Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Elizabeth Shackelford: Disinformation sowed our failure in Afghanista

By Elizabeth Shackelford Tribune News Service

America’s collapsed experiment in Afghanistan is not the first U.S. foreign policy failure built on a dishonest foundation. But if no one pays for peddling the lies that fueled it, it will not be the last.

Disinformation – the deliberate spread of false information with intent to mislead – is a buzzword today in domestic politics, but it has been a quiet driver of U.S. foreign policy for decades. While often used for political manipulation or personal financial gain, it can be well-intentioned, when the peddler thinks dishonesty serves a greater good. But it’s dishonest all the same. When governments rely on lies to make decisions, it’s no wonder the outcomes are poor.

Respected military and civilian leaders lied to stay the course in Vietnam, to launch a war in Iraq, and to fuel U.S. military operations in Afghanistan for 20 years. Honesty would have led to very different outcomes.

The war in Vietnam dragged on for a decade while official after official, up to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, publicly claimed progress, knowing full well the situation was deteriorating at heavy cost. McNamara went on to be president of the World Bank, one of many to land a prestigious post in the aftermath and to remain a foreign policy voice in the establishment. The depth of their dishonesty was only revealed with the leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, helping precipitate the U.S. exit within two years.

Then there was the Iraq War. The Bush administration’s case was based on weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist and connections to the Sept. 11 attacks that were a fiction. Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case in a speech to the UN Security Council, but it was debunked by a Senate Intelligence Committee report within 18 months.

Even so, the war continued for another seven years, with an accompanying reconstruction program that fueled rampant corruption and failed to create a durable military or government, at great U.S. taxpayer expense and the lives of more than 4,400 service members, in addition to about 200,000 Iraqi civilians. The U.S. left in 2011 only to return to a collapsed state two years later to fend off ISIS.

Paul Wolfowitz, undersecretary of defense for policy and one of the war’s primary architects, knowingly relied on false premises to launch it. Like McNamara, he moved on to be president of the World Bank. Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, retired in 2006. Although he, too, helped make the false case for the Iraq War and personally authorized the use of torture, Rumsfeld remained a popular and credible foreign policy voice until his death earlier this year.

And now Afghanistan. The Washington Post fought a three-year legal battle to bring to light the Afghanistan Papers, which reveal the full scale of dishonesty that disguised the truth of the war. Through three successive administrations, military and White House officials made public proclamations and distorted statistics to give the illusion of progress where they knew there was none.

This dishonesty came at a cost to many. The American people paid $2 trillion dollars, and 2,448 service members lost their lives, in addition to more than 100,000 Afghan citizens. Nearly 800,000 U.S. service members served in our longest war, and its ignominious end will weigh heavily on them.

As with Iraq and Vietnam, however, those who repeatedly and dishonestly made the case for continuing the fight in Afghanistan have paid no cost for their role. They retain so much credibility that you can see many of them on the Sunday shows now offering harsh critiques of President Biden’s drawdown.

Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, successive commanders of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, were both part of the ongoing cover-up and landed comfortably and respectably in academia. Petraeus also served as director of the CIA, and his reputation remained intact even after he was forced to resign for sharing classified information with his mistress.

You cannot build good foreign policy on dishonesty. But we keep trying to because no one pays for it. Disinformation in the halls of foreign policy is practically rewarded.

Honest mistakes and failures are expected, but dishonesty shouldn’t be. The Biden administration can break this pattern with a public accounting of what went wrong and consequences for those who fueled it.

One option is to establish a public commission to investigate wrongdoing and mete out censures. The government could also step out of the way of others seeking accountability by waiving the qualified immunity held by officials in cases where the government’s own investigations have found them to have lied at substantial costs to the country.

Finally, the U.S. government could subject its officials to external accountability by joining the International Criminal Court. Any of these could prove a deterrent to leaders in the future who might otherwise see dishonesty as the path of least resistance. An airing of the truth and some formal sanction would send the message that there are costs to lying to the American public to keep us at war.

Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.”