Capt. John Conner, an Air Force combat rescue officer from the 64th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, flies with an Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter crew over Kandahar, Afghanistan, during joint training April 5, 2019.

Capt. John Conner, an Air Force combat rescue officer from the 64th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, flies with an Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter crew over Kandahar, Afghanistan, during joint training April 5, 2019. U.S. Air Force / Capt. Anna-Marie Wyant

Can Military Leaders Handle the Truth About Afghanistan?

Our recent poll suggests that public confidence in the military is high, but that it may be on shaky ground.

For more than three decades, the American public has consistently expressed high, and rising, confidence in the military. However, frustration with the high cost and low results in the wars launched after the 9/11 attacks has also raised doubts about whether military leaders have been telling the public the truth about how they have handled their professional duties. Which of these two trend-lines will prevail? Will high confidence lead the public to give the military the benefit of the doubt, or will doubts begin to undermine public confidence?

In a recent blockbuster story in the Washington Post, Craig Whitlock accused top military leaders of intentionally and systematically misleading the American people about the lack of progress in Afghanistan for more than 18 years.

Not everyone agrees. Michael O’Hanlon believes the accusations are unwarranted, suggesting the Post has “demeaned and diminished” some of America’s most-trusted voices. It is also not clear how “new” the news really was. Certainly anyone who was paying attention to the numerous publicly released reports by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, knew that every positive claim about Afghanistan could be matched with an equal and opposite negative claim. Indeed, the “new news” that formed the basis of the Post story was simply the release of the mostly unredacted raw investigatory notes that went into the public reports. So far, we have not seen evidence that any of these materials contradict what the SIGAR already publicly documented. 

But there is no doubt Whitlock’s story has breathed new life into the debate about what went wrong in Afghanistan. If the public accepts the narrative that military leaders deliberately deceived the American public in the face of strategic failure, it could color the relationship between the military and the public for years, perhaps even decades, to come.

Related: Everyone Knew We Were Losing in Afghanistan

Related: It Matters Whether Americans Call Afghanistan a Defeat

Related: It’s Getting Harder to Track US Progress in Afghanistan

There is evidence this narrative had begun to take hold even before Whitlock’s story. 

As early as 2013, only 26 percent of Americans believed the military was giving the American people an accurate view of the war in Afghanistan, while 54 percent did not. By 2017, assurances of progress in Afghanistan by general officers had become a meme.

Our own research suggests that the public remains more skeptical in its assessment of the military than high topline confidence ratings might suggest at first glance.

Drawing on an survey administered for us by NORC to 4,500 adults in late June and early July, we probed public attitudes about the military and the war in Afghanistan.

Although 75 percent of Americans told us they had confidence in the military and 83 percent said the military is “good at what it does,” only 43 percent agreed with the statement “the military makes truthful claims,” including just 30 percent of independents. When asked whether “most members of the military are truthful,” a still-tepid 45 percent of Americans agreed.

In our survey, we also included an experiment. A control group of 619 Americans received no additional information about the war in Afghanistan. Another group of 584 Americans read a paragraph telling them the United States had failed to achieve its strategic goals in Afghanistan. A third group of 574 Americans read a paragraph stating the United States had achieved its strategic goals and prevented another large-scale terrorist attack on the homeland.

Among the group that read the strategic failure prompt, confidence in the military dropped nearly 10 percentage points to 66 percent, which would mark the military’s lowest rating since before 9/11. The group’s collective assessment of the truthfulness of military statements dropped even further, to 36 percent.

There was no positive boost in public sentiment among the group that read a story about strategic success, with confidence ticking up only one percentage point. That group’s assessment of military truthfulness also did not change with good news, suggesting the public may already be somewhat inoculated against news of progress in the Afghanistan.

If talks between the United States and the Taliban lead to a reduction in violence, the Trump administration could decide that the time is right to leave Afghanistan. If a deal is struck, its terms – and the public narrative that solidifies around it – will likely shape the relationship between military and civilian leaders for decades.

The narratives the military adopts will also be consequential. Following the Vietnam War, a narrative developed among the U.S. officer corps that the military had been stabbed in the back by cutting a deal to withdraw troops, rather than allowing them to stay and win.

In assessing the war in Afghanistan, some military officers may again be tempted to cast blame on changing strategic objectives or – what they believe to be – poor political decision making. There may even be some truth to such a narrative.

But military leaders should also be honest with themselves. Our research makes one thing clear: there is likely nowhere for public confidence in the military to go but down.

These views are those of the authors and do not represent the positions of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Mission to NATO.