The U.S. sends troops far from home on an ill-defined mission. Leaders lie. The conflict becomes a quagmire. That’s Afghanistan — or Vietnam redux.

Family members of a U.S. soldier who died in Afghanistan look up as military helicopters fly over graveside services in Brigham, Utah, 9 December 2019 (Steve Griffin/The Deseret News via AP)

A newly disclosed archive of the 18-year war in Afghanistan, America’s longest, shows that Washington’s foreign policy establishment — sometimes called the “blob” — has blown it again.

A key takeaway from the archive is that transforming Afghanistan’s troubled, ancient, tribal mosaic into a Western-style liberal democracy was never possible, regardless of how much blood and treasure were thrown at the challenges.

The “Afghanistan Papers,” published last week by the Washington Post, are a reminder of the limits of American military power in what critics call the “forever war” era.

They show that U.S. officials have deliberately misled the public about failures in the ongoing conflict — just as their predecessors had done during the Vietnam War — and that they have often relied on misguided assumptions about a country they do not fully understand.

Lessons of Vietnam not learned

Robert McNamara, who as U.S. Defense secretary played a key role in escalating the Vietnam War in the 1960s, ultimately disavowed that entire, wrenching effort. Writing two decades after a Communist victory reunited North and South Vietnam, he said U.S. war policies had been “wrong, terribly wrong.”

That conflict, previously the longest-running in U.S. history, is estimated by Vietnam to have killed more than two million civilians, along with some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Vietcong fighters and more than 58,000 U.S. and perhaps 250,000 South Vietnamese troops. Spillover fighting killed many others in neighboring Laos and Cambodia.

U.S. blunders in Afghanistan recall Vietnam

By Jim Wolf

The stark missteps recorded in the Afghanistan Papers recall an historic about-face by an architect of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

He was Robert McNamara, the Defense secretary who played a key role in escalating the Vietnam conflict, only to end up wrestling with his ill-founded decisions that had been largely responsible for one of the century’s bloodiest wars.

I interviewed McNamara for Reuters in April 1995. U.S. combat units had withdrawn in 1973, leaving North and South Vietnam to reunify under Communist control two years later. Protesters had long before branded it “McNamara’s War,” to which he did not object. (more)

As told by McNamara in his 1995 memoir, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” national security officials — the “blob” of their day — had misjudged North Vietnam’s resolve, underrated the force of nationalism and failed to grasp the folly of trying to cow an agrarian people by bombing.

Military-industrial complex

The United States has already spent more on Afghanistan than on rebuilding Europe after World War Two. But instead of bringing peace and stability, blunders by successive administrations have helped create a corrupt, dysfunctional Afghan government that remains dependent on U.S. military power to survive, the new archive shows.

Concerns about over-reliance on bombs and bullets and under-reliance on diplomacy to resolve conflicts such as Afghanistan are not new.

Former President Dwight Eisenhower, a retired Army general, warned citizens to beware of vested interests linking the military, its private-sector suppliers and members of Congress who hold the purse strings. He dubbed the nexis the military-industrial complex.

“The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government,” he told the nation in his farewell address in 1961.

The payoff for lawmakers often involves bringing jobs to their constituents. Arms makers deliberately spread their manufacturing far and wide, with an eye to maintaining congressional support for contract renewals. The military gets the whiz-bang aircraft, tanks and other weapons it covets.

Increasingly they have deferred to presidential gun-slinging.

Another factor promoting investment in brute force over diplomacy was the end of the draft in 1973, when the United States withdrew combat units from Vietnam. After shifting to an all-volunteer military, the U.S. role in such conflicts as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria became less polarizing domestically than Vietnam had been, not least on college campuses.

Lawmakers passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973 in an effort to check the president’s power to launch or sustain armed conflict abroad without the consent of Congress. Increasingly, though, they have deferred to presidential gun-slinging in the age of terrorism.

Earlier in the 20th century, sapped by the Great Depression and memories of losses in World War One, the United States adopted a stance in foreign affairs more closely aligned with its historical isolationist tendencies. Then in December 1941, a surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor prompted Washington’s decision to join the Allied effort in World War Two.

Defining victory

The Afghanistan Papers, which the Washington Post published on December 9, are based on more than 2,000 pages of a federal watchdog’s interviews with more than 400 people directly involved in the war.

“We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” Douglas Lute, an Army general who oversaw the conflict from the White House during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told federal interviewers in 2015 in a document published by the Post.

U.S. officials had sought to build democratic institutions in Kabul modeled on those in Washington, as insiders described it in the internal interviews. Such projects won only scant buy-in from Afghans, steeped in tribalism, monarchism, communism and Islamic law, in a land that has long doomed foreign meddlers.

“I tried to get someone to define for me what winning meant, even before I went over, and nobody could,” retired U.S. Army General Dan McNeill, who served as commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, said in an undated interview, according to the Post.

“Some people were thinking in terms of Jeffersonian democracy, but that’s just not going to happen in Afghanistan,” added McNeill, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2002-2003 and the NATO coalition in 2007-2008.

‘If there was ever a notion of mission creep, it is Afghanistan.’

Together, the documents present Afghanistan as Exhibit A for what President Donald Trump and many others have called the need “to end the endless wars,” including in Iraq and Syria.

U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan to smash Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda militant group, oust its Taliban hosts and prevent any repeat of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. By early 2002, the United States had largely accomplished what it had set out to do. The Pentagon’s focus then shifted to Iraq. Afghanistan turned into a kind of uncoordinated state-building exercise for which the U.S. military was poorly suited.

“If there was ever a notion of mission creep, it is Afghanistan,” said Richard Boucher, who served as the State Department’s top diplomat for South Asia from 2006 to 2009, according to a transcript of an interview in 2015. “We have to say good enough is good enough,” he said. “That is why we are there 15 years later. We are trying to achieve the unachievable instead of achieving the achievable.”

Afghanistan epitomized a post-Cold War U.S. trend toward military responses to problems rather than extended diplomacy, regardless of who was president. During a visit to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan in November, Trump, notwithstanding his anti-establishment bent, said the United States would stay in Afghanistan “until such time as we have a deal, or we have total victory. And they (the Taliban) want to make a deal very badly.”

The United States and the Taliban have been holding on-again, off-again talks in Doha, Qatar. The ultimate aim is to clear the way for a phased pullout of the remaining 13,000 U.S. forces. Thousands of NATO troops are also still fielded in Afghanistan. By many measures, the Taliban are stronger now than at any point since 2001.

Manipulated metrics

The newly published archive is reminiscent of the Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department history of the Vietnam War that exposed government lies when it was leaked in 1971. Both sparked court battles. On June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that publication of the material was justified under the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of the press.

By contrast, it took The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock three years and two lawsuits to obtain the Afghanistan Papers under the Freedom of Information Act. The Post is still pressing for disclosure of 366 names of interviewees that remain blacked out.

The previously secret interview records were compiled as part of an ongoing “lessons learned” project by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, set up by Congress in 2008 to investigate and document waste, fraud and abuse in the war zone.

In one interview obtained by The Post, a person identified only as a senior National Security Council official said that the Obama White House, along with the Pentagon, pushed for data to show an Obama-announced troop surge in 2009 was succeeding.

“We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture,” the official told government interviewers in 2016, according to the Post. “The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”

“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, a retired Army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser at U.S. military headquarters in Kabul from 2013 to 2014, said in a similar interview.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, asked what assurances the Defense Department could give that it will provide accurate information about the war in the future, told reporters last week that he “would quibble with the idea that we weren’t providing it in the past.”

‘I have no visibility into who the bad guys are.’

The war has taken a heavy toll. Of the 147,000 Afghans killed since the U.S. invasion in October 2001, more than 38,000 have been civilians. About 2,400 U.S. troops have died, along with hundreds from allied countries that have sent forces. The United States has spent some $1 trillion as the mission morphed into more complex efforts, Pentagon officials say.

To augment its archive, the Post also published hundreds of once-classified memos dictated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld between 2001 and 2006.

“I have no visibility into who the bad guys are in Afghanistan or Iraq,” Rumsfeld complained in a September 2003 memo to an aide — nearly two years into the war and four months after he had announced in Kabul that major combat operations in Afghanistan had been completed.

(For more News-Decoder stories on Afghanistan, click here.)


  1. Why has the war in Afghanistan dragged on for as long as it has?
  2. What are some lessons from the newly published secret history of the war?
  3. What changes have fostered greater militarization of U.S. foreign policy?

Jim Wolf reported from Thailand for Agence France-Presse from 1980 to 1986. He later covered international security issues and the U.S. military-industrial-cyber complex as a Reuters correspondent in Washington.

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