The grand illusion: Hiding the truth about the Afghanistan war’s ‘conclusion’

(Washington Post illustration. Photos, clockwise from top left: Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post; Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post; Mark Makela/Getty Images; Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

Part two of an excerpt from “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.” Part one can be found here. Whitlock will discuss the book during a Washington Post Live event on Aug. 31.

(Simon & Schuster)

President Barack Obama had promised to end the war, so on Dec. 28, 2014, U.S. and NATO officials held a ceremony at their headquarters in Kabul to mark the occasion. A multinational color guard paraded around. Music played. A four-star general gave a speech and solemnly furled the green flag of the U.S.-led international force that had flown since the beginning of the conflict.

In a statement, Obama called the day “a milestone for our country” and said the United States was safer and more secure after 13 years of war.

“Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion,” he declared.

Army Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, also hailed the purported end of the “combat mission” and embellished some of its achievements. Since the start of the war, he asserted falsely, life expectancy for the average Afghan had increased by 21 years.

“You times that by about 35 million Afghans represented here in the country, that gives you 741 million years of life,” he added, crediting U.S., NATO and Afghan forces for what sounded like a remarkable improvement. (A federal audit later discredited the figures as based on spurious data; life expectancy for Afghans had actually increased by about seven years, not 21.)

But for such a historical day, the military ceremony seemed strange and underwhelming. Obama issued his statement from Hawaii while he relaxed on vacation. The event took place in a gymnasium, where several dozen people sat on folding chairs. There was little mention of the enemy, let alone an instrument of surrender. Nobody cheered.

In fact, the war was nowhere near a conclusion, “responsible” or otherwise, and U.S. troops would fight and die in combat in Afghanistan for many years to come. The baldfaced claims to the contrary ranked among the most egregious deceptions and lies that U.S. leaders spread during two decades of warfare.

Obama had scaled back military operations over the previous three years, but he failed to pull the United States out of the quagmire. At the time of the ceremony, about 10,800 U.S. troops remained, a decrease of almost 90 percent from the surge of forces that he had sent to Afghanistan in his first term. Obama promised to withdraw the rest of the troops by the end of 2016, coinciding with the end of his term in office, save for a residual force at the U.S. Embassy.

He knew most Americans had lost patience. Only 38 percent of the public said the war had been worth fighting, according to a December 2014 Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Yet the president faced countervailing pressures to stay put from the Pentagon and hawks in Congress. Obama had tried a similar staged approach to end the war in Iraq, where the U.S. military ceased combat operations in 2010 and exited entirely a year later. But those moves soon backfired.

In the absence of U.S. troops, the Islamic State — an al-Qaeda offshoot — swept through the country and seized several major cities as the U.S.-trained Iraqi army put up scant resistance.

Obama wanted to avoid the same fate in Afghanistan, but he needed to buy more time for U.S. forces to build up the shaky Afghan army so it would not collapse like the Iraqi forces had. He also wanted to create leverage for the government in Kabul to persuade the Taliban to negotiate an end to the conflict.

To make it all work, Obama conjured up an illusion. He and his administration unveiled a messaging campaign to make Americans think that U.S. troops still in Afghanistan would stay out of the fight, with duties that relegated them to the sidelines.

This account is adapted from “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” a Washington Post book, which will be published Aug. 31 by Simon & Schuster. A narrative history of what went wrong in Afghanistan, the book is based on interviews with more than 1,000 people who played direct roles in the war, as well as thousands of pages of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

As the flag came down during the December 2014 ceremony in Kabul, Obama’s commanders emphasized that the Afghan army and police would take full responsibility for their country’s security from that point forward, with U.S. and NATO forces restricted to “noncombat” roles as trainers and advisers.

But the Pentagon carved out numerous exceptions that, in practice, made the distinctions almost meaningless. In the skies, U.S. fighters, bombers, helicopters and drones continued to fly air combat missions against Taliban forces. In 2015 and 2016, the U.S. military launched missiles and bombs on 2,284 occasions, a decline from previous years but still an average of more than three times a day.

On the ground, the Pentagon created another combat exception for troops carrying out “counterterrorism operations,” or raids on specific targets. Those rules of engagement permitted Special Operations forces to capture or kill members of al-Qaeda and “associated forces,” a vague term that could also apply to the Taliban or other insurgents.

The rules also allowed U.S. troops to come to the aid of Afghan forces to prevent the fall of a major city or in other circumstances. In other words, the U.S. military would continue to play an indispensable role and remain in the fight.

Still, after 13 years of lackluster results, many U.S. leaders harbored doubts about what they had really accomplished and whether Obama’s new approach could work any better than his previous one had.

An unnamed senior U.S. official who served as a civilian in Afghanistan told government interviewers it was fast becoming obvious that Obama’s surge strategy between 2009 and 2011 had been a mistake. Instead of flooding the country with 100,000 U.S. troops for 18 months, he said, it would have been better to send one-tenth the number — but leave them in Afghanistan until 2030.

“You can create stability with boots and money, but the question is, will it hold when you leave?” he said. “Given our desire to ramp up quickly and leave quickly, there was no reasonable threshold we could reach where we could leave behind good governance.”

To maintain the “end of combat” fantasy for Americans at home, the Pentagon continued to deliver upbeat reports from the front.

U.S. soldiers shield their eyes as a helicopter picks them up from a mission in Afghanistan’s Paktika province in October 2009. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

In February 2015, Ashton B. Carter, Obama’s fourth defense secretary, visited Afghanistan and repeated some of the same Pollyannaish lines that his predecessors had recited since the start of the war.

“A lot has changed here, so much of it for the better,” Carter said in Kabul at a news conference with Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president. “Our priority now is to make sure this progress sticks.”

But during a stop at Kandahar Airfield, Carter briefly wandered off script and admitted that the Afghans had been inept until recently — contradicting the glossy assessments U.S. officials had presented to the public for more than a decade.

“It’s not that the Afghans aren’t good at fighting. They are. But just a few years ago there really was no Afghan National Security Force at all,” he said. “They’re getting on their feet now, and they’re beginning to do the things alone that we used to do for them.”

For a few months, the Obama administration’s tenuous plans seemed to hold. News from Afghanistan quieted down, and U.S. troops stayed out of the spotlight. But as the Afghan security forces labored to hold their own against the Taliban, Americans resumed paying with their lives.

In April 2015, Spec. John Dawson, a 22-year-old Army medic from the village of Whitinsville, Mass., died in an insider attack in Jalalabad. An Afghan soldier opened fire on coalition troops at a government compound, killing Dawson and wounding eight others.

Two months later, Krissie Davis, a 54-year-old civilian with the Defense Logistics Agency, died in a rocket attack on Bagram air base.

In August, 1st Sgt. Andrew McKenna, a 35-year-old Green Beret on his fifth deployment to Afghanistan, was killed in a firefight when Taliban fighters attacked a Special Operations camp in Kabul.

The insurgents blew their way past the gate with a car bomb, killed eight Afghan guards and critically wounded another U.S. soldier. McKenna was posthumously awarded the Silver Star — the military’s third-highest decoration for valor in combat — for helping to repel the attack while he was mortally wounded.

Nineteen days later, Air Force Capt. Matthew Roland, 27, and Staff Sgt. Forrest Sibley, 31, were killed in another insider attack at an Afghan police checkpoint in Helmand province. Roland was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for sacrificing his life to save other Special Operations forces in the ambush.

In late September, the illusion that U.S. troops were no longer serving in combat disappeared entirely.

After a long siege, insurgent forces seized Kunduz, Afghanistan’s sixth biggest city, about 200 miles north of Kabul. The fall of Kunduz shocked the country; it was the first time since 2001 that the Taliban controlled a major urban area. U.S. Special Forces teams rushed to Kunduz to help the Afghan army retake the city over several days of heavy fighting.

In the early-morning darkness of Oct. 3, 2015, a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship — with the call sign “Hammer” — repeatedly strafed a Kunduz hospital with cannon fire, killing 42 people. The hospital was run by the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders. In an attempt to safeguard the trauma center, the group had provided U.S. and Afghan forces with the GPS coordinates of the site several days earlier, so there was no excuse for the attack.

Obama and other U.S. officials apologized for the catastrophe. A U.S. military investigation subsequently blamed the “fog of war,” human error and equipment failures for what it called the “unintentional” destruction of the hospital. The Pentagon said 16 U.S. service members received administrative punishments for their role in the attack. None faced criminal charges.

But instead of curtailing U.S. military operations, Obama dug in deeper. Twelve days after the Kunduz debacle, he ordered a halt to the slow withdrawal of U.S. troops and extended their mission indefinitely to prevent the Taliban from overrunning more cities.

Army personnel at Fort Campbell, Ky., board a plane for a deployment to Afghanistan in November 2014. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Breaking his promise to end the war, he said at least 5,500 troops would remain in Afghanistan after he left office in January 2017.

“I do not support the idea of endless war, and I have repeatedly argued against marching into open-ended military conflicts,” Obama announced from the Roosevelt Room in the White House. “Yet given what’s at stake in Afghanistan . . . I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort.”

Despite the enormous advantages that the Afghan military held in numbers, equipment and training, U.S. officials feared their allies would lose to the Taliban if the Americans left the battlefield. In a fleeting moment of candor, Obama conceded that “Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be.”

Yet to make the endless war more palatable to the public, Obama perpetuated the fiction that U.S. troops were only bystanders in the fight.

In his remarks from the Roosevelt Room, he again insisted the combat mission was “over,” though he qualified his statement slightly by specifying that Americans were not engaged in “major ground combat against the Taliban.”

To the troops, the distinction made no difference. To them, Afghanistan was a combat zone. They all carried weapons. They all earned combat pay. They were awarded combat decorations. More would die.

As 2015 drew to a close, the insurgency gained power and U.S. military leaders began to reveal some flashes of pessimism.

During a return visit to Afghanistan in December, Carter damned the Afghan security forces with faint praise. In remarks to U.S. troops at a base near Jalalabad, he said the Afghan army and police “are getting there” but suggested he had limited confidence in the Pentagon’s proxy force.

“If you’d have asked me to bet on it five years ago, I don’t know. I’d maybe give you even odds on it or something,” he said. “But it’s coming together.”

Three days later, on Dec. 21, a suicide bomber carrying explosives on a motorcycle killed six U.S. Air Force security personnel on foot patrol near Bagram. Among the fatalities: Maj. Adrianna Vorderbruggen, 36, an Air Force Academy graduate who had pushed for the 2011 repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” prohibition on openly gay service members.

Vorderbruggen was posthumously awarded three combat decorations: the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart and the Air Force Combat Action Medal. She left behind her wife, Heather, a military veteran, and their 4-year-old son, Jacob.

As the war entered its 15th year, the United States faced a new combatant in Afghanistan and the old fault lines began to shift.

The Islamic State, the fast-growing terrorist network in Iraq and Syria, expanded into Afghanistan. By early 2016, U.S. military officials estimated, the local affiliate of the group had between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters, mostly former members of the Taliban.

Their emergence widened and complicated the war. In January 2016, the White House approved new rules of engagement authorizing the Pentagon to attack the Islamic State in Afghanistan. That led to a surge of airstrikes against the group, which centered its operations in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border.

At that point, the U.S. military acknowledged that its original nemesis in the war — al-Qaeda — had all but disappeared from Afghanistan.

An American soldier runs by an Afghan special-forces unit during morning training in Kabul in March 2020. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

“By themselves, we don’t think that they pose a real threat, a real significant threat to the government of Afghanistan,” Army Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, a spokesman for U.S. forces, told reporters in May 2016. He offered what he called a SWAG — a military acronym for “scientific wild-ass guess” — that about 100 to 300 al-Qaeda personnel maintained “some kind of presence” in Afghanistan.

Five years after the death of Osama bin Laden, his network barely registered in the fight.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon placed the Taliban into a nebulous new category. It was still a hostile force but not necessarily the enemy.

Obama administration officials had concluded that the only way to end the war and to stabilize Afghanistan was for the Afghan government to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban.

Previous attempts to start a reconciliation process had gone nowhere. U.S. officials wanted to try again and decided to treat the Taliban differently in hopes of persuading its leaders to come to the table.

As a result, the Pentagon imposed new rules of engagement under which U.S. forces could freely attack the Islamic State and the remnants of al-Qaeda. But they could fight the Taliban only in self-defense or if the Afghan security forces were on the verge of getting wiped out.

Even U.S. lawmakers were confused by the new approach. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February 2016, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) pushed Campbell to explain.

“Is the Taliban an enemy of this country?” Graham asked.

“I didn’t hear the question,” Campbell replied.

“Is the Taliban an enemy of the United States?” Graham repeated.

Campbell stammered. “The Taliban, as far as helping al-Qaeda, and Haqqani, and other insurgent groups, the Taliban has been responsible for—”

Graham interrupted and asked multiple times whether the U.S. military was permitted to go on the offense and attack Taliban forces or kill its senior leaders.

“Sir, again, I don’t go into the rules-of-engagement authorities in open hearing,” Campbell said, ducking the questions. “What I would tell you is that our country has made the decision that we are not at war with the Taliban.”

But the Taliban was still very much at war with the United States and the Afghan government, and as far as the Taliban’s leaders were concerned, the fight was going well.

In 2016, insurgent forces overran Kunduz again, repeatedly bombed Kabul and seized control of most of Helmand province, the heart of Afghanistan’s lucrative opium-poppy belt.

In Washington, fears rose that the Afghan government was at risk of a political breakdown. Calling the situation “precarious,” Obama reversed himself again in July 2016.

Instead of drawing down to 5,500 troops as planned, he ordered more U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan. By the time he left the White House in January 2017, about 8,400 troops remained.

The next month, Army Gen. John Nicholson Jr., Campbell’s successor as commanding general, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Asked whether the United States was winning or losing, he replied, “I believe we’re in a stalemate.”

In his testimony, however, Nicholson foreshadowed what was in store under the new president, Donald Trump. “Offensive capability is what will break the stalemate in Afghanistan,” Nicholson said.

In military jargon, that meant more troops and more weapons.

The grand illusion: Hiding the truth about the Afghanistan war’s ‘conclusion’