WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government across three White House administrations misled the public about failures in the Afghanistan war, often suggesting success where it didn't exist, according to thousands of pages of documents obtained by The Washington Post.
The documents reveal deep frustrations about America's conduct of the Afghanistan war, including the ever-changing U.S. strategy, the struggles to develop an effective Afghan fighting force and persistent failures to defeat the Taliban and combat corruption throughout the government.
"We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn't know what we were doing," Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House's Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015.
The interviews were conducted as part of a "Lessons Learned" project by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction over the past several years. SIGAR has produced seven reports so far from the more than 400 interviews, and several more are in the works. The Post sought and received raw interview data through the Freedom of Information Act and lawsuits.
The documents quote officials close to the 18-year war effort describing a campaign by the U.S. government to distort the grim reality of the war.
"Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible," Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers, according to the Post. "Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone."
The Pentagon released a statement Monday saying there has been "no intent" by the department to mislead Congress or the public.
Defense Department officials "have consistently briefed the progress and challenges associated with our efforts in Afghanistan, and DoD provides regular reports to Congress that highlight these challenges," said Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a department spokesman. "Most of the individuals interviewed spoke with the benefit of hindsight. Hindsight has also enabled the department to evaluate previous approaches and revise our strategy, as we did in 2017 with the launch of the president's South Asia strategy."
SIGAR has frequently been vocal about the war's failures in reports going back more than a decade, including extensive questions about vast waste in the nearly $1 trillion spent on the conflict.
The Post said that John Sopko, the head of SIGAR, acknowledged that the documents show "the American people have constantly been lied to." SIGAR was created by Congress in 2008 to conduct audits and investigations into waste of government spending on the war in Afghanistan.
Democrats on Capitol Hill were quick to endorse the story's findings.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., tweeted: "The war in Afghanistan is an epic bipartisan failure. I have long called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that quagmire. Now it appears U.S. officials misled the American public about the war. It is time to leave Afghanistan. Now."
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said in a tweet: "775,000 of our troops deployed. 2,400 American lives lost. Over 20,000 Americans wounded. 38,000 civilians killed. Trillions spent. Rumsfeld in 2003: "I have no visibility into who the bad guys are.'"
Sarah Kreps, professor of government and international relations at Cornell University said the interviews reveal the enormous disconnect between what civilian and military leaders knew about the war and what the public knew, particularly about its costs.
The Post said that while the interviews contain few revelations about military operations in the war, they include a lot of criticism that refutes the narrative that officials often touted about progress being made.
James Dobbins, a former senior U.S. diplomat who served as a special envoy to Afghanistan under Bush and Obama was blunt in his assessment of the war in his interview.
"We don't invade poor countries to make them rich," The Post quoted Dobbins as saying in one of the interviews. "We don't invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan."