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On Contact: Afghanistan Papers with Spenser Rapone

Chris Hedges talks to Spenser Rapone, former combat veteran and US Army officer, about the Washington Post’s series the ‘Afghanistan Papers’. Drawing on thousands of pages of international government documents about the war in Afghanistan, the series exposes the lies, deceit, mismanagement, waste, corruption, fraud, and failed schemes that both Democratic and Republican administrations pursed in Afghanistan, the longest conflict in US history (18 years and counting), which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today we discuss the deceit, lies, fraud, and futility of the war in Afghanistan with combat veteran Spenser Rapone.

SR: That demonstrated that this has been a bipartisan affair. 

CH: Yeah.

SR: And that's probably one of the major reasons why despite how significant this is, it's receiving scant coverage.

CH: Right.

SR: Across the board.  I mean, a lot of people have compared this to the Pentagon Papers which isn't wrong, but the Pentagon Papers, you know, were a media sensation, but such as the media apparatus is presently, it's simply not the case with the Afghanistan Papers, I mean, the only people who are really talking about them in any sort of depth are antiwar activists or those who do, you know, have a particular antiwar or socialist position.

CH: The Washington Post this week published the Afghanistan Papers, a series that draws on thousands of pages of internal government documents about the war in Afghanistan.  The documents exposed the lies, deceit, mismanagement, waste, corruption, fraud, and failed schemes that Democratic and Republican administrations pursued in Afghanistan, the longest conflict now it's in 18th year in US history.  These documents in addition to being a scathing indictment of the ruling elites illustrate like the Pentagon Papers, how policymakers routinely lied to the American public, to cover up the debacle in Afghanistan, a debacle that has wasted hundreds of billions of dollars and resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.  Joining me in the studio to discuss the revelations in the post series is Spenser Rapone, who graduated from West Point, and served in combat as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan.  You've read it, is there anything that surprised you?

SR: Not really, Chris, it kind of just confirms everything we thought we knew, anyone who's been paying attention to this for years now, it's just kind of confirmation, "Yup, this is the fact of the matter and now we have to grapple with it."

CH: How long did it take you to be in Afghanistan before you realized this thing stacked?

SR: Well, I mean, I was in Afghanistan in 2011, in July and August of 2011 as a ranger at 19-years-old.  But even then as a kid, it didn't take me too long to realize just what a load of, you know, absolute nonsense, all the justifications were from the top on down.  It usually boiled down to nothing more than, "Let's go try to instigate a fight with some nebulous idea of bad guys."  And then, being surrounded by a bunch of senior leadership who their entire objective was just to kill and capture, and there really wasn't actual connection to a larger goal.

CH: One fact I remember you telling me that these night raids that you carried that only made things worse, usually.

SR: Absolutely.  Yeah, precisely.

CH: But what's interesting about these papers, and we're going to run through as much as the series as we can, is that, the--at the highest level, it begins with a quote from Douglas Lute, a three-star army general who served as the White House's Afghan wars are during the Bush and Obama administrations, they--there's a quote, "We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan, we didn't know what we were doing."  He goes on, "What are we trying to do here?  We don't have the foggiest notion of what we're--if the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction, 2,400 lives lost."  This is again Lute, blaming the deaths of US Military personnel and bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon, and the State who will say, this was in vain.  I mean, these are people running the war, that's what the papers' exposed, they were fully aware of the quagmire, the dysfunction, and the failure.

SR: Right.

CH: And yet, they continued it.

SR: Yes.  So, I mean, I, like, I'd say, I was in Afghanistan as a private first class, I mean, one of the lowest enlisted ranks, and I could clearly see what was happening then.  So, I decided maybe sneaking off, this commission might be a way to give me some greater, you know, insight into the matter, to maybe perhaps change things, but as you just demonstrated, they're at the highest echelons, they realized that there is nothing they could do that would result in actually carrying out a strategy that was viable.  But, of course, as we'll get into later, I mean, even to argue from the position of strategy is faulty because, you know, at the base level, all of this was completely immoral and unjust.

CH: Right.  Well, just quickly.  You know, we went in there supposedly to do destroy Al-Qaeda, which had a sanctuary, bin Laden had a sanctuary there.  Well, they all paid off the Afghan National Army in Tora Bora and left the country, and then we're left there, and we start fighting the Taliban who had nothing to do…

SR: Right.

CH: …with 9/11.  In fact, as the papers point out, the Taliban were quite eager to negotiate to integrate within the power structure and in our hubris, we refused.

SR: Yeah.

CH: I mean, I think one of the things the papers really made clear is that there really was no strategy, they didn't really know where they were going, and in the latter part of the papers, you have this somebody commenting about how these commanders would come in for six or twelve months, but it was really--and they knew it was feudal and even counterproductive, but they were just punching their ticket.  Talk about that careerism?

SR: Yeah.  No, I mean, that's the--for me, one of the most striking aspects of the Afghanistan Papers is you have a series of battalion and brigade commanders who come in, and they're told by the outgoing commander that this is a complete quagmire, it's an absolute folly, we don't know what we're doing here.  And then, the incoming commanders would, you know, be, like, "Oh, my God.  What are we to do?"  But nonetheless, when every single one of them returns home, you know, when they redeploy, it's mission accomplished, another bullet point on the officer evaluation report, and, you know, the show continues, the spectacle carries on.

CH: The money is staggering.

SR: Right.

CH: Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department, and US Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion.  And again, it's one of the later papers points out the country is just flooded with money, which fuels the Karzai cryptocracy and corruption?

SR: Right.  No, I mean, absolutely, I mean, in--it's funny though, I mean, even Karzai himself at the end of one of the…

CH: He's the former president.

SR: Yeah.  One of the parts of the reports says…

CH: He stuffed the ballots.  They think he stole a million votes or something, right?

SR: Yeah, I mean, right.  But, I mean, he admits that the CIA would drop-off, you know, just obscene amounts of money to him, and be, like, this is nothing…

CH: Well, they carried a bag into his--right.

SR: Right.  Yeah.  It's comical, like, a Looney Tunes episode.  But, yeah, I mean, he said, he would be giving all of this money, and he's, like, "What do you expect in a country that's ripped apart by war and violence?"  When you just flood them with this amount of money, it's going to lead to corruption of--and, again, like, the interest of the US aren't in actually uplifting the Afghanistan or the people of Afghanistan, it's in maintaining an imperial foothold in the region.

CH: There's a wonderful quote somewhere--somebody, one of the official says, "Let's give the money to the Afghans, they only take 20% instead of giving it to the private contractors who take 80 or 90%…

SR: Right.  Right.

CH: …and don't do anything."

SR: Yeah.  Well, that's the other thing too, I mean, the corruption isn't just on the Afghan government, you know, propped up by the US, it's on all the US officials who were working to, you know, create this puppet government.

CH: And they're building these huge infrastructure projects.

SR: Right.

CH: Which the Afghans can't even manage.  They're building schools next to empty schools, it's all a numbers game.  It's all about public relations, it's not about being effective including at the beginning, they talk about these surveys that they constantly kept putting out bullet points, and maps with color coded, that it was a huge effort, a public relations effort to spin the war as going well, and then, we know in real time, they knew fully well that it was dysfunctional.

SR: Yeah, all of those charts, the figures, the maps, they were a complete just pseudoscientific justifications.  There's no actual validity to them in any, you know, metric.

CH: Well, and they used to--in the fine print say, this may not be scientific or something, but referred that.

SR: Right.  Yeah.  And what's really essentially is saying nothing.  They solely existed just to paint a picture of a reality that didn't really exists on the ground.

CH: One of, you know, it's damning both in terms of Bush, which starts the--who starts the war.

SR: Right.

CH: And then, invades Iraq which they constantly say essentially opening a war on two fronts, it means that you're not going to win the other war.  But also, Obama, that Obama does a huge troop surge…

SR: Right.

CH: …at a time when he's--he and those around him, David Petraeus, and others are fully aware, that the Taliban is only growing in terms of its control of territory and it's power.

SR: Right.  Well, I mean, and the thing is too, is that that demonstrate that this has been a bipartisan affair.

CH: Yeah.

SR: And that's probably one of the major reasons why despite how significant this is, it's receiving scat coverage…

CH: Right.

SR: …across the board.  I mean, a lot of people have compared this as the Pentagon Papers, which isn't wrong but the Pentagon Papers, you know, were a media sensation, but such as the media apparatus is presently it's simply not the case with the Afghanistan Papers.  I mean, the only people who are really talking about them in any sort of depth are antiwar activists or those who do, you know, have a particular antiwar or socialist position on the matter.

CH: Well, the--nobody is going to hold hearings.

SR: Right.

CH: Because they're both culpable?

SR: Right.

CH: The waste.  I mean, this is a constant theme throughout these papers.  One unidentified contractor told government interviewers, he was expected to doll out $3 million daily for project in a single Afghan district roughly the size of a US county.

SR: I mean, it's completely perverse and this is just--whenever you hear anyone say, you know, how are you going to pay for public health, you know, programs…

CH: Well…

SR: …how are you going to pay for, you know, making a university tuition-free is, like, well, look at what's happening daily…

CH: Right.

SR: …in Afghanistan, and elsewhere where the US Military is posted.

CH: One of the things that because--so the--essentially, it's--there is no policy other than trying to buy people off.

SR: Right.

CH: Warlords, politicians, Karzai, and there was kind of unlimited funds to do it, but the report argues that through that tactic, they destroyed the popular legitimacy of the Afghan Government, they were fighting to prop up…

SR: Right.

CH: …with judges, and police chiefs, and bureaucrats extorting bribes, many Afghan soured on what was presented as democracy, and turned to the Taliban to enforce order.  So, in fact, the very mechanism by which they used to maintain control which was largely trying to buy people off backfired.

SR: Right.  I mean, the fact of the matter is, at that point and at this point presently, the only political group, the only body with any sort of legitimacy in Afghanistan is the Taliban.  And the US could either face that reality or continue to keep their heads in the sands, like, they have for 18 years.

CH: Well, you know, with all of my criticisms of Trump, we know have about 13,000 troops I think in Afghanistan, he has, you know, unlike the rest of the establishment recognized the futility of the war and green lighted talks with, you know, the Taliban.

SR: Yeah.  Well, the issue with the Trump though is, like, they actually believe that he has any sort of antiwar commitment as, you know…

CH: Well, of course not.

SR: …is a folly.  I think usually Trump's position is motivated by a sense of laziness or incompetence, he realizes that maybe…

CH: Well, if Obama did it, it's wrong?

SR: Well, yeah, it's more of a reactive, you know…

CH: But I do support talks, I was, like, you know…

SR: Well, of course.  Yeah.

CH: …with the Taliban, I mean, and this is happening.

SR: I think it's…

CH: Whatever the motive is, however dirty they are.

SR: No.  But if you have a commitment to peace, of course, any, you know, any, manner in which the US is actually sitting down…

CH: Well, one of--one of the things that the report points out is that with the troop withdrawal, there's been a heavy increase of the bombing.

SR: Right.

CH: Which, of course…

SR: That's the thing, yeah, with the Mother of All Bombs or the MOAB?

CH: Yes, the Mother of All Bombs.  They blew up the CIA built tunnels.

SR: Right.

CH: Up--would've paid for--with our money, taxpayer money when they were fighting the Soviets, and…

SR: Precisely.

CH: Right.

SR: Yeah.

CH: I want to talk about the Afghan Security Forces, because they're constantly run through here as incompetent, unmotivated, rightful deserters, and including members of the Taliban, and the creation of tens of thousands of, "Ghost soldiers."  So--or the Afghan Security Commanders are collecting salaries for people who don't exist.  It's quite large, I think it's somewhere around 350,000 but utterly incompetent.  And somewhere in the report, they talk about how they will fight but only when they are like green berets embedded with them.

SR: Right.  Yeah.  Well, I mean, I think, again, it's just comes down to the fact that there's no signs of legitimacy to the government installed by the US, the US itself, so when you're trying to build a national army, how do you expect to have a cohesive force when no one really believes in what's being…

CH: Right.

SR: …carried out?

CH: Well, it all becomes a way to--they'll sell their uniforms or sell their weapons?

SR: Sure.  Yeah.

CH: Anything--it's all about money?

SR: Yeah, and you can't--you can't blame hem at that point…

CH: Right, right.

SR: …because your country has been occupied.

CH: Well, who wants to die for…

SR: Right.

CH: …for George W. Bush?

SR: Right.

CH: When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the Afghanistan Papers with Spenser Rapone.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the Afghanistan Papers with Spenser Rapone.  We talked about the Afghan Army.  The police are just as bad.  A US military officer estimated in the documents that one-third of police recruits were drug addicts or Taliban, another called them stealing fools who loaded so much fuel from US bases that they perpetually smelled of gasoline.  Let's talk about opium.  Because under Mullah Omar, before the invasion, Taliban control, 90% of the opium production was wiped out.  Now, Afghanistan is the primary source of the world's opium, not in the US, we get most of ours from Mexico, and that has fueled the war.  We've spent about $9 billion to fight the problem over the last 18 years and it's been a complete and utter failure.  Afghanistan was responsible for 82% of the global opium production according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

SR: Yeah.  Well, I mean, I think it's another textbook example of racketeering on the part of the US.  This problem did not exist to this extent until the invasion happened.  And then the longer the US is there, the worse the problem gets.  But once more, you don't really see in any of these reports an actual, you know, reconciling, with what this would mean in terms of the structural effects of the war.  It's just usually about, you know, strategy this, strategy that, but none of these generals want to face the facts in that the US, as a global hegemonic force, will lead to creating problems of this nature if, you know, the bipartisan compliance with the US war machine continues.  I mean, that's really what it comes down to.

CH: But one of the things that comes through is the utter incompetence.

SR: Sure.

CH: You know, they pay, at one point, Afghan poppy growers, which heroin comes from poppy.

SR: Right.

CH: $700 I think an acre or something--a staggering sum of money.  And so they take the money and then they sell the--I mean, there's just no oversight, no--it's, you know, almost vaudevillian in the way that policies are carried out.

SR: Yeah.  Well, I mean, and there's--I mean, part of the problem is that as we discussed already, it's the end goal for most of the commanders, at the brigade level, battalion level who are overseas in Afghanistan, the end goal is finding the right way to have the correct bullet point on your OER as I mentioned earlier.  And if that means that you allow certain problems like that to continue under your watch without really addressing the root cause, then so be it.  But, I mean, there's no, as you know, and as many others who are probably watching this now, there's no manner in which the US, as an occupying force in Afghanistan, can exist as a positive rule.  So whether it's, you know, the gross of the opium trade or whatever other problem it's going to continue until the US fully withdraws from the region.  That's what is the driving factor here.

CH: Well, this has been true throughout the entire Middle East.  I mean, what we've done is create one failed state after another.

SR: Precisely.

CH: Improved the most potent recruiting to offer, jihadists.

SR: That's right.

CH: Let's talk about Pakistan, because Pakistan comes up here.

SR: Right.

CH: So Musharraf gives the Pentagon, former President of Pakistan, permission to use Pakistani airspace, he lets the CIA track Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistani territory, but he's also giving heavy covert support to the Taliban.

SR: Absolutely.

CH: Why?  Explain.

SR: Well, I mean, it's interesting.  Pakistan, they're actually quite honest with the US, they were…

CH: Well, they are, that's…

SR: Yeah.  They were…

CH: They were completely, that's what--yeah.

SR: It's like you don't need to conduct any sort of, you know, investigation to realize, like, they were straight up front.  They were playing the long game with the US.

CH: But they said they're leaving.

SR: Yeah.

CH: We cannot afford to have a mortal enemy in charge of Afghanistan.

SR: So again, it's like why should you be surprised if you're the US.  They've been telling you to your face what's really going on here.  It's the US, you know, refusing to face the reality of the matter, that's the recurring theme.

CH: Well, but it puts them in this position where the US is in fact protecting and funding Pakistan, which is actively supporting in multiplicity of ways, the Taliban.

SR: Sure.  I mean, and again, it just goes to show that there really isn't any understanding of any, you know, the case of Afghanistan, the geopolitical aspects of politics in South Asia, regionally.  I mean, obviously, you know, Iraq is mentioned in the report, too, I mean, in the Middle East at large.  Again, it's just a refusal to face the facts and the US creating a fiction to justify its continued presence there.

CH: Well, they were giving Pakistan billions of dollars a year.

SR: Right.

CH: So let's talk about the human cost, because you raised the issue of morality, and it's important.  So these people are essentially justifying and perpetuating a failed policy, largely, I think as you point out correctly, because of careerism.  But what are the human consequences?

SR: Well, I mean--I mean, for me, the number one, human consequence is that hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been murdered in their own country.  I mean, hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered, they've been extinguished from history.  I mean, they don't get to--a vote, they don't get to tell their story.  They were just, in the blink of an eye, removed from this life because of the ambitions of a select few people who make a great deal of money off of this war.  A couple of US people make a great deal of money off this war, but as well as those who, through this war, have allowed themselves to perpetuate a pretty comfortable career.  And a career, whether you're a general and you're retired, and you go to sit on the board with say Raytheon, or Boeing, or any other number of these defense contractors, or if you continue to serve in the military by continually going on these deployments, it looks good on your record, it looks good on your resume, and you're able to posture as some sort of, you know, war hero.

CH: Well then, you can--then you can go on MSNBC as a paid commentator.

SR: Right.  Or--yeah, you're a --you're an expert on the conflict on the region.  Even though most of these figures as the report has demonstrated--as the Afghanistan Papers have demonstrated, have--they know--they don't have the faintest idea of the history of Afghanistan, of the politics of Afghanistan.  There's not even a single one that stood out to me as having even a rudimentary understanding.

CH: Well, they're culturally, historically, and linguistically illiterate.

SR: Precisely.

CH: They are arriving in a country with bags of money and machine guns.

SR: Right.

CH: They're gangsters.

SR: Well, that--again, and that's what their real ideology is.  It's, "Okay, we have all these money, and this will bend, you know, people to our whim."  But they don't understand, it's a lot more complicated like--than that.  And what actually motivates people isn't as discreet or as simple as many of these generals say.

CH: But just as an example of that is one of my favorite little anecdotes.  US aid workers once insisted on carrying out a public health project to teach Afghans how to wash their hands, not knowing that Muslims with five--saying five prayers a day wash their hands five times a day.

SR: Right.  No.  So I mean, just the continual insults that, you know, the US and its officials don't even realize that they're, you know, levying against the people of Afghanistan.

CH: It's also, you know, and I think you're right to highlight that this primary suffering has been endured by the Afghan people, but it's also a betrayal of veterans such as yourself.

SR: Sure.  I mean, that's, like, it's always difficult for me because as you--I'm glad you pointed it out, I want to center, you know, the actual victims of imperialist violence.  But yes, I mean, from any perspective on this matter, like, if you're a veteran of this war, you know, whatever, whether combat, non-combat.  If you've been in Afghanistan or you haven't, in some capacity, your service has been to support the ongoing operations of the US and Afghanistan and elsewhere.  And when you read the Afghanistan Papers, you see that the concerns of all these generals are not with any of the enlisted, the NCOs, the junior officers, it's with themselves, and making sure that they look good and making sure that they are able to continue on their lucrative career path.  That's their number one motivating factor.  So all of their pearl-clutching they do is related to them looking potential incompetent, not at, you know, the lives lost, Afghan or US.

CH: One of the things that comes through with the report is that they're very well dostum, they write about--the people managing the war are quite aware of how vicious and repugnant, the warlords they have built alliances with are.  I mean, I think one [INDISTINCT or somebody talking about being--that was some dostum, I don't remember.  One of the warlords, about how they were just murderers, and he said, you know, "He died, but, you know, I still wake up every day to check to make sure he's dead."  They knew the extortion, the violence, the kidnapping, the rape, the--that the warlords who were their tacit allies were carrying out among the very Afghan people they were seeking in a process of nation-building, to get support from.

SR: Right.  And I think the fact that the US' willingness to work with these warlords is even more of an indictment because, you know, how many times in the report do we see the refusal to negotiate with the Taliban, as we've mentioned, but yet at the same time, they're perfectly willing to go along with these absolutely vicious, you know, criminal warlords.  It's, again, it's--the perversity of it has no end, really.

CH: And at the peak--in 2011, at the peak of the war, Afghanistan received 11 billion of security aid from Washington, 3 billion more than what neighboring Pakistan, which has a stockpile of nuclear weapons [INDISTINCT] spent on military.  The amount of money that, I mean, I think at one point, they talk about how more money has been pumped into Afghanistan that was given to the Marshall Plan to rebuild, in particular, Germany, but Europe, that have been destroyed after World War II.  And yet, in project after project, that they detail it's--we might as well have put it in a big pile and burned it.  It had almost no effect.

SR: Right.  Well, again, all of these so-called projects were fantasy in a way because they were designed to create the image of some sort of infrastructural progress of, you know, so-called war fighting progress, but really, again, it was just able to actually fill out some type of form or memorandum and say that, "This is what we've accomplished.  See?  There's success here."  And to justify their continued presence.  But again, none of this really meant anything, actually.  It was just, as you said, either burning money or just, you know, this phantasm, this simulacra of actual progress in the region.

CH: What--where do you think this is--the consequence is?  I mean, this is America's longest war, 18 years.  We have wasted tremendous amounts of money, which, of course, our own infrastructure is crumbling, our own schools need to be rebuilt.  What are going to be the effects?  What's the legacy?

SR: Well, that's, you know, as a student of history, I've often pondered this.  In some ways, it's too soon to tell the utter catastrophe of what this will mean decades down the road, but the fact we could see as many bad effects now as we can see should be telling.  And eventually, when there is an adequate history that accounts for all this written, we'll know, but what's so troubling to me is that there really isn't an ability, as of yet, to account for all of the human suffering, for all of the human cost.

CH: Well, and the waste.

SR: And the waste.

CH: I mean, but this is the pathology of dying empires.

SR: Absolutely.

CH: And we got to stop there.  Now with Spenser Rapone on the Washington Post's series, the Afghanistan Papers.

SR: Yeah.  All right, Chris.  Thank you.

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