US officials in the Bush and Obama administrations believe the treatment of “Pakistan as a friend” in the country’s trillion-dollar 18-year-long Afghanistan war was a “critical error”, The Washington Post has revealed in its “secret history” of the conflict.
On Monday, the American daily published US government papers in an extensive report, ‘The Afghanistan Papers’. The trove of confidential documents comprise 2,000 pages of interviews with senior US officials and others directly involved in the conflict, conducted by a federal agency under the name ‘Lessons Learned’.
According to the documents, US officials admit that Pakistan — which the US supported with billions of dollars besides modern weapons, including air-to-air AMRAAM missiles that were used against Indian fighters earlier this year — had started playing a “double game” in the conflict as early as 2002.
Pakistan had joined the US in the “war against terror”, but it also supported the Taliban and the al-Qaeda leadership in finding safe havens and logistics support on its soil and in Afghanistan.
The documents obtained by the Post reveal that senior US officials failed to tell the truth about the Afghan war throughout the 18-year campaign. The Post said that US officials kept making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hid unmistakable evidence that the war had become unwinnable.
Over the past 18 years, over 775,000 American troops have served in Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Over 2,300 US troops died in the conflict while 20,589 returned home wounded, according to the US Defense Department figures. At present, over 13,000 American troops are serving in Afghanistan.
The George W. Bush administration had entered the country in 2001 to hunt down 9/11 perpetrator, al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden, and destroy his terror organisation.
However, the war, continued by Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, eventually became a prolonged conflict, with the US objectives changing over the years to include fighting the ultraconservative religious faction Taliban and installing a democratic Afghan government.
‘Veering off the original track’
According to hundreds of confidential interviews revealed in The Washington Post report, US and allied officials admitted they veered off in directions that had little to do with al Qaeda or 9/11 in what was their first mistake in the prolonged war.
“By expanding the original mission, they said they adopted fatally flawed warfighting strategies based on misguided assumptions about a country they did not understand,” said the Post report.
The result was an “unwinnable conflict with no easy way out”. Further, the issue was compounded because of the US war in Iraq and against the Islamic State, pulling the attention off from Afghanistan.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute told government interviewers in 2015. Lute is a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations.
“What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” added Lute.
The Musharraf folly
In the ‘Lessons Learned’ interviews, other US officials said the Bush administration compounded its first mistake by making another “critical error” — “treating Pakistan as a friend”.
This was because of former Pakistan President and Army chief General Pervez Musharraf, who had allowed the Pentagon to use Pakistani airspace and US intelligence agency CIA to track al Qaeda leaders in Pakistani territory.
“As a result, the Bush White House was slow to recognize that Pakistan was simultaneously giving covert support to the Taliban, according to the interviews,” the Post said in its report.
Marin Strmecki, a senior adviser to former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told government interviewers, “Because of people’s personal confidence in Musharraf and because of things he was continuing to do in helping police up a bunch of the al-Qaeda in Pakistan. There was a failure to perceive the double game that he starts to play by late 2002, early 2003.
“I think that the Afghans, and [President Hamid] Karzai himself, are bringing this up constantly even in the earlier parts of 2002,” Strmecki added. “They are meeting unsympathetic ears because of the belief that Pakistan was helping us so much on al-Qaeda… There is never a full confronting of Pakistan in its role supporting the Taliban.”
The cost factor
Officials in the Obama administration acknowledged in the ‘Lessons Learned’ interviews that they failed to resolve another strategic challenge that had dogged Bush — what to do about Pakistan?
Washington kept giving Pakistan billions of dollars every year to help fight terrorism. Yet, the Pakistani military and intelligence leaders never stopped supporting the Afghan Taliban and giving sanctuary to its leaders, the Post reported.
“The Obama administration just thought if you just hang in there Pakistan will see the light,” a former White House official told government interviewers.
Another unnamed official complained that the Obama administration would not let US troops attack Taliban camps on the Pakistani side of the border.
“And still today we wonder what the problem is,” the official said. “I talked to (CIA chief) General Petraeus and I was saying that if I were a general and a bullet came and hit my men I would follow it. And Petraeus said yeah well go talk to Washington.”
Ryan Crocker, who also served as the US ambassador to Pakistan from 2004 to 2007, told government interviewers that Pakistani leaders did not bother to hide their duplicity, the Post reported.
He recalled a conversation he had with General Ashfaq Kayani, who was the chief of Pakistani intelligence agency ISI and one of the principal plotters of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.
“And he says, ‘You know, I know you think we’re hedging our bets. You’re right, we are, because one day you’ll be gone again, it’ll be like Afghanistan the first time, you’ll be done with us, but we’re still going to be here because we can’t actually move the country. And the last thing we want with all of our other problems is to have turned the Taliban into a mortal enemy, so, yes, we’re hedging our bets,’” Crocker quoted Kayani as saying.
In his December 2016 interview, Crocker said the only way to force Pakistan to change would be for President Trump to keep US troops in Afghanistan indefinitely and give them the green light to hunt the Taliban on Pakistani territory.
“It would allow him to say, ‘You worry about our reliability, you worry about our withdrawal from Afghanistan, I’m here to tell you that I’m going to keep troops there as long as I feel we need them, there is no calendar.’
“That’s the good news. The bad news for you is we’re going to kill Taliban leaders wherever we find them: Baluchistan (Balochistan), Punjab, downtown Islamabad. We’re going to go find them, so maybe you want to do a strategic recalculation,” the Post reported.