Editor’s Note: Nick Paton Walsh is the international security editor for CNN International. He was Kabul correspondent for CNN from 2011-2012 and has reported from Afghanistan for 15 years. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In the end the lies about the US-led war in Afghanistan were bookended with – even dominated by – basic truths.
The lies themselves were not malicious – more the deceit needed for survival. The things America had to tell itself to keep going. The truths were self-evident: that Osama Bin Laden had been given shelter by Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban and was behind 9/11. And in the end, there was another, which it took a man with wisdom accumulated over 78 years to finally admit. “No one wants to say that we should be in Afghanistan forever, but they insist now is not the right moment to leave,” said President Joe Biden as he announced that he was overruling his advisers and would withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by September 11 of this year.
The lies American officers told were necessary ways of pretending the country they were handing to the next rotation of troops was better off than when they found it. “Turning the corner” and “winning hearts and minds” each summer and year being the “most important yet” to “turn the tide.”
The rare metrics they gauged were bizarrely crafted. The coalition measured violence by counting insurgent attacks on their troops, hoping an increased number of soldiers on the ground during the American surge would lead that to drop. Indeed, in mid-2012, they declared a 7% fall in “enemy initiated attacks” and some success. But there was a problem. These figures did not include attacks on the Afghan soldiers who were increasingly doing the fighting for the coalition. Months later this discrepancy was exposed, and the much-vaunted drop revealed to be instead a steady rate of violence. The metric was discarded altogether.
Bar this, there really was no specific “thing” the coalition would count to quantify success. It was much easier to arbitrarily claim progress instead. The artifice was to maintain morale, funding, careers and, presumably, belief among those on the frontline that there was an overriding success in their endeavor.
Covering the war for CNN in 2011-12, I was surreally in a tiny world where I was on-screen in embassy hallways and airbases because the widely broadcast American Forces Network carried CNN news. Even though it was only the analysis of a 34-year-old on his third posting, what I said was minutely parsed, I exhaustedly felt, because so many seemed to see my reports.
There was also the larger, comforting confection America recites to itself about how much it cared: God bless our troops. Too heartfelt to be a lie, but undermined by how stagnantly the Afghanistan war has been treated as a policy issue for so long. It’s also a phrase echoing in America, where only about 1.3 million people – less than half of 1% – are on active duty. And the other 99% seem either barely aware there is a war, or passionately believe the troops’ sacrifice is either an essential bedrock of their freedoms, or wasteful. That hallowed (yet sometimes hollow) reverence for servicemen and women still overshadowed Joe Biden’s inevitable decision – and its likely ugly consequences for the Afghans left behind – to bring home what remained of the US troops in Afghanistan.
The lies the British – the largest NATO ally there – told were smaller, perhaps pettier, in the extremely violent and sparsely populated desert of Helmand they tried to control. Always said to be underfunded compared to their allies, always courageous, always carrying on and always maintaining their plan was working, even when it clearly was not. In the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, I was once told I could not see the frontlines until I had met the area’s commander. He was in Dubai for a few days, I was told, so I would have to wait until then. I saw him five minutes later at the neighboring urinal. The deceit was often as clumsy as it was unnecessary.
Next was the deception about when the Snatch Land Rover – a lightly-armored vehicle painted green with plywood covering the troop seats in its back – would be taken out of service. These Land Rovers offered so little protection against roadside bombs the soldiers called them coffins on wheels. I heard that pledge in London, days before British commandos ushered me into the back of one they were about to drive around Lashkar Gah. (Eventually they were indeed removed.)
Britain’s bigger deceit in Helmand was saying that its troops were winning. The hardships British soldiers had been enduring were cast into such a stark light when the US Marines burst in, with equipment and resources beyond the wildest dreams of the Brits (nicknamed the “Borrowers” by the Americans because of their need for gear). The US Marines still found their short-lived successes came at great cost, too.
The Afghans also deceived themselves. Some working with NATO convinced themselves their allies and paymasters would never leave. Instead, many of those Afghans have themselves now left, finding asylum outside the country. Afghanistan’s leaders still claim that the elections they won were legitimate, even though voting has always occurred in Afghanistan amid widespread violence and a fraud so pervasive that voters’ fingers had to be inked to stop repeat voting. Democracy here was always an audacious, flawed experiment but better than the other ideas for governing.
There were the lies I told to those I met during my time here. I love it here. The work is always fulfilling. I won’t report what you tell me any more if you keep saying things that are false. Everyone still wants to hear this story. I lived there barely as long as an American tour, and it was relentless.
The lies the Taliban told are the ones we give more credence to now as it suits us. They always deceived us about civilian casualties and about the devout, pious nature of their ambitions. Now they portray themselves, in the brief, structured media visits they allow, as verging on moderate, willing to school young girls, govern fairly, provide medicine – generous in victory.
They maintain there aren’t extremists here, reportedly issuing decrees that their militants not harbor foreign jihadists. But Al-Qaeda, according to the US Treasury on January 4, is “gaining strength” under Taliban protection.
Get our free weekly newsletter
The Taliban was an insurgency the West enjoyed painting as an implacable monster that could not be dealt with, until, of course, it had to deal with the group in order to leave. Rural poverty, decades of violence and loss and an inexplicable foreign presence dictating how to live help explain why the Taliban persist and grow. It took the West years to realize these Taliban would be in Afghanistan regardless of what it did, no matter how many were killed in combat.
For America, the final truth of this war is that for outsiders with limited patience, understanding and resources, any occupation is by definition unwinnable.
Yet for Afghans it goes on. Without American airpower holding back Taliban advances, the truths will be more violent, unpalatably bitter and lead to more lies, as a new chapter in decades of violence churns and swirls.