The Washington Post series exposes how political and military leaders purposefully misled the public from the outset of the war in Afghanistan–a war they knew could not be won.
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News, folks. This is Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.
As many of you may know, the Washington Post is releasing a six-part series, called The Afghanistan Papers, exposing the lies that were told not only to get us into this endless 19 year-old war, but lies told and perpetuated to keep the fight going; to lie to the public. Reminds me of the Pentagon Papers that Daniel Ellsberg released in 1971 showing the secrets that led to the widening of the Vietnam War and lies the public had been told to shore up support for that war. It didn’t come in time to save the Vietnamese people who were murdered and killed or the 50,000 of our own who died in battle.
These Afghan Papers will not save those who have been devastated by the war, either. Will they lead us to a questioning our leaders? To question why we go to war? To demand answers and change the way we operate this government to continue endless wars, wars without meaning, wars undeclared by the people of the United States? We’ll be producing a series of conversations about the Afghanistan Papers.
Today, we welcome back to The Real News Iraq-Afghan war veteran, West Point graduate, and writer Danny Sjursen. He’s the author of a memoir, a critical analysis of the Iraq war, called Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. On the heels of when the Afghan Papers were released, he wrote “I Knew the Wars in Afghanistan Were a Lie” for Truthdig. Danny, welcome. Good to have you back with us.
DANNY SJURSEN: Oh, thanks for having me. It’s always a pleasure.
MARC STEINER: So, all this makes me think about the Pentagon Papers, the lies we were told back in the sixties that led us to the Vietnam War, that exploded this war, that affected all of our lives; the same lies are being told now. It’s the overwhelming nature of how this establishment lies to us, the military lies to us about these wars that were never declared. Then your piece was also so deeply personal because of the situation you were put in, in Afghanistan itself. So how do you tie these things together for us?
DANNY SJURSEN: Well, I had a sense just doing my duty just day to day; the absurdity of democracy building in a portion of rural Afghanistan, where we literally only controlled the ground we stood on. We’re talking about like a Vietnam scenario. On my little outpost which I commanded, we were basically under siege. Sometimes we were under attack within fifty meters of the gate. In fact, one time I jumped into hole right next to my gate, that’s how close we were to fire. But trying to build democracy or nation-build or protect women’s rights in an area like that, something felt wrong. There was something viscerally wrong with it. As I read these reports after five years of writing about this war–lots of research, lots of reading, lots of my own experiences–I allowed myself the guilty pleasure, for a moment, to feel vindicated. But that only lasted a few seconds. And since then I have to say that as a historian and a writer, I’m not surprised; as a former soldier, mostly saddened by these reports.
MARC STEINER: Any war is hell. But the fact is that almost everywhere we have fought, everywhere this country has fought since WWII, has not been declared.
DANNY SJURSEN: That’s just it. Congress has completely turned its back, has been asleep on duty, for their constitutional obligation to sanction war. They just haven’t done it. We’re still using the September 14, 2001 authorization for military force that allowed the Bush Administration to go after al-Qaeda. The al-Qaeda has essentially been gone from Afghanistan in any meaningful way since February 2002 at the latest. So what are we doing now? How in the world can three successive presidents– Democratic, Republican, and whatever the hell Trump is–how can three successive administrations still say that the reason we’re in Afghanistan, the reason young men and women are dying is because of an al-Qaeda based authorization for force that was signed while the World Trade Center was still smoldering? This is a farce and it always has been.
MARC STEINER: So, let’s take a look at this one piece from the Washington Post reporter talking to the inspector general. The Washington Post reporter quotes Douglas Lute, who’s a three star army general who served in the White House for both Bush and Obama overseeing the Afghan War.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: One of the most sobering things to read for me was just how many people involved in the war were very blunt and candid that the war strategy under Obama and Bush and Trump, they all said it was worthless. Doug Lute, General Lute, who is the Afghan War Czar in the White House for two administrations, Bush and Obama’s, this guy was from the White House prospective overseeing the war; and he’s saying things like, “We had no idea what we were doing.” He said, “I bumped into an even more fundamental lack of knowledge, we were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan.” These are the people in charge of the war essentially saying it was a disaster and they knew it. But I don’t see any of these comments in your lessons learned report.
JOHN SOPKO: As an inspector general, I don’t do policy. What all you quoted, were people talking about a bad policy.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: That’s the whole fundamental reason questioning why the United States is there, how could you let that drop?
JOHN SOPKO: Well, we didn’t let it drop. The stuff is available. We’re still producing these reports.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: We had to ask you twice to get our hands on it.
MARC STEINER: When you have the man who is running this war for two presidents in the White House saying what he’s saying now, and also this inspector general had very little to say, how do you justify that? How do you justify men and women in danger and also destroy an entire nation?
DANNY SJURSEN: Well, I respect what Lute had to say, I respect his candor, but let’s remember something: Lute was a retired three star general. This is not exactly a peace activist. And he probably had more continuity in that war, overseeing that war, than almost anybody. But it was as recent as 2015 that he said we don’t have the slightest idea of what we’re doing; that was when he gave that interview. And so my question becomes, “Well, if you knew that at the time, if you knew that late in the Obama Administration, or even earlier I presume, why didn’t you go public? Why didn’t you resign? You had three star general’s pension, you probably had plenty of opportunity to earn in the beltway with all of your experience.” Why did not a single member of the 460 some odd generals and officials who gave these interviews, why did not a single one of them put their stars on the table and say, “No more.”
If Lute gave that interview in 2015, which is what I believe I read this morning, then at least more than a hundred Americans, to say nothing of Afghans, have died since that point in the war. And that’s just disgraceful. I’m glad The Post put out these reports, I think it’s important. But I’m also very disturbed by the senior leadership both within my institution, the U.S. Military, and within the National Security structure more generally. This is a failure of leadership. And here’s the thing: there probably won’t be any accountability. If the CIA torture report, the 9/11 commissioner report, if any of these previous disclosures are any model or any judge, there probably won’t be any accountability. But there should be massive accountability; I mean mass firings. And we can get into that if you’d like.
MARC STEINER: Yeah. It’s mind-boggling in many ways how this kind of fell out. I want to get into what you just said, but let’s watch this piece now. I think it goes directly into this piece about what the generals did and what they didn’t do, and the code of languages that they used.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: There’s a clear pattern that what was said in private in these interviews contrasted so greatly with what U.S. officials, presidents, members of Congress, military commanders, what they had been saying in public over 18 years. Usually the talking points were all pretty similar. They would say, “The war is a tough place.”
DOUGLAS LUTE: Conditions that are very trying,
STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: It was a tough year.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: In Afghanistan, there’s still fighting going on.
ERIC EDELMAN: Increase in Taliban violence.
STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: A higher level of violence.
CRAIG WHITMORE: But we’re making progress.
ZALMAY KHALIZAD: Progress.
JEFFREY SCHLOESSER: Progress.
ROBERT GATES: Significant progress.
CRAIG WHITMORE: We are going in the right direction.
MICHELE FLOURNEY: We are on the right road.
LEON PANETTA: We are going in the right direction.
CRAIG WHITMORE: Our strategy is sound.
ERIC EDELMAN: I think it’s important to understand that we do have a strategy that’s quite broad.
ROBERT GATES: Our strategy is succeeding.
MARC STEINER: So in some ways, and this goes to the heart of what you and were talking about, just before we went on the air together, which was how these generals have just lied to the American people completely and been part impartial of the lies to the American public and especially the ones who are in control now and people like General Petraeus.
DANNY SJURSEN: Well, yeah we need to talk about that. That little clip you showed was really demonstrative. The military loves words like “turn the corner,” “light at the end of the tunnel;” those are Vietnam words. “Progress,” “glide oath;” those are the more millennial era military terms. But they’re the same thing, right? What we found out in the report is that many of the same people who you had on video right there, who The Post had on video, saying “Progress, progress, progress, despite tough fighting,” and whatever other euphemisms, privately were saying that they knew all along it wasn’t working. That tells us that we have a National Security structure that going on 19 years now has been lying to our faces.
And in some cases, guys who were not necessarily quoted very in-depth in The Washington Post report so far… Take Mark Milley. Mark Milley was Army Chief of Staff and now he’s Chairman of the Joint Chief. Just a few years ago, he gave a glowing evaluation of how well the war was going. And within this very year, he said that it would be premature to leave and that this is not the time to talk about leaving Afghanistan. Now that tells me one of two things, and I’m not sure which is worse. Either he is incompetent because he can’t read the writing on the wall that the other 459 officials saw, which is that all the stats, all the measurable weight points are going in a negative direction. Or he’s a liar; or he’s willing to escape and mislead and provide an illusion to the American people. He should be fired immediately, on either case. But I wouldn’t expect that to happen.
MARC STEINER: So I should’ve said earlier that this is important to know, that this Washington Post report was based on a study that was done by the Office of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction; it was called Lessons Learned. And the Post had a three year court battle to get this information out, to make it public, to fight to allow to bring this out. So unlike Daniel Ellsberg who actually stole this stuff and put it out there because no one would listen to him, The Post went after this as a FOIA and that’s how this came out. The question becomes, Danny; the final thing I’m going to ask you is: so now what? What do we do with this? One of things that paused me in the beginning was: what does this teach us about what we have to do to control this process and not allow this to happen? It’ll just be another report that you hang on the wall otherwise.
DANNY SJURSEN: Well, in this generation, it’s very rare that these reports see the light of day. And if they do, they’re usually summaries. And if they do, it usually takes many, many years. I just recently watched The Report on Amazon Prime about the CIA Torture Report under Diane Feinstein’s office. You see how many years it took for this to see the light of day, how hard the government fought to keep it away. Now what should happen is something in line with the Fulbright hearings on Vietnam in Congress, the Church hearings on CIA misconduct in the first 20 years of the Cold War, a 9/11 Commission of sorts, and at the very least a CIA torture study of sorts–but much more public than the most recent two. I’m not certain that’s going to happen. I don’t think there’s a lot of stomach for it in Congress politically. We’re distracted by the impeachment circus. And I certainly don’t think, despite some of Trump’s occasional antiwar rhetoric, I don’t think that the White House has any intention to really study this.
So what I’m afraid is that this will be a blip on the radar. It will be yesterday’s news sooner than later. We’ll go back to the Trump charade all day every day on the three major networks. I think part of the reason for that is the context for the Afghanistan Papers are so different from the context or the Pentagon Papers, people aren’t out in the street protesting. There is no draft that affects everybody. So you and I can be concerned because you’re an activist and I’m a disgruntled veteran, but we represent what? Less than one percent of the population. And so it’s quite easy for my neighbors and friends and even family members, in some cases, to ignore this. And I think that’s what the American people are going to do unless every one of us bangs the drum day in and day out and does everything possible to keep this in the news, because it’s probably the most vital story in the last decade.
MARC STEINER: I agree with you. And we’re going to try to do that here at Real News. As a matter of fact, Congressman Ro Khanna has said he wants to start an investigation in Congress. We’re going to try to talk to him next week, try to talk to Daniel Ellsberg to compare this to the Pentagon Papers, and others, and bring Danny back of course and continue this. It has to be at the forefront. We’re at a vortex now where we can maybe do something to build something to stop the madness that swirls around us, but maybe not. We’ll see. And Danny Sjursen, first thank you again for your work and for always being out there in front and appreciate you always taking the time for us here at The Real News.
DANNY SJURSEN: I’m glad to do it. And I’ll keep beating the drum, I assure you.
MARC STEINER: I’m sure you will. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think, we’re covering this a great deal more. Take care.
Studio: Cameron Granadino, Taylor Hebden
Production: Genevieve Montinar, Taylor Hebden, Andrew Corkery