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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.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

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Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Updated 9 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine must be evaluated on "more than a press release."
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York COVID restrictions.
  3. World: Thailand, Philippines sign deal with AstraZeneca for vaccine.
  4. Economy: Safety nets to disappear in December Black Friday shopping across the U.S., in photosAmazon hires 1,400 workers a day throughout pandemic.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.