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WaPo: American people misled for two decades over Afghanistan failures

The report covers failures across the Bush (L) and Obama administrations. Photo: Brendan SmialowskiI/AFP via Getty Images

Three U.S. administrations have, over 18 years, told the public the U.S. was making steady progress in Afghanistan despite knowing the war effort was failing.

Driving the news: The facts are laid bare in new reporting from Washington Post, based on 2,000 pages of interviews conducted by a government oversight agency to determine what went wrong in Afghanistan. The Post gained access to the documents after a three-year legal battle.

The big picture: Generals, diplomats and other top officials generally describe a war effort without a functional strategy, along with a corresponding PR effort to obscure the dysfunction and hide setbacks.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing. What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking. … If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction. … Who will say this was in vain?”
— Douglas Lute, a retired general and former Afghan war czar for Bush and Obama.

By the numbers:

  • When George W. Bush said the U.S. would be in Afghanistan until al-Qaeda was “brought to justice,” the timeline he cited was “a month” to a “year or two.”
  • 775,000 U.S. troops have been deployed to Afghanistan, many of them more than once, over 18 years of war. 2,300 died while 20,589 were wounded.
  • $934 billion to $978 billion was spent by the Pentagon and USAID in Afghanistan, with more spent by the CIA and other agencies.
  • $133 billion went into developing Afghanistan, exceeding the cost of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe (adjusted for inflation).
  • Opium production is spiking despite $8 billion spent to fight it. Afghanistan now contributes 82% of the world’s supply.
  • Just 35% of Americans think the war effort “mostly succeeded,” while 49% think it “mostly failed,” per Pew.
  • 13,000 troops remain in Afghanistan.

The interviews reviewed by the Post were conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) between 2014-2018. The subjects didn't expect them to become public.

Key takeaways:

  • Billions distributed to build up Afghanistan's economy created a political "kleptocracy" that has destroyed trust in the government and will plague Afghanistan for years to come.
  • The Afghan security forces trained by the U.S. to keep the peace as the U.S. pulls back are described as "incompetent, unmotivated and rife with deserters," per the Post.
  • There was political pressure to make U.S. initiatives like the Obama administration's troop surge look successful "despite hard evidence to the contrary."

The bottom line: So much of what the U.S. has attempted in Afghanistan has failed, and so much effort was made to keep the American people from knowing it.

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