Pentagon Pushes Back on Report that Military Lied About Progress in Afghanistan

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Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan Rath Hoffman and Vice Director of the Joint Staff Rear Adm. William D. Byrne Jr. hold a joint press briefing at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Dec. 12, 2019. (DoD photo/James K. Lee)
Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan Rath Hoffman and Vice Director of the Joint Staff Rear Adm. William D. Byrne Jr. hold a joint press briefing at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Dec. 12, 2019. (DoD photo/James K. Lee)

The Pentagon pushed back Thursday on a Washington Post series charging that U.S. military, diplomatic and elected officials through three administrations misled the American people about progress in the Afghanistan war.

The newspaper's series was based on documented interviews that amounted to hindsight "by individuals giving retrospectives years later on what they may have believed at the time," Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said at a news briefing.

In addition, Hoffman said the interviews given to the office of Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) were initially intended to become public eventually.

Those who gave interviews with the understanding that they would become public did not "show any sign of being dishonest," he said.

However, the Washington Post said that more than 400 interviews in 2,000 pages of documents were only obtained after three years of Freedom of Information Act requests and legal challenges.

When pressed on whether U.S. officials had a track record of saying one thing in private and another in public through 18 years of war in Afghanistan, Hoffman said he could not speak for the previous administrations of President George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but promised honesty from the Defense Department in the current administration.

"We're going to be open and transparent with the American people," Hoffman said, although the Pentagon in the Trump administration, like the White House, has rarely held press briefings.

In late August, Mark Esper held the first news conference by a sitting defense secretary in more than a year.

Related: New Photos Show Destruction from Taliban Attack on Bagram Air Base

Hoffman spoke in generalities on progress made this year in Afghanistan. He referred to a "relatively violence-free election" that was conducted in September under the protection of the Afghan security forces, although the results of the election have yet to be released.

He also referred to the continuing commitment of U.S. partners and allies as the U.S. seeks to guide a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Rear Adm. William D. Byrne, the vice director of the Joint Staff who joined Hoffman at the briefing, declined to give any figures on battlefield progress for 2019.

"I'm not going to get into specifics with respect to metrics," Byrne said, but added that Army Gen. Scott Miller, the U.S. and coalition commander in Afghanistan, was "satisfied" with the force posture of about 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and their counter-terror and advisory mission.

The first installment of the Washington Post series, titled "At War With The Truth," cited the interview given to SIGAR by Douglas Lute, a retired Army lieutenant general and Afghanistan advisor to both the Bush and Obama administrations.

"We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan -- we didn't know what we were doing," Lute said.

The second part of the series cited officials repeatedly saying they would not engage in "nation-building" in Afghanistan, while at the same time spending $133 billion for reconstruction and aid.

At the news briefing, Hoffman said the main goal of U.S. policy now was to broker a settlement with the Taliban to end the war.

The Afghan government Thursday once again urged the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire following attacks Wednesday on the outskirts of Bagram airfield, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan north of Kabul.

U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft were called in to stop the attack on a partially built medical facility that left at least two dead and more than 70 wounded, including five Georgian soldiers from a quick-reaction force, according to the U.S. military.

The attack came a day before U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilizad was to begin another round of peace negotiations with Taliban representatives in the Gulf state of Qatar.

"The continuation of violence will not help the talks progress. In fact, it will be a big obstacle at the beginning of the negotiations," said Najia Anwari, spokeswoman for the Ministry of State for Peace Affairs, according to Afghanistan's Tolo News.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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