Government documents obtained by The Washington Post show U.S. officials knowingly misled the public for years about the success of the war in Afghanistan, according to a report published Monday.
The Post reported it obtained government records, part of a federal project aimed at reviewing the root failures of the war, three years after submitting a Freedom of Information Act request for the information. The documents include more than 2,000 pages of interview notes with generals, diplomats, Afghan officials and others who held direct roles in the conflict and efforts to rebuild.
John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, acknowledged in an interview with the Post that the documents showed “the American people have constantly been lied to.” His agency conducted interviews with more than 600 people as part of a 2014 initiative called “Lessons Learned,” the Post reported.
In the interviews, officials shared private concerns over the war effort even as authorities told the public efforts were consistently making a positive impact.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan -- we didn’t know what we were doing,” Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served during the Bush and Obama administrations as a top adviser on the war, told interviewers in 2015, according to the Post. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
Lute told interviewers that bureaucratic breakdowns among officials in Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department led to the deaths of U.S. military personnel.
“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction...” Lute said, according to the Post.
Officials pointed to several issues with the war effort, including a rash of U.S. aid sent to the area, which fueled a dramatic rise in incidents of political corruption; failed efforts to create a sustainable, well-trained Afghan police force and misguided efforts to create a central government in a country that had never before functioned on a centralized system.
In interviews, several officials described deliberate efforts to mislead the public using distorted or false statistics. Most spoke under the assumption their remarks would not be made public, according to the Post.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” retired Army Col. Bob Crowley, who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military officials in 2013 and 2014, said in an interview for “Lessons Learned,” according to the Post.
"Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone."
An unidentified National Security Council official said officials constantly felt pressure from the Pentagon and the Obama administration to provide statistics that proved the efficacy of the increase in U.S. military troops to the area between 2009 and 2011, according to the Post.
“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,” the unidentified senior NSC official said in 2016, according to the Post. “The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”
Sopko told the Post his agency didn’t suppress criticism and doubt about the war that were raised in “Lessons Learned” and that the reason for the three-year delay in releasing the documents to the newspaper was due to his small staff.
“We didn’t sit on it,” he told the newspaper. “We’re firm believers in openness and transparency, but we’ve got to follow the law."