‘Afghanistan Papers’ Are Scathing Indictment of Rule of Expertise

December 17, 2019 Updated: December 27, 2019
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Commentary

For the past few weeks, the news has been all-consuming. The House impeachment hearing, the Horowitz report, and the election in the United Kingdom have dominated the news cycle.

In the midst of all this, though, perhaps the biggest story of the decade broke last week, and many people missed it.

On Dec. 9, The Washington Post published a six-part exposé on the “Afghanistan Papers,” a collection of more than 2,000 pages of hitherto undisclosed notes detailing the U.S. military’s own critical assessment of the war in Afghanistan and the efforts to conceal its failures from the public.

The account is astonishing and infuriating.

The longest war in U.S. history has now been shown to be a cocktail of both neoconservative and progressive ideological agendas, mixed with the blood and treasure of U.S. citizens, garnished with ever-present human hubris, and poured into a vortex by the U.S. military-industrial bureaucracy.

The Afghanistan Papers are an indictment, not only of all the experts who have misled us about the war, but also—and especially—of their ideological expertise, which they believed gave them a right to determine policy for the American people.

War Is a Political, Not a Technical, Act

I recently spoke with a guy who was involved in the military in some capacity that was too secretive for him to divulge (or at least he wanted me to think so). When I questioned the legitimacy of what has been called “the interagency consensus” to set U.S. foreign policy, he immediately informed me that the experts know things that private citizens just can’t understand, and so they must, therefore, defer to the experts.

Furthermore, he continued, the man the American people elected to be president wants to pull out as many as 4,000 troops now and is really making it difficult for these experts to carry out what they all agree is a good strategy. How dare he!

It’s a little disturbing that members of our military need reminding that self-proclaimed experts have no right to rule free Americans. Our ancestors, who fought a revolution to throw off the smug rule of Britain’s king and Parliament, established a republic, not a meritocracy.

The Constitution grants to Congress the power to declare war and to the president the power to conduct war. Both of these institutions are filled with elected officials who are thus responsible to the people.

The American framers, then, believed that war is a political act, to be declared and conducted according to the people’s will.

A regular theme in the Papers, the Post reports, is an utter uncertainty about the very objective of the war:

“Some U.S. officials wanted to use the war to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Others wanted to transform Afghan culture and elevate women’s rights. Still others wanted to reshape the regional balance of power among Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia.”

The question of the purpose of a war is a political question that ought to be answered by a Congress and president that represent the will of the American people, not the competing budgets and ideologies of various, unaccountable agencies. Because war is a political act, it ought to be declared and conducted by people who are directly responsible to the people, not anonymous members of the “interagency consensus” or the intelligence “community.”

Tallying Up the Score

The Afghanistan Papers also show, though, that the “experts” aren’t very expert at all. The Washington Post has thoroughly uncovered and highlighted abuses and absurdities noted in the Afghanistan Papers that resulted in a disgraceful waste of precious blood and treasure.

Mind-boggling sums of money were wasted. The Pentagon at one point couldn’t account for $1.41 billion. A single contractor was required to spend $3 million daily on civil projects in an area the size of a U.S. county. Since the start of the war, three agencies alone—the Defense Department, State Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—have spent or appropriated as much as $978 billion. A representative from USAID admitted that 90 percent of what that agency was forced to spend was superfluous.

The Post’s exposé also includes staggering numbers of casualties from the war: 2,300 U.S. soldiers are dead and another 20,000 wounded; 64,000 Afghan security forces have been killed, while only 42,000 Taliban and other insurgency fighters have been killed, and an embarrassingly higher number (43,000) of Afghan civilians have lost their lives as a result of the war.

These numbers are bewildering. While it isn’t always clear who is piloting this ship, it’s clear that they are no experts.

In 1964, Ronald Reagan gave a speech criticizing the ambitious exploits of the burgeoning welfare state under the policies of the New Deal and the Great Society. “If government planning and welfare had the answer,” he said, “and they’ve had almost 30 years of it—shouldn’t we expect government to read the score to us once in a while? Shouldn’t they be telling us about the decline each year in the number of people needing help? … But the reverse is true. Each year, the need grows greater; the program grows greater.”

Yet, he observed, “The more the plans fail, the more the planners plan.”

The same is true in Afghanistan.

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis dismissed the Post’s reporting by saying that the Afghanistan Papers are not “revelatory.”

“If you read [the articles],” he said, “you’d almost think it’s a total disaster, and it’s not that at all.” He explained that there have been “other gains as well, including an increase in the number of educated Afghan women and populations that have received better access to medical care,” according to The Hill.

After 18 years and counting, after all the blood and treasure spilled, all they have to show are higher numbers of educated Afghan women and better access to medical care? What on earth do these things have to do with U.S. interests, and how could they ever begin to compensate for the price we’ve paid?

President Donald Trump may not have the military expertise of a Clausewitz, and perhaps his desire to end “endless wars” is simplistic, but, as the Afghanistan Papers demonstrate, it’s less simplistic than the idea that we can remake Afghanistan in our own image if we just spend enough blood and treasure.

Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Ga. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.