Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Many of those opposed to President Donald Trump’s self-created political fictions might say that the truth died with the Trump administration.
This is not true – as thousands of previously classified documents obtained by the Washington Post and released on Monday testify, the practice of telling the American public the truth was abandoned at least 18 years ago. According to the documents obtained after a three-year battle between the Post and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, three Presidents and their respective administrations all misled the American public about how the war in Afghanistan was going.
These lies have spun tales and spanned depths of false narrative. From the progress of nation-building to the conquest of the inveterate and ever-wily Taliban, US officials followed the same talking points, emphasizing how they were making progress even if the war was going badly.
Metrics were “manipulated for the duration of the war,” according to a source quoted by the Post. Suicide bombings in Kabul, for instance, were portrayed as proof of the Taliban’s desperation and their distaste for direct combat, even if in truth they represented US failures. Officials reportedly spent an inordinate amount of time printing color-coded charts that touted their fictive victories and statistics, which left out both the ballooning cost of the war and the impossibility of imposing a modern state on a tribal society unused to centralized government, the Post said.
These documents debunk the idea that invading and occupying Afghanistan would ever make Americans safer at home. As the documents and interviews in the Post’s trove attest, the initial goal of the Afghan escapade was to strike back against al-Qaeda and prevent another September 11. This quickly morphed into the Afghan campaign becoming whatever a given administration or official wanted it to be. For some, the goal was to fashion Afghanistan into a democracy; for others, a means to transform the country’s culture and promote women’s rights, while still others wanted to recalibrate regional power dynamics in South Asia.
This expansion of objectives served American interests – not by making Americans safer, but by feeding the seemingly insatiable terror-industrial complex that arose as a result of the war. It was the politics of fear, of the possibility of another attack, that allowed nearly one trillion dollars to be disbursed toward what was the signature campaign of the War on Terror. Politicians and presidents alike wanted to be seen as “doing something” to protect the American people, and continuing the war in Afghanistan was an easy answer to what that something would be.
Lying to the public has already had consequences beyond waste and graft. In 2016, as the war dragged into its 15th year, Americans elected a President who made ending the war one of his campaign promises. Even though the definitive proof provided by the Post was not then available, many Americans likely suspected that the foreign policy establishment, with its Donald Rumsfelds (Bush’s Secretary of Defense), was pulling a fast one on them.
The venue for their revolt was the ballot box, where they elected an isolationist President who wanted to pull funds and handshakes away from NATO and who translated making America safe as imposing travel bans on several countries.
To many, the election of Trump, whose foreign policy appears haphazard and whimsical at best, is an extreme. Acknowledging that the US foreign policy establishment failed both Americans and Afghans need not mean a complete rejection of a foreign policy altogether.
Provoked perhaps by the realization that this may well be the way things go without an intervention, billionaire philanthropist Charles Koch’s foundation and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations have recently put their backing into a new venture called the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. The Institute, whose avowed mission is to “move US foreign policy away from endless war and toward vigorous diplomacy in the pursuit of international peace,” seeks to distance itself from debacles like Afghanistan without plunging into the virulent dislike of all foreign policy elites espoused by the Trump administration.
It is questionable whether a middling measure like the Quincy Institute will succeed in reviving faith in a rewired American foreign policy shorn of its penchant for endless war. The grim reality is that slightly less than half of a divided nation follows a President who places little or no faith in the words of career foreign service professionals. Even as Democrats have heaped praise on the likes of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Ambassador Bill Taylor, George Kent and others, Republicans in the House (and likely around the country) refuse to believe anything they have to say.
Get our free weekly newsletter
“Can you avoid being drawn into a Vietnam-like quagmire in Afghanistan?” one prescient reporter asked President George W. Bush in October 2001. Notwithstanding Bush’s response then (that we “learned some very important lessons in Vietnam”), America was drawn into just that same kind of quagmire. As Daniel Ellsberg–the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the lies that sustained America’s involvement in Vietnam – told CNN, the comparison is horrifically apt. And it’s come not just at the cost of thousands of American lives, over a hundred thousand Afghan lives and a trillion dollars, but also of the ordinary Americans’ faith in both facts and a foreign policy based on what actually keeps them safe and free.