Deceptions and Lies in America’s Wars… Vietnam and Afghanistan similarities.
(INTERJECTION – In his below 24-page synopsis of his new book, “The Afghanistan Papers,” Craig Whitlock lays bare a cover-up of the Afghanistan war, VERY similar to the lies I remember the military brass kept repeating about Vietnam, virtually up to the very end. Lies that, while being in uniform at the time, I accepted as gospel.
Ref. page 25, “The Pentagon Papers, The Secrets and Lies of the Vietnam War, Exposed in One Epic Document… With the Pentagon Papers revelations, the U.S. public’s trust in the government was forever diminished.” – https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/09/us/pentagon-papers- vietnam-war.html. – WHAT?? “With the Pentagon Papers revelations…???” HUH??? New generation, new pentagon personnel, but the same lies from military brass.
Whitlock quote herein: “But the U.S. military officials were the ones hiding the truth.”
IN SPITE of the internal military officer training emphasis on truth and honesty, in practice, that apparently only applies to INTERNAL communications, NOT to Congress or the public!! Then politicians warp the truth even more.
Now, after having successfully completed a grey – not quite black – R&D effort, hidden from Congress, and becoming retired military, I’m a very strong advocate of DIVERTING THE DOD FUNDING TO MORE MEANINGFUL AND PEACEFUL PURSUITS!!! ~ Don Chapin, Capt., USAF, ret’d)
Deceptions and Lies, Parts 1 & 2, What Really Happened in Afghanistan
(VERY SIMILAR TO VIETNAM, see page 25!! Don Chapin added)
(Interjection: Alexander, in his march to India, never captured Afghanistan but won the Afghan’s “respect” by knowing the country, capturing every horse, mule, burro and jackass on his route to thwart any opposition, then marrying the captured daughter of the Afghan Bactrian chief Oxyartes in 327. Then, as today, bandits and warlords proved challenging to an army used to fighting conventional warfare, similar to our ancestors fighting the British and Hessians in the Revolutionary war. Again, unlike our wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, Alexander knew the country sufficiently to not try to conquer it. ~ Don Chapin)
Deceptions and Lies, Part 1, What really happened in Afghanistan
(Washington Post illustration. Photos, clockwise from top left: Chris Hondros/Getty Images; David Guttenfelder/AP; Brooks Kraft/Corbis/Getty Images; David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
By Craig Whitlock August 10, 2021 at 7:30 a.m. EDT
(Simon & Schuster)
The suicide bomber arrived at Bagram air base in a Toyota Corolla late in the morning on Feb. 27, 2007. He maneuvered past the Afghan police at the first checkpoint and continued a quarter-mile down the road toward the main gate. There, the bomber approached a second checkpoint, this one staffed by U.S. soldiers. Amid mud puddles and a jumble of pedestrians and vehicle traffic, he triggered his vest of explosives.
The blast killed 20 Afghan laborers who came to the base that day looking for work. It also claimed the lives of two Americans and a South Korean assigned to the international military coalition: Army Pfc. Daniel Zizumbo, a 27-year-old from Chicago; Geraldine Marquez, an American contractor for Lockheed Martin who had just celebrated her 31st birthday; and Staff Sgt. Yoon Jang-ho, the first South Korean soldier to die in a foreign conflict since the Vietnam War.
Unharmed by the explosion was a VIP guest at Bagram who had been trying to keep a low profile: Vice President Dick Cheney.
Cheney had slipped into the war zone the day before on an unannounced trip to the region. Arriving on Air Force Two from Islamabad, Pakistan, he intended to spend only a few hours in Afghanistan to see President Hamid Karzai. But bad weather prevented him from reaching Kabul, so he spent the night at Bagram, an installation with personnel numbering 9,000 about 30 miles from the capital.
Within hours of the bombing, the Taliban called journalists to claim responsibility and to say Cheney was the target. U.S. military officials scoffed and accused the insurgents of spreading lies. The vice president, they said, was a mile away at the other end of the base and never in danger. They insisted the Taliban could not have planned an attack against Cheney on such short notice, especially given that his travel plans had changed at the last minute.
“The Taliban’s claims that they were going after the vice president were absurd,” Army Col. Tom Collins, a spokesman for U.S. and NATO forces, told reporters.
“But the U.S. military officials were the ones hiding the truth.”
(IN SPITE of the internal officer training emphasis on truth and honesty, that apparently only applies to INTERNAL communications, NOT to Congress or the public!! This was also the modus operandus of the “grey” program I successfully honchoed ~ Don Chapin)
How U.S. leaders deliberately misled the public about America’s longest war
“The Afghanistan Papers” author Craig Whitlock explains how presidents misled the public about the war in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. (Joy Yi/The Washington Post)
In an Army oral-history interview, then-Capt. Shawn Dalrymple, a company commander with the 82nd Airborne Division who was responsible for security at Bagram, confirmed that word had leaked out about Cheney’s presence. The suicide bomber, he added, saw a convoy of vehicles coming out of the front gate and blew himself up because he mistakenly thought Cheney was a passenger.
The bomber wasn’t far off the mark. The vice president was supposed to depart for Kabul in a different convoy about 30 minutes later, according to Dalrymple, who had worked with the Secret Service to plan Cheney’s movements.
“The insurgents knew this. It was all over the news no matter how much it was tried to keep secret,” Dalrymple said. “They caught a convoy going out the gate with an up-armored sport-utility vehicle and thought it was him. . . . That opened up a lot of eyes into the fact that Bagram was not a safe place. There was a direct link with the insurgencies.”
The 2007 episode marked an escalation in the war on two fronts. By targeting the vice president at the heavily fortified base at Bagram, the Taliban demonstrated an ability to inflict high-profile, mass- casualty attacks far from the insurgents’ strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
And by lying about how close the insurgents had come to harming Cheney, the U.S. military sank deeper into a pattern of deceiving the public about many facets of the war, from discrete events to the big picture. What began as selective, self-serving disclosures after the 2001 invasion gradually hardened into willful distortions and, eventually, flat-out fabrications.
This account is adapted from “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” a Washington Post book that will be published Aug. 31 by Simon & Schuster. A narrative history of what went wrong in Afghanistan, the book is based on interviews with more than 1,000 people who played direct roles in the war, as well as thousands of pages of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The interviews and documents, many of them previously unpublished, show how the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump hid the truth for two decades: They were slowly losing a war that Americans once overwhelmingly supported. Instead, political and military leaders chose to bury their mistakes and let the war drift, culminating in President Biden’s decision this year to withdraw from Afghanistan, with the Taliban more powerful than at any point since the 2001 invasion.
For the Bush administration and its NATO and Afghan allies, the months preceding Cheney’s 2007 visit to Afghanistan had been an awful stretch. The number of suicide attacks had increased almost fivefold in 2006, and the number of roadside bombs doubled compared with the year before. The Taliban’s cross-border sanctuaries in Pakistan were fueling the problem.
Before his arrival at Bagram, Cheney met in Islamabad with Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, to urge him to crack down. The Pakistani strongman offered no help, saying his government had already “done the maximum.”
Their public statements notwithstanding, U.S. military officials had been so worried the Taliban might target Cheney during the short dash between Bagram and Kabul that they originally set up a ruse.
The plan was to depart Bagram from a rarely used gate. Members of Cheney’s traveling party would ride as decoys in the SUVs normally reserved for senior officials. The vice president would ride with Dalrymple, the young Army captain, in a lumbering military vehicle equipped with a machine gun. “You’d never expect him to ride in the gun truck,” Dalrymple recalled.
That plan was scrapped after the suicide attack. Military officials decided it was too dangerous for Cheney to travel by road. He waited for the weather to clear and instead flew to Kabul to meet with Karzai. Cheney finally left Afghanistan that afternoon on a C- 17 military aircraft without further incident.
Vice President Dick Cheney and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai meet in Kabul hours after a suicide bombing outside Bagram air base killed 22 people. (Associated Press)
At the same time that the U.S. military was struggling with the Taliban’s resurgence, it was faring even worse with its much larger war in Iraq, where 150,000 U.S. troops were bogged down — about six times as many as the number deployed in Afghanistan. Given the calamity in Iraq, the Bush administration badly wanted to avoid the perception it was losing in Afghanistan as well.
Consequently, as the new year got underway, American commanders in Afghanistan expressed new levels of optimism in public that were so unwarranted and baseless that their statements amounted to a disinformation campaign.
“We are prevailing,” Army Maj. Gen. Robert Durbin, the commander in charge of training the Afghan security forces, told reporters on Jan. 9, 2007. He added that the Afghan army and police “continue to show great progress each day.”
Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, commander of the 10th Mountain Division, gave an even sunnier assessment a few weeks later. “We’re winning,” he said during a Jan. 27 news conference. Despite the surge in bombings the year before, he declared that U.S. and Afghan forces had made “great progress” and “defeated the Taliban and the terrorists that oppose this nation at every turn.”
As for the insurgents, Freakley said the rebels “achieved none of their objectives” and were “quickly running out of time.” He dismissed the increase in suicide attacks as a sign of the Taliban’s “desperation.”
Three days later, Karl Eikenberry, a three-star Army general, visited Berlin to shore up European public support for NATO forces. He said the allies were “postured well for success” in 2007 and suggested the Taliban was panicking.
“Our assessment is that they actually look at time working against them,” Eikenberry added.
But the generals’ chorus of happy talk defied a year-long stream of intelligence assessments that the insurgency had gained strength.
In February 2006, Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told officials in Washington in a classified diplomatic cable that a confident Taliban leader had warned, “You have all the clocks but we have all the time.”
In private, the flood of suicide attacks and roadside bombs — insurgent tactics imported from Iraq — stoked fear among U.S. officials in Afghanistan of a potential “Tet Offensive in Kandahar,” an unnamed Bush administration official told government interviewers, referring to the bloody 1968 military campaign by North Vietnamese forces that undermined public support for the Vietnam War.
British Marines run toward a Taliban position during a March 2007 offensive near Kajaki in the Afghan province of Helmand. (John Moore/Getty Images)
“The turning point came at the end of 2005, beginning of 2006 when we finally woke up to the fact that there was an insurgency that could actually make us fail,” the official said. “Everything was turning the wrong way at the end of 2005.”
Neumann arrived in Kabul as the top U.S. diplomat in July 2005. The son of a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, he had spent a pleasant summer there as a young newlywed in 1967, traveling cross-country, camping and riding horses and yaks during a time of peace.
When he returned 38 years later, Afghanistan had been continuously at war for a quarter century. Right away, he told his superiors in Washington it was obvious the violence was about to escalate further.
“By the fall of 2005, I had reported, in combination with General Eikenberry, that we were going to face a vastly increased insurgency in the next year, in 2006, and that it was going to get much bloodier, much worse,” Neumann said in a diplomatic oral-history interview.
At first, many officials in Washington found it hard to believe the Taliban could present a strategic danger. Even some military leaders in the field underestimated the Taliban and thought that, while it might control pockets of rural territory, it posed no threat to the government in Kabul. “We thought the Taliban’s capability was greatly reduced,” then-Brig. Gen. Bernard Champoux, deputy commander of a U.S. military task force from 2004 to 2005, said in an Army oral-history interview.
Paul Toolan, a Special Forces captain who served in Helmand province in 2005, said senior U.S. officials mistakenly viewed the war as a peacekeeping and reconstruction mission. He tried to explain to anyone who would listen that the fighting had intensified and the Taliban had bolstered its firepower.
“If we don’t do this right, we’re going to allow these guys to keep us languishing here for a lot of years,” Toolan cautioned in an Army oral-history interview.
But the Bush administration suppressed the internal warnings and put a shine on the war. In a December 2005 interview with CNN, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said things were going so well that the Pentagon would soon bring home roughly 10 percent of its forces in Afghanistan.
“It’s a direct result of the progress that’s being made in the country,” Rumsfeld declared.
Two months later, however, Rumsfeld’s office and other officials in Washington received another classified warning from their ambassador in Kabul.
In a gloomy Feb. 21, 2006, cable, Neumann predicted that “violence will rise through the next several months,” with more suicide bombings in Kabul and other major cities.
He blamed the Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan and warned that, if left unaddressed, they could “lead to the reemergence of the same strategic threat to the United States that prompted our . . . intervention over 4 years ago” — in other words, another 9/11.
In the dispatch, Neumann expressed fear that popular support would wane if expectations weren’t managed. “I thought it was important to try to prepare the American public for that so that they wouldn’t be surprised and see everything as a reverse,” he said in his oral-history interview.
But the public heard no such straight talk. In a visit to Afghanistan shortly after the ambassador sent his cable, Bush did not mention the rising violence or the resurgent Taliban. Instead, he touted improvements such as the establishment of democracy, a free press and schools for girls.
“We’re impressed by the progress your country is making,” Bush told Karzai at a March 1 news conference.
Two weeks later, in a briefing with reporters from Bagram, Freakley denied that the Taliban and al-Qaeda were getting stronger. The violence was spiking, the general said, because the weather was getting warmer and his forces were going on the offensive.
“We’re taking the fight to the enemy,” the 10th Mountain Division commander said. “If you see an increase in violence here in the coming weeks and months, it’s probably driven by offensive operations that the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and coalition forces are taking.”
He added, “I’ll tell you that progress in Afghanistan is steady and you can really see it.”
In a Pentagon press briefing in May, Durbin, the commander in charge of training, presented a rosy report on the state of the Afghan security forces. He said they had been “effective at disrupting and destroying” their enemies and that the Afghan army had made “remarkable” progress in recruiting.
Durbin closed by inviting journalists to visit Afghanistan and judge for themselves how the Afghan security forces were performing. “I think if you do, you’ll be as impressed as I am with their progress,” he said.
Days later, someone did come see for himself. Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey was a hero of the Persian Gulf War. It had been a decade since he had been on active duty, but the U.S. military asked him to visit Afghanistan and Pakistan and conduct an independent assessment. The mission was not publicized.
McCaffrey interviewed about 50 high-ranking officials over the course of a week. In his nine-page report, he lauded U.S. commanders and highlighted several successes, but he didn’t sugarcoat his verdict: The Taliban was nowhere near defeated, and the war was “deteriorating.”
He judged the Taliban as well-trained, “very aggressive and smart in their tactics,” as well as armed with “excellent weapons.” Far from panicking or feeling the pressure of time, the insurgents would “soon adopt a strategy of ‘waiting us out,’ ” he added.
In contrast, McCaffrey said that the Afghan army was “miserably under-resourced” and that its soldiers had little ammunition and shoddier weapons than the Taliban. He blasted the Afghan police as worthless: “They are in a disastrous condition: badly equipped, corrupt, incompetent, poorly led and trained, riddled by drug use.”
Even under a best-case scenario, McCaffrey predicted, it would be 14 more years — until 2020 — before the Afghan security forces could operate without U.S. help.
The report was passed up the chain of command to Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We will encounter some very unpleasant surprises in the coming twenty-four months,” McCaffrey warned. “The Afghan national leadership are collectively terrified that we will tip-toe out of Afghanistan in the coming years — leaving NATO holding the bag — and the whole thing will again collapse into mayhem.”
If McCaffrey’s conclusions weren’t sobering enough, Rumsfeld soon received another harsh dose of reality.
On Aug. 17, 2006, Marin Strmecki, a trusted civilian adviser to the defense secretary, delivered a 40-page classified report titled “Afghanistan at a Crossroads.” Strmecki had made a separate fact- finding trip to the war zone after McCaffrey and arrived at many of the same conclusions.
But he cast stronger doubt on the reliability and viability of Washington’s allies in Kabul. The Afghan government, he said, was crooked and feckless and had left a power vacuum in many parts of the country for the Taliban to exploit.
“It is not that the enemy is so strong but that the Afghan government is so weak,” Strmecki reported.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul grappled with a fresh wave of internal pessimism. Neumann, the ambassador, sent another dour classified cable to Washington on Aug. 29. “We are not winning in Afghanistan,” it declared.
Two weeks after the ambassador’s warning, Eikenberry sat down for an interview with ABC News on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and offered the flip version for public consumption.
“We are winning,” the general insisted, adding, “but I also say we have not yet won.” Asked whether the United States could lose, Eikenberry responded, “Losing is not an option in Afghanistan.”
If the generals had listened to their soldiers in the field, however, they might have shied away from such hubris.
Staff Sgt. John Bickford, a 26-year-old soldier from Lake Placid, N.Y., spent much of 2006 in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan. He was stationed with other 10th Mountain Division soldiers at Firebase Tillman, named after Pat Tillman, the National Football League player who enlisted in the Army after 9/11 and was later killed by friendly fire.
Bickford said the fighting was “about 10 times worse” than his first deployment to eastern Afghanistan three years earlier. His unit clashed with insurgents four or five times a week. The enemy massed as many as 200 fighters to try to overrun U.S. observation posts.
“We said that we defeated the Taliban, but they were always in Pakistan and regrouping and planning and now they’re back stronger than they have ever been,” he said in an Army oral-history interview. “Anytime that they did an assault or an ambush it was well-organized, and they knew what they were doing.”
In August 2006, Bickford was leading a patrol in an armored Humvee when insurgents ambushed his convoy with rocket- propelled grenades. Shrapnel tore up Bickford’s right thigh, calf, ankle and foot. His team fended off the assault, but his days as an infantryman were over.
Bickford spent three months recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. During his convalescence, he reflected on the rising threat posed by insurgents.
“These are very smart people, and they’re the enemy but they deserve tons of respect and they should never, never, never be underestimated,” he said.
Updated August 13, 2021
What you need to know about the war in Afghanistan
Latest: The Taliban is surging across Afghanistan, taking over key cities. Afghan security forces are stretched thin and losing ground. Thousands of Afghans have taken up arms and joined militias to beat back the Taliban fighters.
U.S. forces are on their way out: President Biden has ordered that the U.S. military withdrawal be complete by Aug. 31. The Biden administration is sending approximately 3,000 combat troops to help airlift American personnel and local allies out of Kabul, as rapid advances by the Taliban intensified the existential threat facing the Afghan state.
More related stories:
The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war
Analysis: Afghanistan’s rapid collapse is part of a long, slow U.S. defeat
A timeline of the U.S. war in Afghanistan
As the U.S. departs Afghanistan, will the old Taliban reemerge?
The war in Afghanistan: Promises to win, but no vision for victory
How 20 years of conflict have reshaped Afghanistan’s capital and life in it
How life under Taliban rule in Afghanistan has changed — and how it hasn’t
Iran cheers U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — but fears what could follow
By Craig Whitlock
Craig Whitlock is an investigative reporter who specializes in national security issues. He has covered the Pentagon, served as the Berlin bureau chief and reported from more than 60 countries. He joined The Washington Post in 1998.
Perspective·Today at 12:00 a.m. EDT
Deceptions and Lies, Part 2, What really happened in Afghanistan
Succeeding article: “Unguarded nation: Afghan security forces, despite years of training, were; dogged by incompetence and corruption”
(Washington Post illustration. Photos, clockwise from top left: Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post; Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post; Mark Makela/Getty Images; Anja Niedringhaus/AP)
By Craig Whitlock, August 12, 2021 at 8:01 a.m. EDT Unincluded PIC
(Simon & Schuster)
President Barack Obama had promised to end the war, so on Dec. 28, 2014, U.S. and NATO officials held a ceremony at their headquarters in Kabul to mark the occasion. A multinational color guard paraded around. Music played. A four-star general gave a speech and solemnly furled the green flag of the U.S.-led international force that had flown since the beginning of the conflict.
In a statement, Obama called the day “a milestone for our country” and said the United States was safer and more secure after 13 years of war.
“Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion,” he declared.
Army Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, also hailed the purported end of the “combat mission” and embellished some of its achievements. Since the start of the war, he asserted falsely, life expectancy for the average Afghan had increased by 21 years.
“You times that by about 35 million Afghans represented here in the country, that gives you 741 million years of life,” he added, crediting U.S., NATO and Afghan forces for what sounded like a remarkable improvement. (A federal audit later discredited the figures as based on spurious data; life expectancy for Afghans had actually increased by about seven years, not 21.)
But for such a historical day, the military ceremony seemed strange and underwhelming. Obama issued his statement from Hawaii while he relaxed on vacation. The event took place in a gymnasium, where several dozen people sat on folding chairs. There was little mention of the enemy, let alone an instrument of surrender. Nobody cheered.
In fact, the war was nowhere near a conclusion, “responsible” or otherwise, and U.S. troops would fight and die in combat in Afghanistan for many years to come. The baldfaced claims to the contrary ranked among the most egregious deceptions and lies that U.S. leaders spread during two decades of warfare.
Obama had scaled back military operations over the previous three years, but he failed to pull the United States out of the quagmire. At the time of the ceremony, about 10,800 U.S. troops remained, a decrease of almost 90 percent from the surge of forces that he had sent to Afghanistan in his first term. Obama promised to withdraw the rest of the troops by the end of 2016, coinciding with the end of his term in office, save for a residual force at the U.S. Embassy.
He knew most Americans had lost patience. Only 38 percent of the public said the war had been worth fighting, according to a December 2014 Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Yet the president faced countervailing pressures to stay put from the Pentagon and hawks in Congress. Obama had tried a similar staged approach to end the war in Iraq, where the U.S. military ceased combat operations in 2010 and exited entirely a year later. But those moves soon backfired.
In the absence of U.S. troops, the Islamic State — an al-Qaeda offshoot — swept through the country and seized several major cities as the U.S.-trained Iraqi army put up scant resistance.
Obama wanted to avoid the same fate in Afghanistan, but he needed to buy more time for U.S. forces to build up the shaky Afghan army so it would not collapse like the Iraqi forces had. He also wanted to create leverage for the government in Kabul to persuade the Taliban to negotiate an end to the conflict.
To make it all work, Obama conjured up an illusion. He and his administration unveiled a messaging campaign to make Americans think that U.S. troops still in Afghanistan would stay out of the fight, with duties that relegated them to the sidelines.
This account is adapted from “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” a Washington Post book, which will be published Aug. 31 by Simon & Schuster. A narrative history of what went wrong in Afghanistan, the book is based on interviews with more than 1,000 people who played direct roles in the war, as well as thousands of pages of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
How U.S. leaders deliberately misled the public about America’s longest war
“The Afghanistan Papers” author Craig Whitlock explains how presidents misled the public about the war in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. (Joy Yi/The Washington Post)
As the flag came down during the December 2014 ceremony in Kabul, Obama’s commanders emphasized that the Afghan army and police would take full responsibility for their country’s security from that point forward, with U.S. and NATO forces restricted to “noncombat” roles as trainers and advisers.
But the Pentagon carved out numerous exceptions that, in practice, made the distinctions almost meaningless. In the skies, U.S. fighters, bombers, helicopters and drones continued to fly air combat missions against Taliban forces. In 2015 and 2016, the U.S. military launched missiles and bombs on 2,284 occasions, a decline from previous years but still an average of more than three times a day.
On the ground, the Pentagon created another combat exception for troops carrying out “counterterrorism operations,” or raids on specific targets. Those rules of engagement permitted Special Operations forces to capture or kill members of al-Qaeda and “associated forces,” a vague term that could also apply to the Taliban or other insurgents.
The rules also allowed U.S. troops to come to the aid of Afghan forces to prevent the fall of a major city or in other circumstances. In other words, the U.S. military would continue to play an indispensable role and remain in the fight.
Still, after 13 years of lackluster results, many U.S. leaders harbored doubts about what they had really accomplished and whether Obama’s new approach could work any better than his previous one had.
An unnamed senior U.S. official who served as a civilian in Afghanistan told government interviewers it was fast becoming obvious that Obama’s surge strategy between 2009 and 2011 had been a mistake. Instead of flooding the country with 100,000 U.S. troops for 18 months, he said, it would have been better to send one-tenth the number — but leave them in Afghanistan until 2030.
“You can create stability with boots and money, but the question is, will it hold when you leave?” he said. “Given our desire to ramp up quickly and leave quickly, there was no reasonable threshold we could reach where we could leave behind good governance.”
To maintain the “end of combat” fantasy for Americans at home, the Pentagon continued to deliver upbeat reports from the front.
U.S. soldiers shield their eyes as a helicopter picks them up from a mission in Afghanistan’s Paktika province in October 2009. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
In February 2015, Ashton B. Carter, Obama’s fourth defense secretary, visited Afghanistan and repeated some of the same Pollyannaish lines that his predecessors had recited since the start of the war.
“A lot has changed here, so much of it for the better,” Carter said in Kabul at a news conference with Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president. “Our priority now is to make sure this progress sticks.”
But during a stop at Kandahar Airfield, Carter briefly wandered off script and admitted that the Afghans had been inept until recently — contradicting the glossy assessments U.S. officials had presented to the public for more than a decade.
“It’s not that the Afghans aren’t good at fighting. They are. But just a few years ago there really was no Afghan National Security Force at all,” he said. “They’re getting on their feet now, and they’re beginning to do the things alone that we used to do for them.”
For a few months, the Obama administration’s tenuous plans seemed to hold. News from Afghanistan quieted down, and U.S. troops stayed out of the spotlight. But as the Afghan security forces labored to hold their own against the Taliban, Americans resumed paying with their lives.
In April 2015, Spec. John Dawson, a 22-year-old Army medic from the village of Whitinsville, Mass., died in an insider attack in Jalalabad. An Afghan soldier opened fire on coalition troops at a government compound, killing Dawson and wounding eight others.
Two months later, Krissie Davis, a 54-year-old civilian with the Defense Logistics Agency, died in a rocket attack on Bagram air base.
In August, 1st Sgt. Andrew McKenna, a 35-year-old Green Beret on his fifth deployment to Afghanistan, was killed in a firefight when Taliban fighters attacked a Special Operations camp in Kabul.
The insurgents blew their way past the gate with a car bomb, killed eight Afghan guards and critically wounded another U.S. soldier. McKenna was posthumously awarded the Silver Star — the military’s third-highest decoration for valor in combat — for helping to repel the attack while he was mortally wounded.
Nineteen days later, Air Force Capt. Matthew Roland, 27, and Staff Sgt. Forrest Sibley, 31, were killed in another insider attack at an Afghan police checkpoint in Helmand province. Roland was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for sacrificing his life to save other Special Operations forces in the ambush.
In late September, the illusion that U.S. troops were no longer serving in combat disappeared entirely.
After a long siege, insurgent forces seized Kunduz, Afghanistan’s sixth biggest city, about 200 miles north of Kabul. The fall of Kunduz shocked the country; it was the first time since 2001 that the Taliban controlled a major urban area. U.S. Special Forces teams rushed to Kunduz to help the Afghan army retake the city over several days of heavy fighting.
In the early-morning darkness of Oct. 3, 2015, a U.S. Air Force AC- 130 gunship — with the call sign “Hammer” — repeatedly strafed a Kunduz hospital with cannon fire, killing 42 people. The hospital was run by the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders. In an attempt to safeguard the trauma center, the group had provided U.S. and Afghan forces with the GPS coordinates of the site several days earlier, so there was no excuse for the attack.
Obama and other U.S. officials apologized for the catastrophe. A U.S. military investigation subsequently blamed the “fog of war,” human error and equipment failures for what it called the “unintentional” destruction of the hospital. The Pentagon said 16 U.S. service members received administrative punishments for their role in the attack. None faced criminal charges.
But instead of curtailing U.S. military operations, Obama dug in deeper. Twelve days after the Kunduz debacle, he ordered a halt to the slow withdrawal of U.S. troops and extended their mission indefinitely to prevent the Taliban from overrunning more cities.
Army personnel at Fort Campbell, Ky., board a plane for a deployment to Afghanistan in November 2014. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Breaking his promise to end the war, he said at least 5,500 troops would remain in Afghanistan after he left office in January 2017.
“I do not support the idea of endless war, and I have repeatedly argued against marching into open-ended military conflicts,” Obama announced from the Roosevelt Room in the White House. “Yet given what’s at stake in Afghanistan . . . I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort.”
Despite the enormous advantages that the Afghan military held in numbers, equipment and training, U.S. officials feared their allies would lose to the Taliban if the Americans left the battlefield. In a fleeting moment of candor, Obama conceded that “Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be.”
Yet to make the endless war more palatable to the public, Obama perpetuated the fiction that U.S. troops were only bystanders in the fight.
In his remarks from the Roosevelt Room, he again insisted the combat mission was “over,” though he qualified his statement slightly by specifying that Americans were not engaged in “major ground combat against the Taliban.”
To the troops, the distinction made no difference. To them, Afghanistan was a combat zone. They all carried weapons. They all earned combat pay. They were awarded combat decorations. More would die.
As 2015 drew to a close, the insurgency gained power and U.S. military leaders began to reveal some flashes of pessimism.
During a return visit to Afghanistan in December, Carter damned the Afghan security forces with faint praise. In remarks to U.S. troops at a base near Jalalabad, he said the Afghan army and police “are getting there” but suggested he had limited confidence in the Pentagon’s proxy force.
“If you’d have asked me to bet on it five years ago, I don’t know. I’d maybe give you even odds on it or something,” he said. “But it’s coming together.”
Three days later, on Dec. 21, a suicide bomber carrying explosives on a motorcycle killed six U.S. Air Force security personnel on foot patrol near Bagram. Among the fatalities: Maj. Adrianna Vorderbruggen, 36, an Air Force Academy graduate who had pushed for the 2011 repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” prohibition on openly gay service members.
Vorderbruggen was posthumously awarded three combat decorations: the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart and the Air Force Combat Action Medal. She left behind her wife, Heather, a military veteran, and their 4-year-old son, Jacob.
As the war entered its 15th year, the United States faced a new combatant in Afghanistan and the old fault lines began to shift.
The Islamic State, the fast-growing terrorist network in Iraq and Syria, expanded into Afghanistan. By early 2016, U.S. military officials estimated, the local affiliate of the group had between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters, mostly former members of the Taliban.
Their emergence widened and complicated the war. In January 2016, the White House approved new rules of engagement authorizing the Pentagon to attack the Islamic State in Afghanistan. That led to a surge of airstrikes against the group, which centered its operations in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border.
At that point, the U.S. military acknowledged that its original nemesis in the war — al-Qaeda — had all but disappeared from Afghanistan.
An American soldier runs by an Afghan special-forces unit during morning training in Kabul in March 2020. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
“By themselves, we don’t think that they pose a real threat, a real significant threat to the government of Afghanistan,” Army Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, a spokesman for U.S. forces, told reporters in May 2016. He offered what he called a SWAG — a military acronym for “scientific wild-ass guess” — that about 100 to 300 al- Qaeda personnel maintained “some kind of presence” in Afghanistan.
Five years after the death of Osama bin Laden, his network barely registered in the fight.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon placed the Taliban into a nebulous new category. It was still a hostile force but not necessarily the enemy.
Obama administration officials had concluded that the only way to end the war and to stabilize Afghanistan was for the Afghan government to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban.
Previous attempts to start a reconciliation process had gone nowhere. U.S. officials wanted to try again and decided to treat the Taliban differently in hopes of persuading its leaders to come to the table.
As a result, the Pentagon imposed new rules of engagement under which U.S. forces could freely attack the Islamic State and the remnants of al-Qaeda. But they could fight the Taliban only in self- defense or if the Afghan security forces were on the verge of getting wiped out.
Even U.S. lawmakers were confused by the new approach. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February 2016, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) pushed Campbell to explain.
“Is the Taliban an enemy of this country?” Graham asked.
“I didn’t hear the question,” Campbell replied.
“Is the Taliban an enemy of the United States?” Graham repeated.
Campbell stammered. “The Taliban, as far as helping al-Qaeda, and Haqqani, and other insurgent groups, the Taliban has been responsible for—”
Graham interrupted and asked multiple times whether the U.S. military was permitted to go on the offense and attack Taliban forces or kill its senior leaders.
“Sir, again, I don’t go into the rules-of-engagement authorities in open hearing,” Campbell said, ducking the questions. “What I would tell you is that our country has made the decision that we are not at war with the Taliban.”
But the Taliban was still very much at war with the United States and the Afghan government, and as far as the Taliban’s leaders were concerned, the fight was going well.
In 2016, insurgent forces overran Kunduz again, repeatedly bombed Kabul and seized control of most of Helmand province, the heart of Afghanistan’s lucrative opium-poppy belt.
In Washington, fears rose that the Afghan government was at risk of a political breakdown. Calling the situation “precarious,” Obama reversed himself again in July 2016.
Instead of drawing down to 5,500 troops as planned, he ordered more U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan. By the time he left the White House in January 2017, about 8,400 troops remained.
The next month, Army Gen. John Nicholson Jr., Campbell’s successor as commanding general, appeared before the Senate
Armed Services Committee. Asked whether the United States was winning or losing, he replied, “I believe we’re in a stalemate.”
In his testimony, however, Nicholson foreshadowed what was in store under the new president, Donald Trump. “Offensive capability is what will break the stalemate in Afghanistan,” Nicholson said.
In military jargon, that meant more troops and more weapons.
The Secrets and Lies of the Vietnam War, Exposed in One Epic Document
With the Pentagon Papers revelations, the U.S. public’s trust in the government was forever diminished.
By Elizabeth Becker, Published June 9, 2021Updated Aug. 1, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/09/us/pentagon-papers-vietnam-war.html
Credit…Photo Illustration by Joan Wong. Photos: Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images; Associated Press; Bob Daugherty/Associated Press; National Archive/Newsmakers, via Getty Images
This article is part of a special report on the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers.
Brandishing a captured Chinese machine gun, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara appeared at a televised news conference in the spring of 1965. The
United States had just sent its first combat troops to South Vietnam, and the new push, he boasted, was further wearing down the beleaguered Vietcong.
“In the past four and one-half years, the Vietcong, the Communists, have lost 89,000 men,” he said. “You can see the heavy drain.”
That was a lie. From confidential reports, McNamara knew the situation was “bad and deteriorating” in the South. “The VC have the initiative,” the information said. “Defeatism is gaining among the rural population, somewhat in the cities, and even among the soldiers.”
Lies like McNamara’s were the rule, not the exception, throughout America’s involvement in Vietnam. The lies were repeated to the public, to Congress, in closed-door hearings, in speeches and to the press. The real story might have remained unknown if, in 1967, McNamara had not commissioned a secret history based on classified documents — which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.
By then, he knew that even with nearly 500,000 U.S. troops in theater, the war was at a stalemate. He created a research team to assemble and analyze Defense Department decision-making dating back to 1945. This was either quixotic or arrogant. As secretary of defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, McNamara was an architect of the war and implicated in the lies that were the bedrock of U.S. policy.
Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara addressing reporters at a news conference on Sept. 7, 1967. Two months earlier he had created the task force that would compile and write the Pentagon Papers. Credit…Associated Press
Daniel Ellsberg, an analyst on the study, eventually leaked portions of the report to The New York Times, which published excerpts in 1971. The revelations in the Pentagon Papers infuriated a country sick of the war, the body bags of young Americans, the photographs of Vietnamese civilians fleeing U.S. air attacks and the endless protests and counterprotests that were dividing the country as nothing had since the Civil War.
The lies revealed in the papers were of a generational scale, and, for much of the American public, this grand deception seeded a suspicion of government that is even more widespread today.
Officially titled “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” the papers filled 47 volumes, covering the administrations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Their 7,000 pages chronicled, in cold, bureaucratic language, how the United States got itself mired in a long, costly war in a small Southeast Asian country of questionable strategic importance.
They are an essential record of the first war the United States lost. For modern historians, they foreshadow the mind-set and miscalculations that led the United States to fight the “forever wars” of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The original sin was the decision to support the French rulers in Vietnam. President Harry S. Truman subsidized their effort to take back their Indochina colonies. The Vietnamese nationalists were winning their fight for independence under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, a Communist. Ho had worked with the United States against Japan in World War II, but, in the Cold War, Washington recast him as the stalking horse for Soviet expansionism.
American intelligence officers in the field said that was not the case, that they had found no evidence of a Soviet plot to take over Vietnam, much less Southeast Asia. As one State Department memo put it, “If there is a Moscow- directed conspiracy in Southeast Asia, Indochina is an anomaly.”
But with an eye on China, where the Communist Mao Zedong had won the civil war, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said defeating Vietnam’s Communists was essential “to block further Communist expansion in Asia.” If Vietnam became Communist, then the countries of Southeast Asia would fall like dominoes.
This belief in this domino theory was so strong that the United States broke with its European allies and refused to sign the 1954 Geneva Accords ending
the French war. Instead, the United States continued the fight, giving full backing to Ngo Dinh Diem, the autocratic, anti-Communist leader of South Vietnam. Gen. J. Lawton Collins wrote from Vietnam, warning Eisenhower that Diem was an unpopular and incapable leader and should be replaced. If he was not, Gen. Collins wrote, “I recommend re-evaluation of our plans for assisting Southeast Asia.”
In 1957, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, center, visited San Francisco, arriving on U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s private plane. Six and a half years later, the U.S. backed a coup that left Diem dead.Credit…Associated Press
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles disagreed, writing in a cable included in the Pentagon Papers, “We have no other choice but continue our aid to Vietnam and support of Diem.”
Nine years and billions of American dollars later, Diem was still in power, and it fell to President Kennedy to solve the long-predicted problem.
After facing down the Soviet Union in the Berlin crisis, Kennedy wanted to avoid any sign of Cold War fatigue and easily accepted McNamara’s counsel to deepen the U.S. commitment to Saigon. The secretary of defense wrote in one report, “The loss of South Vietnam would make pointless any further discussion about the importance of Southeast Asia to the Free World.”
The president increased U.S. military advisers tenfold and introduced helicopter missions. In return for the support, Kennedy wanted Diem to make democratic reforms. Diem refused.
A popular uprising in South Vietnam, led by Buddhist clerics, followed. Fearful of losing power as well, South Vietnamese generals secretly received American approval to overthrow Diem. Despite official denials, U.S. officials were deeply involved.
“Beginning in August of 1963, we variously authorized, sanctioned and encouraged the coup efforts …,” the Pentagon Papers revealed. “We maintained clandestine contact with them throughout the planning and execution of the coup and sought to review their operational plans.”
The coup ended with Diem’s killing and a deepening of American involvement in the war. As the authors of the papers concluded, “Our complicity in his overthrow heightened our responsibilities and our commitment.”
Three weeks later, President Kennedy was assassinated, and the Vietnam issue fell to President Johnson.
He had officials secretly draft a resolution for Congress to grant him the authority to fight in Vietnam without officially declaring war.
Missing was a pretext, a small-bore “Pearl Harbor” moment. That came on Aug. 4, 1964, when the White House announced that the North Vietnamese had attacked the U.S.S. Maddox in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. This “attack,” though, was anything but unprovoked aggression. Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the head of U.S. forces in Vietnam, had commanded the South Vietnamese military while they staged clandestine raids on North Vietnamese islands. North Vietnamese PT boats fought back and had “mistaken Maddox for a South Vietnamese escort vessel,” according to a report. (Later investigations showed the attack never happened.)
Testifying before the Senate, McNamara lied, denying any American involvement in the Tonkin Gulf attacks: “Our Navy played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any.”
McNamara, center background, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 20, 1966. “We should be proud of what we are doing out there for the people of South Vietnam,” he told the committee. Credit…Henry Griffin/Associated Press
Three days after the announcement of the “incident,” the administration persuaded Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution to approve and support “the determination of the president, as commander in chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” — an expansion of the presidential power to wage war that is still used regularly. Johnson won the 1964 election in a landslide.
Seven months later, he sent combat troops to Vietnam without declaring war, a decision clad in lies. The initial deployment of 20,000 troops was described as “military support forces” under a “change of mission” to “permit their more active use” in Vietnam. Nothing new.
As the Pentagon Papers later showed, the Defense Department also revised its war aims: “70 percent to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat … 20 percent to keep South Vietnam (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands, 10 percent to permit the people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life.”
Westmoreland considered the initial troop deployment a stopgap measure and requested 100,000 more. McNamara agreed. On July 20, 1965, he wrote in a memo that even though “the U.S. killed-in-action might be in the vicinity of 500 a month by the end of the year,” the general’s overall strategy was “likely to bring about a success in Vietnam.”
As the Pentagon Papers later put it, “Never again while he was secretary of defense would McNamara make so optimistic a statement about Vietnam — except in public.”
Fully disillusioned at last, McNamara argued in a 1967 memo to the president that more of the same — more troops, more bombing — would not win the war. In an about-face, he suggested that the United States declare victory and slowly withdraw.
And in a rare acknowledgment of the suffering of the Vietnamese people, he wrote, “The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.”
Johnson was furious and soon approved increasing the U.S. troop commitment to nearly 550,000. By year’s end, he had forced McNamara to resign, but the defense secretary had already commissioned the Pentagon Papers.
In 1968, Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election; Vietnam had become his Waterloo. Nixon won the White House on the promise to bring peace to Vietnam. Instead, he expanded the war by invading Cambodia, which convinced Daniel Ellsberg that he had to leak the secret history.
Daniel Ellsberg and Patricia Marx, his wife, center, at the Watergate hearings. Nine months before the Watergate break-in, the so-called plumbers had ransacked the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in search of incriminating files.Credit…Mike Lien/The New York Times
After The New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers on Sunday, June 13, 1971, the nation was stunned. The response ranged from horror to anger to disbelief. There was furor over the betrayal of national secrets. Opponents of the war felt vindicated. Veterans, especially those who had served multiple tours in Vietnam, were pained to discover that Americans officials knew the war had been a failed proposition nearly from the beginning.
Convinced that Ellsberg posed a threat to Nixon’s re-election campaign, the White House approved an illegal break-in at the Beverly Hills, Calif., office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find embarrassing confessions on file. The burglars — known as the Plumbers — found nothing, and got away undetected. The following June, when another such crew broke into the
Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, they were caught.
The North Vietnamese mounted a final offensive, captured Saigon and won the war in April 1975. Three years later, Vietnam invaded Cambodia — another Communist country — and overthrew the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. That was the sole country Communist Vietnam ever invaded, forever undercutting the domino theory — the war’s foundational lie.
Elizabeth Becker is a former New York Times correspondent who began her career covering the Cambodia campaign of the Vietnam War. She is the author, most recently, of “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War.”
The Pentagon Papers at 50