Top Defense Department officials have largely brushed aside questions surrounding reports that U.S. officials lied about progress in the 18-year Afghanistan war, with experts saying it's unlikely the documents will change the administration's approach to the long-running conflict.
The bombshell reports, which were released the same week the House Judiciary Committee readied and then advanced two articles of impeachment against President Trump, have largely been sidestepped by defense officials when speaking to lawmakers and the media.
“I haven’t read all the stories frankly… but the stories spanned multiple administrations, multiple uniformed and civilian officials and I think it’s good to look back. I think at this point where I’m looking is forward,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday.
Top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, when asked what assurances the department can give that it will provide accurate information about the war going forward, told reporters on Thursday that he would “quibble with the idea that we weren't providing it in the past.”
“I think what we see from the report from The Washington Post is, looking at individuals giving retrospectives years later on what they may have believed at the time,” Hoffman said.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis also appeared indifferent to the series of newly published Washington Post articles, saying Friday that he did not consider them to be particularly "revelatory" while defending U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn country.
“The Taliban's goal is to take over this country and they've been stopped in that at great cost to the Afghan people, at great cost to the Afghan army," he said. "If you read [the articles], you'd almost think it's a total disaster, and it's not that at all. It's been hard as hell but it’s not just one undistinguished defeat after another. They are the ones on the back foot.”
Mark Cancian, a former defense official and senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said “there’s no upside here” for defense officials to try to address the report’s findings.
“I think they’re taking the position of ‘nothing to see here. Old stuff,” Cancian told The Hill. “I don’t see it making a big impact on current policy.”
James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he also "wouldn’t expect to see people burning lamps late into the night in the Pentagon responding to this or caring about this."
Drawing on more than 400 private interviews conducted by a government watchdog, the reports showed that officials in the Bush and Obama administrations lied about progress and misuse of funds in the war that began in 2001.
The reports revealed that officials frequently acknowledged in private a lack of understanding, strategy and progress in the war while regularly describing it publicly as being on the brink of success.
The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which conducted interviews for a 2014 initiative called “Lessons Learned,” spoke to Americans, NATO allies and Afghanistan officials in an effort to avoid the mistakes of the Afghanistan war for future U.S. military campaigns.
In public “every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” one official said, but in private the strategy for the country included “so many priorities and aspirations, it was like no strategy at all."
Hoffman, the Pentagon spokesman, sought this week to defend the Trump administration's current handling of the Afghanistan conflict.
“I can just speak for this administration and this department today," he told reporters. "And the fact that we're going to continue to be open, transparent and honest with the American people."
Carafano said that with little obligation, desire or gain in defending mistakes of the past, officials are unlikely to address the reports going forward unless prompted.
“Today’s leaders have no obligation to defend, our job is to move forward not to look backward. I don’t think the Pentagon feels squeezed by any of this,” he said.
“From the Pentagon’s perspective, they would just shrug their shoulders and say ‘we weren’t on watch.’”
Carafano noted that the current push among House Democrats to impeach Trump, as well as dwindling attention to the long-running war, have diverted attention from the papers.
“You have lots of other issues, we have the big issue of impeachment which sucks the oxygen out of everything,” he said.
“You really don’t have an angry America” when it comes to the Afghanistan war, he added.
Unlike with the Pentagon Papers – published in the 1970s by The Post and The New York Times that revealed a secret history of the Vietnam War – today’s public is not clamoring for an end to the conflict in Afghanistan, which in the past several years has been cut to roughly 13,000 troops in a more modest advice and assist mission.
“With the Pentagon Papers, there was an antiwar movement. ... Whether you thought the substance of The Washington Post pieces were true or not, it’s not uncovering a raw nerve the way the Pentagon Papers did,” Carafano said.
“Whereas the Pentagon Papers was like throwing a match on a gasoline car, the Washington Post piece is like throwing a match on wet grass.”
Cancian, however, said he believes the reports put slightly more pressure on the Trump administration to try to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban.
Trump abruptly cut off talks with the group in September, but he announced during a visit to Afghanistan last month that discussions had resumed. He has continued to express a strong desire to withdraw from Afghanistan whether the Taliban agrees to a deal or not.
“I think it will resonate with the president who believes this and has criticized the endless wars from the campaign to present,” Cacian said, referring to the Afghanistan papers.
He added, however, that it was more likely to catch the president's attention if it were dominating cable headlines, saying someone must first “get it on Fox News.”