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).


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 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.