Soldiers assigned to the 101st Resolute Support Sustainment Brigade load onto a Chinook helicopter to head out and execute missions across Afghanistan, Jan. 15, 2019.

Soldiers assigned to the 101st Resolute Support Sustainment Brigade load onto a Chinook helicopter to head out and execute missions across Afghanistan, Jan. 15, 2019. 1st Lt. Verniccia Ford

Who Gets to Tell the Story of the Afghanistan War?

The Washington Post’s ‘Afghanistan Papers’ is the latest contribution to a growing argument over whether the conflict — or any of the ‘forever wars’ — was worth the cost.

Who gets to tell the story of the Afghanistan war?

Is it angry veterans and war-weary journalists? Is it Pentagon public relations pros, putting the spin on the best story they can for Washington politics and the public? Is it the ground troops and their families who led their men and women through combat, took terrain, won hearts and minds, killed the enemy, and then came home to heroically save each other once again, yet this time from their demons? Is it the Hollywood movies that don’t get the story quite right? Is it the 4-star generals who still methodically and earnestly warn politicians and the public that this war, like all of the United States’ contemporary missions against worldwide violent extremism, will be messy, complicated, and take much longer than 18 years to win? Is it American voters?

The latest retelling of the war, and most assuredly not the last, is the Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” investigation. It landed with a splash in December, revealing raw documents obtained from John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, or SIGAR. He is a man whose office for years has been a respected and unflinching presenter of overwhelming evidence of the war’s unfulfilled promises to American taxpayers. “Here comes another Sopko report” is frequently uttered in newsrooms when the next email hits their inboxes. There have been so many, frankly, that they’ve lost impact. But with an eye-catching digital format, the Post presents the SIGAR’s latest findings, and their own reporting, as a major scoop. Indeed, the paper touted the package as a modern-day version of “Pentagon Papers.” In that legendary news moment of the 1970s, a contract analyst for the Defense Department, Daniel Ellsberg, amassed, copied, and leaked to reporters 7,000 pages of classified analysis revealing that U.S. leaders for years during the Vietnam War secretly had believed it to be an unwinnable morass but constantly and deliberately lied to the American people to keep it going. 

As quickly as it caught attention, the Post’s work drew criticism from veteran war leaders, politicians, scholars, and journalists, both for the comparison to the Pentagon Papers and for its essential argument and conclusion: that contemporary U.S. officials across the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have for 18 years lied to the American public in a purposeful conspiracy, either with willful deceit or with crafty spin to paint the rosiest-possible pictures of what it claims was a constantly failing effort. Even Sopko said that goes too far.

Why aren’t the two “papers” the same thing? In December, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, asked twice about the report, shot down its claims and premise. Esper said the "insinuation that there's been this large-scale conspiracy is ridiculous." 

Milley, a true believer in keeping U.S. military forces in Afghanistan to prevent terrorist groups from orchestrating another 9/11-level attack on the United States, was having none of it. “I know there’s an assertion out there in some sort of coordinated lie over the course of, say, 18 years. I find that a bit of a stretch. More than a bit of a stretch, I find that a mischaracterization,” Milley said, because it assumes the participation of hundreds of people across DOD, CIA, and more, and it would be impossible to get “that level of coordination to do that kind of deception.” 

“I know that I and many, many others gave assessments at the time, based on facts we knew at the time, and those were honest assessments never meant to deceive the Congress or the American people.” 

Milley called Post reporter Craig Whitlock’s work a “good piece of investigative journalism, but I also think it is not the Pentagon Papers.” Those papers, he said, were written in advance of decision making whereas the Afghanistan ones were post-event reviews, which is “fundamentally different.” 

Ok, even if one accepts their explanations, what they were asked is not the real question. The real question, asked by the website Task and Purpose’s Jeff Schogol, is: “Has the United States been throwing away American lives?” 

That’s the real question.

"I don’t think anyone has died in vain." — Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“Absolutely not, not in my view," Milley said. "I couldn’t look myself in the mirror. I couldn’t answer myself at two or three in the morning when my eyes would pop open and see the dead roll in front of my eyes, so no I don't think anyone has died in vain.”

“As far as military victory, for years we have clearly stated that there is not going to be a rational reasonable chance of a military victory against the Taliban or the insurgency, something like signing the surrender documents on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. President Bush said that early on before Christmas in 2001, and that remains true today. There’s only one way this is going to end, and that’s a negotiated solution.” 

In a sense, Milley is right. That’s the entire war, simply put. And that’s the same description, same plan and same anticipated result that Pentagon leaders have been telling the public to expect for years. The only thing that has changed is the public’s willingness to believe leaders like Esper and Milley, or to accept the insistence of five successive White House staffs that say a long-war in Afghanistan has to be the way. 

The story of the Afghanistan War, by now, has become as much about the length of its duration and what it has not accomplished than it is about what it has. Sorting out what’s right and wrong, worth it or not, moral or not, secure or not is an ongoing debate in today’s commentary-sphere, even in the 2020 presidential campaign. 

But which narrative wins? How the story of Afghanistan is told matters most, perhaps, to Americans. The way that they come to view Afghanistan shapes elections and future policies. If the war has been worth it, the mission should be worth continuing. If it was all a waste, the mission should change, dramatically. It’s clear that American voters care little about Afghanistan when they pull their Election Day levers. But they do care about “forever wars,” and whether their government leaders are being honest about their toll -- a frequent complaint heard from Democratic candidates.

Some critics say the military needs to heed the lessons of this long war and be more honest with the American public about the bleak chances for Afghanistan peace talks with the Taliban. Here, a Trump critic claims there’s a direct line from the government-based deception in the Afghanistan Papers to the rise of Trump and Trump culture. Here, retired Col. Andrew Bacevich, a longtime war opponent and Gold Star father, writes that the Post’s work is yet more evidence that warrants Trump’s impeachment. 

Brookings researchers who criticized the Post’s assertion of a widespread coverup wrote that in Afghanistan the problem was not the public’s misperception of the truth, it was their indifference to bad policy and their leaders’ unwillingness to walk away: “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.”

Everyone has an opinion. 

The night before Esper’s December press conference, Democratic candidates were asked in a primary debate if Afghanistan was worth it. That question would not have come without the Post’s investigation and the “end forever wars” that is a platform by most of the Democrats and Trump.  

“Do you believe that you were honest with the American people about it?” former Vice President Joe Biden was asked. Biden said his critical view of the war was well-known to Obama at the time and, eventually, to the public. “I was sent by the president before we got sworn in to Afghanistan to come back with a report. I said there was no comprehensive policy available. And then I got in a big fight for a long time with the Pentagon because I strongly opposed the nation-building notion we set about.” 

The frustration with Afghanistan is only part of the wider frustration with all U.S. military interventions since Sept. 11, 2001, including the unrelated Iraq War and ongoing Middle East counterterrorism operations against ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and others, including now the worry of war with Iran or its proxies. In December, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders responded to Biden by saying that the vice president had “helped lead us into the disastrous war in Iraq. What we need to do is, I think, rethink — and the Washington Post piece was very educational — what we need to rethink is the entire war on terror.” He also said he was wrong to vote in support of the Afghanistan war at the time. “I was wrong. So was everybody else in the House.” 

There are too many people with too many experiences in Afghanistan that any accounting of the war is going to please all of them. But it’s the telling that is a current issue. It’s the telling that could change enough American minds as to whether and when this war ever ends. The long war in Afghanistan has had many battles. The battle over whether it was worth it may be the longest of all.