Afghanistan

The 'Afghanistan Papers' Confirm Critics' Worst Fears About America's Longest War

It's hard to compete for attention with the ongoing impeachment proceedings, but the "Afghan Papers" should cause heads to roll (or explode).

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It's been 18 years since the United States invaded Afghanistan in what officials promised to be a decisive mission to uproot a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. You're totally not shocked to learn that things didn't quite work out as promised, and that the government repeatedly misled the public about its level of success, about the fundamental purpose of the endeavor and just about everything.

Like I said, you're not surprised. That's how government behaves—not that many readers believed anti-war libertarians as we warned about such things at the time. I'm surprised it took so long for anyone to notice, and that the latest evidence—a meticulously reported project by The Washington Post—has been met with yawns. It's hard to compete for attention with the ongoing impeachment proceedings, but the "Afghan Papers" should cause heads to roll (or explode).

We've all devolved into members of bickering high-school cliques who snipe at each other on social media and don't trust any information from others, but there are worse things. I recall the morning my wife called me into the TV room to watch the burning World Trade Center. "Uh, I think I better get to the newspaper right away," I said. For years after those attacks, Americans seemed united as we trusted the government to wage its war on terrorism. A little bit more bickering and distrust might have been a good thing.

On the Orange County Register editorial board, we issued our warnings about overseas commitments—the costs in lives and treasure and the impossibility of turning impoverished backwaters into modern democracies. We were accused of basically being bad Americans. Yet the Afghan and Iraq conflicts turned out pretty much as we and other critics predicted, as the Post report reveals in maddening detail.

Most people have long realized that Iraq was a debacle. It was a war of choice that had little to do with the 9/11 attacks, but Afghanistan seemed more defensible given that the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalists clearly had set up shop there. But the Post report suggests that even that reality didn't make the war's focus clear. The newspaper combed through thousands of pages of documents and hundreds of interviews gleaned through public-records requests.

The newspaper found "that as the war dragged on, the goals and mission kept changing and a lack of faith in the U.S. strategy took root" at the highest levels. Officials couldn't even agree on the purpose of the war: some wanted to turn the nation into a democracy, others wanted to "transform Afghan culture and elevate women's rights" and "still others wanted to reshape the regional balance of power among Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia." They failed on all counts.

The arrogance of American officials always amazed me. Our country's large-scale efforts to transform parts of this country—the War on Poverty, the Great Society—failed spectacularly. Yet our leaders thought they could invade a country that most Americans couldn't pinpoint on a map, and which had a history of repelling invaders (think of Russia), and fundamentally transform its society. And they kept spinning Americans and distorting "statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case." The government probably figured Americans wouldn't ask many questions when it came to "national security."

Some of the Post's stories were eye-opening: how military officials were ordered to spend millions of dollars a day in small regions, even though no one had any idea what to do with it. That's government. It literally dumps money on problems and hopes it will create progress, when all it does is encourage corruption. Even more amazing, our military couldn't distinguish between friends and enemies.

My favorite quotation was from an unnamed adviser to an Army Special Forces team: "They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live. It took several conversations for them to understand that I did not have that information in my hands. At first, they just kept asking: 'But who are the bad guys, where are they?'"

These days, we're all sure our fellow partisans are brilliant and the other side is evil, but this ought to give everyone pause: President Barack Obama's policy in Afghanistan wasn't appreciably different from George W. Bush's—and neither of them had any particular success. Both made grandiose promises about "winning" and eradicating terrorists, but neither delivered.

In 2009, the geopolitical website Stratfor.com noted that "radical Islamist groups are pursuing a strategy of exhaustion where success is not measured in the number of battles won, but rather the ability to outlast the occupier." Frankly, I'm exhausted by a government that continues to squander lives and treasure in pursuit of pointless wars—and by Americans who refuse to recognize it until it's too late.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

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  1. The ‘Afghanistan Papers’ Confirm Critics’ Worst Rears About America’s Longest War

    Homophobes.

  2. not that many readers believed anti-war libertarians as we warned about such things at the time

    If you hadn’t suddenly lost all interest in the subject from January 20 2009 to January 19 2017 you might have had more success.

    If you hadn’t agitated for American intervention in Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen while supporting religious fanatics during the Arab Spring you might have a shred of credibility.

    1. If you hadn’t suddenly lost all interest in the subject from January 20 2009 to January 19 2017 you might have had more success.

      Black on brown crime is to be ignored…just like at home.

    2. I do seem to remember anti-war articles from reason between 2009 and 2017…

    3. Who’s this “you”? I don’t recall Reason agitating for American intervention in any of these countries.

      1. Well you’re a Reason reader, so you’re obviously pretty stupid, but they were literally just caterwauling about how disgraceful it was of Trump to end Obama’s illegal Syria incursion when it was making headlines just a few weeks ago. They supported that invasion from day 1. Supported Libya from day 1. Defended Clinton on Libya. Supported the uprising in Tunisia and demanded American support for the rebels. Did the same in Syria. Did the same in Egypt. Did the same in Yemen. During the entire Obama administration had a really difficult time finding any middle eastern radical guerrillas that weren’t deserving of American military support.

        1. Really? You mean they supported the Libyan incursion with Obama-era articles like these? https://reason.com/2016/06/30/benghazi-just-a-symptom-interventionism/

        2. Naah, reason.com as a whole were pretty skeptical of the Syria invasion from day 1. They did a lot of Rand Paul articles at the time. They were skeptical about arming Syrian rebels right from the beginning. Some journalists had different opinions but I think the vast majority of reason.com were anti-war – you have to give them true credit for that even if they are liberal and anti-trump.

    4. “If you hadn’t agitated for American intervention in Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen while supporting religious fanatics during the Arab Spring you might have a shred of credibility.”

      You are delusional, right? Or, more likely, never read any articles posted here…..

      I wish I could say it sounds like sarcasm……

      1. You are delusional, right? Or, more likely, never read any articles posted here…..

        No, actually you’re delusional. Or amnesic. But more likely just fucking retarded.

  3. The arrogance of American officials always amazed me.

    You new here?

  4. “Most people have long realized that Iraq was a debacle.”

    Likely true, but some people not only defend torture and invading the wrong country but are even still clinging on Vietnam. These dead-enders tend to be loud and disaffected, to be illiterate and anti-social; and to show up in these comments.

    1. Actually Art, many of the loudest cheerleaders for the Iraq War have reinvented themselves as #Resistance icons. Take David Frum, Max Boot, and Bill Kristol for example. All three despise Orange Hitler and encourage voting Democrat — effectively making them part of the liberal-libertarian mainstream.

      #LibertariansForEmbracingNeocons

      1. Which is worse — a clinger who has repented, or a clinger who is still clinging?

        1. Bill Kristol: The war in Iraq was right and necessary, and we won it.

          The entire point is that the leading neocons haven’t repented for Iraq. And I’m saying that’s fine.

          1. Cripple fight!

      2. What do these people (neocons) have anything to do with Reason libertarians? I know you hate libertarians and you hate Reason (because you’re a fucking rich-hating socialist and a fucking negro-hating white nationalist), but trying to portray libertarians as military interventionist is a bit of a stretch to even the most distracted followers of politics. See: Ron Paul.

        1. Because they are McCain Conservatives who support Amash!

    2. If they’re illiterate and anti-social, why would they be posting comments, gecko?

      1. Some people no longer are concerned about displaying illiteracy (random capitalization, anti-elite Tea Party spelling), anti-social positions, ignorance, and bigotry.

        To the contrary, they proclaim their substandard nature proudly.

        1. Some people no longer are concerned about displaying illiteracy (random capitalization, anti-elite Tea Party spelling), anti-social positions, ignorance, and bigotry. To the contrary, they proclaim their substandard nature proudly.

          Yeah, you do.

    3. Likely true, but some people not only defend torture and invading the wrong country but are even still clinging on Vietnam. These dead-enders tend to be loud and disaffected, to be illiterate and anti-social; and to show up in these comments.

      You do!

      And so do the politicians you support.

    4. Dead Enders like you.

  5. First thoughts, about one paragraph in – – – –
    Major typo in the headline; sourcing the Washington Post? Not going to bother

  6. I bet the Chinese will win in Afghanistan. It might take them a couple of hundred years though…

    1. Don’t laugh. Afghanistan is an opium farm coveted by Russians eager to sell to inland China like whiskey peddlers near an Indian reservation. China turned it around and the Black Hole of Calcutta, mutinies, etc. occurred while Brits bombarded China to force them to accept opium and alien religions–profits keeping real Indians in the very subjection These States repelled. Today China’s tentacles reach for Hong Kong, unequal treaty opium port…

      1. Then I guess it’s because of Russian disinformation that I’ve believed all these years that the US/CIA was the global organizer of the heroin traffic. The scales have fallen from my eyes! http://www.organized-crime.de/revmcc01.htm

        1. US/CIA drug running is true. But I suspect the real reason we keep hanging on in Afghanistan is because we want the mineral wealth that no one has so far taken. In the Bob Woodward book “Fear” Trump blurted out that they have all this mineral wealth and we need to get companies in there to get it out. When he was asked “What companies?” He didn’t know but said “We need to get something for all the lives and money this has cost us.”

  7. Apparently, no edit button for headlines either.

  8. “Worst Rears”?

    I’m guessing Rosie O’Donnell.

    1. No, it’s plural; must mean the Kardashians.

    2. The leader in the clubhouse (eating a triple cheeseburger, eyeing a bucket of chicken, and ordering a government physician to report his weight as one pound shy of morbid obesity).

      1. You’re just jealous that Trump is still thinner than you.

  9. The problem is always getting the American people to admit that the U.S. men and women who have already died in these seemingly unwinnable conflicts have “died in vain.” A stock Hollywood meme is the younger brother who is going to sign up to avenge an older brother’s death in combat. Try to explain sunk costs to a grieving mother and father, or to a combat vet who has lost a good buddy.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Trump cut a deal with the Taliban to get U.S. forces out of Afghanistan in October 2020.
    And the Taliban to hold off reconquering Afghanistan until after Nov. 5th. Put yourself in a Taliban leader’s position. What would you do?

    1. “The problem is always getting the American people to admit that the U.S. men and women who have already died in these seemingly unwinnable conflicts have “died in vain.”

      Maybe in Vietnam. America has changed since those days, and now people don’t really give a shit about the soldiers who were foolish enough to volunteer to be targets for the Taleban. I don’t think they care about these soldiers topping themselves after they return home, either. Americans today are a leaner, meaner lot.

      “I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Trump cut a deal”

      I’m not sure the military would go along with that. There is a lot at stake in continuing the war. Medals to be won, promotions to be gained. War is the health of the state and the generals won’t like a TV celebrity or community organizer messing with their rice bowl.

      1. I’m not sure the military would go along with that. There is a lot at stake in continuing the war.

        I promise you, the military wants out as badly as anyone. It’s mostly the upper brass and contractors that are invested in keeping things going, but there is an actual, designated withdrawal point that’s been set. The issue is that it’s doubtful we’d ever legitimately reach it.

        1. ” It’s mostly the upper brass ”

          Probably middle brass with ambitions to become upper brass, too. As I understand things military, combat is good for career.

      2. “Meaner and leaner.”

        Please! I wish. This generation is the first in history to watch speech codes and diversity and inclusion, and first in American history to favor socialism and want to be taken care of by the collective. Don’t mistake narcissistic brattiness for being meaner and leaner.

        1. “Don’t mistake narcissistic brattiness for being meaner and leaner.”

          It’s the lack of concern for those who suffer as a result of endless conflict. Diversity, inclusion and taboo have always been a concern of Americans.

    2. “How many more have to die so we can save face?”
      -Ron Paul

    3. You wouldn’t be surprised? Because it’s what Reagan did?

  10. the United States invaded Afghanistan in what officials promised to be a decisive mission to uproot a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

    We did that.. but were we just going to up and leave without giving their goat herders free WiFi, and computer labs in all of their schools?

    1. ’course not. It’s how our corporations make their money.

  11. Ruh roh, worst rears

  12. Reason Stylebook:

    When baiting for clicks:
    1) Trump
    2) Rears

  13. Throughout history victorious armies occupy territory, forever if necessary. They do not leave voluntarily. Empires either expand or shrink, live or die. We are an unwilling empire which makes us unique.

    Let’s not start or enter any wars unless we want to stay.

    1. Or, unless we are willing to obliterate the enemy before leaving. We keep starting wars knowing we are not willing to do what it takes to achieve victory.

      1. Obliterate the enemy? Except that “we” are the enemy.

  14. It’s hard to compete for attention with the ongoing impeachment proceedings, but the “Afghan Papers” should cause heads to roll (or explode).

    You’ve got 22 comments here, if only you had thought to append “…and it’s all Trump’s fault” to the title of your post you would have 500 comments by now. If you want people to pay attention to your pitch, you have to know what pitch they’ll pay attention to. You’d get more clicks publishing a random page from a Bulgarian dictionary with the title “Yet More Reasons Trump Is Horrible” than you’d get publishing a sex tape featuring Jessica Alba, Mila Kunis and a five-gallon bucket of pancake syrup.

    1. You’ve got 22 comments here, if only you had thought to append “…and it’s all Trump’s fault” to the title of your post you would have 500 comments by now.

      And you know full well that Greenhut was itching for a way to blame Afghanistan on Trump. Somehow. Because that’s what Reason has deteriorated into.

      1. Trump’s not to blame FOR Afghanistan. He IS to blame for not GETTING THE FLYING FUCK OUT of Afghanistan like he promised to do three fucking years ago when he came into office. THAT’S what he’s to blame for. You gonna dispute that?

        Obama pulled the same shit, btw. Fuck him, too.

    2. Personally I hate pancake-syrup porn.

  15. Nation-building as a foreign policy strategy has never worked in a country that does not already have a strong history and culture to support democratic/capitalist structures. It worked in Germany and Japan after WW2 because both of those countries had histories of civil service and organized governments, traditions that could be built into democratic nations. Countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, etc, don’t have that history, and are resistant to even our best efforts.

    1. It’s questionable whether it even worked there. Both Germany and Japan are still rather collectivist societies. But at least they have been pacified.

      1. “Both Germany and Japan are still rather collectivist societies.”

        Collectivist in what sense? You mean economically?

        1. Socially and economically.

          1. I was hoping for a more thorough answer, but okay.

    2. Your omission of the hyphen is a stroke of genius. Except that you’re not being ironic, are you?
      “It worked in Germany and Japan after WW2 because both of those countries had histories of civil service and organized governments, traditions ”
      Yeah, the Third Reich was nothing if not a model of organisation.
      You forgot to mention that one “tradition” Germany and Japan didn’t have and Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, etc. did was constant colonisation by Western, “Christian” nations bent on bringing them democracy (surely there was no other motivation?).

  16. “Most people have long realized that Iraq was a debacle.”

    Many of them being the McCain “conservatives” Reason squee’ed about supporting Amash.

    Man, I’m glad lying about a long running war doesn’t justify impeachment as much as not doing what Democrats want does.

  17. “our military couldn’t distinguish between friends and enemies.” But whut about those DARPA translater gadgets? Like in “Mars Attacks,” you could run around shooting and looting while the recordings shouted “Don’t run away! We’re your friends!”

  18. “Afghanistan is Trump’s fault.” — Reason

  19. America’s Longest War

    Can’t figure out how to win or how to get out or even really how to move from here.

    Can anyone say quagmire?

  20. One of the failures our our Military’s ‘COIN’ doctrine is that it doesn’t ask if the population supports you or not. In Vietnam and Iraq we were clearly seen as the worst of two evils.

  21. Can’t disagree with that.

    And since we’re on the subject, I wish Reason would dig into Trump’s claim that our military had been “depleted” before he took office. I’m behind Trump on most things, but this particular claim always sounded like BS to me.

    We’re spending more than we did during the Cold War, adjusted for inflation. How can it be depleted? And depleted to fight what? Where are all the boogeymen?! And don’t tell me ISIS.

  22. And we still don’t know enough about the rare-earth deposits

  23. The problem is our federal government is a crony capitalist democracy. The branches of the government have expanded past the original Executive, Judicial & Legislative to include the military-industrial complex, big agricultural, big medicine… as branches with equal or greater powerful in their influence. I have a potential solution on how to fix it but it is opinion, not fact so I won’t post it here.

    1. Don’t leave out Big Education.

      1. …and Big Alternate Media?

  24. war = MIC cha-ching.
    there’s nothing they appreciate more than a good 20 year war

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  26. The Afghan government is shockingly corrupt and inept even by third world standards.
    It will fall 2 months after we leave, whether we stay 2 weeks or another 20 years.
    If it is indeed in our national interest to “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here”, then hire mercenary companies like Blackwater/Xe and let them fight it with foreign troops.
    Otherwise, sign that deal President Trump, and get out.

    1. You mean you think they’re more corrupt than we are? We seem to be doing pretty good at it with our corporatocracy!

  27. The Afghanistan papers are just propaganda pretending to be leaked criticism. All the real big lies were not mentioned in this worthless crap so valiantly exposed by the Washington Post. This is not your father’s Wapo which leaked the Pentagon papers. It is owned Amazon, Inc. that has multi-billion deals with the CIA.

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