Afghan Government Downplays Media Report; Analysts Have Mixed Reactions

The Afghan government, claiming progress in the ongoing war against militants, is downplaying The Washington Post’s recent report that said U.S. officials made overly optimistic statements about the war that they knew to be false.

The Washington Post this week published a trove of government documents, revealing that U.S. officials made false statements and hid evidence about the years long conflict.

Fawad Aman, a spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, downplayed the Post report, telling VOA Tuesday that the Afghan forces have made tremendous progress in fighting the militants.

“If we have a comparative glance at the war in Afghanistan, we have had tremendous progress in the past two years,” Aman told VOA.

“For instance, we destroyed IS-K (Islamic State-Khurasan) in eastern Afghanistan. In addition, due to our military operations, Taliban suffered many casualties this year. Taliban’s offensive capabilities have been taken away from them. We are progressing well and Afghan security forces are making progress and we are optimistic about the future,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has denied intentionally misleading the public about the war in Afghanistan.

“There has been no intent by DoD (Department of Defense) to mislead Congress or the public,” Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell wrote to VOA on Monday. “The information contained in the interviews was provided to SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) for the express purpose of inclusion in SIGAR’s public reports.”

Implications of the revelation

Analysts have had mixed reactions, however, about whether the recent report reveals anything major that has not been published over the years by the U.S. government’s watchdog, tasked with overseeing U.S. military expenditure in the country. The report has also renewed debate over U.S. engagement in Afghanistan,

Michael Semple, a longtime expert on Afghanistan, said he thinks that, except for some details, the new report does not reveal anything that was not already known.

“For anyone who has followed Afghanistan closely …, there is nothing new in the latest Washington Post report. A bit more detail, yes, and an updated commentary,” Semple said.

“The main themes in the interviews the WP (Washington Post) obtained were confusion, private pessimism, public optimism and corruption,” he added. “But these themes have been debated for the past 18 years. And to be fair to the Inspector General, who commissioned these interviews, his team has already published a useful series of reports based on the interviews.”

SIGAR was created by the U.S. Congress to provide independent and objective oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction efforts.

More debates?

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Wilson Center, echoes Semple’s assessment. However, he said the revelations would likely lead to more debates on Afghanistan in the U.S. Congress.

“The Afghanistan papers don’t reveal much that wasn’t already known,” Kugelman said.

“I imagine these new documents will prompt members of Congress to convene hearings to ask what went wrong,” he added.

Some members of Congress are already talking about the details released in the newspaper’s report.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said Tuesday the U.S. should leave Afghanistan.

“…Our troops deserve so much better, and the public deserves honesty from the Pentagon. We need to declare victory and leave now! U.S. officials misled the public about the war in Afghanistan, confidential documents reveal,” Paul said on Twitter.

This is a MUST READ. Our troops deserve so much better, and the public deserves honesty from the Pentagon. We need to declare victory and leave now! U.S. officials misled the public about the war in Afghanistan, confidential documents reveal. https://t.co/CwfbIsPobP

— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) December 10, 2019

Keeping the truth from Americans

Jason H. Campbell, a policy researcher at Washington-based Rand Corp., believes the report highlights U.S. limitations versus an effort to conceal the truth.

“My big takeaway from the Post story is that this is more indicative of the limitations of the U.S. bureaucracy than an indictment on some nefarious and coordinated effort to keep the truth from the American people,” Campbell said.

“Fundamentally, when engaging in a counterinsurgency effort that is a ‘war of choice’ (insofar that there is no immediate and monumental threat to the U.S. homeland), as a bureaucracy you’re constantly redefining what you’re willing to live with and inherently averse to the risks associated with a full withdrawal,” he added.

“Ultimately, however, the political risk of folding up the tents in Afghanistan was collectively seen as greater than sustaining some level of effort so long as there was some progress to point to,” Campbell said.

Matt Dearing, an assistant professor at the Washington-based National Defense University, agreed with Cambell’s assessment. He added, if anything, the papers reveal the frustrations among “stability practitioners” toward unclear policies.

“The Afghanistan papers are a raw display of the frustrations stability practitioners faced – a state-building strategy based on faulty assumptions, unclear vision and goals from policymakers, inconsistent partners, and the inability to forecast beyond one-year deployments,” Dearing said.

“These revelations might be a shock to the vast majority of Americans, but for those who served in Afghanistan, these frustrations are all too real,” he said.

Sanctuaries in Pakistan

Some experts charge that the issue of sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan, which has continued to fuel the Afghan war and played a key role in its perpetuation, has been largely ignored in the recent report.

“The report also doesn’t cover many other issues, such as complaints or concerns from many military and civilians experts on Taliban sanctuaries, their network of support, and other political matters such as in early times of the war when Talban were ready for talks with the Afghan government,” said Sher Jan Ahmadzai, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

“Those and many others were many opportunities gone in vain,” Ahmadzai added.

Peace talks

Since 2018, the U.S. has stepped up efforts to seek a negotiated settlement to the war and has since engaged in direct talks with the Taliban. Those talks fell apart in September 2019 after Trump canceled the negotiations, citing increased violence in Afghanistan perpetrated by the militants in an attempt to gain more leverage at the negotiating table.

Both sides restarted negotiations Saturday after a three-month delay. Some experts believe the recent revelations would not harm the talks.

“I do think there will be increased public support in the U.S. for peace talks, because Americans, now understanding how messy this war has become, will want their government to expedite plans to leave Afghanistan,” Kugelman, of the Wilson Center, said.

The Afghan war has claimed the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. service members and cost Washington nearly $1 trillion.

VOA’s Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this story.