If we have learned anything from pop culture, it is that history repeats itself. In 1971, one of the greatest political bombshells in US history was dropped. It was titled the “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” but you probably learned about it in your U.S. History class by its more common name, “The Pentagon Papers”.
History is hard to grasp, but now, history seems to recur in the form of the Afghanistan Papers, which chronicle the longest war in American history, costing about 2,300 lives and over $975 billion with little to show for it.
According to these documents, U.S. officials knowingly misled the public about the progress made in Afghanistan. With three years of legal battles, the Washington Post won the release of the documents through the Freedom of Information Act. These papers included thousands of pages of documented interviews that were left unpublished, but depicted the complaints of those directly involved in the United States’ involvement in the war.
In an interview uncovered by the Washington Post with retired U.S. army general, Dan McNeill, who was a commander of U.S. forces from 2002 to 2003 and NATO forces from 2007 to 2008, McNeill depicted the lack understanding of strategy in Afghanistan. “I tried to get someone to define what winning meant, even before I went over, and nobody could. Nobody would give me a good definition of what it meant,” McNeill said.
The documentation uncovered alarmingly contrasts between what was made public by officials and who made sure the public was aware of the progress and necessity of the war. With all the information given, it still surprises few that the war in Afghanistan was never winnable. After review of many of these interviews, a common theme has repeated itself and that is the lack of cohesiveness between the message from Washington and the reality in Afghanistan.
One of these misleading messages was that winning the war was even achievable as shared through an interview also uncovered by The Post of Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs from 2006 to 2009. “If we think our exit strategy is to either beat the Taliban – which can’t be done given the local regional and cross border circumstances – or to establish an Afghan government that is capable of delivering good government to its citizens using American tools and methods, then we do not have an exit strategy because both of those are impossible,” Boucher said.
With three presidents, 18 years, 31,000 Afghanistan civilian deaths, over 2,300 American lives lost in action, more than 20,000 soldiers wounded, it would seem like there is something worth fighting for.
The documentation released by the Washington Post yet again shows the two decades of deception that continues the war to today. “You can argue that you are preventing Afghanistan from being used as an operational base for the really bad guys, but then there are plenty of other options for them. In terms of what we were trying to achieve does that mean loss? It probably does. Certainly we took a bloody nose,” McNeill said.