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During Afghan war, lack of U.S. knowledge yielded a flawed strategy

For nearly two decades, the United States’ military engagement in Afghanistan has been plagued by strategic missteps, according to The Washington Post's bombshell report. The investigation examined thousands of pages of previously unpublished notes and interviews from the U.S. government’s Lessons Learned project analyzing the war. Nick Schifrin talks to retired Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to the ongoing story broken by The Washington Post of a trove of government documents that broadly condemn America's operations in Afghanistan over nearly two decades of war there.

    Nick Schifrin speaks with one of the chief policy-makers on the Afghan war effort during the Bush and Obama years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. So goes the saying that describes why the U.S. faced a seemingly impossible task after overthrowing the Taliban after 9/11.

    But the fate of the U.S.' longest war wasn't preordained. The U.S. has made many tactical and strategic mistakes. And we now know many U.S. officials knew about those mistakes as they were making them, thanks to reports by The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock, based on 2,000 previously unpublished pages of notes and interviews, part of the U.S. government's own Lessons Learned project.

    One of those officials interviewed was retired General Douglas Lute, former NATO ambassador and the senior official on the National Security Council staff coordinating the Afghan war from 2007 to 2013 for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

    Ambassador Lute, welcome to the program. Thanks very much.

  • Douglas Lute:

    It's good to be with you, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You arrived at the end of the Bush administration and, describe the strategy basically as lost.

    You gave an interview in which you said: "We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan. We didn't know what we were doing."

    There might have been a lot of tactics. Was there any strategy?

  • Douglas Lute:

    So I think the key word in that quote — and it's an accurate quote — the key word there is no.

    And what I mean by that is that we didn't fully appreciate we didn't have sufficient expertise on Afghanistan, understanding the politics, the economics, the neighborhood. Afghanistan lives in a very tough neighborhood, prominently with Pakistan to the south and the east.

    We didn't understand the ethnicities that made up the Afghan people, the demographics, well enough to craft a meaningful strategy. So it's got to start with expertise. And we were short on that from the outset.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, you come in, and you see very little expertise. Fast-forward a couple years.

    You're discussing with President Obama. And the administration makes a major decision, right? There's a surge into Afghanistan. And the new strategy is counterinsurgency.

    And these interviews, it seems to suggest that that strategy tried to accomplish too much, too quickly, depended on a corrupt and dysfunctional Afghan government. Looking back, do you think that the Obama administration did any better than what you saw at the end of the Bush administration?

  • Douglas Lute:

    I think that the Obama administration tried a new approach.

    But in the course of the surge, which was approved in late 2009, in fact, about this time 10 years ago, the result of the surge was an Americanization of the fight in Afghanistan. We essentially took over the reins from the fledgling and emerging Afghan security capacity, and we took that on as our own.

    This, of course, is a natural outcome of dispatching 100,000 Americans to any war zone, but in particular in Afghanistan. And that Americanization, that owning of the war, in a way, set us back on the strategic goal of transferring this war and the responsibility of the war to the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How much personal responsibility, looking back, do you take in that decision that you see as so flawed today?

  • Douglas Lute:

    Look, Nick, I was very candid in this interview, because I own some of this. It was on my watch that we made some of these strategic mistakes.

    It was on my watch that I learned about Afghanistan and tried to build personal expertise. But it took me 10 years. And on the last day of 10 years working on Afghanistan, I was still learning something new about Afghanistan.

    So these are very close and personal experiences that I carry with myself — with me myself.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I think, for a lot of us who spent a lot of time there…

  • Douglas Lute:

    I think that's right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    … carry with us as well.

    One of the most major flaws of the strategy, it seems to me, over the last 17 years really centers on governance and corruption in Afghanistan. And I remember, when I was there from 2008 to 2012, especially toward the end, there was a lot of U.S. military officials who would describe the Afghans as the problem, the Afghans as corrupt.

    But I want to read what Ryan Crocker told interviewers as part of this project — quote — "Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption."

    Wasn't the corruption also our fault, because we spent so much money so quickly, and the country really couldn't absorb it?

  • Douglas Lute:

    Look, Afghanistan was corrupt before 9/11 and before we went in and overthrew the Taliban and displaced al-Qaida. So corruption was a preexisting condition.

    It's, by the way, one of those conditions that we didn't appreciate sufficiently that could have really empowered or influenced, informed our strategy. But it was there before we got there.

    Our pouring of billions of dollars, though, into that corrupt economy simply inflamed it and made it worse. And in a way, we created — we have created a war economy that is very corrupt and which depends on our continued presence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We helped fueled the war, frankly. We — a lot of our money was going to insurgents themselves, going to corrupt officials who weren't trusted by the Afghan people.

  • Douglas Lute:

    Well, that's right, and also corrupt officials who demonstrated, by way of their corruption, that they could not be trusted, and therefore compromised the link between the Afghan people and their government.

    And that link, of course, is the centerpiece of any effort to defeat a counter — an insurgency.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the major aspects that runs through these papers as well, is, frankly, a lack of truth.

    Interviews suggest U.S. officials failed to tell the truth, made claims they knew were false, hid negative evidence.

    And one senior National Security Council staff official said this: "It was impossible to create good metrics. The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war."

    Is that true? Was the National Security Council manipulating metrics?

  • Douglas Lute:

    So, Nick, this is the part of the recent reporting that I refute.

    I don't have any experience in an effort to deceive the American public, obscure the facts, or actually hide the lessons. In fact, the report itself, which is now largely public, is an effort to do just the reverse.

    And that is to look in the mirror and try to mine the lessons, so that we don't have a repeat of this kind of performance in some other theater on some other day.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This project was titled Lessons Learned.

    Can there actually be lessons learned? Is the U.S. capable of it?

  • Douglas Lute:

    Well, so, look, as a 35-year veteran of the American Army, I come at this notion of learning lessons from that military experience.

    You will see that, in this effort, some of us, perhaps those who come from that kind of military experience, were especially candid, because this notion of mining lessons seemed very natural to us.

    I'm not sure that the rest of the U.S. government is prepared to look at itself so candidly and take on these lessons.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so what's the implication of that?

  • Douglas Lute:

    The implications are, we're subject to do this again. And I think that should be deeply dissatisfying.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Doug Lute, coordinator of the war in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2013, thank you very much.

  • Douglas Lute:

    Thank you, Nick.

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