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CYA Time

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Scott’s post about the so-called “Afghanistan Papers” provides a good excuse to remind everyone that the recriminations, deflections, and finger-pointing are just getting started. It’s important to keep that mind when evaluating reporting based on leaked documents or confidential sources. These are part of a larger struggle – among agencies, officials, politicians, and contractors – to make sure that someone else absorbs as much damage as possible. Even the documents you read or hear about may be curated in misleading ways.

As my colleague Chris Fair makes clear in Foreign Policy, there is plenty of blame to go around. For example:

Although these numbers are staggering, much of U.S. investment did not stay in Afghanistan. Because of heavy reliance on a complex ecosystem of defense contractors, Washington banditry, and aid contractors, between 80 and 90 percent of outlays actually returned to the U.S. economy. Of the 10 to 20 percent of the contracts that remained in the country, the United States rarely cared about the efficacy of the initiative. Although corruption is rife in Afghanistan, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction repeatedly identifies bewildering corruption by U.S. firms and individuals working in Afghanistan.

In many cases, U.S. firms even defrauded Afghans. In 2010, one military official with the International Security Assistance Force explained to New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall that “without being too dramatic, American contractors are contributing to fueling the insurgency.” As it neglected to tackle Pakistan and tried to do security on the cheap, Washington also strongarmed the Afghan government it into so-called “peace talks” with the Taliban. More than anyone, the Afghan government understood the Taliban and their Pakistani handlers could not be trusted to honor their commitments, such as they were.

The spectacle of the peace talks was important in Washington, which hoped to create a fiction of power transition to cover the process of a negotiated U.S. defeat. There was genuinely nothing to discuss: The Afghan government was committed to constitutional rule of law—including elections, howsoever problematic—while the Afghan Taliban were committed to overturning the constitution and opposed elections as non-Islamic. The Taliban used the spectacle of the peace process as a recuperative retreat to revivify and emplace their forces while stashing weapons as they awaited U.S. withdrawal.

As the sham of peace talks faltered in March 2020, the Trump administration threated to withhold $2 billion in assistance if the Afghan government didn’t return to the negotiation table. Equally appalling, the United States forced the Ghani government to release more than 5,000 hardened Taliban prisoners in return for hundreds of government officials taken captive by the Taliban. Many of these released prisoners are now leading the current offense.

So keep your skepticism healthy.

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