A recent Washington Post report disclosed 18 years of deceit and distortion by United States government and military officials seeking to proclaim success in the military campaign in Afghanistan while privately acknowledging the war was unwinnable.
The revelation reminds us of skulduggery in the prosecution of the Vietnam War. The Pentagon Papers revealed the disinformation campaign then. In that case, information from a portion of a Department of Defense-commissioned history of the war was released to The New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, a participant in the study who acted as a whistleblower.
This case is an unambiguous First Amendment victory. The resources of a major news outlet were used to file numerous Freedom of Information Act requests and devote thousands of dollars to legal fees to compel the release of the information.
Open records requests drew on documents generated by a federal project examining failures in the war that began in response to the Taliban’s sheltering of Osama bin Laden after 9/11. The release of more than 2,000 pages took a three-year legal battle. The information assessing the conduct of war should not have been concealed. After all, Americans serve as human fodder in the nation’s longest-running armed conflict.
Trust in government is abysmal, with two-thirds of adults having little or no confidence in the federal government. But unlike the stew of online conspiracy theories blasted out by varying fringe outlets, the Post endured the slog to obtain documentary evidence essential to its reporting. That effort showed the U.S. is entangled in a losing proposition in a part of the world that has ensnared and exhausted every nation or empire that waded into the region.
By obtaining the documents and then publishing the results of its reporting, the Post demonstrates the essential function performed by established news outlets. In an era of social media and blogs, the doggedness, dedication — even the longevity — for this kind of investigation comes from the traditional Fourth Estate. Facebook and Twitter aren’t undertaking this sort of work.
The investigation showed the war in Afghanistan lacked clear goals once al-Qaida was contained. Without a clear mission, the war effort foundered and became unwinnable. Through multiple administrations with contradictory strategies, political and military leadership fell into a pattern of knowingly painting a falsely rosy picture. Officials didn’t just deceive the public. A culture of willful ignorance formed that brooked no critique or counternarrative, preventing any clear assessment of allies, enemies, goals or exit strategy. Such self-deception flourishes in the dark. Lacking clear-eyed public assessment, the U.S. wasted lives and money with no true hope of victory.
The solution to such a quagmire is not knee-jerk withdrawal, though we must disentangle our nation from the mess that finds the Taliban stronger today than at any time since 2001. This should be the beginning of a broad public reckoning.
Sound reporting makes that possible.