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Douglas Lute, Former Afghan War Czar, On Report About What Americans Knew About War

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We didn't have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking. That was what Douglas Lute, the Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told the U.S. government. Lute's job, once described by Vice President Cheney, was to...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: In effect, sort of ride roughshod, if necessary, over the bureaucracy to make sure we get the job done.

CORNISH: But behind the scenes, the U.S. struggled with military strategy, goals and spending. And today, The Washington Post published the transcripts of interviews of hundreds of key players taken by the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction that revealed those concerns, including one with Douglas Lute. He joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

DOUGLAS LUTE: It's good to be with you.

CORNISH: So your contributions essentially lead this story. You told an interviewer at this inspector general's office - known as SIGAR - that you, quote, "bumped into an even more fundamental lack of knowledge that the U.S. was devoid of fundamental understanding of Afghanistan, that we didn't know what we were doing." Can you talk about when you bumped in to that lack of knowledge, at what point in the gig?

LUTE: Well, I appreciate, first of all, and your listeners will appreciate that that's a pretty stark, blunt statement. And it was made in the context of a off-the-record private interview inside the government in an honest attempt to be introspective. That is a government effort to look at the government and how we were doing in Afghanistan. So forgive my bluntness. But the fundamental point remains. My experience is, over a period of 10-plus years watching and working on Afghanistan closely, that we failed to accumulate a deep understanding and expertise about Afghanistan that would then empower our strategy making.

CORNISH: I want to jump in here because there's another thing that came up. One army colonel said, quote, every "data point was altered to present the best picture possible." Quote, "surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable, but reinforced that everything we were doing was right, and we became a self-licking ice cream cone." As you said, these are candid assessments. Were you aware of or party to any effort to use data to mislead the public about the state of U.S. progress in Afghanistan?

LUTE: No. My experience with regard to collection of data and reporting on progress or lack of progress in Afghanistan is an experience of candor, of bluntness and speaking truth to our senior leaders.

CORNISH: Then why would a colonel who is, again, speaking to an inspector general's office say this, say look, like, most of the data we presented was manipulated or at least was not presented in a fair way to give people a true assessment of what was going on, especially as you're face of the war - right? - for the White House?

LUTE: Well, Audie, I'd think you'd have to ask that individual, but I'm not familiar with - and I didn't - I'm not party to any attempt to obscure or hide the lessons or deceive anyone, but rather to take a hard, long look, persistent look at what was going well and what wasn't.

CORNISH: Because you have John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledging to the Post - because the Post got these documents by filing a FOIA - right? - they weren't really volunteered.

LUTE: That's right.

CORNISH: He says, quote, "the American people have constantly been lied to." Do you agree with that assessment?

LUTE: No, I don't agree with that assessment. I think that every approach that I know of to communicate progress in Afghanistan by senior American political officials and military officials has always been couched as, on the one hand, we're making progress, but on the other hand, the challenges are severe. So I've always seen, especially if you look back at the statements by President Bush and President Obama, this sort of balance between optimism and skepticism or optimism and realism.

CORNISH: Just a few seconds left - you were in a position of power during two administrations. Looking back, what more could you have done to raise alarms?

LUTE: So there are two things in particular that I carry away as personal lessons. One was that we tended to over-rely on military tools, on the military means, and we, thereby, counter - discounted political, economic and diplomatic tools. And then second of all, we didn't stay on the job long enough to build continuity and, in turn, expertise to understand a problem as complex as Afghanistan.

CORNISH: That's Douglas Lute, former Afghan war czar for the Bush and Obama administrations. He's now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Thank you for your time.

LUTE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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