Afghanistan is a famous desert for empires, a burial ground which has consumed those in power who thought that extra fortification and trading most might benefit them. It remains a great, and somewhat savage reminder about those who suffer hubris, overconfidence and eagerness in pursuing their agendas. But the country has also served another purpose: a repository for the untruths of those who invaded it.
That said, the normative sense does not always keep pace with the actual; people might well insist that they loathe being lied to but that is no guarantee for altering conduct or votes. The US citizen has been the recipient of mendacity on the republic’s foreign engagements since President Thomas Jefferson decided to expand its operations against the Barbary pirates in Europe. There have been deceptions, concoctions and fabrications to either justify an intervention or justify the continuation of US garrisons in foreign theatres. Cometh the empire, cometh the military presence.
Since US forces were deployed after September 11, 2001 ostensibly to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the US has lost 2,400 personnel, seen the deaths of over a hundred thousand Afghans and expended, through Congress, $137 billion in reconstruction funds. Some $1 trillion has been spent in the military effort. A note from the Congressional Research Service from January 31 this year, despite toeing the line, had to concede that, while “most measures of human development have improved […] future prospects of those measures remain mixed in light of a robust Taliban insurgency and continued terrorist activity.”
The Afghanistan Papers, as they have now come to be known, should have stimulated something more than it did. Run as a set of interviews in the Washington Post in December from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), they are filled vignettes of confusion, incompetence and indifference. The interviews feature an imperium in a mess, dithering, muddled, and in need of a purpose. At times, there is an astonishing freshness that only comes with being frank.
SIGAR, the main oversight body responsible for examining the US operation in Afghanistan, has released nine reports in its “Lessons Learned” series. The seventh report, for instance, notes “the difficulty of reintegrating ex-combatants during an active insurgency in a fragile state.” The words of the executive summary are almost brutal in their common sense.