It’s coincidental – but fitting – that the so-called were published in the week Donald Trump was officially charged with abuse of power. The documents show how, for years, the American public and the world were over the chaotic conduct and unwinnable nature of the Afghan war.
If such behaviour does not amount to abuse of presidential power, if this does not qualify as “high crimes and misdemeanors”, then pray, what does?
The 18-year-long war has killed tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and US, Nato and Afghan soldiers, and cost upwards of £760bn. Yet the Taliban are on a roll, the Kabul government is on life support, and, , there is no end in sight.
Trump may yet be impeached for his particular transgressions. But when it comes to lying, he belongs to a broad White House tradition stretching back to Richard Nixon, LBJ and numerous predecessors. The 1971 Pentagon papers detailed how the true inanities of Vietnam . Whether it’s coups, cover-ups or conspiracies, most modern American presidents have a lot to hide.
This propensity for fibbing and fabricating, especially over national security, is evidently not confined to the US. It seems some politicians feel a superior responsibility not to alarm or agitate the public.
More often, they are motivated by a desire to justify their choices and conceal their mistakes. Tony Blair’s infamous “dodgy dossier”, published before the 2003 Iraq invasion, was a classic of the genre.
Yet a full understanding of how the Afghan calamity has been sustained for so long requires a closer look. “Lying politicians” are not the whole story. As the papers show, a parallel is found in the reluctance of military leaders, high and low, to admit Afghanistan is mission impossible. Beguiled by groupthink, they are drawn into a web of deceit and half-truths. They swallow what the Vietnam war correspondent Neil Sheehan called the “” of self-delusion.
Gen Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in 2009-10, chose the path to glory – and appeared genuinely to believe his plan would work. He , telling Obama: “”. Briefing journalists in Kabul in 2009, he said .
But Obama’s subsequent troop “surge” flopped, Afghan forces are still floundering almost a decade later, violence this year is at record levels – and McChrystal now runs a private consultancy.
Inertia also played a role. The sense that nobody is really watching has bred an unhealthy sense of impunity
It’s clear there are many other reasons why the Afghan war has been allowed to drag on. The absence of effective congressional scrutiny is one. Members of the Senate armed services committee declared themselves “” last week by the Afghan papers’ revelations. Yet if they had been doing their jobs properly, they would already have known about the lies. Maybe they did.
Inertia also played a role. The sense that nobody is really watching has bred an unhealthy sense of impunity, . For corrupt officials in Kabul, meanwhile, the war, and its accompanying flow of US aid dollars, is a profitable racket they have zero interest in ending. The real scandal is the Pentagon often knew about the scams but did nothing.
The fact that Bush in 2001 failed to set out clear war aims, or define success, meant reaching a decisive, agreed end-point was always going to be problematic. Repeated strategic reviews and tactical shifts hampered the military effort, to the point that not losing was more important than winning.
Even Trump, the great deceiver, balks at declaring victory while the Taliban, plus resurgent al-Qaida and Islamic State, still control more than half the country.
Yet blame for this war without end must also be shared by the people in whose name it is fought – the American (and British) publics. Where is the fury, where is the disgust, where is the shame over ? Who voted for these ongoing massacres? The uglier question is: who cares?
It’s true that Afghanistan was never a “popular” cause. It was sparked by a thirst for revenge for the 9/11 attacks, never a sound basis for war, and morphed through inattention into regime change and occupation. It’s true, too, that fashionable Blairite ideas about humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion and nation-building died a death in the alleyways of Baghdad and Falluja.
But the uncomfortable reality is also that is what is called a limited or “contained” war, fought in a distant land by professional volunteer armies, not Vietnam-era conscripts, in which the costs, human and otherwise, are somehow deemed “acceptable”. It has scant direct impact or relevance to most people at home in the US and Europe. In fact, it barely registers.
Afghanistan grinds on thanks, in part, to the passive complicity of all those who have allowed a post-Iraq sense of hopelessness and cynicism about the effectiveness of political activism and anti-war protest to overwhelm their sense of outrage. Vietnam provoked a terrible roar of anger, as did Iraq, only too briefly. Afghanistan produces only an embarrassed silence – and Syria and Yemen mere plaintive wails.
It’s worth asking whether collective indifference to such slaughter is a byproduct of the ongoing demoralisation, degradation and disengagement of the western democracies. Like an unwelcome asylum seeker knocking at the door, Afghanistan’s misery is kept at arm’s length. Where once they sought to save the world, the US and its allies now seek to save themselves from it.