By Rishija Singh*
Recently, The Washington Post obtained, after a three year-long legal battle, a series of confidential documents containing hundreds of interviews of officials associated with the 18 year-long US war on Afghanistan. The documents were part of a ‘Lessons Learned’ project by the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar), a federal agency whose main task is eliminating corruption and inefficiency in the US war effort.
The disclosure happened amidst the negotiations that are taking place, yet again, between the Donald Trump administration and the Taliban as the administration mulls the withdrawal of 13,000 US troops who remain in Afghanistan. The papers, just like the Pentagon papers, reveal how the key figures associated with the war were lying to the people about their success in this unwinnable war, that has cost around $1trillion, killed more than 2,300 US service personnel and injured more than 20,000. It has also cost the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans. According to the United Nations, 3,804 Afghan civilians lost their lives just last year.
The papers also reveal that most of these officials had no clue what they were doing in Afghanistan, as the goalposts kept shifting and the war got protracted. John Sopko, head of Sigar, told the Post that assessment of the project suggested that “the American People have constantly been lied to”.
In its deceptive nature, the Post recalls the Pentagon papers, leaked in 1971, that revealed that the US government constantly misled the public about their goals and success in the Vietnam Wars. The Post discloses how, at the outset, the US invasion in Afghanistan had a clear stated objective, to retaliate against the Al-Qaeda and prevent attacks similar to September, 11, 2001. However, as the years progressed, the goals started changing and fragmenting. While some US officials wanted to turn Afghanistan into democracy, some wanted to uplift women’s rights and transform Afghanistan’s culture. There were also those who wanted to reshape the regional balance of power among Pakistan, Iran, India and Russia. This lack of clear cut goals, irrespective of the benign intentions, has cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides, without producing any result.
Furthermore, the documents and interviews reveal that US military commanders were also clueless about who were they fighting and why. They struggled to define the enemy; was it Al Qaeda or Taliban or the warlords on the CIA’s payroll. This resulted in heavy casualties, because they often couldn’t distinguish friends from enemies.
Among the many goals, the most quixotic one was to establish a democratic form of government in Afghanistan, which has no real history or experience with such a form of government. It was like artificially supplanting a foreign idea into a country which is deeply traditional and unstable. This introduction of state-building without nation-building is not new for the US government; they have attempted to implement the same model elsewhere and failed; one example being Iraq. Among umpteen US failures are massive corruption and the opium trade that has flourished in Afghanistan under the US officials’ watch. The corruption de-legitimized the already tenuous government and made people incline towards Taliban.
However, the most striking thing about the interviews was the old pattern of deception, self-deception, image-making, ideologizing and de-factualization that scholar Hannah Arendt noted in her reflections on the Pentagon papers. While the dominant theory during the Vietnam Wars was “Domino theory”, that assumed the presence of a monolithic Communist world conspiracy and existence of a Sino-Soviet bloc, the Afghan war was manufactured to fit into the “War on terror” narrative. Like Vietnam, officials chose to ignore all the facts; historical, political, geographical; for around 18 years.
This complete disregard for reality was inherent in the policies and goals. The officials always maintained that they were succeeding in their goals and, no matter how the war was going, especially when it was going badly, they emphasized that they were making progress. This constant lying and manipulation of statistics was combined by the spinning of facts to the point of absurdity. While the suicide bombings by Taliban were cited as their desperation, the rise in US troops’ death levels was cited as a sign of taking the fight to the enemy. So the reality was constantly broken, moulded and re-interpreted according to the narrative that suited the officials.
9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror witnessed massive deception and an image-making exercise accentuated by the proliferation of media platforms. Political communication researcher Jim A. Kyupers, in his work “Bush’s war: Media Bias and justifications for War in a Terrorist Age,” explains the “massive bias on the part of the press” and concludes by calling the mainstream news media an “anti-democratic institution”.
The most important lesson that has been learnt by the “Lesson Learned” Project is, however, that barring the way US approached Vietnam war and the Afghanistan war, there is no similarity between the two cases. And the over-obsession withdrawing “rational” theories and narratives from history and the past will only blur the decision-making capacity of the leaders. Reality is always contingent and never coherent and logical as the theories that are derived out of it. The Afghan reality was very different from Vietnam’s, which was again different from Korea’s and so on.
*About the author: The writer is a PhD Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She can be contacted at [email protected]
Source: This article was published by South Asia Monitor