Telling the Truth About the War in Afghanistan

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Anyone who has lived through the lies the U.S. government told about the war in Vietnam, or its failure to honestly report the uncertainties regarding Iraq’s continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that led to the U.S. invasion in 2003, knows how dangerous it is for the U.S. government to paint a false impression of success in a war or crisis, and to lie directly or by omission.

Anyone who has served in the U.S. government also knows how tempting it is for officials, commanders, and public affairs officers to “spin” the course of a war in favorable terms, to pressure the intelligence community for favorable results or silence, and to shape internal planning and analysis around comforting assumptions and illusions.

As Clausewitz touched upon in his classic writing – On War – the fog of war is partly inevitable, but it also can easily become a self-inflicted wound. Creating a fantasy world is the worst possible way to shape a strategy, commit resources, and try to sustain a conflict.

Matters of Nuance and Spin, rather than the Afghan Equivalent of the Vietnam “Follies”

Department of Defense, Department of State, and Command official reporting on the Afghan War has not repeated the mistakes the U.S. made in Vietnam, and in preparing for the invasion of Iraq. Much of the reporting has been honest and objective – particularly in the press briefings and conferences given by senior officers and field commanders.

There have, however, been far too many lies of omission rather than lies of commission. More and more forms of reporting and metrics have been eliminated, embarrassing information has been classified, methods of reporting have been changed in ways that are not properly explained, and the State Department and USAID have largely ceased to report any overviews of the civil progress in the war while OSD Public Affairs has cut much of its reporting on the Afghan War out of its web page – including removing the listing of its 1225 semi-annual report to Congress from the list of DoD publications. (See, accessed September11, 2018)

By and large, the U.S. government can argue that most of its reporting is at least a possible interpretation of the data and events. However, the problems in official reporting are still serious and growing.

A recent article in the New York Times by Rod Norland, Ash Ngu, and Fahim Abed, “How the U.S. Government Misleads the Public on Afghanistan” highlights the extent to which some aspects of U.S. official reporting on the war has become increasingly biased and dishonest. It is, however, only a snapshot of a much broader and longer pattern of increasing dishonesty. For example, Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal has issued report-after-report on the extent to which the U.S. government has not objectively reported the outcome of given aspects of the fighting and the level of Afghan government versus Taliban control.

The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has reported case-after-case where the U.S. government overclassified embarrassing data, issued false reports about success in aid and development efforts, exaggerated progress in the development of Afghan forces, and issued uncertain reports about the level of government control and Afghan military success.

The Lead Inspector General for Operation Freedom's Sentinel, who is part of the Department of Defense, raised key issues in his August 28th Quarterly Report to the United States Congress,

Since the Administration announced its South Asia strategy in August 2017, the U.S. Government has increased the amount of troops and equipment in Afghanistan, increased offensive strikes against the Taliban, expanded training and assistance for Afghan forces, and sought to pressure Pakistan to eliminate terrorist safe havens. Overall, the strategy seeks to drive the Taliban to enter into negotiations for a political settlement.

While it is difficult to fully assess the overall progress under the strategy, this report explores key developments during this quarter. Commanders in Afghanistan stated this quarter that the strategy is working, Afghan forces showed improvement, and the Taliban was largely unsuccessful in seizing district centers. In June, the Afghan government and the Taliban implemented ceasefires. At the time, Afghans and members of the international community expressed hope that the ceasefires would be first steps toward reconciliation.

However, fighting resumed after the ceasefires ended. The Taliban maintained its hold on rural parts of the country and launched attacks on Afghan forces and population centers. During this quarter, civilian deaths reached historically high levels, and violence displaced tens of thousands of Afghans. In addition, despite operational successes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan, the terrorist organization continued to recruit and carry out high-profile attacks across Afghanistan that killed hundreds of civilians.

Both SIGAR and the Lead Inspector General's report also provide a different method of estimating influence and control from the past DoD estimates, and the Lead Inspector General quantifies the number of enemy initiated attacks while the DoD report does not.

The UN mission in Afghanistan has issued maps that portray a wider range of risk than the U.S. official estimates of Afghan control, and various human rights groups have challenged official US reports over the extent to which air strikes caused civilian casualties.1 The UN also reported in July 2018 that,

Amidst continued reports of expanded airstrike operations, during the first six months of 2018, the mission documented 353 civilian casualties (149 deaths and 204 injured) from aerial attacks, a 52 per cent increase from the same period in 2017. The mission attributed 52 per cent of all civilian casualties from aerial attacks to the Afghan Air Force, 45 per cent to international military forces, and the remaining three per cent to unidentified Pro-Government Forces. The report urges forces to uphold their commitments to take continuous steps to improve civilian protection in their aerial operations. (UNAMA News, (@UNAMAnews July 15, 2018:

Looking back at the history of U.S. official report since 2002, the U.S. has systematically cut back on the level of reporting since 2011, shifted to metrics that provide more favorable results, stopped reporting on the civil problems in Afghanistan, and used over-classification to avoid revealing sensitive data.

Past Burke Chair reports on Afghan metrics show that these trends have progressively shaped U.S. official reporting on the war since 2012, and a newly updated Burke Chair report highlights the growing problems and differences in the unclassified assessments and metrics used to assess the trends in the fighting issued since 2016: The Conflicting Assessments of the Trends in Combat in Afghanistan: 2016-2018, September12, 2018. This report is now available on the CSIS web site in both PDF and PowerPoint form. The PDF is available at The PowerPoint is available at

The Need for Transparency and Honest Reporting

It should be stressed that a review of the current data, and less “spin” and omissions in official reporting, are not by themselves serious enough to raise basic challenges about the need for a U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and the revisions the U.S. made in its strategy this year. They are, however, serious enough for the Department of Defense, the State Department, and Congress to undertake a systematic review of the level of transparency and honesty in what the United States Government is saying publicly about the war, and the range of any opposing views within various elements of the government and the U.S. intelligence community.

Key Issues

There are good reasons for the new U.S. new commander in Afghanistan, General Austin Scott Miller, as well as the new U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, to ask hard questions about such reporting. Transparency is a key aspect of democracy, particularly in assessing the need for continued commitment to a long, expensive, and optional war.

The US needs to openly assess the full range of factors that actually shape a major counterinsurgency in a failed state, and not just cherry pick favorable or politically desirable areas of reporting. It also needs to bring reporting on the war into balance and fully assess the weaknesses and failures of the Afghan government, the civil, as well as the military side of the war, and the ability of Afghan leadership to achieve meaningful unity and fully win popular support.

The problem is not just to improve reporting on the military side of the war, but to treat counterinsurgency in civil-military terms. This is particularly true when the World Bank governance indicators still rank the Afghan level of governance as one of the worse in the world, and Transparency International ranks it as the 4th most corrupt government of the 180 countries it ranks.

The key military and civil issues that need to be addressed are:

  • What is the relative level of government and Taliban/insurgent control and influence, but district and what is the level of uncertainty in such estimates?
  • To what extent do current estimates of control fail to reflect a serious Taliban and threat influence outside major cities and district capitals?
  • What is the level of rule of law and control by the police and ALP?
  • What areas are secure enough for aid activities to function with acceptable risk?
  • What Districts and areas can the U.S. and/or Afghan government get reliable reporting on military activity and the state of civil development and the effective of aid from?
  • What are the levels and locations of Afghan government, military, and police casualties?
  • What are the patterns and maps relating to all military engagements and security incidents – not just a narrow selected category of engagements?
  • How do U.S. and command estimates compare with the level of risk, and civilian casualties assessed by the UN?
  • What are the trends in the levels of sectarian, ethnic, tribal, and regional levels of violence and conflict?
  • How does the level of central government control and influence differ by District from the control and influence of power brokers, warlords, and drug lords?
  • Who controls the drug trade – Afghanistan’s primary source of hard current income in given areas?
  • What major lines of communication are secure, and free of barriers and threat check points?
  • What sanctuaries or safe areas exist in Pakistan and other neighboring states?
  • What tangible progress is the Afghan government actually making in the level of corruption in the government, military and police?
  • What useful polling exist on Afghan hearts and minds and attitudes toward the government, threat elements, and progress in security?
  • What reliable metrics and reporting exists on key aspect of civil development and progress: poverty, employment, education, health, etc.
  • What progress is being made in making aid and support conditional?

Providing an Honest Costing of the war

There is equal reason for the U.S. Congress to improve its requirements for DoD, State, VA, and OMB reporting on the war. The U.S. has been fighting for nearly seventeen years, and the Congress has a fundamental responsibility to fully examine the way in which the war is funded and what it costs. In practice, however, the U.S. Congress – and the key authorizing and appropriating committees in both Houses – have never issued an independent report on the annual and cumulative cost of the Afghan War or held detailed open hearings on these costs and the effectiveness of the programs they have funded.

The level of reporting on the cost of war by the Executive Branch is questionable. The Lead IG's report to Congress on the Afghan conflict for June 2018 does state that the DoD Comptroller released a congressionally mandated quarterly estimate of the DoD-only Cost of War on July 18, 2018. No such report seems to be listed on the OSC Comptroller web site, although the FAS does have what appears to be a version of the report on its web site.

The Lead IG does publicly summary data from this Cost of War report, but they only include the direct OCO costs of the war, and the Lead IG report indicates that they may not accurately provide the total costs even for DoD. At a minimum, the gaps the IG found in these cost estimates that it released seem to merit a full independent GAO audit.

On July 18, 2018, the DoD Comptroller released the DoD’s congressionally mandated quarterly Cost of War report, which details the DoD’s spending on overseas contingency operations (OCOs) through March 31, 2018. According to this report, the DoD has spent $1.5 trillion in support of OCOs in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere since September 11, 2001...the total cost of operations in Afghanistan over that period was $718.6 billion, of which $134.3 billion has been obligated in support of OFS since that operation began on January 1, 2015.269 (DoD Lead IG, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel Report to U.S. Congress, April 1, 2018- June 30, 2018 , pp. 54-57,

The Congressional Research Service and SIGAR have issued estimates of the total cost of both military and civil efforts, and of the cost of VA and follow on medical costs, through FY2015. They too, however, rely on OCO costs without an audit, and do not reflect the higher cost of the entire U.S. role in the fighting and associated aid to Pakistan and other countries. It is also unclear that the State Department has a coherent definition of all its related expenditures on the war, or a clear strategy to justify such expenditures.

A case can be made for classifying some sensitive aspects of the war, but no such case can be made for failing to fully audit and cost the conflict. There also is no reason for the Congress to not insist on full reporting on the number of active and temporary military, State Department, civilian, and contractor personnel actually deployed. This is not a matter of security, it is a matter of burying data that highlights the true scale of the US effort.

The Coming Need to Reassess the U.S. Commitment to Afghanistan

Finally, such reporting has become particularly important because of both the deteriorating security situation in the war, and the lack of effective Afghan governance and leadership. The new U.S. strategy adopted by the Trump Administration is supposed to be conditional – both in military and civil terms. That conditionality requires public transparency and accountability. Moreover, Afghanistan is on the edge of a critical set of parliamentary elections in October and a presidential election later in 2018. It seems highly unlikely that the present divided government can ever win the current conflict to the point where it can stand on its own, and any election of a new legislature and leader that does not produce more unity and effective governance will raise critical questions regarding continuing U.S. aid and support.

Other reports on the Afghan conflict:

1 For example, see “A Family of 14 Dies in an Airstrike. U.S. Officials Deny They Were Civilians,” New York Times, July 20, 2018,;