The lessons of the Afghanistan Papers

U.S. Marines walk around a base in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, September 3, 2009.REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (AFGHANISTAN CONFLICT POLITICS IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1E593173U01
Editor's note:

The war in Afghanistan is nearing the end of its second decade, although its failure long ago became inevitable, Tamara Cofman Wittes and Kevin Huggard write. When future U.S. leaders decide to undertake ambitious, complicated projects abroad, they should be able to explain to the American public how and when they will choose to pull the plug. This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic.

The Afghanistan Papers, published a week ago by The Washington Post, offer vivid details and sometimes shocking assessments, but few surprising insights. The hundreds of interviews collected by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) and obtained by the Post show clearly that the United States has been fighting a long, costly war that remains far from success and offers no clear path for getting there. That this miserable impasse could sustain itself for 18 years represents a failure of political leadership, and also a lack of honest public conversation. But if our only response is cynicism, we risk learning the wrong lessons from the Afghanistan Papers.

The degree of misrepresentation by military and civilian leaders of that effort in claiming success, and the specific details of those misrepresentations, should drive accountability as well as lessons for the future. But even extensive oversight mechanisms cannot guarantee the reversal of failing policy, if no one in a position of responsibility is willing to bite the bullet.

As the Post notes, SIGAR was created by Congress precisely to make independent assessments of the nearly trillion-dollar effort by successive U.S. administrations to transform Afghanistan. SIGAR has published nine reports so far in its “Lessons Learned” series, including an unsparingly critical report on stabilization and reconstruction that we launched in May 2018 at the Brookings Institution, where we work. The Post sued to obtain the interviews and other documents underlying the project through the Freedom of Information Act.

The interviews published by the Post provide a starker version of SIGAR’s previous analysis, but in many ways, they tell the same story. In its reports and testimony before Congress, SIGAR has revealed wasteabuse, and questionable judgment in a host of Afghanistan programs and projects. The interviews are stripped of the dry inspector-general verbiage and also of the strategic context within which judgments were made; senior officials frankly assess their failures to produce security, stability, or transparent and effective governance in Afghanistan. Those failures are documented in SIGAR’s reports.

But the extensive oversight mechanisms created for this massive project were not enough to force a rethink in the face of inertia, sunk costs, and short-term political calculations. SIGAR’s extant analysis of failures and missteps should have prompted a greater reckoning some time ago—if not within the executive branch, then within Congress, which regularly authorized and appropriated funds for the ongoing campaign.

This attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan was embarked on by one president and embraced, at least for a time, by two more. Each one, when faced with the decision, chose to continue down this doomed road, believing it less risky and more palatable than his available alternatives. What the Post reporting reveals is that, while this path may have been easier, it was a road that would never reach its stated destination.

The U.S. effort in Afghanistan was an undertaking of breathtaking ambition: to oust a Taliban regime that gave haven to international terrorists; to defeat those terrorists and their allies and supporters in a counterinsurgency campaign; to set up and sustain a democratic government in a society riven by years of factional war; and to promote human development, human security, and basic human rights in a country where religious extremists, drug lords, and tribal chiefs had long ruled over (and fought for control of) a beleaguered populace. The overarching result seems to be a sort of D-minus—some degree of visible achievement, but still a failing grade.

The Post’s reporting is unsparing in its depiction of “second-guessing and back-biting” among U.S. government officials about their work in Afghanistan. Field staff argued that higher-ups didn’t understand the realities they faced on the ground, didn’t give them enough leeway to be effective, or cut off resources at the wrong time. Senior staff questioned strategies chosen by their superiors or determined in internal debates in which they participated. These concerns, voiced mostly in confidential interviews with SIGAR, were no doubt honestly felt, and had real foundations.

The existence of such doubts and concerns, however, does not necessarily reveal the roots of the Afghanistan failure. This kind of second-guessing is endemic in any large organization undertaking a long-term, complex project. Field staff close to on-the-ground implementation often question how their work is valued or prioritized by central decision makers, or question how their contribution fits into the wider strategy; central decision makers often fail to see the reality of implementation on the ground, and focus their energies on the policy battles they’ve won and lost around the interagency table.

Most successful projects would reveal such concerns and complaints along the way, if they were also investigated. But successful projects don’t usually get this kind of attention, nor do those who achieve that success usually focus on their own complaints about the project in post hoc interviews. Conversely, a decision not to attempt reconstruction in Afghanistan, but merely to oust the Taliban and leave, would likewise have been accompanied by internal recriminations and warnings, some of which might well have proved correct.

Rebuilding a country after 30 years of civil war is an enormously complex challenge, in which failure is possible even when everyone involved agrees on the goals and means and when their execution is flawless. So we must ask whether there was some earlier fork in the road that we should have seen and taken but missed. Should we find ourselves on such a road again, we must learn to recognize signs of trouble more quickly, so we can call a halt before we’ve gone so far.

The insights produced by SIGAR’s work, and made vivid by the Afghanistan Papers, should produce a much-needed national reckoning. Was a better grade than a D-minus ever realistic? If not, was the D-minus worth the price? This is an essential question for the military and civilian agencies involved in Afghanistan, for Congress and for the American public—and most especially for those now aspiring to the role of commander in chief.

In the current cynical environment, with public trust in institutions at an all-time low and political polarization high, we fear for the way in which Afghanistan will feature in the upcoming presidential campaign. The politically easy responses to the “Lessons Learned” project are to say “This shows why we need to bring all our troops home now,” or “This shows why we should never use force abroad,” or even “This shows why we should never attempt to promote democracy or women’s rights or good-governance policies in countries that aren’t already like us.”

But such simplistic conclusions sidestep both the reasons the United States embarked on the Afghan War, and the reasons three American presidents kept us there. To make those easy answers the lessons we learn would be to repeat the failure of responsibility that we’ve seen over the past 18 years, and to overcorrect in ways that could leave us asking a different “Why?” a few years or decades from now.

In some ways, the cynicism of these responses is understandable. The bitter experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has undercut public faith in those entrusted with making and implementing American foreign policy. That’s a legacy Washington’s senior officials and foreign-policy hands must work to overcome, whether or not they or their favored political party were on the “right” side of these projects. No one should expect public applause for having only a minority stake in a national catastrophe.

Part of regaining lost trust must involve a greater willingness to recognize, own, and correct mistakes, something the Post’s report makes clear American policy makers have not done in Afghanistan. SIGAR’s reports were not enough to get the ball rolling. Even if they had, it’s far from clear that more active follow-through from Congress could have forced policy changes that would have delivered anything like success in Afghanistan.

It’s always foolish for an American president to launch an ambitious foreign-policy project on the assumption of success. That was George W. Bush’s mistake in Iraq. In Afghanistan, success was not assumed. But when failure became inevitable, U.S. leaders didn’t look for an acceptable off-ramp, and the public didn’t pressure them to do so. No doubt a future president will confront the question of whether to launch an ambitious project abroad with uncertain hopes of success. By then, Americans need leaders who can tell them how and when they will decide to pull the plug.