A trove of documents revealing how the public was misled about struggles in Afghanistan should prompt Congress to rescind its blank check for this endless war.
The documents, published recently by The Washington Post, and increased Congressional oversight should also help policymakers make more informed and transparent decisions about how to avoid further catastrophe as the U.S. withdraws.
An inspector general examining the war conducted extensive interviews with diplomats, military leaders and others. The Post obtained these public records through a legal fight that’s ongoing. They confirm the public was repeatedly misled by multiple administrations, which touted progress in Afghanistan while flailing without a consistent strategy or objectives.
Many Americans were already disgusted with the human and financial cost of the Middle East wars, which will exceed $6 trillion. President Donald Trump channeled that angst with campaign promises to withdraw and bring troops home, but now he too is struggling to untangle this knot.
Despite the Post revelations, the House last week passed another military budget that continues to fund the Afghanistan war. An effort to add a sunset clause and require “a clear and specific expression of objectives, targets, and geographic scope” and progress reports was approved earlier by the House but disappointingly didn’t make the final version.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the revelations are “deeply disturbing” and congressional hearings and oversight are needed. She believes the authorization law should be reworked in 2020, leading to “a strategic withdrawal.”
“It just is really alarming to me that Congress was intentionally and really misled by U.S. officials,” she said, “so I think it’s absolutely imperative that Congress get to the bottom of this — we need to know exactly what happened.”
Sadly, the public may be less surprised by the deceit, particularly those paying attention to the lack of progress and clarity in Afghanistan. Nobody thought the U.S. was winning — the question has been whether the benefits of continuing the engagement are justified, said University of Puget Sound Professor Seth Weinberger, who teaches foreign policy and international security.
Among the positive outcomes was the success of a University of Washington program, funded by the State Department, that trained dozens of Afghan law professors. It planted seeds to help the nation grow its judicial system, which is needed to resolve conflicts and overcome endemic corruption. Such civilian efforts could be sustained with a minimal, ongoing military presence, suggests Jon Eddy, the UW law professor emeritus who started the program in 2004.
“There’s plenty of middle ground between spending $100 billion a year without having a strategy and retreating to the borders of the U.S.,” he said.
Pentagon leaders suggested as much in a Dec. 11 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee. One option they’re considering is withdrawing most of the 13,000 troops from Afghanistan and leaving a smaller number to continue counterterrorism efforts.
Whatever course is taken should be done in consultation with Congress, as called for by a majority of senators — including Murray — in January. That was in response to Trump’s abrupt plan to withdraw troops from Syria in December.
A similarly sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan would have terrible consequences.
“As you come out, the place will implode; there will be millions of refugees flowing into the adjoining countries,” said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey of Seattle, adding that women will go back into slavery, trappings of modernity will disappear and “it will go back to unending tribal warfare.”
Still, the war must end. But it must end in a deliberate, transparent manner, not frenetically to provide campaign fodder.
With Congress and the press shining more light on the Afghanistan debacle, there’s an opportunity for a more informed and collaborative approach to the war’s end. This is also an opportunity for presidential candidates to explain how they’d solve this conundrum and better advance U.S. interests in the region.