We Can’t Let the Generals Who Lied About the Afghanistan War Define Its Legacy

The U.S. architects of the ruinous war are getting the last word on its “lessons.”

Sarah Lazare

General David Petraeus addresses RUSI members on 'The International Mission in Afghanistan', at Royal United Services Institute in central London, on October 15, 2010 in London, England. Dan Kitwood - WPA Pool/Getty Images

The horrific culmination of the 20-year U.S. occupation of Afghanistan should be cause for sober reflection on the imperial hubris and bipartisan pro-war consensus that enabled such a ruinous military intervention to grind on for so long. But instead of a reckoning, the very architects of the war are getting the final word on its legacy — a kafkaesque conclusion to a remarkably cruel chapter. This dynamic adds fresh insult to the harrowing conditions Afghans now face, as the Taliban seizes control of Afghanistan, and the United States implements callous closed-door policies toward people attempting to flee the country, leading to ghastly scenes at Kabul’s airport.

Chief among these figures is General David Petraeus, who is notable for the skill with which he has charmed and worked the media throughout his long career. He is putting that skill to use now, garnering headline after headline after headline braying for a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. This is an enormous national security setback and it is on the verge of getting much worse unless we decide to take really significant action,” he told the Rita Cosby Show on WABC Radio on August 13. That same day, in an interview with NPR, he advocated for the United States to reverse its withdrawal. I certainly would do that in the short term, and I would certainly consider it for the mid and long term,” he said.

In that NPR interview, Petraeus cited his own role as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 to illustrate his expertise. Well, we weren’t contemplating a withdrawal when I was doing this,” he proclaimed. We had 150,000 coalition forces when I was privileged to command, U.S. and all other forces in Afghanistan.”

The declaration is notable because Petraeus oversaw a particularly bloody chapter of the Afghanistan War. After replacing General Stanley McChrystal, Petraeus implemented an aggressive counterinsurgency strategy, and loosened the rules of engagement, giving U.S. troops a wider berth to fire artillery, and to destroy houses and buildings. He also significantly increased the notorious practice of conducting night raids on Afghan homes. As Michael Hastings noted of Petraeus in 2011 for Rolling Stone, He drastically upped the number of airstrikes, launching more than 3,450 between July and November, the most since the invasion in 2001.” 

But Petraeus didn’t just implement these policies. He also launched a charm offensive, holding interviews with numerous major media outlets championing his actions, and even publicly challenging the Obama administration’s planned withdrawal timeline. His rosy remarks in a July 2011 address at the Forum for New Diplomacy in Paris are worth noting. Mr. Petraeus called the Afghan Army and police forces increasingly credible,’” the New York Times reported. He also described how they were steadily taking more responsibility from NATO allies as a gradual withdrawal of tens of thousands of U.S. troops looms.”

Such a statement gives pause, not only because it has been proven wrong, but also because it contrasts with reflections he has shared behind closed doors. In an August 16, 2017 government interview revealed in the Afghanistan Papers — a tranche of documents from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction published by the Washington Post in 2019 — Petraeus sounded a note of pessimism about the U.S. strategy. I knew it was going to be a longer process,” he said. I had no expectation that we would be able to flip Afghanistan.” 

But this wasn’t the first time Petraeus ran P.R. for a disastrous war. Former President George W. Bush appointed Petraeus as commander of multinational forces in Iraq from 2007 to 2008, during which time he oversaw a surge” of 30,000 U.S. troops and the implementation of a counter-insurgency strategy rooted in protracted occupation. This strategy elicited protest, including from within Congress, as it marked a significant escalation of the war. Petraeus didn’t just implement the strategy — he publicly championed it, appearing at Congressional hearings in full uniform to declare that the surge was working, and to argue against pulling out of Iraq. As a bottom line up front, the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met,” he said to Congress in September 2007. This was after he declared, in an April 2007 interview with Charlie Rose, that he was a qualified optimist” about the surge.

It’s a particularly harsh irony that such an effective public ambassador of U.S. wars, who has his own reputation to sanitize, would emerge as a key commentator on the tragic consequences of a war he helped oversee. And unfortunately, he is not alone. Retired NATO general Wesley Clark, former head of U.S. Central Command Joseph Votel, three star Army general Douglas Lute, retired Admiral and former NATO supreme allied commander James Stavridis, and former U.S. Army captain Matthew Zeller, have all chimed in with their opinions in recent days. In their media quotes and appearances, these fellow war architects are broadly presented as good-faith observers — experts who are shining an important light on a complex situation.

Yet, the Afghanistan Papers show that, in private, military officials admitted to befuddlement, confusion and failure. We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Lute told government interviewers in 2015. What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” Turning to the architects and enforcers of such a war to better understand what went wrong is like asking a police force to investigate itself for wrongdoing. 

Perhaps most eyebrow raising among this gallery of militarists-turned-pundits is John Bolton, former national security advisor under Trump, who appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition on August 16 and delivered a blistering criticism of any withdrawal from Afghanistan while making the case for open-ended U.S. occupation. What we’ve got to do, I think, is find ways to see if there’s not some way to reverse this disaster and get the Taliban out,” he said.

Bolton’s statement is consistent with his 17-month tenure as national security advisor for former President Trump, during which he made every effort to put the United States on more confrontational footing. Bolton helped bring the country to the brink of a disastrous war with Iran in 2019. And in May 2019, he declared that the U.S. military must be ready to go” to support the coup attempt by Juan Guaidó in Venezuela. In 2018, Bolton threatened the International Criminal Court with sanctions for investigating U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan, including torture at CIA-run black sites.” And when the ICC dropped the investigation in 2019, citing the lack of cooperation from relevant parties, including the United States, Bolton was gleeful. This is a vindication of the president’s support for American sovereignty and a rejection of the idea that there can be accountability for American citizens by any authority other than American constitutional institutions,” he said.

To be fair, NPR interviewer Noel King did try to push back on some of Bolton’s more jingoistic remarks. And not all of the military brass interviewed clamored for more war. Wesley Clark, for example, cited 20 years of American misjudgments, of poor prioritizations and failed policies.” But still, the message sent by amplifying the voices of so many of the war’s designers is that they still have credibility. The implication is that more deep-rooted critiques — that question the invasion in the first place, and demand accountability from those responsible — are out of bounds.

We mustn’t let the Boltons and Petraeuses of the world get the final say on what we have learned from the Afghanistan War, the horrors of which are still being born by people in Afghanistan. Instead, media bookers and writers seeking comment should perhaps seek out voices who didn’t lie about the war they’re now providing commentary on. Generals and commanders and pro-war national security advisors will only ever see the problem as not enough war, mistaking the occupation’s biggest indictment — that the Afghan government fell so quickly, lacking a shred of legitimacy or political will — as a sign that we need a protracted U.S. military presence.

There are plenty of other voices that could be weighing in on the U.S. withdrawal: The countless people around the world — including in Afghanistan — who have been marching and protesting against the war since September 12, 2001, warning that a 9/11-era revenge fever dream would never bring justice or peace. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the only member of Congress who had the courage to vote against the authorization to go to war with Afghanistan. The advocates and organizers — and Afghan activists themselves — who are demanding that the United States end its unconscionable asylum policies and welcome in Afghan refugees right now (and not just those who can prove they supported the United States). The people demanding material reparations for the people of Afghanistan. And that’s just a quick list.

What we don’t need is to watch self-serving military brass rewrite history to make themselves and their defense contractor friends look like the heroes who no one listened to — when, in reality, they’re all we ever heard from.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.