U.S. officials misled public on Afghan war, according to Washington Post

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” a senior American official is quoted as saying.

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By Saphora Smith

A trove of government documents shows that U.S. officials systematically misled the public about the war in Afghanistan during three presidential administrations, The Washington Post reported in an explosive story Monday.

The Post said the documents showed that senior U.S. officials hid evidence and distorted statistics to make it appear that the U.S. was winning the war in Afghanistan and claims they show that there was no consensus on the war’s objectives or how it would end.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as a war czar for Afghanistan under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, said in a 2015 interview, according to the Post.

Lute was not available for comment.

Task Force Shadow Medivac flight medic Sgt. Cole Reece escorts three wounded soldiers from the battlefield to the chopper after an IED blasted their MATV vehicle in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan in 2010. Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

The paper obtained the 2,000 pages of documents — including what it says are notes from more than 400 interviews with military commanders, diplomats and aid workers, as well as Afghan officials, that were part of a “lessons learned” project — after a three-year legal battle. The Post also said it obtained hundreds of memos by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

NBC News has not been able to independently review the documents.

The Pentagon disputed it has been misleading about Afghanistan and insisted it has been as transparent as possible regarding the war.

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"There has been no intent by DoD to mislead Congress or the public," Col. Thomas Campbell, defense department spokesperson, said in a statement to NBC News. "DoD officials have consistently briefed the progress and challenges associated with our efforts in Afghanistan, and DoD provides regular reports to Congress that highlight these challenges."

The White House and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Post published the documents two days after U.S.-Taliban talks restarted, and compared them to the Pentagon Papers — a top-secret government study that was packed with damaging revelations about America’s conduct in the Vietnam War leaked to The New York Times and the Post in 1971.

The war in Afghanistan is America’s longest and has raged on for 18 years. America has had boots on the ground there since 2001, when U.S. forces toppled the Taliban regime for harboring Osama bin Laden, the architect behind the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Since then, just under 2,300 American troops have died in the war-torn country. Between January 2009, when the United Nations began a systematic documentation of civilian casualties, and September this year, some 34,000 Afghan civilians died as a result of the armed conflict.

The head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, John Sopko, declined to comment to NBC News in advance of the report's publication. But Sopko told the Post that the documents show “the American people have constantly been lied to.”

In one of the reported interviews, Army Col. Bob Crowley, who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers in 2016 that “every data point was altered to present the best picture possible.”

An American soldier makes his way though the base after a joint mortar training with the Afghan Army at Combat Outpost Jaghatu, Afghanistan in Sept. 2012.Lorenzo Tugnoli / For The Washington Post via Getty Images file

“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 Post quoted him as saying.

The Department of Defense says the ultimate goal of a stable Afghanistan remains unchanged, but its strategy to achieve that goal has been revised due to "hindsight."

"Most of the individuals interviewed spoke with the benefit of hindsight," Campbell said of the reports cited in the Post story. "Hindsight has also enabled the Department to evaluate previous approaches and revise our strategy."

"DoD has been very clear that this war will not end on the battlefield," Campbell continued. "A negotiated political settlement that includes the Afghan government, protects the achievements of the last 18 years, and respects the integrity of the Afghan people is the only solution."

The Post said that the documents showed that as the war dragged on, U.S. military commanders found it difficult to articulate whom they were fighting, let alone why.

“I have no visibility into who the bad guys are,” Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under Bush, complained in a Sept. 8, 2003, memo, according to the Post.

Through a spokesperson, Rumsfeld declined to comment.

At the same time, in public those in charge of the war continued to emphasize that they were making progress, the paper reported.

Government officials would spin casualty counts and other figures to make it appear that troops and resources were having the desired effect, an unnamed senior National Security Council official is quoted as saying in the documents.

“Attacks are getting worse? ‘That’s because there are more targets for them to fire at, so more attacks are a false indicator of instability,’” he reportedly said, mimicking how the government would spin.

Abigail Williams , Mosheh Gains and Sally Bronston contributed.