The Afghanistan Papers: A Reappraisal of an Appraisal

A little known agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), undertook the audit in 2014. The little-known government watchdog spent $11 million on the project, hired 600 staff. They recorded some 400 interviews. SIGAR’s mission: to assemble the Lessons Learned from the 18-year campaign in Afghanistan, 2,430 American soldiers dead, 775,000 deployed.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Washington Post demanded that the study of the war in Afghanistan be made public. The newspaper won. They dubbed the report the Afghanistan Papers. They have told SIGAR’s story. The findings ring with the force of truth finally spoken.

And yet for all its apparent objectivity, the impressive study hews to a perspective. It does not simply reveal, it persuades and specifically. The Afghanistan Papers place blame for the war gone awry on the duplicity of officials. Even the subtitle, “A Secret History of the War,” suggests the shadows and hush of backroom deception.

According to the Post’s report, the war has been one of hubris — grandiose plans for nation-building, feckless attempts at forming an indigenous security force, a thoughtless war on the Afghan poppy fields. The mission swelled into the constructing of a market-based, pluralistic democracy out of a tribal society of monarchism and Islamic law in Afghanistan. As one aid worker related of the failure of the new, great mission, it was like “pumping kerosene on a dying campfire.” Corruption and graft only poured water on dead coals.

The retired three-star Army general Michael Flynn, now known for his lying for President Donald Trump, captured the then-mentality. “Not one commander is going to leave Afghanistan…and say, ‘You know what, we didn’t accomplish our mission,’” Flynn explained.

Like the Post’s recent account, in June 1971, gripping the nation, the New York Times released the Pentagon Papers. And so too, the report set forth a specific narrative of the Vietnam War all the while written as if objective and neutral analysis. Like the Post’s account of Afghanistan, Neil Sheehan, the lead reporter, gave shape to the vast, diffuse and unabridged original Pentagon study by hewing to the theme of executive duplicity.

The Pentagon Papers, like the Afghanistan Papers, spoke of a hushed world. It was, like the Afghanistan Paper, finally seeing the deep and deleterious nature of the warring state. As Sheehan’s editor Max Frankel put it, the Papers revealed an “anatomy of failure.” Mistake led to mistake. Investment called for investment. Costs in men and money spiraled.

Alternatively, several scholars, at the time, saw the morass in Vietnam not arising from a rank cabal of dissemblers but from the zeitgeist of a generationThe Harvard political scientist Stanley Hoffman wrote of “the two tempi of America’s foreign relations” — isolationism and interventionism. The two tempi swayed like a metronome from the latter to the former and back. Each generation adopted a “strategic conventional wisdom…formed by the dramatic experience of their young adulthood.” Only then, each generation misapplied the “lessons of their youth.”

Vietnam was, arguably, a reaction by Kennedy’s cohort to their youthful perception of the events running up to Pearl Harbor. The proactive incursion into the Indochine Peninsula attempted to amend the mistaken isolationism leading up to the Second World War. The prominent hawkish Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson preached his generation’s dogma to fight the isolationism of the past: “The world might have been spared enormous misfortunes if Japan had not been permitted to succeed in Manchuria, or Mussolini in Ethiopia, or Hitler in Czechoslovakia.” In this way, we can see the interventionism of Vietnam not simply as presidential malefaction as the Pentagon Papers laid out. It was more than lies by four presidential regimes but a generation attempting to correct for the appeasement forwarded by a generation before.

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The Afghanistan Papers return us to the limited thesis of duplicity expounded by the Pentagon Paper. The Post stresses that officials, commanders, presidents “long misled the public,” It is a powerful and convincing headline made in an extraordinary piece of reporting by the Post. And yet it is but one thesis.

Perhaps the folly in Afghanistan is a generational story not far from the Jackson’s fending with appeasement. With talk ringing at the time of the hallowed Greatest Generation, so lauded by the likes of Steven Spielberg and Tom Brokaw, the story of the Greatest Generation has been aimed to be repeated in Asia. The fabled Marshall Plan has been attempted to be recast in the Middle East as once reconstructed in western Europe after World War II. It is a lesson not of lies but a lesson learned wrong, a great generational triumph tried too eagerly to be repeated. Whether against communists or terrorists, Americans in victory attempted to settle postwar territories by pumping in aid and experts, investing in indigenous groups, training and building infrastructure, fending off insurgents only to reinvest massively to fend off corruption. It has been a through-line from Vietnam to the Middle East to Somalia to Haiti, projects ever in the shadow of the so-dubbed Greatest Generation’s Marshall Plan.

In this sense, the problem of Afghanistan grew out of ill-thought-out strategy. And too, as the Papers do lay focus, the flawed campaign of nation-building that Gen. Stanley McChrystal called “government-in-a-box.” The scholars Paul Behringer and Nathaniel Moir argue that “the real problem is that this aid, modern weaponry and air superiority failed to defeat insurgents motivated by a powerful ideology.” The problem, according to this theory of the case, was not deception but malpractice. As the Post’s Greg Jaffe has excoriated the transfer from the “achievable goals” of counterterrorism in Afghanistan to the unachievable of counterinsurgency.

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But, still more, the great shadow looming over the Post’s analysisis a vast fumbling military bureaucracy. And yet the Post’s focus, again, rests on management’s choices not on the structure of the management system itself — communication, management, procurement. The unworkable bureaucracy is eclipsed in the Papers by a collection of villains and dupes.

Only hamstringing the effort was the transfer of necessary resources from the so-called “war of necessity” in Afghanistan to the “war of choice” in Iraq. The eye went off the ball. The lie was the insistence on a surety of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The casualty was Afghanistan.

And still we must ask: What lies? What deception? The Afghanistan Papers have been greeted by many with a shrug. The Papers have been brushed aside by the military brass as not news, nothing new. “If you read (the Papers), you’d almost think it’s a total disaster, and it’s not that at all,” former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said. “It’s been hard as hell but it’s not just one undistinguished defeat after another.” And, so too, by civilians. The focus on executive deception seems a focus on a different war, a different Papers.

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