Already, many U.S. leaders and past officials are busy pointing the finger of blame at each other. But the truth is that it has been a whole-of-government failure over 20 years that has brought us predictably to this point: we have long known the war was unwinnable yet refused to acknowledge that basic reality and all too eager to lie about it —until now.
This entire, tragic outcome could have been avoided if President George W. Bush had just been willing to take the win after the goals of the invasion were swiftly accomplished. That original mission was limited and militarily attainable: disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and attack the military capability of the Taliban regime. That was fully accomplished by March 2002. Had he ended the war and withdrawn the troops at that time, no more Americans would have died or been injured, and the Afghans would have sorted out how they want to be governed.
But Bush set the stage for this present defeat when, in 2007, he changed the mission to a nation-building effort. He gave our troops objectives that were militarily unattainable, in any timeframe, thus baking in failure. President Barack Obama had a chance to undo Bush’s error, but instead, he doubled down on the nation-building objectives, forfeiting any chance we might have had to avoid defeat. Neither of those presidential actions would have been able to persist were it not enabled by a host of well-known figures, both uniformed and civilian, engaging in a relentless campaign of willful deception and outright lies.
We can’t claim, however, that we in the public didn’t know.
The first big bombshell to drop came in 2010 when Julian Assange exposed the “Afghan War Diary,” a compilation of tens of thousands of classified documents, leaked by then-Specialist Bradley Manning. These documents revealed that senior members of the U.S. government and military had been lying about the progress of the war. Manning was eventually convicted of wrongdoing, but none of those exposed for lying were ever held to account.
The next big trove of lies to be exposed came with the Washington Post’s 2019 “Afghan Papers,” resulting from a Freedom of Information Act release of previously confidential documents amassed by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Recovery (SIGAR). These documents revealed in sometimes stunning clarity that senior leaders privately knew we were losing the war, but in public said the opposite. After dominating the media cycle for weeks, the matter was effectively ignored.
Over the past nine years, John F. Sopko, Inspector General for SIGAR, has been clear about providing the metrics of how badly our mission was failing to achieve its objectives. His quarterly and annual reports would typically make the news, but then be forgotten. His warning about where things were headed and recommendations for how to improve things were routinely ignored.
In January 2020, Sopko told Congress just how bad things were, that after almost 19 years, our effort to produce a quality security force for Afghanistan had been an unqualified failure. “The Afghan military – and particularly the Afghan police,” Sopko testified, “has been a hopeless nightmare and a disaster.” His frustration that no one heeded his warnings boiled over last month in a roundtable discussion with the Defense Writers Group.
His comments were primarily related to the unwillingness of American leaders to heed the warnings he had given for nine years, but they are just as applicable to our collective unwillingness to heed the warnings revealed in the 2010 WikiLeaks or the 2019 Afghan Papers. Sopko said, “We exaggerated, over-exaggerated – our generals did, our ambassadors did, all of our officials did – to Congress and the American people about how we’re just turning the corner… Well, we turned the corner so much we did 360 degrees – we’re like a top.”
After 20 years of American military and diplomatic investment, the Taliban are on the cusp of completely seizing control of the country. The only reason anyone can be shocked by this, however, is because of decades of mendacity and deception by U.S. leaders and an abject unwillingness to acknowledge ground truth in Afghanistan. To date, not one of the many people whose lies kept this war going for so long have been held to account. In many cases, they have prospered quite well.
Thousands of American service members, however, are dead. Thousands more will have to struggle through the rest of their lives without all their limbs; hundreds of thousands more suffer the hidden wounds of post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed over the years because the war dragged pointlessly on; millions now sit at this moment in Kabul wondering if they’ll survive being caught in the crossfire of a Taliban assault.
It can no longer be acceptable to allow the architects of this two-decade disaster to escape without censure. The cost of their mendacity and hubris has been extraordinary – and now we can add an American military defeat to the list of consequences. It’s time to stop the bleeding and stop the lying – before the consequences are one day too much to bear.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1