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Another Bright Shining Lie

The Afghanistan Papers reflect what we soldiers knew on the ground: "Victory" was always an empty talking point.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

We had a system in Afghanistan when I was with the Army: “red, amber, green.” The particulars differed slightly from brigade to brigade—some used different fonts and colors to measure local gradations of progress on maps or Powerpoint slides, with slightly differing ways of measuring progress—but the idea was pretty commonplace: Red was used on these slides to show areas under Taliban control. Amber areas were contested by the Taliban, or by ISAF—that was us, the International Security Assistance Force—or by “Giroa,” the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, our ostensible allies. Green regions, as one might imagine, were imagined to be fully under friendly control.

When you started a deployment, most of the areas on your provincial or district tracker were colored red or amber. Over the course of the deployment, the districts would slowly go from red to red-trending-amber, and then amber, and then amber-trending-green. At the end of your deployment, some key districts would be green. Then, when it was time for your unit to go home, often a few soldiers lighter, the slide deck was handed over to the next unit, and they began patrolling; the green districts would often be reset to red, beginning the cycle anew. The assessments, of course, were wholly subjective, based on the opinions of the commanders responsible for a given area or military unit.

At one point during my first deployment, to the east of Afghanistan, in 2007 and 2008, we were given a set of slides from a battalion or brigade in Iraq that had seen success with “Sweat,” a stability-operations acronym that involved making incremental improvements in local sewage, water, electricity, academics, and trash disposal. In Iraq, getting these basic services back online was taken as a good indicator of whether a place was pro- or anti-government, or something to that effect. In Afghanistan, however, on the mountainous border of Pakistan, sewage was whatever part of the earth one decided to use for a toilet, and electricity was based on whether one’s tribe or family could afford a generator.

These were not useful metrics by which to gauge political or material progress among Afghan peoples. But the “red, amber, green” approach did serve an important function in the Army: It offered some deploying soldiers a measure of psychological satisfaction that something was being done, even if that thing was circular and vacuous: Look, what was once red is now amber, almost green!

The absurdity and cravenness of this chartified process was the first thing that came to my mind on reading The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers investigation, a broad swath of thousands of internal government interviews and memoranda released Monday—reminiscent of the infamous Pentagon Papers. These internal reviews sought to derive “lessons learned” from two decades of U.S. combat in Afghanistan, and ended up showing that the war was an aimless train wreck that never remotely resembled the sunny descriptions of successive presidential administrations and military leaders. Together, they reflect the failure of any American leader to demand a real vision for Afghanistan and its people that might have driven measurable objectives and a feasible path to victory.

“I have no visibility into who the bad guys are,” Donald Rumsfeld writes in one of the Afghanistan Papers’ collected “snowflake memos” from 2004, three years into the U.S.’s longest war—not long before I finished Ranger School and reconnaissance school to head to Paktika province as the executive officer of a rifle company with the 173rd, and a full four years before I would return as a company commander to Kunduz province. On the first deployment, our brigade lost 43 soldiers killed, and I couldn’t guess how many wounded, in one of the more difficult deployments endured by a conventional unit. On the second, our brigade lost three soldiers killed and many more wounded; I personally gave out two dozen Purple Hearts to my company. We were fighting and dying to achieve objectives that no elected leader could fully articulate. Army officers like to toss around an old saw by the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz: “No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to conduct it.” By that standard, there never should have been an Afghanistan war.

As a veteran of that conflict, it’s easy to look at the Post’s investigation and its immediate warm reception from the American media and get jaded: Who is surprised that the war is a wash? You could have just asked us. From the jump, plenty of critics (and returning vets) pointed out that Afghanistan was “the grave of empires” and that America’s efforts had a low probability of enduring success. Little evidence of “progress” exists, beyond the killing of Osama bin Laden (in neighboring Pakistan, not Afghanistan) and the ending of Taliban rule over Kabul. But what the Afghanistan Papers really expose is the official illusion of progress, and the apocryphal ability of the American military to solve any overseas problem with its might and ingenuity, that’s been sold to the electorate by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Sure, many clinics and schools were built—some of them were even briefly staffed with the appropriate personnel before they wandered away, unpaid, or were assassinated by the Taliban. Roads now exist that did not before. They should exist, after nearly $1 trillion of aid was pumped into the small nation. One contractor, in an Afghanistan Papers interview, confided that he was expected to spend $3 million per day, per district; he relates that he once asked a visiting U.S. politician if he could spend that much responsibly in his home congressional district, and the congressman replied, “hell no.” “Well, sir,” the contractor replied, “that’s what you just obligated us to spend and I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.” The Afghan army looks terrific on paper—as it should, considering the firepower and training it’s received from the U.S. But as the Afghanistan Papers (and many previous inquests by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) show, U.S. leaders at the highest levels knew much of that firepower was being lost to graft, and Afghan security forces were losing badly, despite some herculean efforts and sacrifices.

The steady drumbeat of overly optimistic announcements from presidents, generals, and legislators stood in direct opposition to what soldiers, veterans, journalists, travelers, and well-read citizens knew: America and ISAF have done little to defeat the Taliban strategically. Every year, the Taliban return from their Pakistani safe havens to attack and destabilize pockets of the nation. Every year, hundreds of small battles are waged, and most of them are “won” tactically with acceptable collateral civilian damage. The war grinds on.

I saw and participated in the system that permits the military and politicians to trick themselves into believing in the possibility of progress. It began with the deployment process itself, in which military units went as a whole entity to theater, on the assumption that soldiers should deploy together for a set amount of time and should then come home together. If, a few years later, a conventional Army or Marine unit went back to Afghanistan, it was rarely sent back to the same place.

In this system, there’s little continuity. One only ever sees the impact one’s own unit makes. Hence the “red, amber, green” cartography; hence the sunny reports from returning military leaders. From the perspective of a unit, from the perspective of its officers and soldiers, most combat deployments to Afghanistan really did seem to offer evidence of positive change to the people who were invested in creating it over many months. Hence the common refrain of the deploying post-9/11 soldier: “We won our year.”

This is what the Afghanistan Papers drive home, and what is so outrageous about the whole affair: While mid-level functionaries like me were doing our best to make something out of a very difficult situation, leadership was comfortable with the status quo, which was worse than nihilism. It was the absence of any objective whatsoever, a kind of perpetual, monotonous gray state of tactical success after tactical success, while the area patrolled by U.S. soldiers steadily shrank as more troops went home.

There is probably another story yet to be written about how this is the type of war one gets when elite special operations units lead the fight—numerous high-value targets killed, with the occasional wedding party thrown in for good measure. For now, though, let’s lay a great share of the blame on those who earned it most: the political and military leadership at the top, across our divided political spectrum, who together steadfastly refused to define an achievable victory in Afghanistan and refused to do the difficult, honorable thing and bring the soldiers home—leaving us to kill and die downrange, while thanking us for our indefinite service with boisterous platitudes.