The announcement by the Washington Post that it has signed with a production company run by none other than Steven Spielberg to turn its so-called “Afghanistan Papers” into a miniseries probably has many in Washington wondering who will play them. The Afghanistan Papers are the result of a Freedom of Information Act request that the Washington Post submitted to the Special Investigator General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). As a result it obtained a trove of notes, transcripts and audio files of interviews SIGAR conducted with former government officials in preparing a series of lessons learned reports on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. A far bigger question than the casting is what angle the miniseries will take with its material.
This question is relevant because of the way the Post has presented the story: as a widespread attempt by U.S. government officials to “conceal the truth” about its effort in Afghanistan. A close reading of the Post’s reporting on these documents shows that is far from the case.
What the Post characterizes as deception actually consists of a fairly typical and largely understandable pattern in most any kind of complex, major decision-making of national and international consequence That is to say, overly optimistic public statements to sell various administrations’ policies, which is hardly unique to Afghanistan; post-facto revelations by former policymakers over disagreements on what policies to adopt; a recounting of adjustments that had been made once it was recognized that certain policies were failing; counter-factuals that cannot be proven and are often contradictory (for example, that the Afghan army should have been much larger and trained much more quickly from the beginning); and false opposites.
In an instance of false opposites, for example, the Post quotes U.S. Marine General John Allen, the former U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, saying that the Afghan Local Police stood their ground 80 percent of the time. The Post then writes: “But almost no one else who was interviewed for the Lessons Learned project agreed with Allen. Robert Perito, a former analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace who studied the Afghan police, called the local police ‘dysfunctional’ and said that in many areas it was ‘a corrupt force, run by warlords.’” Why can the ALP not be both corrupt and still determined enough to hold its ground? The “Afghanistan Papers” series is full of these misleading “buts” that portray rival contentions as evidence of deception.
Similarly, the Post sometimes portrays actual public admissions of difficulty as deceptions. The Post follows one comment by an unnamed official that the government downplayed the importance of corruption with this:
For years, the official added, “people in the field would be moaning and groaning over the compromises made by the military on working with corrupt actors but they would be shut down.”
Regardless, U.S. leaders began taking a much harder line against corruption in public, insisting that Afghans would have to change their ways.
In March 2009, Obama declared, “I want to be clear: We cannot turn a blind eye to the corruption that causes Afghans to lose faith in their own leaders.”
A few days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Corruption is a cancer as dangerous to long-term success as the Taliban or al-Qaeda.”
In August 2009, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan at the time, warned: “Malign actions of power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power…have given Afghans little reason to support their government.”
What purpose does the word “regardless” serve here, except to trick the reader into thinking that a public acknowledgment of the problem of corruption was instead a cover-up. These rhetorical stretches and sleights of hand undermine the Post’s credibility and hide the real story.
Not So “Secret” After All
As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, a great deal of what the Post portrays as secret views has, in fact, been aired quite publicly long before the Post succeeded in getting the SIGAR office to release the notes of its interviews with former policymakers.
Consider that the Post’s crusade began when it received a tip in 2016 that retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn had given an interview to SIGAR. The Post was interested because Flynn was supporting Donald Trump’s presidential bid in 2016. After Trump was inaugurated, Flynn was named his first National Security Advisor, a term cut to a record short stint when he resigned after being caught lying about contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States. The Post, explaining itself, writes, “[Flynn] had served in the war zone as chief of military intelligence and carried a reputation for speaking his mind. What did he have to say about the longest armed conflict in American history? It seemed like something the public ought to know.”
But his thoughts had long been public. Prior to 2016, Flynn was best known for a January 2010 public report he wrote lambasting the military for their poor intelligence in Afghanistan. On the first page of his report, then-Major General Flynn quoted McChrystal, for whom he was working at the time, as saying that the leadership “are not getting the right information to make decisions with,” adding, “the media is driving the issues.” Flynn encapsulated the problem, effectively summarizing the thrust of the Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” series in a few pertinent lines:
[H]aving focused the overwhelming majority of its collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade. Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and the levels of cooperation among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers – whether aid workers or Afghan soldiers – U.S. intelligence officers and analysts can do little but shrug in response to high level decision-makers seeking the knowledge, analysis, and information they need to wage a successful counterinsurgency.
Certainly Flynn’s decision to publish the report rather than keep it internal wasn’t welcomed by the administration – then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates clucked, but Flynn didn’t suffer any consequences as a result.
This being Hollywood and this being the Post, we can be reasonably sure that the miniseries will not take the Flynn-as-maligned-prophet storyline. What else is there? The reminiscences of bureaucrats re-enacting policy battles in a Crystal City interview room is probably not enough to hold a miniseries together.
“Close Encounters of the Fourth Estate”
That leaves as the most likely storyline one about the heroic press uncovering “deception” about Afghanistan. Call it “Close Encounters of the Fourth Estate”: The “tip” about Flynn having given an interview to SIGAR. The dramatic filling out of FOIA requests and the shock of having them rejected. The dogged legal appeal to overturn the decision. A few clips of Trump insulting the press to show what’s at stake. Democracy dies in darkness! (The slogan the Post adopted in 2017.) A tense exchange between our hero reporter and a stone-faced SIGAR lawyer: “This is something the public ought to know!” Finally, victory: the documents come rolling in, high-fives in the newsroom, the team pulling all-nighters to ferret out the dark, bureaucratic secrets of the Afghanistan war.
I personally don’t think this is hugely entertaining, but it’s a formula that Hollywood goes back to often enough (in fact, as recently as 2017’s “The Post,”with Meryl Streep playing Post Publisher Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as Executive Editor Ben Bradlee).
The real story is to be found in the one area where the Post has a point: the refusal of the U.S. government to acknowledge that it was, in fact, engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan. President George W. Bush had campaigned against nation-building in 2000 and did not want to acknowledge several years later that the reconstruction of Afghanistan had indeed become just that. Obama disdained the concept because, as he put it in 2010 while announcing the hoped-for drawdown of U.S. troops, saying “the nation I’m most interested in building is our own.”
The essence of our failure in Afghanistan is the refusal to specify and admit to ourselves what we were actually doing. The real drama was that every articulation of our overarching goals of defeating al-Qaeda, degrading the Taliban, and ensuring that Afghanistan never again became a haven for terrorists who could threaten us, led back to a logic of state-building, with its immense complications and intricate dilemmas. The voices in the “Afghanistan Papers” are expressions of these dilemmas. Even our current policy of negotiating our exit requires there to be some sort of government to negotiate with.
Even now, the participants disagree. True to the logic of not getting into state-building, for example, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to keep the new Afghan army small, so we would not be settled with the burden of forever supporting a large Afghan military establishment. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul at the time, told SIGAR interviewers, “It was apparent more Afghan forces were required.” But then an unnamed former official said, according to the Post, “Thinking we could build the [security forces] that fast and that well was insane.”
These are the sorts of endless arguments and decisions that the “Afghanistan Papers” series really chronicles. Far from what the Washington Post’s lawyers described in a brief for the records request as officials privately thinking the war was an “unmitigated disaster,” the papers show generation after generation of policymakers thinking they could crack the puzzle and having hundreds of millions of dollars to try to do it. This could be an Aaron Sorkin-like bureaucratic drama. It could be an absurdist drama in the style of Armando Iannucci. But it only works if the focus is on the intent to succeed rather than the unconvincing argument that there was an intent to deceive.
A week after the series was published, I received an email from SIGAR letting me know that notes from my interviews with them were NOT (their capitals) among those released to the Post. At the time I was both relieved and insulted. Were my comments not interesting enough? Now I’m a little bit annoyed. It has deprived me of the fun that others in Washington must be having as they wonder: who will play me in the miniseries? Still, there is hope: the Post assures us that “it is continuing to fight for the names of all those interviewed.”
IMAGE: US soldiers keep watch near the wreckage of their vehicle at the site of a Taliban suicide attack in Kandahar on August 2, 2017. (Photo by JAVED TANVEER/AFP via Getty Images)