UK complicit in biggest US cover-up since Vietnam

It took a three-year legal battle for the Washington Post to force the US government to release the ‘Afghanistan papers’, a set of lessons-learned reports on the war so far.

The Afghanistan Papers not only reveal systematic lying by the US and UK governments to the general public about the aims and progress of the war, they reveal gratuitous mass killing of civilians in the policy fog.

As if that wasn’t enough to cast opprobrium on the military effort and the capability of the forces involved, the Afghanistan Papers reveal extraordinary confusion amongst senior military personnel, and a war without any clear political or military aims. One cannot put it more bluntly; the war had no political or military purpose from the outset over 18 years.

Just selecting a few phrases from senior US military personnel highlights the jaw-dropping nature of the reports. It clearly concludes that US officials deliberately hid information that showed, over 18 years, that the war was unwinnable, and that officers faked and massaged data in order to keep a positive story in the headlines.

‘We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing’ reportedly said a Three Star US General in 2015 who was the White House’s Afghan Czar. He concluded ‘We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking’, adding ‘If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction … 2,400 lives lost’. More than 170,000 civilians have died.

The reports describe in detail how billions were wasted by people with no knowledge of the country, implementing a ‘fatally flawed’ strategy trying to remake Afghanistan in the image of a modern USA.

The total war cost is now well in excess of $1tn. Put another way, if the US did not create this war, in 2020 they would be able to hand each US household almost $10,000 in cash. It became a contractors free-for-all and fuelled a gargantuan graft system in Afghanistan itself, adding to the all-pervading opium-based corruption.

The 2000 pages of reports include interviews with more than 600 people with front line experience at all levels, the names of more than 100 of those have been revealed so far (some British), plus hundreds of official documents and cables. The interviews were conducted in London, Brussels, Berlin, Afghanistan, in Washington DC and across the US.

Some almost laughable errors were made; centralising the governance of a country that had never been so and where major cities are cut off from the capital from months at a time due to weather, paying farmers to burn opium crops which then gave them an incentive to grow more, and having four separate military chains of command and four parallel government systems, across the country.

The original 2001 aim was to ‘defeat Al Qaeda’. The problem shown by the reports was that such fighters were hard to find. So everyone developed their own aims – democracy, fighting Taliban, economic development, stopping the opium exports, ‘shifting the balance’ away from China, reducing Pakistani influence, building security via police and Afghan forces, and so on. Too many priorities means none.

So much money was being handed out as cash to districts, often Taleb-controlled, with so few controls, that disbursement times coincided with increases in opium production.

British politicians, academics, senior forces staffers, and journalists, will now have to study the reports. There will be questions as to why the British did not ‘spill the beans’; certainly some of the interviews with Brits in the reports involve ‘colourful language’.

For my part, working in economics and with the British military in Afghanistan, I found the whole thing shocking, with pointlessness and waste everywhere. At least I managed the small step of getting a motion through Lib Dem Conference…

I leave you with a quote from then US Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, after the US was well into the war;

I have no visibility into who the bad guys are’.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Dec '19 - 4:45pm

    A really outstanding piece.

    The kind of thinking and writing that is a tonic in troubled days, too often of ignored and unread wisdom amidst the nonsensical and trivial.

  • A friend of mine was involved with an Educational charity doing work in Afghanistan and made a visit circa 2011. He was taken from Kabul to Kandahar,on a road between the capital and the second largest city, in. Humvee at breakneck speed with guards with machine guns.

    He was told ‘we never stop for anything or anybody, it’ll be a ambush!’ In Kandahar he briefly visited the market where many stalls sold prints of William Barnes Wollen’s picture of the last stand of British troops at Gandamack in 1842. It was a big seller apparently and stall holders told him that Afghans had beaten the British three times and would do it again!

    Meanwhile our poor sods were patrolling away, getting shot and blown up, without any idea what they were doing and why, beyond some vague stuff about ‘nation building’, while in the villages and towns they passed through that picture hung proudly on many walls.

  • All of which reinforces the wisdom of Harold Wilson in keeping Britain out of Vietnam…. and the lack of wisdom of Blair in getting Britain tangled up in American overseas adventures in order to suck up to Bush.

  • Nonconformistradical 19th Dec '19 - 8:42am

    @David Raw

    Re Harold Wilson – seconded wholeheartedly. And not only should he be commended for keeping us out of the Vietnam war – on his watch the major social reforms were happening and the Open University was founded.

  • Great article by Paul Reynolds.

    I agree a little bit with Nonconformist Radical but, if I recall correctly, those of us who were active in the 60’s and taking part in regular demonstrations against the Vietnam war were very frustrated with Wilson because he never uttered a word of criticism of the US involvement. If he had done, we believed that this would have encouraged dissenters like Senator Fulbright and had a significant impact on US public opinion and might well have brought about an earlier end to the conflict.

    My other reflection on Wilson was that the failure of him and Callaghan to take seriously the protests led by Bernadette Devlin to try and correct the serious injustices being heaped on the Catholic Minority by the Unionists created an opening for the IRA to cause havoc for the next 25-30 years. I remember this rather than any good things that Wilson may have done.

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