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The Afghanistan Papers

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It cannot be emphasized enough that the military brass in charge of the Afghanistan aren’t dumb enough to think that they were building an Afghan army that could independently fight the Taliban — they were just lying their asses off the entire time:

In the summer of 2011, Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV made a round of public appearances to boast that he had finally solved a problem that had kept U.S. troops bogged down in Afghanistan for a decade. Under his watch, he asserted, U.S. military advisers and trainers had transformed the ragtag Afghan army and police into a professional fighting force that could defend the country and keep the Taliban at bay.

“We’ve made tremendous strides, incredible progress,” Caldwell, the head of the U.S. and NATO training command in Afghanistan, told the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2011. “They’re probably the best-trained, the best-equipped and the best-led of any forces we’ve developed yet inside of Afghanistan. They only continue to get better with time.”

Three months later, in a news briefing at the Pentagon, Caldwell said the Afghan soldiers and police previously had been in terrible shape: poorly led, uninspired and more than 90 percent of them illiterate. But he said the Obama administration’s decision to spend $6 billion a year to train and equip the Afghan security forces had produced a remarkable turnaround. He predicted that the Taliban-led insurgency would subside and that the Afghans would take over responsibility for securing their country by the end of 2014, enabling U.S. combat troops to leave.

“It really does give you a lot of hope for the future of what this country may have ahead of itself,” he said.

In fact, according to documents obtained for the forthcoming Washington Post book“The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” U.S. military officials privately harbored fundamental doubts for the duration of the war that the Afghan security forces could ever become competent or shed their dependency on U.S. money and firepower. “Thinking we could build the military that fast and that well was insane,” an unnamed former U.S. official told government interviewers in 2016.

Those fears, rarely expressed in public, were ultimately borne out by the sudden collapse this month of the Afghan security forces, whose wholesale and unconditional surrender to the Taliban will go down as perhaps the worst debacle in the history of proxy warfare.

Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. I was first made aware of this during an accounting class. We were discussing the subject of accounting for stock options at technology companies. There was a live debate on this subject at the time. One side (mainly technology companies and their lobbyists) held that stock option grants should not be treated as an expense on public policy grounds; treating them as an expense would discourage companies from granting them, and stock options were a vital compensation tool that incentivised performance, rewarded dynamism and innovation and created vast amounts of value for America and the world. The other side (mainly people like Warren Buffet) held that stock options looked awfully like a massive blag carried out by management at the expense of shareholders, and that the proper place to record such blags was the P&L account.

Our lecturer, in summing up the debate, made the not unreasonable point that if stock options really were a fantastic tool which unleashed the creative power in every employee, everyone would want to expense as many of them as possible, the better to boast about how innovative, empowered and fantastic they were. Since the tech companies’ point of view appeared to be that if they were ever forced to account honestly for their option grants, they would quickly stop making them, this offered decent prima facie evidence that they weren’t, really, all that fantastic.

Far from marginal, decades after Vietnam this kind of vulgar Straussianism is a dominant mode of foreign policy discourse:

If you feel the need to constantly lie about the policies you support because you don’t think your arguments can withstand any public scrutiny, you may be a visionary genius saving everyone from themselves, but it’s much, much, much more likely that you’re just wrong.

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