In 1971, the release of the Pentagon Papers laid bare the lies behind the Vietnam War.
The papers were actually the result of a top-secret U.S. Department of Defense study of the conflict that detailed 20 years of American military and political involvement in Indochina.
One of the analysts who worked on the project felt the public needed to know the real story of the Vietnam War – the hidden history of deception behind the conflict.
He surreptitiously copied portions of the multi-volume report and — in a plot reminiscent of a movie thriller — turned thousands of pages over to the New York Times.
Now, it seems we have a sequel.
Recently, journalists at the Washington Post published the results of a three-year reporting project that yielded a treasure trove of government documents about another long, drawn out war.
They call it “The Afghanistan Papers.”
The method of obtaining the information was different… but the message was the same: U.S. officials were covering up the real story.
This time, there was no Daniel Ellsberg — a disillusioned military analyst daring to sneak top-secret information to the media.
Instead, there was a determined staff at the Washington Post that pursued documentation from the Defense Department over the course of a three-year legal battle.
In the end, the Post got access to what amounts to an oral history of the Afghanistan War, including more than 2000 pages of previously unpublished notes and transcripts of interviews with people who played a direct role in the conflict — from military men to diplomats, to aid workers and Afghan offcials.
As the Post put it:
“With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.”
In all, it is a pretty horrific picture. Tens of thousands of American and Afghan lives lost… billions of dollars spent… and for what?
One current theme in the interviews — eerily similar to what is found in the Pentagon Papers — is the ongoing effort by U.S. officials to mislead the public about the progress being made on the ground.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, a top military adviser, told government interviewers.
And then there was this memorable quote from James Dobbins, who served as special envoy to Afghanistan under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama:
“We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich. We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.”
The failures were on so many fronts, according to those interviewed for the government’s secret history of the Afghan war.
In the beginning, as Craig Whitlock — the reporter who wrote the entire six-part series for the Post — explains, the rationale for invading Afghanistan was clear: “to destroy al-Qaida, topple the Taliban and prevent a return of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.”
But over time, the mission morphed into something unattainable, and in their interviews, officials admitted they veered off in numerous directions.
“If there was ever a notion of mission creep, it is Afghanistan,” Richard Boucher, a former top State Department official for South Asia, said in one of the quoted interviews. “We are trying to achieve the unachievable, instead of achieving the achievable.
The publication of the Post series, as you might expect, touched a raw nerve among some in Congress, and was greeted with sorrow by veterans of the Afghan conflict who chose to speak out.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee quickly called for public hearings, with Senator Richard Blumenthal — a Connecticut Democrat — saying “we must end the vicious, lethal cycle of misinformation.”
Meanwhile, those who served took the revelations, as expected, very personally.
“The most traumatic experiences of our lives didn’t have to happen, our friends didn’t have to die on the other side of the planet,” Marine Corps veteran Dustin Kelly told the Post.
As for the Defense Department, it sent out its top brass to rebut the Washington Post report. Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that there was no coordinated effort to mislead the public, adding “I don’t think anybody has died in vain.”
But what do Americans with no direct ties to the Afghan war think? A major public opinion survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center provides some clues.
The survey found that we are pretty pessimistic that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan will ever succeed.
About half the adults surveyed by Pew said the United States has mostly failed in achieving its goals there, while only a third said it has mostly succeeded.
Maybe this is why the Afghanistan Papers — while dramatic and important — were not as shocking as the Pentagon Papers back in 1971.
This time, Americans are a little jaded.
We have been through this before.