A Big, Dumb Machine

Many people attribute America’s failings in Afghanistan to ignorance, incompetence or stupidity. However, there is more to it than that. Afghanistan PapersBy The Washington PostCraig Whitlock from’s shows an American government which, even though they didn’t understand what they were doing in building democracy in Afghanistan and managed to control the public while avoiding financial and bureaucratic consequences. It was not general incompetence that caused the problem.

Whitlock got a tip in 2016. SIGAR, the special inspector general of Afghanistan reconstruction, had conducted hundreds of interviews with participants to the war. This included top American and Afghan military officials and consultants. SIGAR opposed the publication’s attempts to access the data. The process took three years to complete. SIGAR fought the paper every step of its way to get the results. It took three years for them to obtain their documents. Post then published them on its website—along with some related items, such as memos from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—and those formed the basis of this book.

The ultimate responsibility lies with the top. President George W. Bush was a man who didn’t care much about Afghanistan, other than how it affected his political fortunes. Rumsfeld wrote in a memo that Bush was asked in October 2002 if he wanted to meet General Dan McNeil. Rumsfeld replied that he was the one leading the fight in Afghanistan. Bush said he didn’t have to visit him. He was probably preoccupied by the Iraq war that he would start five months later. He was preoccupied with SellingIt was a war. He also didn’t think about the U.S. doing there.

President Obama’s bureaucracy is a large, dumb, confused machine. It doesn’t know what it wants and its different parts sometimes function at the same time. It was clear that many parts of the machine knew how futile and hopeless this mission was. As Gen. McNeil said, “There wasn’t a campaign plan. It simply wasn’t there. Similar comments were made by the British General who commanded NATO’s forces in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007. He also stated that there was “no coherent, long-term strategy.” American military personnel will be sent to Afghanistan multiple times. Over two decades, there was conflict. Whitlock stated that the war didn’t make sense any more each time they returned.

In order to defeat the Taliban, America empowered warlords who often tortured and raped the people. Abdul Rashid Dostum was one of the most powerful of them all. One American diplomat even offered him to be the movie’s executive producer in order to free him from the United States. The CIA paid him $7.0,000 dollars per month. Whitlock’s account contains a multitude of stories similar to Whitlock’s, where one section of the American government did things that totally negated the actions and decisions of other parts. Anand Gopal No Good Men Among the LivingThis was documented on the ground. It showed how one person could be both an ally of the CIA or an enemy to military and ultimately how this affected the Afghan people the most.

Afghanistan had one industry, producing up to 90 per cent of the global opium. The Bush administration began to destroy those plants, despite pressure from members of Congress and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The insurgency was only fuelled by this, as the opium supply increased. When the U.S. tried paying farmers not to grow opium, more had an incentive to start planting the crop—and many of them still sold the harvest on the open market anyway after taking American money. A senior official stated that Karzai’s request to launch a counter-narcotics campaign is like asking the president of America to end all U.S. financial activity west from the Mississippi.

Bush believed that insurgents were being funded by opium. But even though it could, the Bush administration didn’t have the right to eliminate the best industry of a country that the U.S. was working to improve economic stability. After being quiet for most of the conflict’s first years, Helmand Province was engulfed in an insurgency. The Taliban had already wiped out the opium trading, so legalizing it seems the best way to build Afghan economic strength and win people’s hearts. In a system where rules, procedures and vested interest were more important than the actual victory of war, such an option was not even seriously considered.

Furthermore, the U.S. warlords used to combat the Taliban were often among those who made money from the drug trade. Fahim Khan (a Tajik commander) was made defense minister following the U.S. invasion. Only to discover that American forces had also destroyed a lab for drugs in northern Afghanistan. American officials needed to find a balance between their desire to end the opium trade and their need to appease drug kingpins.

When they attempted to tackle corruption, the two faced similar problems. The government became more dysfunctional due to corruption, and fighting it required going to war against the men that the U.S. had to maintain order and defeat the Taliban.

Every part of America’s war machine was assigned a mission and would do the same regardless of what the ground reality. The DEA was determined to eradicate opium. While the bureaucracy for human rights pushed for women’s rights and the military sought to continue the war, None of these parts could be compelled to cooperate in order to achieve a common goal. Although the president could have made this happen, it is clear that the American system rewards political skill more than the ability to create stable democracies elsewhere in the world. American officials are often very self-aware and not as incompetent or stupid as they appear to be in an environment that rewards them for being self-interested.

This system is able to tolerate egregious corruption or incompetence but it will take a hard line when its interests are at stake. General David McKiernan, the commander of NATO and U.S forces in Afghanistan was fired by President Barack Obama. This is a rare event in a class of leadership that rarely faces accountability. McKiernan’s misstep was being too honest with the media—he had told them the war was stalemated. His replacement was Gen. Stanley McChrystal who could make positive predictions. McChrystal was replaced by Gen. Stanley McChrystal who is a highly respected author and corporate consultant.

Donald Trump’s transition to Barack Obama shows just how flexible the Pentagon can be in order to continue the war. While working as a former law professor, generals spoke more about human rights. However they also learned how to manipulate statistics to prove that their actions were improving people’s lives. Trump allowed them to realize that their support of the war could be maintained by telling stories about victory and eliminating bad guys. The generals were able to resist a skeptical president in both instances. It didn’t matter if the military was building schools for girls or embarking on a larger bombing campaign. As long as they could continue to wage war, it seemed indifferent. Joe Biden watched Obama box in the generals, but he arrived at the White House determined not again to be manipulated.

It is amazing how much waste was created by the Obama surge. An audit revealed that $890 million of the $2.3 billion the U.S. spent for the Commander’s Disaster Response Program which allows commanders to invest in infrastructure projects was not accounted. The purpose of that amount is not clear. According to one advisor from the Special Forces, “We were building schools near empty schools” even though it was obvious that locals did not want them. Whitlock attributes the waste of such resources to the nature and carelessness of the mission. He does not believe that American corruption could be the reason why $1.4 billion went missing. As the CIA purchased warlords from parliamentarians, Americans lectured Afghan leaders about how their corruption undermined the government.

The United States has done better in Afghanistan than any other place, and this includes leaders who have tried to solve social problems rather than protect their interests. Although the U.S. government is now a powerful and resourceful machine that can destroy other countries, it lacks accountability or mechanisms to make sure its actions are more effective. As the U.S. war machine shifts to China as its primary justification, let’s not forget this.

Afghanistan Papers: The Secret History of the War, by Craig Whitlock, Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $30