The documents obtained by the Washington Post after a three-year legal battle about the war in Afghanistan tell us a lot. But they don’t say the most important things. First of all, they confirm the old adage that “in any war, truth is the first casualty.”
Wars are won not only with weapons, but with what used to be called propaganda—a form of communication used for the purpose of obtaining “manufactured consent,” as the American propagandist Walter Lippmann, who worked for President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, put it. The 2,000 pages of notes and interviews published by the Washington Post tell us that the US government and the Pentagon have been trying to manufacture consent among the US public on the war in Afghanistan. They haven’t been very successful.
Objections against the war have been raised for years, so much so that many reacted with a shrug to the publication of these documents: it was not much of a secret after all. However, now we know that those truths—that they were losing the war, that they didn’t know who they were fighting or what they were doing, that they were nurturing systemic corruption—were also coming from the highest ranked diplomats and from highly decorated generals, identifiable by name. This is of great importance, not least because it finally silences those who still continue to believe that the war in Afghanistan made any sense—or that the US should keep its troops in the Central Asian country.
These documents are necessary. However, a number of additional observations are necessary, because the documents by themselves fail to highlight two essential aspects. For one, even though insiders, non-embedded journalists and honest observers already knew the truth, it never led to any open expressions of dissent, neither in the United States nor in Europe, where attention towards Afghanistan has long been waning. This fact must be traced back to one of the most prosaic rules of realpolitik: It was the Afghans who died, and are still dying—not us, not “our troops.”
According to the Post’s broad estimate, 157,000 people have died in Afghanistan since 2001, including 43,000 Afghan civilians, 64,000 members of the local security forces and more than 42,000 fighters from the Taliban and other groups. The total number of American military casualties is no more than approximately 2,300, together with 1,145 among NATO troops. When it’s not “our people” who are dying, the war doesn’t really concern us. This is the first unspoken truth revealed by the Afghanistan Papers.
The second is that the problem, the error, the root cause of so many pointless deaths, is not tied to the way in which this particular war was waged, as the Post seems to suggest—with fallacious strategies, oriented towards permanently shifting and sometimes contradictory goals, from the defeat of al-Qaeda to an attempt to export human rights and democracy at gunpoint—but rather to war itself, and more generally to the War on Terror.
The Taliban were a made-up enemy, set up on the basis of the erroneous but still-widespread belief that a strong alliance existed between them and al-Qaeda, even to the point that they essentially formed one organization. This was not true. But the war had to be fought anyway. It served as a reprisal for 9/11, and it gave substance to the most important paradigm in American foreign policy since the Cold War: the War on Terror, with its slogan “either you’re with us or against us,” with the adversary transformed into enemy and the enemy deprived of all rights, reduced to an “enemy combatant,” with the prisoners in orange suits abused at Guantanamo and the torture carried out at the secret CIA sites.
Today, the Taliban are sitting at the Doha negotiating table as political interlocutors, in front of Trump’s envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and General Austin Miller, head of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Perhaps the war in Afghanistan can be put to an end through diplomatic channels. But the paradigm of the war on terror remains just as potent, while new graves are dug in Afghanistan every day.