In Afghanistan, truth was sacrificed and lessons were forgotten

“In war, truth is the first casualty.”

Those words trace back to Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy. And as we reflect on the 20th anniversary of 9-11 and as the longest war in American history comes to its final act, it seems to make sense to look to Greek tragedy to try to understand the war in Afghanistan.

What makes this war with its chaotic and shameful ending so uniquely tragic is America’s failure to learn the lessons of Vietnam. We all have a shared failure to heed the warnings from the chorus about the last time the U.S. undertook a war in a distant land where we used a conventional army to fight an insurgency. What echoes through history is the way in which American presidents as well the highest levels of the Pentagon and State Department lied repeatedly to us, assuring all was well and that the war was progressing the way it needed to.

There are haunting parallels there between Vietnam and Afghanistan, and there are two documents that starkly revealed these deceptions: The Pentagon Papers and the more recently published Afghanistan Papers.

In an epilogue to our podcast, The Whistleblower: Truth, Dissent and the Legacy of Daniel Ellsberg, we traverse this historical terrain and try to use this somber occasion of the 20th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan to remind our listeners that we really do need to know our history, or be condemned to repeat it.

When he risked a lifetime in prison to publish the Pentagon Papers, Dan Ellsberg left an extraordinary mark on one of the most divisive eras in American history. And in the series of interviews with Ellsberg that have been featured in the first five episodes of our podcast, reflecting on the historic parallels of impeachment, civil unrest and the frayed end of a war based on lies, he said, “I feel I am reliving many moments of my past life.”

Ellsberg’s commitment to the truth inspired a new generation of whistleblowers to come forward, including Edward Snowden, and in this episode we hear from Snowden on why it is important to take risks for the truth. And he also inspired journalists to seek out the sources that are often right in front of us to reveal the ways in which public opinion has been manipulated to stoke fear and fuel confidence in the idea that brutal military might is enough to win.

In reality, guns, planes and bombs couldn’t  prevail over an ideology that has embedded itself in the people who we arrogantly choose to occupy without bothering to understand their history, their culture and what motivates their lives.

One of the journalists inspired by Ellsberg is The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock who uncovered a trove of documents and interviews that spelled out the lies and falsehoods told by many of the lead architects, the diplomats and the field commanders who led the war in Afghanistan. Whitlock has recently expanded his series for the newspaper into a book titled “The Afghanistan Papers.”

We’re calling this final episode, “Truth is the First Casualty.” And it is based on my own reporting journey back to Afghanistan at the end of July, a culminating moment that capped some 25 years of reporting in the region that includes the rise of the Taliban in the mid 1990s, the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and now the rise once again of the Taliban.

GroundTruth Found Charles Sennott speaks with Daniel Ellsberg at WGBH studios, Wednesday, October 23, 2019. (Photo Courtesy of UMass Amherst)

Back in 2001, I was the Middle East bureau chief for The Boston Globe. None of us could have guessed then that the war would stretch out over two long, painful decades and claim the lives of 2,455 U.S. service members, a piece of a larger death toll that climbs to 175,000 when all Afghan military, civilians, aid workers and contractors are included, according to the Cost of War Project which is based out of Brown University. The project estimates the total price tag of the war at more than $2.3 trillion and counting as the continuing care of veterans and other costs will keep pushing that number up exponentially.

I left Afghanistan in late July just as the Taliban was advancing in the provinces. There was no one I know who saw the stunning collapse of the Afghan government and its military occuring in such short order. It took just 11 short days for the Afghan Army, which claimed a force of 300,000 soldiers, to fall to just 75,000 Taliban fighters. The government collapsed along with the army, and panic set in as President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and as Afghans tried to find the exit and as America stumbled into a hasty retreat.

Watching the end of this unfold brought me back to where it all began, the earliest days of the war and the first American casualty of America’s longest war. His name was Mike Spann, a U.S. Marine and CIA contractor, who was processing Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners at an enormous 19th century fortress In Mazar-e-Sharif. It was November 2001, and I was there in Mazar. That day, I had traveled by barge from Uzbekistan across the Amu Darya River with a dozen other journalists. We heard gunfire in the distance, and it was coming from the fortress known as Qala-i-Jangi, or “The House of War.”

We managed to wrangle a few beat-up old cabs and get close, then sheltered behind a stone wall while the fighting wore on. Some of my colleagues got much closer to the story, including the documentary team that produced the amazing documentary called “The House of War.”

Hundreds of Taliban prisoners being held in the fortress had violently revolted, overtaking their guards. Years later, the U.S. Senate would describe it as a Trojan horse operation, targeting the huge weapons depot housed in the fortress. We’d learn that day that Mike Spann was overtaken and the prisoners killed him in their uprising.

The first episode of our podcast “Foreverstan” was called  “The First Casualty,” in honor of Mike Spann’s sacrifice.

The lies of war

From today’s vantage point, we can clearly see that the war had another, even earlier casualty. And that axiom of war from ancient Greece comes to mind, and we know that truth was a casualty right from the start.

Daniel Ellsberg is intimately familiar with the lies told during wartime. The Pentagon Papers were 7,000 pages of proof that the U.S. government knew the war was going badly in Vietnam, even as they told the public the exact opposite, as we have chronicled throughout our year-long public history project with the University of Massachusetts marking the 50th anniversary of the release of the papers and our podcast. If the Pentagon Papers have a counterpart in this war, it’s The Afghanistan Papers, a trove of documents and interviews with architects of the war from the Pentagon and State Department published by the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock.

We spoke to Whitlock earlier this year, at a special online conference as part of our partnership with UMass. Whitlock said, “Accurate, truthful answers can be really difficult when you get at some of these hard questions about impact of military operations, about civilians being killed, but also the bigger strategic questions, why are we there? What are we trying to accomplish?

That question, what are we trying to accomplish, dogged the war in Afghanistan just as it did in Vietnam, and it also dogged the wider, so-called Global War on Terror,  from the earliest days. It’s the question that lingers in the smoldering aftermath of the end of the war in Afghanistan.

Whitlock added, “When George Bush announced the start of the war in Afghanistan in October 2001, he held a primetime news conference four days after the bombing started. And one of the first questions he got was, how long do you think this war is going to go on? Do you think we might get stuck like we did in Vietnam? And he was, he was cagey, right?”

Here’s exactly what President Bush said that day in October when he told the nation we were going to war. “We learned a lot of important lessons in Vietnam. This particular battlefront will last as long as it takes to bring Al Qaeda to justice. It may happen tomorrow; it may happen a month from now; it may take a year or two. But we will prevail.”

Reflecting on the tragedy of it all, Whitlock said, “We don’t want to get stuck in fighting in an insurgency with our regular military forces.That was the lesson Bush was talking about and that certainly is a lesson to draw from Vietnam. But they didn’t learn it in Afghanistan, right? We got stuck in an even longer guerrilla war, an insurgency that got worse and worse.”

The Afghanistan Papers demonstrated that the U.S. government knew that the war wasn’t going well, that the fight to build a stable democratic state in the country had stalled.

“It isn’t that journalists aren’t asking these questions and they aren’t demanding accountability. Journalists ask these questions, but getting the honest truth is very difficult,” said Whitlock,

That’s where people like Daniel Ellsberg come in. People on the inside, who know what the truth is and who want to hold the government accountable. People willing to take huge personal risks…in service of the truth. They are the Whistleblowers, and in many ways they are the guardrails of our democracy. Here’s Dan Ellsberg from our rolling interviews with him over the last year:

In our podcast, Ellsberg said, “I waited thirty nine years for someone to do essentially what I had done, which was to put out a large mass of documents revealing past government policy. I got very discouraged. Those decades went by. And it didn’t happen until Chelsea Manning and Bradley Manning, who put out digitally, far more than I could have done at that time. Three years later, she was followed by Ed Snowden.”

At the top of the list of modern day whistleblowers is Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed documents outlining a global surveillance program involving the NSA, the governments of multiple countries,  and several major telecoms companies. Snowden joined our UMass conference for a special conversation with Ellsberg.

Snowden told the conference, “I watched a documentary called The Most Dangerous Man in America, which was about what I refer to now as the father of American whistleblowing one Daniel Ellsberg, and he gave me a model to emulate. And then I read more about whistleblowing. I read more about whistleblowers. In the cases that come before me, I study the cases of Thomas Drake. I studied the cases of Chelsea Manning and recognizing that there was a civil tradition in this country, people who had done things, they had stood up at great personal risk to tell the public an essential truth that was being intentionally denied to them for political purpose. You know, I was always waiting for someone else to go through. I was talking to my colleagues. I was talking to my supervisors, talking to bosses and chiefs and units. And everybody was like, you know, don’t do anything to rock the boat.”

Snowden did indeed rock the boat, and it created small waves that swelled into a tidal shift in how the world saw privacy in the digital age. It showed us just how much of our privacy we had sacrificed in the name of the war on terror and how much the government was using our private information without our knowledge. But Snowden said to reveal all this was not an easy decision. The precedent set by whistleblowers like Dan Ellsberg helped.

Whistleblowers like Ed Snowden and Dan Ellsberg  are a reminder that telling the truth is a form of dissent. That silence in the face of injustice allows the injustice to continue and grow increasingly destructive, ultimately undermining our ability to excavate the truth and to build it as a foundation upon which our leaders and we ourselves can be part of trying to make the world a better place. 

On August 31, the last American troops flew out of Afghanistan, nearly 20 years after the first airstrikes were unleashed. It marked the end of America’s longest war.

But it does not mean that the conflict in Afghanistan is over. And it does not mean that all things we broke in a clumsy and ill-defined war are somehow repaired. The damage and the terrible costs of human lives and resources are still mounting. We’ll be picking up the pieces for a very long time. It seems we failed to learn the lessons of our own history, lessons that were offered to us by those like Daniel Ellsberg who were willing to risk it all to tell the truth.