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World Afghanistan Papers trigger demands for similar accountability in Europe

22:22  11 december  2019
22:22  11 december  2019 Source:   washingtonpost.com

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BERLIN — When The Washington Post released confidential U.S. government documents about the war in Afghanistan this week, European allies watched the reactions closely. For one, many European troops fought and died alongside Americans, despite doubts on both sides of the Atlantic about rosy military pronouncements that are now proved to have been misleading.

a group of people posing for a picture: High blast walls have been erected around all the main government buildings in Kabul, Afghanistan. On Shar-e-Now, one of the main thoroughfare of the city, people walk near the Ministry of Women Affairs on December 8, 2019.© Lorenzo Tugnoli/FTWP High blast walls have been erected around all the main government buildings in Kabul, Afghanistan. On Shar-e-Now, one of the main thoroughfare of the city, people walk near the Ministry of Women Affairs on December 8, 2019.

But The Post’s three-year legal battle over the documents also bore echoes of Europe’s own fights over the analytical legacy of the war in Afghanistan.

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Norway and Sweden are among the few countries, apart from the United States, that have produced their own country-specific comprehensive reports on their involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

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In the countries that undertook such efforts, the conclusions were often similar to that of their U.S. counterparts, even though their mandates vastly differed from those of the United States’ Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

In interviews with SIGAR, key actors in Afghanistan revealed how Western officials hid evidence that the war had become unwinnable. Among other issues, some interviewees said the United States had regularly supported corrupt actors and fueled widespread graft.

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Some of those conclusions sounded strikingly familiar to Bjørn Tore Godal, a former foreign and defense minister for Norway who headed the country’s Afghanistan commission, which interviewed about 350 individuals. Between 2001 and 2014, Norway spent an estimated $3.16 billion in total, according to the 2016 Afghanistan commission report; the country still maintains 58 troops in Afghanistan, according to NATO.

When the commission’s report was submitted in 2016, Godal said, it was received “with astonishment” over the extent to which the mission had failed to meet the objective of building a more stable Afghanistan. But its conclusions were nevertheless met with bipartisan respect, said Godal, and are likely to be taken into account in future decision-making to prevent a repeat of mistakes.

Elsewhere in Europe, however, similar attempts proved to be more complicated. Concerns over the political impact of such reports and practical difficulties were among the key hurdles.

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U.S. Army soldiers from NATO are seen through a cracked window of an armed vehicle at a checkpoint in Afghanistan, on July 7, 2018. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)© Wakil Kohsar/Afp Via Getty Images U.S. Army soldiers from NATO are seen through a cracked window of an armed vehicle at a checkpoint in Afghanistan, on July 7, 2018. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

In some key European NATO member states such as Germany, lawmakers in favor of a Norway-style approach didn’t get far, even though some less expansive attempts to draft reports were pursued.

Denmark initially launched an independent Iraq and Afghanistan commission, but later shut it down. Analytical attempts to draw comprehensive lessons from Afghanistan faced similar challenges there, too, said Peter Viggo Jakobsen, an associate professor with the Royal Danish Defense College, who had hoped to become part of such a project almost a decade ago.

“There was no interest in Denmark whatsoever to have an official evaluation of the Afghan war,” he said, adding that the lack of interest applied to institutions across the board, including the Danish military, the ministry of foreign affairs and political leaders.

In a statement, the Danish foreign ministry defended its efforts on Wednesday, writing that “since the beginning of our engagement in Afghanistan, we have had broad and inclusive discussions.” It cited an academic series as well as an inquiry into Denmark’s military missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq that was published earlier this year, among other evaluations. The country has 155 military personnel on the ground in Afghanistan.

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Other European government representatives similarly defended their practices. A spokesman for the German Defense Ministry acknowledged that the ministry had pursued no German equivalent of SIGAR’s work. Another German official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, added that the government nevertheless had conducted continuous confidential assessments of the military mission in Afghanistan.

The former commander of Italy’s joint special operations command, Lt. Gen. Marco Bertolini, said such assessments were part of their work, as well. “It’s actually our habit: analyzing failure as well as success to identify future corrective actions,” he said. “There was no intervention from politics,” by the time he retired three years ago, he said. Some 895 Italians are serving in Afghanistan.

The Afghan experience, Bertolini noted, represented a “leap forward” for Italians and allowed all NATO members to draw new lessons.

But those kinds of assessments by Germany, Italy and Denmark, among other nations, do not come close to the comprehensive and public scrutiny that has been championed in Norway or Sweden, whose expenses, including aid, in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2014 are estimated at more than $2 billion, according to the country’s independent report. Some 25 Swedish military personnel remain in Afghanistan.

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The unwillingness in some European nations to follow their lead may increase the likelihood of soldiers, once again, risking their lives in future wars without realistic goals, experts maintained.

Among the key reasons for some European nations’ hesitancy to launch similarly extensive assessments have been concerns over the conclusions such an analysis would produce. “In many respects, I think, one would have to conclude that we went into Afghanistan under catastrophic preconditions, with vastly exaggerated expectations and the wrong strategy,” said Carlo Masala, a professor at the Bundeswehr University Munich. “The result wouldn’t shed a very positive light on German foreign policy.” Germany has invested significantly in the war effort: Between 2001 and 2018, it spent more than $18 billion on its involvement, according to German media reports, and still maintains roughly 1,300 troops there.

Similar concerns over the unraveling of a narrative of relative success also appear to have played a role in neighboring Denmark, which had one of the highest per capita fatality rates among all U.S. allies in Afghanistan. A major independent analysis, said researcher Jakobsen, risks destroying the “consensus among the potential governing parties that it’s actually good for Denmark to participate in those wars,” in part to please the United States and present itself as a reliable ally.

a man in a military uniform: Italian soldiers stand to attention during a change-of-command ceremony for their NATO-led mission at the Camp Arena military base in Guzara district of Herat province on Wednesday. (Hoshang Hashmi/AFP via Getty Images)© Hoshang Hashimi/Afp Via Getty Images Italian soldiers stand to attention during a change-of-command ceremony for their NATO-led mission at the Camp Arena military base in Guzara district of Herat province on Wednesday. (Hoshang Hashmi/AFP via Getty Images)

To some extent, the differences in how the war in Afghanistan has been analyzed in Europe may also be due to a lack of experience with assessments similar to SIGAR’s work. “We don’t have the same tradition [of drawing systematic lessons] that exists in the United States,” said Masala.

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Practical concerns have served as an additional deterrent, as opponents of independent reports have argued that commissions would almost inevitably have to violate individuals’ right to privacy or get access to classified military documents.

Facing similar challenges, Norway’s Afghanistan commission opted for a middle path. The commission was granted access to restricted sources and was able to interview key individuals around the world, said Godal, its former chair. While those details were taken into account to inform the commission’s public conclusions, they are not cited or detailed in the report, he said.

Its three-year old summary made for a sobering read. Even though Norway largely did achieve its “objective of confirming its role as a solid and reliable ally” of the United States within NATO, its fight against terror was flawed. The third goal — to build a stable Afghan democracy — was “not reached,” according to the blunt conclusion.

While the results were “slightly shocking” for Norwegians, according to Godal, they did not trigger the same wave of reactions as the Afghanistan Papers did this week in the United States.

“Our [military and political leaders] had been more cautious about stating the possibility of a success” from the beginning, Godal explained.

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report from Rome.

Read more:

In response to Afghanistan Papers, former president Karzai blames U.S. funding for fueling corruption

‘I don’t think anybody has died in vain’: Top general gives emotional defense of the Afghanistan war .
The comments by Gen. Mark Milley came in response to questions prompted by The Post’s recent investigative series, The Afghanistan Papers.Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he does not believe U.S. troops died in vain in the war.

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