The Afghanistan papers – 2,000 pages of confidential US government documents about US policy in the country – are unsurprising for those who have followed Afghanistan since 2001 (and earlier), and who know how routinely US officials lied about progress in the war.
Only a few of the documents, which were published by the Washington Post, discuss human rights issues, and that absence is telling. Throughout numerous assessments of failing US military strategy, little attention is paid to torture, atrocities against civilians, and sexual abuse of children by Afghan security forces and militias, or how US inaction gave a pass to bad conduct.
The database includes the US embrace of abusive warlords. In one revealing account, former US Ambassador Ryan Crocker reveals how he first realized what then-Defense Minister Marshall Fahim was capable of:
“[Fahim] … proceeded to relate to us that a mob had gotten out of control at the airport and had murdered the Minister of Civil Aviation, and he giggled while he related this. Later…it emerged that [Fahim] himself had the minister killed… I certainly came out of those opening months with the feeling that … I was in the presence of a totally evil person.”
Few US officials, however, seem to have grasped how much their unwavering support for abusive strongmen led to larger policy failures in Afghanistan.
In one document, a US intelligence officer notes that such support “made the US look like a very cynical actor, willing to turn a blind eye to all this abuse.” Such observations don’t seem to have had much effect on decision-making. Even now, the US government has continued to fund predatory militias feared by Afghan communities because of their propensity for murder, rape, and extortion.
Although the United Nations and NATO allies raised concerns, the documents show that the US stayed the course, citing “short-term security gains,” – even as continuing abuses fueled resentment in local populations and undermined any limited security gains.
The rampant impunity and corruption described in the Afghanistan papers expose the negligible progress made toward achieving even basic security for Afghans beset by increasing Taliban attacks, let alone advancing their fundamental human rights. For Afghans, the price of lessons not learned has been very high.