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Failure in Afghanistan

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COMMENT: A rel­a­tive­ly rare piece of qual­i­ty, inci­sive analy­sis from the Main­stream Media, Craig Whit­lock­’s “At War With The Truth” presents an hon­est, albeit atten­u­at­ed, analy­sis of the fail­ure of the war in Afghanistan.

This Wash­ing­ton Post piece, with sev­er­al [5] com­pi­la­tions of sup­ple­men­tary [6] doc­u­men­ta­tion [7], gives an in depth sum­ma­ry and cri­tique of the fail­ure of the mil­i­tary effort on the ground in Afghanistan.

Whit­lock­’s qual­i­ty work does not dis­cuss:

  1. The begin­ning [8] of the Afghan war–a U.S. covert oper­a­tion that lured the Sovi­ets into Afghanistan to give them “their Viet­nam.”
  2. Pak­istan’s cre­ation of the Tal­iban [9]and U.S. sup­port for them against the Sovi­ets.
  3. CIA involve­ment [10] in mas­sive drug traf­fick­ing in Afghanistan.
  4. Mas­sive [11] involve­ment of CIA and the Bush fam­i­ly [12] with the Bin Laden inter­ests [13].

In addi­tion, this paper presents the back­ground to, and foun­da­tion of, the lat­est iter­a­tion of the Rus­sia-gate psy-op: “Boun­ty­gate.”

A thought­ful piece [14] by Scott Rit­ter in Con­sor­tium News pars­es the deep pol­i­tics of “Boun­ty­gate” and the real­i­ty of Russ­ian pol­i­cy vis a vis the Tal­iban and Cen­tral Asia.

“At War With The Truth” by Craig Whit­lock; The Wash­ing­ton Post; 12/9/2019. [15]

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 Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” [16] 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.” [17]

“If the Amer­i­can peo­ple knew the mag­ni­tude of this dys­func­tion . . . 2,400 lives lost,” [18] 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?” [18]

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 U.S. gov­ern­ment has not car­ried out a com­pre­hen­sive account­ing 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?” [19] 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.” [20]

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,” [21] 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 [22]every­thing we were doing was right and we became a self-lick­ing ice cream cone.” [23]

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.

The Lessons Learned staff inter­viewed more than 600 peo­ple with first­hand expe­ri­ence in the war. Most were Amer­i­cans, but SIGAR ana­lysts also trav­eled to Lon­don, Brus­sels and Berlin to inter­view NATO allies. In addi­tion, they inter­viewed about 20 Afghan offi­cials, dis­cussing recon­struc­tion and devel­op­ment pro­grams.

Draw­ing part­ly on the inter­views, as well as oth­er gov­ern­ment records and sta­tis­tics, SIGAR has pub­lished sev­en Lessons Learned reports [24] 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 reports also omit­ted the names of more than 90 per­cent of the peo­ple who were inter­viewed for the project. While a few offi­cials agreed to speak on the record to SIGAR, the agency said it promised anonymi­ty to every­one else it inter­viewed to avoid con­tro­ver­sy over polit­i­cal­ly sen­si­tive mat­ters.

Under the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act, The Post began seek­ing Lessons Learned inter­view records in August 2016. SIGAR refused, argu­ing that the doc­u­ments were priv­i­leged and that the pub­lic had no right to see them.

The Post had to sue SIGAR in fed­er­al court — twice — to com­pel it to release the doc­u­ments.

The agency even­tu­al­ly dis­closed more than 2,000 pages of unpub­lished notes and tran­scripts from 428 of the inter­views, as well as sev­er­al audio record­ings.

The doc­u­ments iden­ti­fy 62 of the peo­ple who were inter­viewed, but SIGAR blacked out the names of 366 oth­ers. In legal briefs, the agency con­tend­ed that those indi­vid­u­als should be seen as whistle­blow­ers and infor­mants who might face humil­i­a­tion, harass­ment, retal­i­a­tion or phys­i­cal harm if their names became pub­lic.

By cross-ref­er­enc­ing dates and oth­er details from the doc­u­ments, The Post inde­pen­dent­ly iden­ti­fied 33 oth­er peo­ple who were inter­viewed, includ­ing sev­er­al for­mer ambas­sadors, gen­er­als and White House offi­cials.

The Post has asked a fed­er­al judge to force SIGAR to dis­close the names of every­one else inter­viewed, argu­ing that the pub­lic has a right to know which offi­cials crit­i­cized the war and assert­ed that the gov­ern­ment had mis­led the Amer­i­can peo­ple. The Post also argued the offi­cials were not whistle­blow­ers or infor­mants, because they were not inter­viewed as part of an inves­ti­ga­tion.

A deci­sion by Judge Amy Berman Jack­son of the U.S. Dis­trict Court in Wash­ing­ton has been pend­ing since late Sep­tem­ber.

The Post is pub­lish­ing the doc­u­ments now, instead of wait­ing for a final rul­ing, to inform the pub­lic while the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is nego­ti­at­ing with the Tal­iban and con­sid­er­ing whether to with­draw the 13,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan.

The Post attempt­ed to con­tact for com­ment every­one whom it was able to iden­ti­fy as hav­ing giv­en an inter­view to SIGAR. Their respons­es are com­piled in a sep­a­rate arti­cle [25].

Sop­ko, the inspec­tor gen­er­al, told The Post that he did not sup­press the blis­ter­ing crit­i­cisms and doubts about the war that offi­cials raised in the Lessons Learned inter­views. He said it took his office three years to release the records because he has a small staff and because oth­er fed­er­al agen­cies had to review the doc­u­ments to pre­vent gov­ern­ment secrets from being dis­closed.

“We didn’t sit on it,” he said. “We’re firm believ­ers in open­ness and trans­paren­cy, but we’ve got to fol­low the law. . . . I think of any inspec­tor gen­er­al, I’ve prob­a­bly been the most forth­com­ing on infor­ma­tion.”

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,” [26] 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.” [26]

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, often sev­er­al times a day.

Rums­feld made a select num­ber of his snowflakes pub­lic in 2011, post­ing them online in con­junc­tion with his mem­oir, “Known and Unknown.” But most of his snowflake col­lec­tion — an esti­mat­ed 59,000 pages — remained secret.

With their forth­right descrip­tions of how the Unit­ed States became stuck in a far­away war, as well as the gov­ern­men­t’s deter­mi­na­tion to con­ceal them from the pub­lic, the Lessons Learned inter­views broad­ly resem­ble the Pen­ta­gon Papers, the Defense Depart­men­t’s top-secret his­to­ry of the Viet­nam War.

When they were leaked in 1971, the Pen­ta­gon Papers caused a sen­sa­tion by reveal­ing the gov­ern­ment had long mis­led the pub­lic about how the Unit­ed States came to be embroiled in Viet­nam.

Bound into 47 vol­umes, the 7,000-page study was based entire­ly on inter­nal gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments — diplo­mat­ic cables, deci­sion-mak­ing mem­os, intel­li­gence reports. To pre­serve secre­cy, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert McNa­ma­ra issued an order pro­hibit­ing the authors from inter­view­ing any­one.

SIGAR’s Lessons Learned project faced no such restric­tions. Staffers car­ried out the inter­views between 2014 and 2018, most­ly with offi­cials who served dur­ing the Bush and Oba­ma years.

About 30 of the inter­view records are tran­scribed, word-for-word accounts. The rest are typed sum­maries of con­ver­sa­tions: pages of notes and quotes from peo­ple with dif­fer­ent van­tage points in the con­flict, from provin­cial out­posts to the high­est cir­cles of pow­er.

Some of the inter­views are inex­plic­a­bly short. The inter­view record with John Allen, the Marine gen­er­al who com­mand­ed U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013, con­sists of five para­graphs.

In con­trast, records of inter­views with oth­er influ­en­tial fig­ures are much more exten­sive. For­mer U.S. ambas­sador Ryan Crock­er sat for two inter­views that yield­ed 95 tran­scribed pages.

Unlike the Pen­ta­gon Papers, none of the Lessons Learned doc­u­ments were orig­i­nal­ly clas­si­fied as a gov­ern­ment secret. Once The Post pushed to make them pub­lic, how­ev­er, oth­er fed­er­al agen­cies inter­vened and clas­si­fied some mate­r­i­al after the fact.

The State Depart­ment, for instance, assert­ed that releas­ing por­tions of cer­tain inter­views could jeop­ar­dize nego­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban to end the war. The Defense Depart­ment and Drug Enforce­ment Admin­is­tra­tion also clas­si­fied some inter­view excerpts.

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.

Fun­da­men­tal dis­agree­ments went unre­solved. Some U.S. offi­cials want­ed to use the war to turn Afghanistan into a democ­ra­cy. Oth­ers want­ed to trans­form Afghan cul­ture and ele­vate women’s rights. Still oth­ers want­ed to reshape the region­al bal­ance of pow­er among Pak­istan, India, Iran and Rus­sia.

“With the AfPak strat­e­gy there was a present under the Christ­mas tree for every­one,” [27] an uniden­ti­fied U.S. offi­cial told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers in 2015. “By the time you were fin­ished you had so many pri­or­i­ties and aspi­ra­tions it was like no strat­e­gy at all.” [27]

The Lessons Learned inter­views also reveal how U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders strug­gled to artic­u­late who they were fight­ing, let alone why.

Was al-Qae­da the ene­my, or the Tal­iban? Was Pak­istan a friend or an adver­sary? What about the Islam­ic State and the bewil­der­ing array of for­eign jihadists, let alone the war­lords on the CIA’s pay­roll? Accord­ing to the doc­u­ments, the U.S. gov­ern­ment nev­er set­tled on an answer.

As a result, in the field, U.S. troops often couldn’t tell friend from foe.

“They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live,” [28] an unnamed for­mer advis­er to an Army Spe­cial Forces team told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers in 2017. “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?’ ” [28]

The view wasn’t any clear­er from the Pen­ta­gon.

“I have no vis­i­bil­i­ty into who the bad guys are,” [29] Rums­feld com­plained in a Sept. 8, 2003, snowflake. “We are woe­ful­ly defi­cient in human intel­li­gence.” [30]

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.

On that score, the pres­i­dents failed mis­er­ably. The Unit­ed States has allo­cat­ed more than $133 bil­lion to build up Afghanistan — more than it spent, adjust­ed for infla­tion, to revive the whole of West­ern Europe with the Mar­shall Plan after World War II.

The Lessons Learned inter­views show the grandiose nation-build­ing project was marred from the start.

U.S. offi­cials tried 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.

“Our pol­i­cy was to cre­ate a strong cen­tral gov­ern­ment which was idi­ot­ic because Afghanistan does not have a his­to­ry of a strong cen­tral gov­ern­ment,” [31] an uniden­ti­fied for­mer State Depart­ment offi­cial told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers in 2015. “The time­frame for cre­at­ing a strong cen­tral gov­ern­ment is 100 years, which we didn’t have.” [32]

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 camp­fire just to keep the flame alive.

One unnamed exec­u­tive with the U.S. Agency for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment (USAID) guessed that 90 per­cent of what they spent was overkill: “We lost objec­tiv­i­ty. We were giv­en mon­ey, told to spend it and we did, with­out rea­son.” [33]

Many aid work­ers blamed Con­gress for what they saw as a mind­less rush to spend.

One uniden­ti­fied con­trac­tor told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers he was expect­ed to dole out $3 mil­lion dai­ly for projects in a sin­gle Afghan dis­trict rough­ly the size of a U.S. coun­ty. He once asked a vis­it­ing con­gress­man whether the law­mak­er could respon­si­bly spend that kind of mon­ey back home: “He said hell no. ‘Well, sir, that’s what you just oblig­at­ed us to spend and I’m doing it for com­mu­ni­ties that live in mud huts with no win­dows.’ ” [34]

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 — allies of Wash­ing­ton — plun­dered with impuni­ty.

Christo­pher Kolen­da, an Army colonel who deployed to Afghanistan sev­er­al times and advised three U.S. gen­er­als in charge of the war, said that the Afghan gov­ern­ment led by Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai had “self-orga­nized into a klep­toc­ra­cy” [35] by 2006 — and that U.S. offi­cials failed to rec­og­nize the lethal threat it posed to their strat­e­gy.

“I like to use a can­cer anal­o­gy,” [36] Kolen­da told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers. “Pet­ty cor­rup­tion is like skin can­cer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll prob­a­bly be just fine. Cor­rup­tion with­in the min­istries, high­er lev­el, is like colon can­cer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re prob­a­bly ok. Klep­toc­ra­cy, how­ev­er, is like brain can­cer; it’s fatal.” [36]

By allow­ing cor­rup­tion to fes­ter, U.S. offi­cials told inter­view­ers, 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.

“Our biggest sin­gle project, sad­ly and inad­ver­tent­ly, of course, may have been the devel­op­ment of mass cor­rup­tion,” [37] Crock­er, who served as the top U.S. diplo­mat in Kab­ul in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012, told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers. He added, “Once it gets to the lev­el I saw, when I was out there, it’s some­where between unbe­liev­ably hard and out­right impos­si­ble to fix it.” [38]

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.

One uniden­ti­fied U.S. sol­dier said Spe­cial Forces teams “hat­ed” [39] the Afghan police whom they trained and worked with, call­ing them “awful — the bot­tom of the bar­rel in the coun­try that is already at the bot­tom of the bar­rel.” [39]

A U.S. mil­i­tary offi­cer esti­mat­ed that one-third of police recruits were “drug addicts or Tal­iban.” [40] Yet anoth­er called them “steal­ing fools” [41] who loot­ed so much fuel from U.S. bases that they per­pet­u­al­ly smelled of gaso­line.

“Think­ing we could build the mil­i­tary that fast and that well was insane,” [42] an unnamed senior USAID offi­cial told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers.

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.

In the Lessons Learned inter­views, for­mer offi­cials said almost every­thing they did to con­strain opi­um farm­ing back­fired.

“We stat­ed that our goal is to estab­lish a ‘flour­ish­ing mar­ket econ­o­my,’ ” [43] said Dou­glas Lute, the White House’s Afghan war czar from 2007 to 2013. “I thought we should have spec­i­fied a flour­ish­ing drug trade — this is the only part of the mar­ket that’s work­ing.” [43]

From the begin­ning, Wash­ing­ton nev­er real­ly fig­ured out how to incor­po­rate a war on drugs into its war against al-Qae­da. 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.

No sin­gle agency or coun­try was in charge of the Afghan drug strat­e­gy for the entire­ty of the war, so the State Depart­ment, the DEA, the U.S. mil­i­tary, NATO allies and the Afghan gov­ern­ment butted heads con­stant­ly.

“It was a dog’s break­fast with no chance of work­ing,” [44] an unnamed for­mer senior British offi­cial told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers.

The agen­cies and allies made things worse by embrac­ing a dys­func­tion­al mud­dle of pro­grams, accord­ing to the inter­views.

At first, Afghan pop­py farm­ers were paid by the British to destroy their crops — which only encour­aged them to grow more the next sea­son. Lat­er, the U.S. gov­ern­ment erad­i­cat­ed pop­py fields with­out com­pen­sa­tion — which only infu­ri­at­ed farm­ers and encour­aged them to side with the Tal­iban.

“It was sad to see so many peo­ple behave so stu­pid­ly,” [45] one U.S. offi­cial told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers.

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.

For exam­ple, some snowflakes that Rums­feld released with his mem­oir show he had received a string of unusu­al­ly dire warn­ings from the war zone in 2006.

After return­ing from a fact-find­ing mis­sion to Afghanistan, Bar­ry McCaf­frey, a retired Army gen­er­al, report­ed the Tal­iban had made an impres­sive come­back and pre­dict­ed that “we will encounter some very unpleas­ant sur­pris­es in the com­ing 24 months.”

“The Afghan nation­al lead­er­ship are col­lec­tive­ly ter­ri­fied that we will tip-toe out of Afghanistan in the com­ing few years — leav­ing NATO hold­ing the bag — and the whole thing will col­lapse again into may­hem,” McCaf­frey wrote in June 2006.

Two months lat­er, Marin Strmec­ki, a civil­ian advis­er to Rums­feld, gave the Pen­ta­gon chief a clas­si­fied, 40-page report loaded with more bad news. It said “enor­mous pop­u­lar dis­con­tent is build­ing” against the Afghan gov­ern­ment because of its cor­rup­tion and incom­pe­tence. It also said that the Tal­iban was grow­ing stronger, thanks to sup­port from Pak­istan, a U.S. ally.

Yet with Rumsfeld’s per­son­al bless­ing, the Pen­ta­gon buried the bleak warn­ings and told the pub­lic a very dif­fer­ent sto­ry.

In Octo­ber 2006, Rumsfeld’s speech­writ­ers deliv­ered a paper titled “Afghanistan: Five Years Lat­er.” Brim­ming with opti­mism, it high­light­ed more than 50 promis­ing facts and fig­ures, from the num­ber of Afghan women trained in “improved poul­try man­age­ment” (more than 19,000) to the “aver­age speed on most roads” (up 300 per­cent).

“Five years on, there is a mul­ti­tude of good news,” it read. “While it has become fash­ion­able in some cir­cles to call Afghanistan a for­got­ten war, or to say the Unit­ed States has lost its focus, the facts belie the myths.”

Rums­feld thought it was bril­liant.

“This paper,” he wrote in a memo, “is an excel­lent piece. How do we use it? Should it be an arti­cle? An Op-ed piece? A hand­out? A press brief­ing? All of the above? I think it ought to get it to a lot of peo­ple.”

His staffers made sure it did. They cir­cu­lat­ed a ver­sion to reporters and post­ed it on Pen­ta­gon web­sites. [46]

Since then, U.S. gen­er­als have almost always preached that the war is pro­gress­ing well, no mat­ter the real­i­ty on the bat­tle­field.

“We’re mak­ing some steady progress,” Maj. Gen. Jef­frey Schloess­er, com­man­der of the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion, told reporters in Sep­tem­ber 2008, even as he and oth­er U.S. com­man­ders in Kab­ul were urgent­ly request­ing rein­force­ments to cope with a ris­ing tide of Tal­iban fight­ers.

Two years lat­er, as the casu­al­ty rate among U.S. and NATO troops climbed to anoth­er high, Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez held a news con­fer­ence in Kab­ul.

“First, we are steadi­ly mak­ing delib­er­ate progress,” he said.

In March 2011, dur­ing con­gres­sion­al hear­ings, skep­ti­cal law­mak­ers pelt­ed Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the com­man­der of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, with doubts that the U.S. strat­e­gy was work­ing.

“The past eight months have seen impor­tant but hard-fought progress,” Petraeus respond­ed.

One year lat­er, dur­ing a vis­it to Afghanistan, Defense Sec­re­tary Leon Panet­ta stuck to the same script — even though he had just per­son­al­ly dodged a sui­cide attack.

“The cam­paign, as I’ve point­ed out before, I think has made sig­nif­i­cant progress,” Panet­ta told reporters.

In July 2016, after a surge in Tal­iban attacks on major cities, Army Gen. John W. Nichol­son Jr., the com­man­der of U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the time, repeat­ed the refrain.

“We are see­ing some progress,” he told reporters.

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, and inflat­ed the fig­ures as a mea­sure­ment of suc­cess.

In Afghanistan, with occa­sion­al excep­tions, the U.S. mil­i­tary has gen­er­al­ly avoid­ed pub­li­ciz­ing 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.

A per­son iden­ti­fied only as a senior Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil offi­cial said there was con­stant pres­sure from the Oba­ma White House and Pen­ta­gon to pro­duce fig­ures to show the troop surge of 2009 to 2011 was work­ing, despite hard evi­dence to the con­trary.

“It was impos­si­ble to cre­ate good met­rics. We tried using troop num­bers trained, vio­lence lev­els, con­trol of ter­ri­to­ry and none of it paint­ed an accu­rate pic­ture,” [47] the senior NSC offi­cial told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers in 2016. “The met­rics were always manip­u­lat­ed for the dura­tion of the war.”

Even when casu­al­ty counts and oth­er fig­ures looked bad, the senior NSC 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.

“It was their expla­na­tions,” the senior NSC offi­cial said. “For exam­ple, attacks are get­ting worse? ‘That’s because there are more tar­gets for them to fire at, so more attacks are a false indi­ca­tor of insta­bil­i­ty.’ Then, three months lat­er, attacks are still get­ting worse? ‘It’s because the Tal­iban are get­ting des­per­ate, so it’s actu­al­ly an indi­ca­tor that we’re win­ning.’ ”

“And this went on and on for two rea­sons,” the senior NSC offi­cial said, “to make every­one involved look good, and to make it look like the troops and resources were hav­ing the kind of effect where remov­ing them would cause the coun­try to dete­ri­o­rate.”

In oth­er field reports sent up the chain of com­mand, mil­i­tary offi­cers and diplo­mats took the same line. Regard­less of con­di­tions on the ground, they claimed they were mak­ing progress.

“From the ambas­sadors down to the low lev­el, [they all say] we are doing a great job,” [48] Michael Fly­nn, a retired three-star Army gen­er­al, told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers in 2015. “Real­ly? So if we are doing such a great job, why does it feel like we are los­ing?” [48]

Upon arrival in Afghanistan, U.S. Army brigade and bat­tal­ion com­man­ders were giv­en the same basic mis­sion: to pro­tect the pop­u­la­tion and defeat the ene­my, accord­ing to Fly­nn, who served mul­ti­ple tours in Afghanistan as an intel­li­gence offi­cer.

“So they all went in for what­ev­er their rota­tion was, nine months or six months, and were giv­en that mis­sion, accept­ed that mis­sion and exe­cut­ed that mis­sion,” [49] said Fly­nn, who lat­er briefly served as Trump’s nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er, lost his job in a scan­dal and was con­vict­ed of lying to the FBI. “Then they all said, when they left, they accom­plished that mis­sion. Every sin­gle com­man­der. Not one com­man­der is going to leave Afghanistan . . . and say, ‘You know what, we didn’t accom­plish our mis­sion.’ ” [49]

He added: “So the next guy that shows up finds it [their area] screwed up . . . and then they come back and go, ‘Man this is real­ly bad.’ ” [50]

Bob Crow­ley, the retired Army colonel who served as a coun­terin­sur­gency advis­er in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014, told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers that “truth was rarely wel­come” [51] at mil­i­tary head­quar­ters in Kab­ul.

“Bad news was often sti­fled,” [52] he said. “There was more free­dom to share bad news if it was small — we’re run­ning over kids with our MRAPs [armored vehi­cles] — because those things could be changed with pol­i­cy direc­tives. But when we tried to air larg­er strate­gic con­cerns about the will­ing­ness, capac­i­ty or cor­rup­tion of the Afghan gov­ern­ment, it was clear it wasn’t wel­come.” [52]

John Garo­fano, a Naval War Col­lege strate­gist who advised Marines in Hel­mand province in 2011, said mil­i­tary offi­cials in the field devot­ed an inor­di­nate amount of resources to churn­ing out col­or-cod­ed charts that her­ald­ed pos­i­tive results.

“They had a real­ly expen­sive machine that would print the real­ly large pieces of paper like in a print shop,” [53] he told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers. “There would be a caveat that these are not actu­al­ly sci­en­tif­ic fig­ures, or this is not a sci­en­tif­ic process behind this.” [54]

But Garo­fano said nobody dared to ques­tion whether the charts and num­bers were cred­i­ble or mean­ing­ful.

“There was not a will­ing­ness to answer ques­tions such as, what is the mean­ing of this num­ber of schools that you have built? How has that pro­gressed you towards your goal?” [55] he said. “How do you show this as evi­dence of suc­cess and not just evi­dence of effort or evi­dence of just doing a good thing?” [56]

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,” James Dob­bins, the for­mer U.S. diplo­mat, 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.