Afghanistan has long been the overshadowed war, eclipsed in public attention by the invasion of Iraq and a dozen other stories. Even so, the American occupation of Afghanistan grinds on, with an end seeming remote and any kind of positive resolution even more so.
It’s bitterly appropriate, then, that on Monday—with more hearings in the impeachment of Donald Trump and the release of a long-awaited Justice Department inspector-general report into the Russia investigation sucking up attention—The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock delivered a devastating suite of articles about Afghanistan.
Based on a tranche of thousands of documents obtained by the Post in litigation, as well as some previously released memos, the report shows that for nearly two decades, America’s leaders—Democrat and Republican; civilian and military; elected, appointed, and career civil servant—have lied to us about how the war in Afghanistan is going. Yet while this story risks being overshadowed by the fresher stories coming out of Washington, there’s a straight line between the years-long dissembling about Afghanistan and the chaos of the Trump administration today.
The obvious analogy to the Post scoop is the Pentagon Papers, the batch of documents about the Vietnam War leaked to the press and published—over the fierce objections of the Nixon administration, and with the permission of the Supreme Court—in 1971. The documents were a watershed. As R. W. Apple Jr. wrote in The New York Times 25 years later, “They demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.” They helped turn the tide of public opinion decisively against the war, and their lesson—that the government would lie so brazenly and extensively—set the table for Richard Nixon’s downfall and post-Watergate governmental reforms.
The Post, courting the comparison with the Pentagon Papers, is billing its stories as “a secret history of the war.” The shocking thing about the Post stories, however, is how unshocking they are. That isn’t to say they aren’t appalling. In exhausting detail, Whitlock shows how Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, their Cabinet officials, and military commanders told Americans that the U.S. had a clear strategy and was effectively executing it—even though, in private, they said that the U.S. had no idea what it was doing, and no idea how to do it.
Polls have long shown majorities or pluralities of Americans saying that they don’t think the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting and that it is failing. Fewer than half now believe fighting the war was the right decision in the first place—a finding that comes as a jolt to anyone who remembers the national mood after September 11, 2001. Most think that the war doesn’t have a clear objective. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these views are often even stronger among veterans—the people who have been sent to fight the war and have seen how little progress the American effort is making, and at what cost.
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.
And while Afghanistan doesn’t make headlines much these days, there’s a straight line between this story and the impeachment hearing. 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. That helped pave the way for the presidency of Donald Trump, who as a candidate offered a mix of outright lies, goofy fibs, and bullshit, and has faithfully continued to do the same since being elected.
The impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives are focused in part on Trump’s obviously false claim that he wasn’t extorting Ukraine for personal electoral assistance, as well as a range of subsidiary nonsense. Sometime soon, the Democratic-led House will vote to impeach Trump, but the president is expected to easily survive a Senate trial. As with so many of the troubling currents in contemporary American politics, Trump didn’t create the condition in which people shrug at their government when it brazenly and transparently lies to them. But he has benefited from and exacerbated it.