Hundreds of confidential interviews with key figures involved in prosecuting the 18-year US war in Afghanistan have revealed that the US public has been consistently misled about an unwinnable conflict.
Transcripts of the interviews, published by the Washington Post after a three-year legal battle, were collected for a Lessons Learned project by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar), a federal agency whose main task is eliminating corruption and inefficiency in the US war effort.
The 2,000 pages of documents reveal the bleak and unvarnished views of many insiders in a war which has cost $1tn (£760bn) and killed more than 2,300 US servicemen and women, with more than 20,000 injured.
The documents have echoes of the Pentagon Papers – the US military’s secret history of the Vietnam war – which were leaked in 1971 and told a similarly troubling story of the cover-up of military failure.
Negotiations are taking place between the Trump administration and the Taliban as the US debates whether to withdraw 13,000 troops who remain in Afghanistan.
The interviews were collected, beginning in 2014, in addition to Sigar’s regular audits to identify what could be learned from successive policy failures in Afghanistan.
In his own damning intervention John Sopko, the head of Sigar, told the paper the assessments contained in the project suggested that “the American people have constantly been lied to”.
Two major claims in the documents are that US officials manipulated statistics to suggest to the American public that the war was being won and that successive administrations turned a blind eye to widespread corruption among Afghan officials, allowing the theft of US aid with impunity.
The papers depict the view of many people of a conflict with vague and unachievable war aims, pursued under three US presidents, George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, whose alleged successes were presented repeatedly in inflated terms.
In one scathing assessment Douglas Lute, a lieutenant general who served as the White House Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told interviewers in 2015: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing.”
Speaking frankly, like other interviewees, on the understanding that what he was saying at the time was confidential, he added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.
“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction … 2,400 lives lost.”
In another interview Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy Seal and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, said: “What did we get for this $1tn effort? Was it worth $1tn?
“After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”
Some of those interviewed by the Sigar project went even further, suggesting a deliberate effort to alter statistics on the war to suggest to the American public that it was being won.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” said Bob Crowley, an army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to US military commanders in 2013 and 2014.
“Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice-cream cone.”
The documents, obtained after the Washington Post twice went to federal courts to ask for the interview transcripts, identify only 62 of the people interviewed. A total of 366 other names were redacted after Sigar insisted they should be treated as whistleblowers and informants.