December 10, 2019

Afghanistan Papers

Editor's note: We couldn’t be more proud of one of our teammates, Isaac Rose-Berman, who penned his first op-ed this week in USA Today: “How college students can bridge American divides: 'Study abroad' in Alabama or New York.” Please give it a read, and share far and wide!

“A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post [revealed] 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.” Washington Post

Both sides are critical of the government’s deceptive statements:
“What is important in these hundreds of interviews – given by key US players to a US federal agency without the expectation their words would see the light of day – is the shocking and often granular candour, detailing how politicians, commanders and senior diplomats lied to themselves as they lied to US voters. And while much confirms what has already been available in memoirs, reporting and testimony to Congress, what is valuable in this collection of documents is the detail – and the depiction of how the biggest lies in conflict are an accumulation of bad faith, groupthink and cowardice. The documents also underline an important truth. While in conflict the metrics of success will always be contested, when they are massaged so often and so cynically that they undermine the ability to see what is going on, as occurred in Vietnam, it is the setting for historic failure.”
Peter Beaumont, The Guardian

“Probably the biggest unintentional irony here is the Pentagon’s title for the project: ‘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,’ reports The Washington Post. Instead, the witnesses’ first-hand accounts and unvarnished truths were suppressed for years… The only reason these accounts are seeing the light of day is because the Post was able to withstand years of legal battle.”
Barbara Boland, The American Conservative

Other opinions below.

See past issues

From the Left

The left believes Sanders’s chances have improved, but notes that obstacles still remain.

“The Pentagon Papers helped enshrine in the public lexicon the idea of a ‘credibility gap’: the difference between what government officials were telling Americans about how the Vietnam War was going and how they knew the war was actually going. At the time, the presence of that gap seemed untenable. Today, however, the credibility gap regarding Afghanistan isn’t a bizarre and unstable temporary situation but the status quo. Everyone knows the U.S. is losing in Afghanistan. Almost everyone in the government has been lying about it for years. Yet the collective response to this contradiction is a resigned shrug… In 1971, Americans could still be shocked by the fact that their leaders could be duplicitous. The Afghanistan debacle has conditioned us to expect this.”
David A. Graham, The Atlantic

“The war in Afghanistan—18 years old and still raging, at a cost of nearly $1 trillion, 2,300 U.S. troops killed, and more than 20,000 injured—has been a muddle from the beginning, steered by vague and wavering strategies, fueled by falsely rosy reports of progress from the battlefield, and almost certainly doomed to failure all along…

“Central to the current war effort—and to its failure—was corruption. It was central because the Afghan government couldn’t defeat the Taliban insurgents, or win the support of its people, as long as it was corrupt from top to bottom. The United States failed because the billions of dollars we poured into the country only made Afghanistan’s corruption worse… the report estimates that 40 percent of U.S. aid to Afghanistan was pocketed by officials, gangsters, or the insurgents themselves… The way we fight insurgents in countries with fragile states and societies tends to strengthen our enemy—and, to the people struggling to survive in those countries, we become the enemy. Until this is recognized and remedied, it’s better not to intervene in the first place.”
Fred Kaplan, Slate

“We were fighting and dying to achieve objectives that no elected leader could fully articulate. Army officers like to toss around an old saw by the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz: ‘No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to conduct it.’ By that standard, there never should have been an Afghanistan war…

“Let’s lay a great share of the blame on those who earned it most: the political and military leadership at the top, across our divided political spectrum, who together steadfastly refused to define an achievable victory in Afghanistan and refused to do the difficult, honorable thing and bring the soldiers home—leaving us to kill and die downrange, while thanking us for our indefinite service with boisterous platitudes.”
Adrian Bonenberger, New Republic

“Once the Taliban was ousted from power, the purpose of the mission and who the enemy was became far less clear… The idea that the [recently resurrected] talks [with the Taliban] could result in a stable political settlement is still a long shot—but it’s still probably the best hope for ending the conflict with at least something to show for the thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars spent. There’s now a very good chance that a fourth U.S. administration will inherit the conflict. At this point, they can hardly say they didn’t know what they were getting into.”
Joshua Keating, Slate

“The main question about the strike isn’t moral or even legal—it’s strategic. Soleimani was a supremely powerful leader of a state apparatus, with his own cult of personality, but he was not a terror kingpin. His death doesn’t decapitate anything. He had the blood of tens of thousands of people—overwhelmingly fellow Muslims—on his hands, but he was only the agent of a government policy that preceded him and will continue without him…The only reason to kill Soleimani is to enter a new war that the United States can win… [Yet] No one seems to have thought past the action itself…

“What would [a] war [with Iran] look like? How will Iran fight it? How will the U.S. respond? What credible allies will we have, after Trump’s trashing of the nuclear deal thoroughly alienated Europe? Who will believe any intelligence about Iran’s actions and intentions from an administration that can’t function without telling lies?…What is our war aim, and how can it be aligned with Trump’s obvious desire to be rid of any entanglement in the region? What will happen if Jerusalem becomes a target and Israel enters the conflict? What will the American people accept by way of sacrifice, when nothing has prepared them for this? There’s no sign that anyone in power, least of all the president, has even asked these questions, let alone knows how to answer them.”
George Packer, The Atlantic

“By declaring that the United States will respond with airstrikes to any attacks on American targets or assets, Mr. Trump is drawing a bright red line that Iran cannot cross. And yet, Iran relies on a network of proxy actors from Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Must they all respect Mr. Trump’s red line? There are plenty of hotheads in those proxy forces that will be incensed by the assassination, the same way young men with weapons and minimal discipline often are… Mr. Trump can’t keep an entire region from crossing his red line, making violent conflict all the more likely if the president holds to it…

“It is crucial that influential Republican senators like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Mitch McConnell remind Mr. Trump of his promise to keep America out of foreign quagmires and keep Mr. Trump from stumbling further into war with Iran.”
Editorial Board, New York Times

Others argue that “Biden was almost the only one on the stage who talked like a normal person. There was a point near the end of the debate when he was talking about getting men involved in stopping domestic violence and he said that we need to keep ‘punching’ at it… I knew that the twitterati and the analysts would tut tut. Ol’ Joe is just out of touch! He doesn’t know you can’t use words like that. Meanwhile, every non-political junkie watching the debate thought there was nothing wrong with this. Biden was just using ordinary language, not worrying too much if it was fully approved by the woke brigade.”
Kevin Drum, Mother Jones

From the Right

The right applauds Trump’s speech and argues that his Iran strategy has been successful.

From the Right

“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. 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…  Each year, we hoped that this would be the year that our efforts in that misbegotten country would ‘turn the corner,’ and every year ended with the country in more or less the same mostly-bad situation it started. The expectations got ratcheted down a little more, hoping that the Afghan government would get a little closer to something resembling a functioning state that would not collapse the moment we left.”
Jim Geraghty, National Review

“Whether it was pouring tens of billions of dollars into a poverty-stricken country that had no capacity to absorb the investment, attempting to construct a Western-style government in a nation that has never known democracy, fighting opium by paying farmers to destroy their own crops, or professionalizing an Afghan national police composed of thieves and drug addicts, the U.S. has made every error we could possibly have imagined. The biggest error of all, however, was of the political and foreign policy elite in Washington who were stupid and arrogant enough to believe the U.S. had the capability or responsibility to police the world and rebuild a failed nation.”
Daniel DePetris, Washington Examiner

“Trump has personally always sounded skeptical of the war in Afghanistan and has (publicly, at least) gone the farthest to try to get the US out… the main thrust of this article actually validates Trump’s campaign criticism of the war as a colossal waste of US money and resources and the folly of aggressive interventionism in general. The irony of that will be that if Trump succeeds in cutting a peace deal in Afghanistan, he’s the one that will pay the political price when the Taliban inevitably return to power. That desire to avoid political accountability for an impossible nation-building project was the driving force that created the [problem] in the first place.”
Ed Morrissey, Hot Air

Many argue, “Let’s cut our losses and go before more Americans die in this lost cause. Poor Afghanistan is going to fall under the tyrannical rule of the mullahs. But if, after 18 years, a trillion dollars, and all those dead and wounded Americans, we couldn’t establish a stable and decent Afghan regime, it’s not going to happen… To be clear, we should have bombed the hell out of Afghanistan after 9/11. The Taliban government gave shelter to Al Qaeda, and brought retribution upon itself. But the Bush Administration’s nation-building insanity was never going to work.”
Rod Dreher, The American Conservative

Others caution, “Obvious and serious challenges remain. But we must not make policy on the back of guilt over former mistakes. We must make policy on the basis of what best serves American interests now. And U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is rightly focused on securing major cities, building Afghan security capability, and countering international terrorist groups… Moreover, what's the alternative? Total withdrawal would create physical and inspirational-ideological space for groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda to regroup and would immediately jeopardize functional, even if limited, improvements to Afghan governance and security.”
Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner

“If a dozen drones or missiles can do the kind of damage to the world economy as did those fired on Saturday—shutting down about 6 percent of world oil production—imagine what a U.S.-Iran-Saudi war would do to the world economy. In recent decades, the U.S. has sold the Saudis hundreds of billions of dollars of military equipment. Did our weapons sales carry a guarantee that we will also come and fight alongside the kingdom if it gets into a war with its neighbors?… the nation does not want another war. How we avoid it, however, is becoming difficult to see. John Bolton may be gone from the West Wing, but his soul is marching on.”
Patrick Buchanan, The American Conservative

Others note, “I’d hate to be a Democratic member of Congress trying to convince Joe Sixpack that this is a whole new ballgame. The transcript shows Trump being Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky trying to ingratiate himself with the big dog by, for instance, mentioning that he stays at Trump hotels. Trump’s conversation is typically scattershot, wandering all over the field, leaving a reasonable listener puzzled about what the takeaways are supposed to be…

“I think Joe Sixpack’s response is going to be a hearty shrug. After all that has emerged about Trump so far, his approval rating is closely tracking Obama’s approval at the same point in his presidency. To get Mr. Sixpack’s attention you are going to have to do better than this.”
Kyle Smith, National Review

President Trump should be happy. As much as Warren is articulate, obviously intelligent, and energetically supported by Democrats, she would also be far easier to defeat than Joe Biden… Considering Trump's economy, the president is well placed to defeat Warren.”
Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner

A libertarian's take

“While running for president in 2000, George W. Bush derided ‘nation building’ and said American foreign policy should be ‘humble’ rather than ‘arrogant.’ As president, Bush brought us the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq… While running for president in 2007, Barack Obama rejected the idea that the president has the authority to wage war without congressional authorization whenever he thinks it is in the national interest… As president, Obama did that very thing in Libya… A few years before his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump said the U.S. should withdraw immediately from Afghanistan… As president, he sent more troops to Afghanistan…

“Three men with little or no foreign policy experience entered an office where they were surrounded by experts, and they quickly shed their initial skepticism of military intervention… we should worry about a president with little knowledge of the world whose military decisions are driven by anger or domestic political considerations. But it's not clear to me that such a president poses a bigger danger than the experts who have been disastrously wrong more times than we can count.”
Jacob Sullum, Reason

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