Government watchdog blasts withholding of key information on Afghanistan

The U.S. government’s Afghanistan watchdog blasted the State and Defense departments for withholding critical information about their work in Afghanistan that “almost certainly would have benefited Congress and the public in assessing whether progress was being made.” Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko said, “The full picture of what happened in August — and all the warning signs that could have predicted that outcome — will only be revealed if the information that the Departments of State and Defense have already restricted from public release is made available.”

Speaking at the Military Reporters & Editors Association Conference in Arlington, Virginia, on October 29, Sopko called on the two departments to release all the relevant information.

Sopko has been a consistent and harsh critic of the way the Afghan war was conducted, but his comments are likely to be scrutinized as lawmakers investigate the mistakes made in the conduct of the nearly 20-year conflict and its chaotic end. He said the restriction of information by the Defense Department, which dated back to 2015, would have helped Congress and the public assess “whether we should have ended our efforts” in Afghanistan.

The Defense Department restricted the public release of information about “the performance of the Afghan security forces,” which included “casualty data, unit strength, training and operation deficiencies, tactical and operational readiness of Afghan military leadership, comprehensive assessments of Afghan security force leadership, and operational readiness rates,” Sopko said. In short, it was “nearly all the information you needed to determine whether the Afghan security forces were a real fighting force or a house of cards waiting to fall.”

The Pentagon had repeatedly touted the size and strength of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces as superior to the vastly outnumbered Taliban. In the end, the Afghan military collapsed in a span of less than two weeks as the Taliban swept across the country this summer, culminating in the fall of Kabul on August 15 with barely a shot fired.

Sopko also ridiculed the State Department’s request to “temporarily suspend access” to all “audit, inspection and financial audit... reports,” on SIGAR’s website shortly after Kabul fell to the Taliban. The State Department claimed information in those reports “could put Afghan allies at risk. The requests, Sopko said, did not make any sense, like asking to redact the name of former Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, a figure already well known internationally.

The State Department also asked SIGAR to consider redacting the name of a USAID official, Sopko said, even though he testified publicly before Congress in 2017 and video of the testimony is still available. State then requested that SIGAR redact 2,400 new items the department identified on SIGAR’s website. Sopko reviewed the requested redactions and found all “but four to be without merit.”

Sopko said the request from the State Department, along with the Defense Department’s longstanding restriction on key information about the mission in Afghanistan, prevented lawmakers, the press, and the public from knowing the true state of affairs in the country and what led to its collapse to the Taliban in such a short amount of time.

Sopko argued that State and Defense “should declassify and make available to SIGAR and Congress all internal DOD and State Department cables, reports and other material reflecting the security situation on the ground over the last few years — especially those reports that differed from the public statements of the agencies in Washington.”

In order to fully understand what happened in Afghanistan and learn from 20 years of U.S. military involvement in the country, more information is needed, Sopko said, arguing for greater transparency from the U.S. government. “To answer these questions, we must find out what our government knew, when it knew it, and what it did, if anything, with that information,” he said.

– edited from CNN, October 29, 2021
PeaceMeal, Nov./December 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

President Biden is cleaning up Trump’s mess in Afghanistan

Scott Dworkin, Newsweek, August 23, 2021

The images coming out of Afghanistan have been disturbing. But let’s be clear: The Trump Administration led us straight into this mess, and President Biden is doing everything he can to get us out of it.

In Afghanistan, President Biden got dealt yet another losing hand from the Trump Administration. Their Doha Agreement with the Taliban violated the most basic principles of self-government for the Afghan people. There was no way to enforce it or make sure the Taliban kept its word. There was no denunciation of al-Qaeda terrorists. Worst of all, the deal didn’t mandate that the Taliban stop attacks against Afghan security forces. All of this set the stage for the chaotic scenes we’re seeing on TV today.

Trump’s deal with the Taliban was flawed from the start, which is why Trump’s own officials are now scrambling to distance themselves from it. “To have our Generals say that they are depending on diplomacy with the Taliban is an unbelievable scenario. Negotiating with the Taliban is like dealing with the devil,” tweeted Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who certainly voiced no such objections while working for Trump. She was not alone. “Our secretary of state signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban,” Trump’s former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told journalist Bari Weiss. “This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves.”

Even Mike Pompeo, Trump's secretary of state and the man who negotiated the deal with the Taliban in the first place, is now denouncing it. He had the audacity to tell Fox News that the “debacle” in Afghanistan “will certainly harm America’s credibility with its friends and allies.” He certainly didn’t seem to think so while he was laying the groundwork for the debacle in the first place.

“We’re letting the Taliban run free and wild all around Afghanistan,” complained Pompeo, the man who cut the deal to release the Taliban’s leader from prison in the first place. Trump ordered the release of 5,000 of the top captured Taliban fighters last year — a decision his own designated “peace envoy” Zalmay Khaliizad said publicly had disturbed him. Those same fighters are now threatening the streets of Kabul.

Republican outrage was also completely absent in the first 45 days of Donald Trump’s agreement, when there were over 4,500 Taliban attacks resulting in over 900 Afghan casualties. Where was the Republican outrage about the Afghan army then, when their President handed over Afghanistan to the Taliban? Nonexistent.

They saved their denunciations for Biden’s efforts to clean up Trump's mess — efforts which have as yet cost many fewer lives.

But this hypocrisy is not limited to former Trump officials. Take House Republican firebrand Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), for example, who only tweeted once in 2014 about losing an American general in combat in Afghanistan, until discovering it as a partisan issue this summer. Now that he can blame Biden for Trump’s mess, he hasn’t stopped tweeting about it.

Jordan is one of many Republicans hypocritically denouncing a Biden withdrawal that they championed under Trump. The Republican Party used to brag about Trump's “historic” peace deal in Afghanistan. Now, they went so far as to delete that press release to pave the way for a new, partisan attack on President Biden over the end results of that very agreement.

Twitter is awash in angry Republicans outraged about our allies in Afghanistan who we should have evacuated before we left. And yet, it is Trump — and his advisor Stephen Miller — who are the reason so many Afghan interpreters are stuck in Afghanistan due to stalled special immigrant visa (SIV) application infrastructure. Former Vice President Mike Pence advisor Olivia Troye wrote on Twitter that folks like Trump and Miller made it “even more challenging” to get allies out, overriding the concerns of others in the administration. “There were cabinet meetings about this during the Trump Admin where Stephen Miller would peddle his racist hysteria about Iraq & Afghanistan,” Troye wrote. “He & his enablers across government would undermine anyone who worked on solving the SIV issue by devastating the system at DHS & State.”

In fact, at the end of last year, the Trump administration had nearly 11,000 visas authorized for Afghans who helped America during the last 20 years, but only gave out 1,300 while most of the withdrawal took place.

So whose fault is it that so many of those who helped us are stuck in Afghanistan? The burden of that responsibility falls squarely on Trump’s shoulders. And it is Biden who is working diligently to get them out.

And it was Trump who bragged just this April that the process of moving the U.S. military out of Afghanistan had progressed to a point that even if President Biden wanted to, he “couldn't stop the process.” Trump was right: There was nothing Biden could do to stop what was coming in Afghanistan short of another massive U.S. military deployment. According to the text of the February 29, 2020 agreement Trump signed with the Taliban, within 135 days, America would withdraw from five major bases and agreed to complete the rest of its major withdrawals within nine months. In other words, the Army agreed to pull out of Afghanistan long before Biden’s inauguration, which it mostly accomplished.

So to those blaming President Biden for how the Afghanistan war is ending, let’s be real: Trump led us into this mess. And he could not get us out of it. Joe Biden is doing something Trump and two other presidents over two decades never could or would do: President Biden is ending the war in Afghanistan. For that, he deserves our respect.

– PeaceMeal, Sept./October 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

‘A fantasy’ to think U.N. can fix Afghanistan, Guterres says

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on September 15 said any suggestion the world body can solve Afghanistan’s problems is “a fantasy” and that its capacity to mediate for a more inclusive Taliban government is limited.

Asked in an interview a month after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan from a Western-backed government whether he felt pressure to repair the country’s plight, Guterres said: “I think there is an expectation that is unfounded” of U.N. influence as the main international organization still on the ground there.

The world has watched a number of countries send thousands of soldiers to Afghanistan and spend vast sums of money for 20 years since a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The United States spent $1-trillion, only to see the Afghan government and military it supported collapse ahead of a full withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces in August.

“To think — given that they have failed with all these resources to fix the problems of Afghanistan — that we can now, without those forces and money, solve the problems they couldn’t solve for decades is a fantasy,” Guterres said.

The United Nations will be doing everything it can for a country that Guterres said is on “the verge of a dramatic humanitarian disaster” and has decided to engage the Taliban in order to help Afghanistan’s roughly 36-million people.

Even before the Taliban’s seizure of the capital Kabul, half the country’s population depended on aid. That looks set to increase due to drought and shortages, and the World Food Program has warned that 14-million people were on the brink of starvation.

Guterres said he supports efforts to convince the Taliban to form a more inclusive government than when it ruled 20 years ago. The United Nations has little capacity to mediate, he said, and should focus on its “position of an international organization that is there to support the Afghan people.”

“You cannot expect miracles,” he said, stressing that the United Nations could engage with the Taliban, but that the Islamist movement would never accept a U.N. role in helping form a new Afghan government.

Humanitarian aid, Guterres said, should be used as an instrument to help convince the Taliban to respect fundamental rights, including those of women and girls. Governments have pledged more than $1.1 billion in aid for Afghanistan and refugee programs in neighboring countries. Guterres also appealed for countries to make sure the Afghan economy is “not completely strangled.”

World reaction to the new government formed of Taliban veterans and hardliners has been cool, and there has been no sign of international recognition or moves to unblock more than $9-billion in foreign reserves held outside Afghanistan.

“There must be ways to inject some cash into the Afghan economy, for the economy not to collapse and for the people not to be in a dramatic situation, forcing probably millions to flee,” said Guterres, who will begin his second five-year term as U.N. chief on January 1, 2022.

He said the United Nations will work with its partners to ensure that aid is distributed based on humanitarian principles and that “everybody should be treated equally without any kind of distinction based on gender, on ethnicity or any other consideration.”

Guterres emphasized that it is too early to know if the Taliban will respect rights and govern responsibly, adding: “Nobody knows what will happen, but it’s important to engage.”

– edited from Reuters, September 15, 2021
PeaceMeal, Sept./October 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Jihadists are filling the vacuum, U.N. warns

With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in mind, the United Nations warned that the threat from terror groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda is not only resilient, but in many places expanding. A report to the Security Council by the U.N. monitoring team charged with tracking worldwide jihadi threats, published July 22, warns that these groups pose a growing threat in much of Africa. And both are entrenched in Afghanistan, from where al Qaeda plotted the 9/11 attacks.

The U.N. report suggests a consistent pattern. Wherever pressure on jihadi terror groups is absent or negligible, they thrive. In Afghanistan, where the United States completed its military withdrawal by August 31, the U.N. warned of a potential “further deterioration” in the security situation. In Somalia, the report says, U.S. military withdrawal and the partial drawdown of the African Union Mission has left Somali special forces “struggling to contain” the al Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab.

In Mali, where France is winding down its counterterrorism mission, the report says that al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists have consolidated their influence and are “increasingly claiming populated areas.” In Mozambique, the report says, “the absence of significant counter-terrorist measures” have transformed the ISIS affiliate in central Africa into a “major threat.”

Jihadi terror attacks have declined in Europe and North America, but the U.N. experts expect this is temporary because terrorist violence has been “artificially suppressed by limitations in traveling, meeting, fundraising and identifying viable targets” during the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, they believe the risk of online radicalization increased during the lockdowns.

The report makes for sobering reading at a time when the United States and its allies, exhausted by the pandemic and keen to focus on economic recovery and standing up to China and Russia, have all but called an end to the 20-year “war on terror.” As one leading analyst recently put it, “We might be done with jihadis, but they are not done with us.”

The report warns that Africa is now “the region most affected by terrorism,” with al Qaeda and ISIS-aligned groups inflicting higher casualties there than anywhere else. In many areas, these groups are gaining support, threatening more territory, getting better weapons, and raising more money.

The U.N. monitors single out Somalia, which is beset by turmoil and getting less international military support than previously. They warn that Al-Shabaab may fill the vacuum as “strategic support” to Somali government forces declines. The threat the group poses further afield is underlined by a recent U.S. indictment against an alleged Kenyan operative who “directed by senior Al-Shabaab leaders, obtained pilot training in the Philippines in preparation for seeking to hijack a commercial aircraft and crash it into a building in the United States.”

Al-Shabaab is one of several terror affiliates to increase its use of drones for reconnaissance and has the ability to threaten low- flying aircraft in a region that depends on humanitarian flights to sustain vulnerable populations, the U.N. report says.

Much of West Africa and the Sahel has in recent years been embroiled in jihadi violence. In June, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari acknowledged the country was still grappling with a serious insurgency despite setbacks suffered by Boko Haram, whose leader Abubakar Shekau reportedly died during an attack by the regional ISIS affiliate (ISWAP) in May.

The human toll of these insurgencies is stunning. In June, the United Nations Development Program estimated that Nigeria’s conflict with Islamist insurgencies through the end of 2020 had resulted in nearly 350,000 deaths, with 314,000 of those from indirect causes such as displacement and poverty.

The U.N. monitors report that this year ISIS-affiliated terrorists have already killed hundreds of civilians in a series of attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali and the Niger. And al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Sahel are making a concerted push toward the Atlantic coastline, with Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, Ghana and Togo among countries at significant risk.

The threat from ISIS remains far from extinguished in Iraq and Syria, with the group bankrolled by estimated reserves of $25 million to $50 million. ISIS has “reasserted itself somewhat in Iraq” this year in the face of “constant counter-terrorism pressure,” the report says. In July, ISIS claimed a bombing in Baghdad which killed at least 30 people. The U.N. monitors say that according to member states, ISIS still has the intent and capability to sustain a long-term insurgency in the Syrian desert” that borders Iraq.

Elsewhere in Syria, the report states that “groups aligned with [al Qaeda] continue to dominate the Idlib area,” where terrorist fighters number more than 10,000. It says member states are concerned that jihadi fighters may relocate from that region to Afghanistan if the environment there becomes more hospitable.

With the Taliban taking control Afghanistan, there is widespread concern the group will allow it to once again become a platform for international terror. According to the U.N. report, al Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces, and operates “under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz Provinces.”

In a CNN interview in July, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said the group had made a commitment “not to allow any individual or group or entity to use ... Afghanistan against the United States, its allies and other countries” and said terrorists will have “no place” in an Afghanistan under Taliban rule. But Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of the U.N. monitoring team, says the Taliban “have not broken their relationship with al Qaeda. They haven’t taken any steps against al Qaeda that they could not easily reverse and quickly reverse.”

Two decades on from 9/11, the ability of al Qaeda and ISIS to threaten the West is currently lower than it has been. But the U.N. report shows that the danger posed by international jihadi groups has metastasized, and that they are entrenched in under-governed areas just as Western powers are preoccupied with other issues. “It’s important not to take our eye off counterterrorism and particularly important not to stop improving international counterterrorism cooperation,” says Fitton-Brown.

Well over a generation ago, the international jihadi movement was energized by the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. It is now celebrating the end of the United States’ military presence and likely anticipating a new influx of recruits to propel the next generation of jihad — in Afghanistan and far beyond.

– edited from CNN, July 22, 2021
PeaceMeal, Sept./October 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Tanks, helicopters, artillery: see what the U.S. left behind in Afghanistan

When Taliban fighters rode triumphantly into Kabul airport early August 31, they did so on U.S. pickup trucks, wearing American-made uniforms, and brandishing American M4 and M16 rifles. Then they spent hours examining the bonanza of materiel that U.S. troops unintentionally bequeathed them in what had been the United States’ last redoubt in Afghanistan.

The group’s blindingly fast sweep through most of Afghanistan netted it billions of dollars worth of U.S. military equipment and weaponry given to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, which collapsed in the 11 days before the Taliban seized Kabul, the capital, on Aug. 15. Afghan soldiers who didn’t surrender shed their uniforms and gear and turned tail, following many of their military and political leaders.

“This is ghaneema,” said one uniformed Taliban fighter: war booty. With a gloved hand, he snapped up the night-vision goggles on his ballistic helmet, looking like the very model of an Afghan soldier the U.S. had tried to help create to eliminate people like him. He walked inside a hangar and gawked with his squad mates at the U.S. Embassy helicopters gleaming under powerful overhead lights.

For their effort, Taliban fighters reaped almost 2,000 Humvees and trucks; more than 50 armored fighting vehicles, including Mine-Resistant Ambush Protection vehicles, or MRAPs; scores of artillery and mortar pieces; more than a dozen aging but working helicopters and attack aircraft; a dozen tanks; seven Boeing-manufactured drones; and millions upon millions of bullets, according to a list compiled by the Oryx Blog, which tracks weapons used in conflicts.

– Los Angeles Times, Sept. 3, 2021
PeaceMeal, Sept./October 2021

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NATO chief warns of high price if troops leave Afghanistan

BRUSSELS — NATO could pay a heavy price for leaving Afghanistan too early, its chief warned after a U.S. official said President Donald Trump is expected to withdraw a significant number of American troops from the conflict-ravaged country in the coming weeks. . The expected plans would cut U.S. troop numbers almost in half by January 15, leaving 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.

NATO has fewer than 12,000 troops from dozens of nations in Afghanistan, helping to train and advise the country’s national security forces. More than half are not U.S. troops, but the 30-nation alliance relies heavily on the United States for transport, air support, logistics and other assistance. It’s unlikely that NATO could even wind down its operation without U.S. help.

“We now face a difficult decision. We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary. But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated November 17.

He said Afghanistan still “risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands. And ISIS (Islamic State) could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”

NATO took charge of the international security effort in Afghanistan in 2003, two years after a U.S-led coalition ousted the Taliban for harboring former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. In 2014, it began to train and advise Afghan security forces, but has gradually pulled troops out in line with a U.S.-brokered peace deal.

NATO’s security operation in Afghanistan is its biggest and most ambitious undertaking ever. It was launched after the military alliance activated its mutual defense clause for the first time, mobilizing all the allies in support of the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

“Hundreds of thousands of troops from Europe and beyond have stood shoulder to shoulder with American troops in Afghanistan, and over 1,000 of them have paid the ultimate price,” Stoltenberg said. “We went into Afghanistan together, and when the time is right, we should leave together in a coordinated and orderly way,” he added.

The United States is by far NATO’s biggest and most influential ally. It spends more on defense than all the other countries combined. But Trump’s term in office has marked a particularly tumultuous time for the organization. He has routinely berated other leaders for not spending enough on defense, and has pulled out of security agreements that European allies and Canada consider important for their security, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Open Skies aerial surveillance pact.

French President Emmanuel Macron said last year that NATO was suffering from “brain death,” in part due to a lack of U.S. leadership, but Stoltenberg has refrained from publicly criticizing Trump or his decisions since Trump came to power in 2016.

– edited from The Associated Press, November 17, 2020
PeaceMeal, November/December 2020

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Peace hasn’t broken out in Afghanistan

On February 29, the United States and the Taliban signed a preliminary peace deal aimed at ending nearly 19 years of war in Afghanistan. The agreement calls for the United States to gradually withdraw its troops from the country over the next 14 months and for the Taliban and the Afghan government (which was not a party to the deal) to open direct talks. The Taliban further promise in the deal to prevent terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) from operating in territory they control.

The United States and the Taliban had agreed that a prisoner exchange should precede the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani balked at the prospect. Ghani did agree to release 1,500 Taliban fighters in groups of 100 per day, beginning on March 14. Once negotiations with the Taliban have begun, the Afghan government would release an additional 3,500 militants in batches of 500 every two weeks. The Taliban rejected Ghani’s plan to stagger the prisoner release, arguing that talks cannot proceed until all 5,000 prisoners cited in its agreement with the United States have been released. Then on March 14, the Afghan government decided to delay the prisoner release because it needed more time to review the list of prisoners and secure guarantees that they would not return to the fighting.

The Afghan government itself remains bitterly divided after two candidates, Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, pronounced themselves the winner of September’s presidential election, setting off months of wrangling. Although Ghani was eventually declared the winner, Abdullah charged fraud in the election and accused Afghanistan’s election commission of favoring the incumbent. He vowed to form his own government and even staged a competing inauguration ceremony.

Even if the disagreement over the timing of the prisoner exchange can be resolved, the Afghan government may prove to be incapable of fielding an authoritative and fully representative negotiating delegation to the talks or unwilling to do so. If the Afghan government and the Taliban do sit down together and begin to seriously negotiate, they are by no means certain to bridge their differences before the American troops are withdrawn. After all, the United States and the Taliban took ten years to reach this preliminary agreement, and they were able to do so only by sidestepping many core issues.

Now comes the hard part. How can the Taliban and the Afghan government — the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — merge to jointly govern Afghanistan? And how can their two armed forces be combined into a new national army and police force?

Trust between the two armed forces has ebbed since the U.S.-Taliban agreement was concluded. The Taliban seem to have honored their agreement not to attack American and coalition forces, but they have increased their attacks on Afghan security forces in the days since the deal was signed. The deadliest Taliban assault killed at least 15 Afghan soldiers. It came within hours of a call between President Trump and the deputy leader of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — the first direct contact between a U.S. president and a leader of the militant group. A day before the release of Taliban prisoners was set to begin, the Afghan defense ministry said that the Taliban had attacked Afghan security forces 95 times over the previous 24 hours.

Merging the Taliban and the Afghan government into a single unified governing entity will take more ingenuity and flexibility than either side has exhibited to date. Integrating the two armed forces will also demand substantial resources and organizational ability. The Afghan security structure now numbers some 300,000 soldiers and police. The Taliban field perhaps 150,000 full- and part-time fighters. Neither side will agree to substantially disarm, nor will security conditions in the country justify too large of a demobilization

Some disgruntled Taliban elements may reject the settlement, and some Taliban fighters may defect to ISIS or other extremist groups. Early reports suggest that al Qaeda has already begun recruiting disaffected Taliban fighters. These elements will do their best to disrupt any settlement. Regional and local power brokers may establish or expand their militias by recruiting from the local army and police forces. Those who profit from the lucrative drug trade and other forms of illegal exploitation will resist any peace that interferes with their predation.

Insurgent wars are endurance tests. So are the negotiations that sometimes succeed in ending them. An agreement is likely to take more than 14 months to reach and even longer to implement. Ending the endless war will require a lengthy peace process and some level of American engagement for its duration.

– edited from Foreign Affairs, March 16, 2020
PeaceMeal, March/April 2020

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Documents reveal U.S. officials did not tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence that the war had become unwin-nable. The documents were generated by a federal project exam-ining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in United States history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.

The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.

In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare. With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second- guessing and backbiting.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghani-stan. We didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “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 ... 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”

Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures.

The interviews, through an extensive array of voices, bring into sharp relief the core failings of the war that persist to this day. They underscore how three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders have been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan.

With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation. The interviews also highlight the U.S. government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.

The government has not carried out a comprehensive account-ing of how much it has spent on the war in Afghanistan, but the costs are staggering. Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University. Those figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for medical care for wounded veterans.

“What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?” Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. He added, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave, considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”

The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting. Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.

“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”

John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged to The Post that the documents show “the American people have constantly been lied to.” The interviews are the byproduct of a project led by Sopko’s agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Known as SIGAR, the agency was created by Congress in 2008 to investigate waste and fraud in the war zone.

In 2014, at Sopko’s direction, SIGAR departed from its usual mission of performing audits and launched a side venture. Titled “Lessons Learned,” the $11 million project was meant to diagnose policy failures in Afghanistan so the United States would not repeat the mistakes the next time it invaded a country or tried to rebuild a shattered one.

Drawing partly on the interviews, as well as other government records and statistics, SIGAR has published seven Lessons Learned reports since 2016 that highlight problems in Afghanistan and recommend changes to stabilize the country. But the reports, written in dense bureaucratic prose and focused on an alphabet soup of government initiatives, left out the harshest and most frank criticisms from the interviews.

“We found the stabilization strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context, and successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians,” read the introduction to one report released in May 2018.

The interview records are raw and unedited, and SIGAR’s Lessons Learned staff did not stitch them into a unified narrative. But they are packed with tough judgments from people who shaped or carried out U.S. policy in Afghanistan. “We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich,” James Dobbins, a former senior U.S. diplomat who served as a special envoy to Afghanistan under Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. “We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.”

To augment the Lessons Learned interviews, The Post obtained hundreds of pages of previously classified memos about the Afghan war that were dictated by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld between 2001 and 2006. Dubbed “snowflakes” by Rumsfeld and his staff, the memos are brief instructions or comments that the Pentagon boss dictated to his underlings. Worded in Rumsfeld’s brusque style, many of the snowflakes foreshadow problems that continue to haunt the U.S. military more than a decade later.

“I may be impatient. In fact I know I’m a bit impatient,” Rumsfeld wrote in one memo to several generals and senior aides. “We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave.”

“Help!” he wrote. The memo was dated April 17, 2002 — six months after the war started.

The Lessons Learned interviews contain few revelations about military operations. But running throughout are torrents of criticism that refute the official narrative of the war, from its earliest days through the start of the Trump administration. At the outset, for instance, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan had a clear, stated objective — to retaliate against al-Qaeda and prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Yet the interviews show that as the war dragged on, the goals and mission kept changing and a lack of faith in the U.S. strategy took root inside the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department.

As commanders in chief, Bush, Obama and Trump all promised the public the same thing. They would avoid falling into the trap of “nation-building” in Afghanistan. But U.S. officials did try to create from scratch a democratic government in Kabul modeled after their own in Washington. It was a foreign concept to the Afghans, who were accustomed to tribalism, monarchism, communism and Islamic law. On that score, the presidents failed miserably.

Meanwhile, the United States flooded the fragile country with far more aid than it could possibly absorb. During the peak of the fighting, from 2009 to 2012, U.S. lawmakers and military commanders believed the more they spent on schools, bridges, canals and other civil-works projects, the faster security would improve. Aid workers told government interviewers it was a colossal misjudgment, akin to pumping kerosene on a dying camp-fire just to keep the flame alive.

The gusher of aid that Washington spent on Afghanistan also gave rise to historic levels of corruption. In public, U.S. officials insisted they had no tolerance for graft. But in the Lessons Learned interviews, they admitted the U.S. government looked the other way while Afghan power brokers plundered with impunity.

By allowing corruption to fester, U.S. officials told inter-viewers, they helped destroy the popular legitimacy of the wobbly Afghan government they were fighting to prop up. With judges and police chiefs and bureaucrats extorting bribes, many Afghans soured on democracy and turned to the Taliban to enforce order.

Year after year, U.S. generals have said in public they are making steady progress on the central plank of their strategy: to train a robust Afghan army and national police force that can defend the country without foreign help. In the Lessons Learned interviews, however, U.S. military trainers described the Afghan security forces as incompetent, unmotivated and rife with deserters. They also accused Afghan commanders of pocketing salaries — paid by U.S. taxpayers — for tens of thousands of “ghost soldiers.” None expressed confidence that the Afghan army and police could ever fend off, much less defeat, the Taliban on their own. More than 60,000 members of Afghan security forces have been killed, a casualty rate that U.S. commanders have called unsustainable.

Meanwhile, as U.S. hopes for the Afghan security forces failed to materialize, Afghanistan became the world’s leading source of a growing scourge: opium. The United States has spent about $9 billion to fight the problem over the past 18 years, but Afghan farmers are cultivating more opium poppies than ever. Last year, Afghanistan was responsible for 82 percent of global opium production, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. By 2006, U.S. officials feared that narco-traffickers had become stronger than the Afghan government and that money from the drug trade was powering the insurgency.

From the beginning, the specter of Vietnam has hovered over Afghanistan. On Oct. 11, 2001, a few days after the United States started bombing the Taliban, a reporter asked President Bush: “Can you avoid being drawn into a Vietnam-like quagmire in Afghanistan?” In those early days, President Bush and other U.S. leaders mocked the notion that the nightmare of Vietnam might repeat itself in Afghanistan.

But throughout the Afghan war, documents show that U.S. military officials have resorted to an old tactic from Vietnam — manipulating public opinion. In news conferences and other public appearances, those in charge of the war have followed the same talking points for 18 years. No matter how the war was going — and especially when it was going badly — they emphasized that they were “making progress”, regardless of the reality on the battlefield.

During Vietnam, U.S. military commanders relied on dubious measurements to persuade Americans that they were winning. Most notoriously, the Pentagon highlighted “body counts,” or the number of enemy fighters killed, as a measurement of success — and inflated the figures.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military has generally avoided publi-cizing body counts. But the Lessons Learned interviews contain numerous admissions that the government routinely touted statistics that officials knew were distorted, spurious or downright false. Even when casualty counts and other figures looked bad, a senior National Security Council official said, the White House and Pentagon would spin them to the point of absurdity. Suicide bombings in Kabul were portrayed as a sign of the Taliban’s desperation — that the insurgents were too weak to engage in direct combat. Meanwhile, a rise in U.S. troop deaths was cited as proof that American forces were taking the fight to the enemy.

Other senior officials said they placed great importance on one statistic in particular, albeit one the U.S. government rarely likes to discuss in public.

“I do think the key benchmark is the one I’ve suggested, which is how many Afghans are getting killed,” former U.S. diplomat James Dobbins told a Senate panel in 2009. “If the number’s going up, you’re losing. If the number’s going down, you’re winning. It’s as simple as that.”

Last year, 3,804 Afghan civilians were killed in the war, according to the United Nations. That is the most in one year since the United Nations began tracking casualties a decade ago.

– edited from The Washington Post, December 9, 2019
PeaceMeal, January/February 2020

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