Guest

Craig Whitlock, investigative reporter focusing on national security for the Washington Post. (@CraigMWhitlock)

Interview Highlights

On the 2,000 documents the Washington Post obtained

“These are interviews with more than 400 people who were key players in the war. And they range from commanding generals, and ambassadors, and people in the White House, all the way down to people who were aid workers, or military officers who served in the field. So it really runs the gamut. And these were people who served in Afghanistan at any time between 2001 and as late as 2018. So it runs primarily during the administrations of Obama and Bush, but also a little bit of the Trump administration. So these are people who all served in the war in some fashion — military or civilian — and they're very blunt and forthright interviews that were conducted for a federal project by an obscure government agency known as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.”

On the motivation for the interviews

“This project started up in 2014 — so five years ago now. And it was a project called ‘Lessons Learned’ where the inspector general had decided that no government agency had really taken a look at the war in Afghanistan to determine what mistakes were made. And they wanted to interview people to prevent the mistakes from happening again, if there was ever another war situation like it. Now, you have to remember, in 2014, the assumption was the war was coming to an end. President Obama had promised repeatedly that he was going to bring all U.S. troops home by the time he left office in January 2017. So when this project started, the thinking was, ‘Well, the war is coming to an end. Let's talk to all these people — gather their knowledge and wisdom to see what went wrong — so it doesn't happen again.’ But then, of course, the work kept going. And at that point, the inspector general has been publishing some reports. But they really kept 90% of these interviews under wraps. And it took us three years — using the Freedom of Information Act, and going to federal court — to pry them loose from this agency.”

On what some members of the government and military said about the truth of the Afghanistan war 

“Some of them really jump out at you. There was another interview done with Lieutenant General Douglas Lute. He's an Army three-star general. He's retired now, but he served as the Afghan war czar in the White House, for both Bush and Obama. So two administrations, he held this job for several years. And he's extremely blunt in this interview. He says, ‘We didn't have the foggiest idea of what we were undertaking in Afghanistan. We fundamentally did not understand the country we were in.’ And at one point he said, ‘2,400 lives lost.' You know, 'Was this all in vain?’ So, again, this is a three-star general, in the White House, working for two presidents, overseeing the war, asking these very basic questions. And if he's throwing his hands up and saying the war was a disaster, I still can't believe he said it. But he did. And it's in black and white. And we've got those documents, and we've highlighted those in our reports.”

Was there a conversation about what government officials would tell the American people about the war in Afghanistan? 

“Well, no, not ‘What do we tell the American people?’ If anything, there were a few interviews — people who worked in the White House and elsewhere — who said, ‘We couldn't tell this to the American people.’ There was one senior National Security Council official — someone who worked in the White House on Afghanistan issues — who very bluntly said that they distorted the data, the metrics, the signs of progress. And they would present this to the cabinet secretaries, and to the president, to make it look as if the war was going well. When they knew, in fact, it wasn't. So there was a real effort at the highest levels of the government — under Obama, this official was talking about — to make it seem that we were making progress, that things were going fine. That Obama's strategy was working — and yet they knew it wasn't.

"So this is a pretty serious and grave statement from somebody. In fact, we're still trying to figure out who this person is. The Washington Post still has a Freedom of Information lawsuit pending in federal court in Washington to force this agency, the Inspector General, to reveal all the names of the people who gave these interviews. We were able to figure out about 100 of the 400 names. But there's 300 of them … we know what their positions were. We know that maybe they worked in the State Department, or in the military, or USAID [United States Agency for International Development], but we don't know their names. And we think it's very important for accountability purposes — find out exactly who all of these people are, who were criticizing the war from within. That decision is pending with a federal judge in Washington.”

"There were a few interviews ⁠— people who worked in the White House and elsewhere ⁠— who said, ‘We couldn't tell this to the American people.’"

Craig Whitlock

What lessons can these documents teach us that we didn't learn from the Pentagon Papers?

“I keep thinking [of] lessons unlearned. ... We haven't learned them, and we're making the same mistakes. And you certainly see the parallels with Vietnam, time and again. Not really in the same kinds of mistakes — being caught in a war in a faraway Asian country that Americans really didn't understand the culture, language, or people or why we were fighting there. I mean, just those parallels are pretty striking. Now in terms of these Afghanistan papers and the Pentagon Papers, there are some parallels. Both of them really show that the government misled the American people about how the war was going.

"The difference with these documents is these are all interviews, firsthand accounts from people involved in the war. They're raw. They're unedited. Their notes, their transcripts, some audio recordings. So you hear people's voices come out. The Pentagon Papers was a secret study conducted by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. It was all based on internal government documents, CIA reports, diplomatic cables, but they didn't interview anyone. It was more of an academic study that the Pentagon kept secret. This, on the other hand, is all interviews with people involved in the war. So it's more human in a way. You hear from these people in their own voices about what went wrong."

"This ... is all interviews with people involved in the war. So it's more human in a way. You hear from these people in their own voices about what went wrong."

Craig Whitlock

From The Reading List

Washington Post: "At War With The Truth" — "A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

"The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include 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 U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.

"In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare.

"With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting."

This segment aired on December 9, 2019.

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