‘Afghanistan Papers’ should surprise no one
By SAM LONG | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: December 16, 2019
The saddest thing about the “Afghanistan Papers” published by The Washington Post is not what they contain — it is how many people in Washington are claiming to be surprised by their content. The documents confirm what most Afghanistan veterans already know — that a disinterested American public has been deceived for years about the war.
My experience in Afghanistan left me skeptical that we were ever serious about the mission in the first place, and my chance encounter five years ago with the author of the Afghanistan Papers gave me the distinct impression that not only were we not winning, but also that our failures were widespread, well documented and widely known in Washington.
That is why the feigned horror by elected officials and the defense establishment is difficult to take seriously. According to Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, the Afghanistan Papers are “truly shocking.” His Democratic counterpart, Richard Blumenthal — whose son served in Afghanistan as a Marine officer — tweeted that the documents are “appalling.” If these senators are actually surprised to learn that civilian and military authorities were not exactly forthcoming about a directionless and flailing war effort, then American foreign policy has entered into a new chapter of absurdity.
In 2013 I deployed to Helmand province, where I led a U.S. Marine adviser team that mentored and fought alongside a rifle company of soldiers from the Republic of Georgia. Not revealed in the Afghan Papers is the extent to which we outsourced the war to NATO-aspiring states like Georgia, a tiny nation in the Caucasus Mountains. Even if the Georgians had been capable of doing more than holding the insurgents at bay, they were never going to win any hearts and minds given how often Afghan villagers confused them with the dreaded Russian soldiers they had fought against three decades earlier. To the Taliban, the Georgians’ presence signaled that America’s patience in Afghanistan was wearing thin.
After returning to the States, I spent a year running a training facility for combat advisers. I had enjoyed working with foreign soldiers and felt it important that I spend my last year in the Marines helping train other Marine advisers, most of whom would be working directly with the Afghan army and police.
One day in 2014, I received an email from a colonel in my chain of command, advising me that the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the organization from which the recently released Afghanistan Papers are sourced, was visiting Camp Pendleton, Calif. We needed to assemble a “roundtable” of former adviser team commanders who could describe U.S. efforts to build the Afghan military. The SIGAR team, led by John Sopko, wanted to hear about our experiences.
We organized the discussion in the dingy conference room in one of the temporary buildings that housed our training unit. Those trailers perfectly symbolized the Pentagon’s attitude toward combat advising. After more than a decade pursuing counterinsurgency efforts in two countries, we had poured hundreds of billions of dollars into building “institutions” in faraway countries that did not really want them, but had not yet erected a proper building to house adviser training.
When SIGAR arrived, the officers and senior enlisted Marines in attendance unloaded their frustrations with remarkable candor. Marines are usually wary of speaking freely to unfamiliar bureaucrats, but these officers wanted Sopko to know how badly the war was going and how poorly the Afghan military was faring against the Taliban.
Many of these men had patrolled daily alongside the Afghan army squads and policemen that Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal had told us were key to winning the war, and many had lost Marines doing so. Others had assisted Afghan generals and their staffs, organizing Afghan fighters of various loyalties into army corps, brigades, battalions and so on. Some Afghan generals fought hard. Others stole their soldiers’ salaries, sold their equipment and abused the civilians they were supposed to protect.
Story after story was told of corruption, waste and negligence. The corruption generally occurred on the Afghan side, but the blame for waste and negligence fell on American higher-ups who looked the other way.
I spoke about pleading with the Afghan police to patrol with us. We were eager to prevent the Taliban from regaining control of northern Helmand, an area that Marine battalions had wrested from them at tremendous cost. The Afghan commander agreed to patrol if we would provide him with some wood and other building supplies. We obliged, handing over plywood, two-by-fours and other materials flown from the U.S. and then driven on Helmand’s IED-laden roads to our position. Within a week, the wood was gone — not stolen — but burned by Afghan soldiers trying to stay warm in freezing temperatures. I could only shake my head and laugh.
The briefing became a dark comedy. For Marines, humor is a universal salve, applied to mask both physical and emotional pain. Some of us openly laughed at the literally criminal tales recounted for Sopko and his team as it became clear that the officials from SIGAR had heard hundreds of similar anecdotes. I remember calling a friend from my adviser team that afternoon, after Sopko had departed. “They told him everything. It was unreal. And here’s the thing — he didn’t even bat an eye.”
It was clear that nobody cared — except for maybe Sopko and his staff, who have done us a tremendous service by painstakingly and thanklessly recording the Afghan disaster for posterity. I knew in 2013 that if we were sending Georgians to Helmand province, it meant that nobody in Washington was serious about winning in Afghanistan — whatever that even meant. It would not become apparent until much later, however, that everyone in Washington — political leaders, the military brass and the entrenched foreign policy establishment — was deadly serious about not leaving.
America will have to forgive its veterans for being cynical about the Afghanistan Papers. Neither their contents nor their implications are news to us. On the bright side, their release makes it impossible for our elected leaders to claim ignorance about the war’s failures any longer.
Sam Long served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2009 to 2015, deploying to Afghanistan, the Republic of Georgia, South Korea and Okinawa.