On cable news, the architects of the war in Afghanistan are now framing coverage of the withdrawal
Frequent cable guests like Barry McCaffrey and David Petraeus have systematically misinformed the public on the situation in Afghanistan
CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News are hosting some of the primary architects of the Afghanistan War, such as H.R. McMaster and Douglas Lute, to serve as expert voices on the conflict, even though many of them are responsible for deliberately misleading the American public for years, advising administrations to stay involved in the conflict, and serving on corporate boards with active interests in the U.S.’ continued military engagement.
In 2019, Washington Post journalist Craig Whitlock reported on “The Afghanistan Papers,” a trove of previously sealed and private documentation showing that “U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” The documents also prove that there was an inherent contradiction between what U.S. officials were saying to Congress and the public about Afghanistan and the reality of the situation on the ground.
Now, President Joe Biden’s ongoing withdrawal process from Afghanistan has proved to be intensely controversial, with the media going into a tailspin over what should have been done differently. All three major cable news networks have utilized the experiences of officials from previous administrations to speak on the current withdrawal and offer their knowledge of the situation. The following officials who have appeared on cable news a combined 51 times in the past two weeks -- from August 16-26 -- were each at the center of failed Afghanistan War strategy while hiding it from public view: Jack Keane, Barry McCaffrey, David Petraeus, H.R. McMaster, Douglas Lute, and Leon Panetta.
Prioritizing the voices of the Afghanistan War’s architects as experts on the withdrawal suggests that they aren't responsible for major failures in the 20-year-long conflict, which has yielded nightmarish results. Sarah Lazare expanded on this idea for In These Times magazine:
We mustn’t let the Boltons and Petraeuses of the world get the final say on what we have learned from the Afghanistan War, the horrors of which are still being born by people in Afghanistan. Instead, media bookers and writers seeking comment should perhaps seek out voices who didn’t lie about the war they’re now providing commentary on.
There are plenty of other voices that could be weighing in on the U.S. withdrawal: The countless people around the world — including in Afghanistan — who have been marching and protesting against the war since September 12, 2001, warning that a 9/11-era revenge fever dream would never bring justice or peace.
Unfortunately, coverage from the major cable news networks has continued to provide a platform for these same figures who helped create and sustain this conflict in the first place.
The architects of the Afghanistan War
16 appearances (all on Fox News)
Jack Keane is a retired four-star Army general and a former and recent member of the Secretary of Defense Policy Board, which provides the Secretary of Defense with “independent, informed advice and opinions concerning matters of defense policy.”
In 2009, Keane recommended Congress implement the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which is notable for its significant failures.
- Keane joined AM General, a company which manufactures military vehicles such as the Humvee, as executive chairperson in 2016.
- In 2017, AM General received a $459 million contract to provide Humvees in Afghanistan through 2023, a fact Fox personalities hosting Keane failed to disclose.
- Keane has criticized the withdrawal, saying it puts the U.S. “national honor” at stake.
13 appearances (all on MSNBC)
- Barry McCaffrey is a retired Army general whom the Pentagon paid to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan. According to The New York Times, “his trips were also an important public relations tool, meticulously planned to arm him with anecdotes of progress.”
- After a 2006 “fact-finding” mission to Afghanistan that became public only with the release of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir, McCaffrey wrote that it did not appear the Taliban was defeated and that Afghan leadership was fearful if the U.S. left, Afghanistan would “collapse again into mayhem.” McCaffrey also noted that the only thing that “works well” in the country was the opium trade.
- In the following years, McCaffrey became a military analyst for NBC. In 2009, when the Afghanistan troop surge was announced, MSNBC regularly hosted McCaffrey, who argued for the continuation of conflict while failing to highlight his board status at security company DynCorp International, which at the time was getting over half its revenue from its work with the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- McCaffrey has criticized the U.S. withdrawal, arguing that it is a “political decision.”
6 appearances (3 on CNN, 2 on Fox News, and 1 on MSNBC)
- Retired Gen. Davis Petraeus served as the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan from 2010-2011. He is credited with “developing a new theory of counter-insurgency, which emphasized winning the support of civilians rather than seizing territory.”
- Petraeus oversaw a particularly violent period of troop engagement in Afghanistan while presenting a sunnier depiction of the occupation abroad.
- In 2011, Petraeus spoke about the Afghan forces being “increasingly credible” and taking on more responsibility from NATO allies. But Army officials had many doubts regarding the competency of the Afghan military that were kept hidden.
- In March 2011, Petraeus told skeptical lawmakers in Congress that he had “seen important but hard-fought progress” in Afghanistan -- a refrain multiple military leaders used over the years.
- Petraeus has blamed the Trump administration for the current situation in Afghanistan and called the withdrawal Biden’s “Dunkirk moment.”
7 appearances (3 on Fox News, 2 on CNN, and 2 on MSNBC)
- H.R. McMaster was a military officer in Afghanistan from 2010-2012 and served as national security adviser during the Trump administration.
- Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock pointed out that as a leader of an anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan, McMaster “knew just how crooked and rotten” the Afghan government had become but he “blamed (and detested) Obama for trying to wind down the war too quickly.” He was also one of the several military leaders who downplayed the theft of U.S. military equipment and aid by Afghan generals and officials.
- In July, McMaster faulted the U.S. media for “their disinterest and defeatism [that] helped set conditions for capitulation and a humanitarian catastrophe” in Afghanistan.
5 appearances (3 on MSNBC and 2 on CNN)
- Douglas Lute is a retired three-star Army general who served as the Afghan War czar for both the Bush and Obama administrations.
- In a 2015 private government interview that was not made public until the Afghanistan Papers were published, Lute spoke of the flawed Afghan War strategies, saying, “If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction. ... We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” Lute’s job as what journalist Michael Hirsh called “Bush’s messenger man” was to essentially oversee the entirety of the operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
- Lute has denied intentionally hiding the failure in Afghanistan, telling PBS in 2019, “I don't have any experience in an effort to deceive the American public, obscure the facts, or actually hide the lessons.”
- Lute has criticized Biden's handling of the withdrawal, saying, “We did not have to be in this crisis setting.”
4 appearances (3 on CNN and 1 on MSNBC)
- Leon Panetta served as CIA director and defense secretary for the Obama administration.
- In 2012, shortly after a base he had just visited was attacked by a suicide bomber, Panetta claimed to reporters that the Afghanistan campaign had “made significant progress.” This was during the post-surge years when Panetta was overseeing a precipitous drop in U.S. military and civilian assistance which had allowed the Taliban to “seize districts as U.S. forces vacated them.” Civilian casualties were also then growing at a rapid rate, an estimated 15% since 2010.
- Panetta has recently compared the withdrawal to the “Bay of Pigs” and said that troops should go back to Afghanistan.
Media Matters searched our internal database of all original, weekday programming on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel (shows airing from 6 a.m. through midnight) from August 16 through August 26, 2021, for all guests who appeared in segments about or discussion of Afghanistan. We included all fully named individuals as guests. We excluded all partially named or unnamed guests. We cross-referenced those names with the ones mentioned in the Afghanistan Papers, published by The Washington Post, of people who had firsthand knowledge of the Afghanistan War, searching for those who held a decision-making position during the conflict. The resulting nonexhaustive list includes: Barry McCaffrey, David Petraeus, H.R. McMaster, Douglas Lute, and Leon Panetta. Although Jack Keane was not mentioned in the Afghanistan Papers, he was also included for his role making war recommendations on the Secretary of Defense Policy Board.