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Hal Brands

The Afghanistan Papers Reveal a Tragedy, Not a Crime

It’s not exactly a secret that the war hasn’t been going well. 

What’s the endgame?

What’s the endgame?

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Is America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan a tragedy or a crime? A recent series in the Washington Post contends that it is more the latter than the former. For years, the argument goes, U.S. officials systematically lied regarding the prospects for success, while blithely downplaying the corruption and dependency American intervention fostered. The title of this series — “The Afghanistan Papers” — is meant, clearly, to echo the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers. It implies that we should see this conflict, like Vietnam, as a misbegotten war fought in the service of illusions and lies.

Yet this is the wrong way to view the war in Afghanistan — and think about the choices America still faces. Afghanistan is best seen, not as a morality play, but as a classic foreign policy dilemma in which all the options are bad ones.