Mendacity, Hubris, and the Tragedy of Afghanistan

A cynic might start to suspect that the current impeachment fervor roiling Capitol Hill is nothing more than a ruse by Washington’s aristocracy to camouflage revelations about their own incompetence, corruption, and abuse of power over the past few decades.

Could it be, a cynic might wonder, that all the accusations leveled against President Trump merely are projections to deflect from the bad behavior of Beltway royalty?

After all, Trump lies, we are told. Trump is clueless when it comes to the delicate affairs of war and diplomacy, we are warned. His recklessness jeopardizes national security and World War III, we are cautioned, is just around the corner.

State Department snobs, supremely confident in their own skills and irreplaceable value to the nation, demeaned the president during the House’s impeachment inquiry. Former and current inhabitants of the intelligence community are key accomplices in the attempt to oust Trump from the White House. Opinion columns authored by former national security officials routinely describe the president as the world’s biggest threat to world peace. (More on that next week.)

And they ease any fears about the president’s instinctive approach to foreign relations with promises that these very stable geniuses on both sides of the aisle will be back in business once Donald Trump vacates the Oval Office.

But, thanks to an ongoing exposé in the Washington Post documenting the government’s treacherous mishandling of the war in Afghanistan, the American public is learning that it is Washington’s self-important ruling class—not Donald Trump—that has lied to us for nearly two decades about what has been happening in that failed and deadly conflict.

The very same collection of intelligence, national security, military, diplomatic, and political experts rubbing their hands in eager anticipation of Trump’s ouster, either by impeachment or defeat this November, is responsible for mismanaging our longest war, a debacle by any measure that continues to cost American lives.

It is they, not Donald Trump, who fudged the numbers. They, not Donald Trump, manipulated internal reporting and politicized field intelligence to mislead the public. They, not Donald Trump, conceived failed strategies borne of ignorance, careerism, and ineptitude. They, not Donald Trump, posed the gravest threat to national security and a peaceful global order.

They, not Donald Trump, perpetuated a war that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of American soldiers, wounded and disfigured tens of thousands more, and killed untold numbers of Afghans.

“There’s an odor of mendacity throughout the Afghanistan issue,” John Sopko told the House Foreign Affairs Committee during his explosive testimony this week. Sopko is the special inspector general tasked with oversight of the nation’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. He minced no words. “Mendacity and hubris” have infected our government’s handling of the war, he said.

Sopko heads SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Congress created the agency in 2008 amid reports of widespread corruption in that country as the war escalated.

SIGAR’s mission is to account for the more than $130 billion in U.S. aid being spent to rebuild Afghanistan; the agency has produced nearly 600 reports analyzing the U.S. government’s efforts to move Afghanistan out of the stone age and develop an educational, financial, healthcare, and security infrastructure consistent with the 21st Century.

Not that anyone in Washington or the media paid attention to SIGAR’s work.

In 2014, SIGAR launched a separate project called Lessons Learned after federal agencies, including the State and Defense departments, failed to supply truthful answers about the war’s status.

“While honesty and transparency are always important, when government agencies overstate the positive and overlook flaws in their methodologies or accountability mechanisms, it has real public policy implications,” Sopko told the committee. “The American people and their elected representatives eventually start asking why, if things are going so well, are we still there? Why do we continue to spend so much money? As the old saying goes, success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. Nowhere is this more true than in Afghanistan, where success is fleeting and failure is common.”

The agency conducted hundreds of interviews with U.S. civil servants, allied forces, and Afghan government officials. What they found should enrage every American, particularly the families of those who have suffered the most.

“The problem is there’s a disincentive, really, to tell the truth,” a clearly frustrated Sopko told Rep. Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “We have created an incentive to almost require . . . people to lie. You create, from the bottom up, an incentive . . . to show success. That gets reported up the chain.”

Then this: “Before you know it, the president is talking about a success that doesn’t exist.”

Sopko warned House members they also have been misled and don’t have the information necessary to decide what to do next in Afghanistan.

“A lot of the facts you need, you’re not being given,” he testified. “They are over-classified or they’re not being given or they’re just ignored. It’s lying by omission. Turns out all the bad news has been classified over the past few years.” (One congressman responded with, “Wow.”)

Sopko described how U.S. agencies relied on sketchy reporting from Afghanistan to tout progress in education and healthcare. In one example, the U.S. Agency for International Development claimed life expectancy in Afghanistan had increased by 22 years since the 2001 invasion; in reality, it was less than a third of that number. Projections about the number of girls enrolled in school were way overinflated. Performance measures put in place years ago had disappeared. Data was either flawed, massaged, or nonexistent.

There is no strategy, Sopko explained, to combat the country’s dominant opiate industry despite the United States spending more than $9 billion to curtail Afghanistan’s production of the deadly poppy crop.

“In dozens of interviews . . . key players in the anti-narcotics campaign acknowledged that none of the measures have worked and that, in many cases, they have made things worse,” wrote Post reporter Craig Whitlock, the main author of the paper’s Afghanistan series.

But SIGAR’s work so far has fallen on deaf ears. Its Lesson Learned project has made 120 recommendations to Congress and the executive branch; only 13, Sopko reported, have been implemented.

This is one more shameful example of why the Democrats’ impeachment crusade is so dangerous. While Democratic lawmakers continue to obsess with how to remove Trump from office, and Republicans fight back, the country’s legitimate problems are ignored. As the news media howls about a few hundred million dollars in delayed U.S. aid to Ukraine, tens of billions are wasted each year on useless plans to build a “little America,” as Sopko called it, in Afghanistan. America’s running receipt in Afghanistan is around $1 trillion.

But the country is a disaster; civilian deaths are at record numbers—23 Americans were killed in 2019, the highest number since 2014. Two soldiers have already been killed this year by a roadside bomb. The Taliban is back in charge. Afghanistan is regressing, not progressing.

And as the White House, too, remains distracted by impeachment, there is little reason to hope the president will be successful in ending our failed adventure in Afghanistan. Even plans to remove a few thousand troops from Syria were met with handwringing on both sides of the aisle.

Americans should indeed be concerned about political leaders who lie and hide the truth in order to protect themselves. We should hold to account those in power who abuse their authority and refuse accountability. We should be outraged about efforts to exploit foreign governments for political gain.

All of that applies not to a brief phone call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine but to the ongoing tragedy that is the war in Afghanistan. So far, the ruling class’s diversionary tactics are working. At some point, we can hope, a reckoning will begin and the very people now asking all the questions about Trump’s conduct will be forced to answer some questions themselves.

A cynic can dream.

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