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South Asia Brief

Why the ‘Afghanistan Papers’ Matter

Newly released interviews on the U.S. war reveal the coordinated spin effort and dodgy metrics behind a forever war.

Afghan security forces take part in an ongoing operation against Islamic State militants in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on Nov. 25.
Afghan security forces take part in an ongoing operation against Islamic State militants in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on Nov. 25. Photo by NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. The highlights this week: Delving into the Washington Post’s bombshell “Afghanistan Papers,” India moves one step closer to becoming a religion-based democracy, and e-cigarette bans spread across the region.

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What to Make of the ‘Afghanistan Papers’

On Monday, the Washington Post published what it calls a “secret history” of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, comprising 2,000 pages of interviews with senior U.S. officials and others directly involved in the conflict. The debriefs, part of a confidential government review on the war effort, contain candid and shocking revelations about how U.S. politicians and generals misled the world about the status of the war.

The “Afghanistan Papers,” as the Post calls the report, have drawn comparisons in their scope and granular detail with the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers, published in the New York Times in 1971. In both wars, “The presidents and the generals had a pretty realistic view of what they were up against, which they did not want to admit to the American people,” Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, told CNN’s Brian Stelter.

Positivity bias. Michael Flynn, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, was the director of intelligence for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. He provides just one of many disturbing takes on the U.S. war effort. “There is an inherent bias in the intel community because they want to get money, they want to exist, and they want to grow,” he said in an interview.

Expanding on why field intelligence reports were more negative than the upbeat progress reports presented to the U.S. public, Flynn said that policymakers “are going to be inherently rosy” in their assessments. Later in the interview, he said, “There is a machinery that is behind what we do, and it keeps us participating in the conflict because it generates wealth.”

Fuzzy metrics. Another interview with an unnamed National Security Council official reveals a clear attempt to spin the war effort as a success. “It was impossible to create good metrics,” said the official. “We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture … And this went on and on for two reasons: to make everyone involved look good, and to make it look like the troops and resources were having the kind of effect where removing them would cause the country to deteriorate.”

Lasting legacy. It is worth sparing a thought for the people of Afghanistan amid this new trove of information. Not only is Washington once again trying to set up peace talks with the Taliban, but democratic exercises in that country have also proved inconclusive. September’s presidential elections did not yield a clear winner, and with the Afghan winter approaching, a runoff has been postponed to sometime next year. Eighteen years on from the start of the war, that is Washington’s real legacy.

The Real Costs of the Afghan War

The Numbers After Nearly Two Decades of Fighting


What We’re Following

Who can be Indian? The lower house of India’s parliament on Monday backed a controversial bill that would allow non-Muslim undocumented immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to seek Indian citizenship after six years on the basis of religious persecution. Because the Citizenship Amendment Bill uses religion as a criteria for legal status, critics say it violates India’s constitution—which protects religious equality—and furthers Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s divisive Hindu nationalist policies. The legislation will be tested in the upper house of parliament, where Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party lacks a majority.

Up in smoke. In the wake of 12 deaths and more than 800 illnesses linked to e-cigarette use in the United States, last week Bangladesh announced plans to ban the sale and use of vaporizers and e-cigarettes. The move follows a similar ban in India, which has the largest number of adult smokers in the world. A Bangladeshi health official noted that 30 other countries, including Sri Lanka and Thailand, have also banned the products in the interest of public health.

Blood and sacrifice. Days after this year’s Gadhimai festival in Nepal, which occurs every five years and is believed to be the world’s largest mass animal slaughter, the Federation of Animal Welfare Nepal announced that it will sue the government for allowing the festival despite a September order from the Supreme Court to phase out animal sacrifice. The monthlong celebration saw tens of thousands of people from across Nepal and India converge on the Gadhimai temple in southern Nepal.

Cricket diplomacy. A decade after a 2009 terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore killed six police officers and two bystanders, the Sri Lankan national team touched down in Pakistan this week for a series of World Test Championship matches. They are the first major international Test matches to be held in Pakistan since the attack, and the arriving players were greeted as state guests.


Question of the Week

At 34 years old, Finland’s Sanna Marin became the world’s youngest prime minister when she took office on Tuesday. Which of these leaders holds the record for youngest leader in South Asia, since 1900?

A) King Gyanendra of Nepal
B) Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan
C) Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh
D) Rajiv Gandhi of India

Scroll down for the answer.  


South Asia Inc.

Power plays. In another sign of India’s economic woes, new government data released this week showed the country’s demand for electricity has fallen by 4.3 percent from a year ago—the fourth consecutive month of decline. That suggests lower rates of economic activity and consumption, though government officials spun the data by reporting that the early onset of winter had reduced demand for air conditioning.

The price of marriage. Last year, India’s wedding industry was estimated to be worth $40 to $50 billion annually, with a luxury wedding costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. But with the economy slowing, textile manufacturers, retailers, and brides are feeling the pinch. Sameer Yasir reports for FP from the Chandni Chowk market in New Delhi.


Odds and Ends

Waste not. The zero-waste movement may be associated with modern times, but the Memon ethnic group in Karachi, Pakistan, has been practicing its dictates for far longer, Aysha Imtiaz reports for the BBC. Memon families prefer to eat locally and in season and to plan meals so they don’t waste food. The thriftiness, Imtiaz suggests, is born of harder times: Many Memons moved to Pakistan from India after Partition in 1947 and had to scrimp to survive.


And the Answer Is…

A) Nepal’s King Gyanendra.

The Nepalese royal was only three years old when he was crowned king of Nepal in 1950. But his reign lasted a mere three months—until his predecessor, King Tribhuvan, returned to the country after fleeing to India. Gyanendra became king again in 2001 until the monarchy was abolished in 2008.


That’s it for this week.

We welcome your feedback at newsletters@foreignpolicy.com. You can find older editions of South Asia Brief here. For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters.

Ravi Agrawal is the managing editor of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

Kathryn Salam is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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