Afghanistan: A Trillion Dollars’ Worth Of Lies

Jim here.

This morning, the Washington Post published The Afghanistan Papers, so-named as a tribute to Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers. It’s hardly surprising that what we learn from the collection of documents is that the US has been lying about Afghanistan since the very earliest days of the war:

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 the war had become unwinnable.

Sadly, the war has come at an unfathomable cost:

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.


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.

Left out of these numbers are the lives lost by Afghan civilians and the lives disrupted by those families displaced by 18 years of hostilities.

John Sopko

These documents were obtained by the Post through a three year FOIA effort aimed at getting the raw materials generated by Inspector General John Sopko’s office, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Sopko came into this oversight job in 2012 and he has done incredible work in trying to hold the military and the politicians directing military policy to account for what has been going on in Afghanistan.

Much of my early blogging was centered on Afghanistan, and this false narrative from the military that we were “making progress” despite being in a situation that was clearly unwinnable (and that any check of a history book would have confirmed as an impossible task) was a frequent target. The persistence with which Sopko’s team documented and evaluated material coming from the military was impressive, especially as the military continually developed “new” tools for assessing progress on security and on training of Afghan troops, primarily so that they could make comparisons to previous data irrelevant. Eventually, the military essentially gave up on this approach and decided simply to classify the bulk of this sort of data so that their lack of progress would not be noted every six months as SIGAR came out with their Congressionally-mandated reports.

Around the time of this development, Sopko and his team embarked on a new strategy, interviewing various key figures in the military and in related efforts in Afghanistan to develop a series of “Lessons Learned” reports. The documents being released today are the raw materials from many of these interviews.

Finally, as a result of these materials, we now have extensive documentation that much of what we have been told by officials about Afghanistan is a lie:

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.

But then, some of us have known that for a long time. Back in 2010, I came across this interesting graphic on how the military engages in military deception. It turns out there’s a well-described process for it:

In the Post article, we learn that, of course, there was no lesson learned from Vietnam:

The specter of Vietnam has hovered over Afghanistan from the start.

On Oct. 11, 2001, a few days after the United States started bombing the Taliban, a reporter asked Bush: “Can you avoid being drawn into a Vietnam-like quagmire in Afghanistan?”

“We learned some very important lessons in Vietnam,” Bush replied confidently. “People often ask me, ‘How long will this last?’ This particular battlefront will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qaeda to justice. It may happen tomorrow, it may happen a month from now, it may take a year or two. But we will prevail.”

In those early days, other U.S. leaders mocked the notion that the nightmare of Vietnam might repeat itself in Afghanistan.

“All together now — quagmire!” Rumsfeld joked at a news conference on Nov. 27, 2001.

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 is going — and especially when it is going badly — they emphasize how they are making progress.

And yes, I was seeing that this “We’re making progress” claim was bullshit long ago. Here are posts from 2010, 2013 and 2016 on the futility of our efforts there. But there’s one more side of this that we need to bring front and center to get a feel for one of the primary driving forces for why we would flush a trillion dollars and so many lives down the toilet. Back in 2008, the New York Times documented how the military carried out an “information operation” (which would rely on military deception) on the status of the war in Iraq. A bevy of “military analysts” was rolled out to make pronouncements in the media about how well things were going (despite the reality that they weren’t) and they were described primarily as “retired military”. What wasn’t disclosed in most cases was that these same “analysts” were also lucratively employed by defense contractors.

This report from the Washington Post on lies from the military closes the loop with the report from the Times on lies from analysts in the media. Senior military figures lie about how wars are going. They eventually retire and then get lucrative jobs with defense contractors. From these positions, they sometimes pose as “analysts” to spout similar falsehoods in the media, prolonging futile wars but enriching the contractors. I wonder if the magnitude of the lies told while in the military determines the size of the salary once they are hired by the contractors. The net result, though, is futile wars that can’t be won, but with endless spending on them anyway.

36 replies
  1. timbo says:

    The question now is then is “What is the solution?” Does the US leave Afghanistan to the Taliban? The reason we went there in the first place is because they gave safe-haven to Al Qaeda and, frankly, because the Taliban was and is predisposed to cause further terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe.

      • Jim White says:

        Yes, Piels nails it.

        The original Taliban government fell within days of our invasion and al Queda (with bin Laden) left right then. And no, while the Taliban does attack what they see as invaders on their soil, I haven’t seen any credible information to say they foment attacks here or in Europe. That falls to al Qaeda and ISIS.

        A huge part of the problem is that the US government and military believe that some sort of Western democracy is the answer, but the reality is that in this part of the world, there simply is no “nationalism”. That’s why the Taliban always re-emerge. They operate primarily as local organization and that’s all that matters to the locals, who often spend entire lives within a radius of remarkably few miles.

        • PieIsDamnGood says:

          As someone who came to age during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars I have a strong smell of the bullshit surrounding these wars but am light on the details. So, thanks!

        • timbo says:

          I’m familiar with the history there. We seem to be making the same mistakes as all the other major powers that have tried to control the territory of Afghanistan directly. Is the mistake just asking if there’s a good way out other than immediate withdrawal?

        • P J Evans says:

          The first mistake is assuming that Afghanistan is an actual nation – ti’s a lot of tribes in a geographical area.
          The second is assuming they need Western-style democracy.
          The third is assuming that Western-style democracy – or any kind of central government – can be imposed from outside.

          Remember, Alexander the Great couldn’t do it, either.

        • Eureka says:

          Yep, and thanks PJ and Jim 158p for throwing down the wisdom.

          I’m reminded here too of all of the recent-ish threads and articles re the Kurds in various nation-states and how a particular group (in Syria IIRC, tho could be off) practiced their own egalitarian-democratic-style gov. Clearly “we” (well, Trumper foreign “policy”-wise) were not interested in seeing even that tribe thrive.

  2. Rapier says:

    The main lesson is that thousands of military officers from Lieutenant on up were silent, in public and probably even to their families, for 20 years. Still, I wouldn’t doubt that all of them and 90% of the living grievously wounded and disabled wouldn’t want it any other way. Only the suicides speak, so to speak.

    The Bright Shining Lie has stupendous power. Young people will still gladly go to the wars, FOX NFL will still gush over their sacrifices, and the officer corp will continue to operate as ever as a reliable career path.

  3. Ollie says:

    I have never been so fricking bored. This all just seems like stupid bullshit. What is WRONG w/the Democrats? My goodness these GOP thugs just give them all butch haircuts! Damn!

  4. Lester Noyes says:

    “T’was ever thus” Department (from a long-time lurker):

    When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
    And the women come out to cut up what remains,
    Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
    An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

    – Part of the last verse of Kipling’s “The Young British Soldier”

    • P J Evans says:

      I remember reading that the Brits lost two armies in Afghanistan – one had something like a dozen survivors.
      Don’t mess with people who learn the use of weapons as young children.

  5. orionATL says:

    it’s called “mildec” in dod jargon, short for “military deception”.

    it starts as a legitimate campaign or battlefield strategy (as with the wwII landing in normandy). but then expands as the military loses, or fears it will lose, popular support. the vietnam war was the american military’s media waterloo. after that mildec was practiced as needed by the american military, often by picking and choosing where reporters could go and which reporters. afghanistan has been bad enough, but iraq was the most egregious example. there the devil’s disciple, vice- president dick cheney, manipulated the cia and worked with secretary of defense don rumsfeld to spread the word thru the american mefia about iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

    • Mooser says:

      And for extra added irony, the intelligence community’s deception or the ease with which it was suborned in the case of Iraq’s WMD is cited as a reason not to believe in the ‘Russian election-interference hoax’.

    • Eureka says:

      The US in WWII had a lot of ~ “food and well-being” propaganda, I’d say. Like I recall seeing a US-based newspaper clipping photo-boasting of this giant turkey for Thanksgiving dinner for folks in a camp (I forget now if POW or “Displaced Persons”). That kind of rich, hearty food would and did kill people in camps (incl. per the re-feeding instructions they had to develop)… US Signal Corps films of POW camps to be shown at home showed guys in much better shape than, say, an average sample might show (I recall one where a soldier was wiggling the belt-cinched waistband of his loose pants: he clearly started off at better weight than maybe average, let’s say. He looked good, not emaciated.) And so forth, like an “everything’s fine” or “don’t worry” type campaign. Meanwhile lots of soldiers were plain starving at times, especially as they went ahead of the food trains. There’s one who, in his oral history, talks about stealing a turnip from someone’s garden, peeling it with his machete, and eating it raw (blech).

      And of course this is all counterposed versus Eisenhower’s campaigns to ensure that all knew of the atrocities in the camps, via films and photographs for dissemination, including of the locals they dragged in to bear witness.

    • greengiant says:

      Talked to a fellow who was in a group of Vietnam vets who were stripped of their medals and I understand dishonorably discharged. He said after Ford pardoned Nixon, their discharges were modified.

  6. joel fisher says:

    The lying is Viet Nam all over again, but let’s not confuse the Afganistan and Viet Nam: the US had every right to insist that the Taliban give up the Al Qaeda scum, and they wouldn’t. Thus, leading to the forever war. Whereas, what Viet Nam ever did to us is still foggy as far as I’m concerned. Opps, I’m sorry, not foggy at all: they helped us beat the Japanese in WW2.

    • bmaz says:

      Does not explain Iraq though. That is where the WaPo article fails. It never addresses the bigger war the US unilaterally and affirmatively chose to engage in on the wings of a lie.

      • joel fisher says:

        You are right; WTF about Iraq? There’s plenty of stuff on the record–“Curveball springs to mind–to prove that war was a hot mess from the start.

        • Phaedruses says:

          Iraq had OIL;

          Afghanistan had bin Laden,

          Which is why they understaffed and funded Afghanistan to get ready for the war they really wanted, other wise even after the August 6th presidential daily briefing why would Rumsfeld on Sept 12 ask for evidence of Iraqi involvement.,

          remember what they originally called the invasion of Iraq;

          Operation Iraqi Liberation,

          but quickly changed it because the acronym (OIL) gave a little bit too much away

    • P J Evans says:

      As I understand it, when we badgered the Taliban about turning over people who they considered to be guests, we made ourselves their enemies.

      • joel fisher says:

        I get the whole guests must be treated well thing, but these guests
        were over the fucking top. Moreover, the Taliban wanted their money as much as, or more, than they were respecting a cultural norm.

  7. Flatulus says:

    War is big business. Our politicians have been bribed to establish military contractors in darn near every Congressional District. That’s most of what we now manufacture here. At some point, the military needs to fire some off.
    Oh, we’re also big on marketing debt.

  8. mrtmbrnmn says:

    Once again we must salute Gen Smedley Butler, who knew what he was talking about when he declared way back when: “War is a racket”.
    So is politics. We are constantly, endlessly spun through a feedback loop of official lies. From Vietnam to 9/11 and Saudi Arabia to Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria to Israel to Iran to Venezuela to PutinGate to UkraineGate to whatever comes next on the toxic agenda of the Wall Street/ War Street/ Washington DC Axis of Evil.

    • Geoguy says:

      Yup, Maj. General Smedley Butler had it right. “War is a Racket” is a quick read at only 18 pages or so and ends with “…we can all make more money out of peace than we can out of war–even the munitions makers.” My view is that it’s all about resource extraction, transit routes and who profits, in US dollars of course. Afghanistan is crazy rich in minerals and some oil. A good place to start is the Wikipedia entry “Mining in Afghanistan.” No invading force in history has ever won in Afghanistan but it sure is a great place to perpetuate the military-industrial business.

  9. Keith McClary says:

    The US originally got into Afghanistan to attack Russia (then USSR). Can’t we blame all this on “the Russians”?

  10. e.a.f. says:

    Some one made a lot of money on this war and it wasn’t the solders. No one can win in Afghanistan. Just ask the Russians. Why the U.S.A. kept that war going is beyond me, but it always in my opinion had more to do with military contractors and weapons corporations making money. It leaves one wondering why people would actually risk their lives to fight in Afghanistan. It certainly can’t be because its going to make the U.S.A. a safer country. the real risk of being killed in the U.S.A. is by those living in the U.S.A.

    Afghanistan doesn’t even have oil, that I know of. of course a war always keeps people’s attention diverted from other things going on in their country. For all the money the American government has spent on that war, they could have had a first class medical system, you know like they do in France.

  11. dadidoc1 says:

    Maybe I’m cynical, but the never ending war in the middle East just seems like an enormous money laundering scheme in which tax payer dollars are pumped into weapons producers and military contractors who then fund the campaigns of our representatives in Congress.

    • Mprovd says:

      Your comment, dadidoc1, reminded me of stories surrounding $9-billion of US currency that went missing in Iraq during that conflict.
      “$12 billion in U.S. currency was transported from the Federal Reserve to Baghdad in April 2003 and June 2004, where it was dispensed by the Coalition Provisional Authority. A Vanity Fair magazine report concluded that of this sum, “at least $9 billion has gone missing”. –Wikipedia
      I don’t recall that the missing cash ever was recovered or adequately explained.
      But as it went missing during the reign of Bush the Younger, I always suspected that it became the core of a GOP slush fund.

  12. skua says:

    Somewhere after 2001, as the consequences of GW Bush’s approach to terrorism bit into US military, one of the (retired) top generals said something like, “They’ve set us [the US military] back 30 years”. *

    I think the time period was too short. And that the top military had been set back some 40 years to 1964, before lessons about self-deception had been learnt from Vietnam. To the extent this is accurate, Afghanistan was the American military’s reprise of Vietnam.

    *I cannot find this quote using Google.
    Nor can I find video of GW Bush going straight into talking about “crusade” at the start of his first official speech after 9/11, before pulling himself up and saying something like, “Let’s start that again”.
    These were bad days, millions have died because of them, and the social destruction in the US wrought by the fear and lies spread by Bush/Cheney, I think, set the stage for Trump.

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