In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Americans were braying for war. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 90 percent of Americans approved of the United States attacking Afghanistan, while 65 percent of the public was comfortable with the prospect of Afghan civilians being killed. Only 22 percent thought that the war would last more than two years.
Americans wanted blood, and they got it. The United States invaded Afghanistan and spent the next 20 years making war there and beyond: in Burkina Faso; Cameroon; Iraq; Libya; Niger; the Philippines; Somalia; Syria; Tunisia; and Yemen, among other places. More than 770,000 people have since died violent deaths in America’s wars and interventions, including more than 312,000 civilians, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project.
Of the 10 percent of Americans who thought that war was not the answer, a small number demonstrated against the impending conflict. They marched in Austin, Texas; New York City; San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; and elsewhere. It took courage to speak out against “indiscriminate retribution,” to assert that it was ludicrous to attack a country for a crime carried out by a small group of terrorists, and to suggest that the repercussions might echo for decades. They were mocked, screamed at, called scum and traitors, and worse.
Those who got it right in September 2001 have long since been forgotten. The White House, the Pentagon, and the media never sought the dissenters out for advice, comment, or counsel as the war in Afghanistan went off the rails, ending with the chaotic collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government on Sunday. Instead, those who got it wrong have consistently held sway in the halls of power. “This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” President Joe Biden, who voted for military action in 2001, admitted yesterday. “[Former Afghan President Ashraf] Ghani insisted the Afghan forces would fight, but obviously he was wrong.” Ghani was hardly alone. Biden and countless other Americans played key roles in a 20-year road to defeat that began with the United States toppling the Taliban from power in 2001 and ended with the Taliban installing themselves in the presidential palace in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, this week.
Journalist Craig Whitlock’s new book, “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” will help ensure that no one forgets the harm America’s civilian and military leaders did, the lies they told, and the war they lost.
Synthesizing more than 1,000 interviews and 10,000 pages of documents, Whitlock provides a stunning study of failure and mendacity, an irrefutable account of the U.S.’s ignoble defeat in the words of those who — from the battlefield to NATO headquarters in Kabul and from the Pentagon to the White House — got it so wrong for so long, papered their failures over with falsehoods, and sought to avoid even an ounce of accountability.
“People often ask me, ‘How long will this last?’” President George W. Bush said on October 11, 2001, a few days after the United States started bombing Afghanistan. “This particular battlefront will last as long as it takes to bring Al Qaeda to justice. It may happen tomorrow, it may happen a month from now, it may take a year or two. But we will prevail.”
More than a decade later, the U.S. still hadn’t won the war, and an obscure government agency, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, sought to figure out why. The result was more than 400 “Lessons Learned” interviews conducted with mostly American (but also Afghan and NATO) officials as well as other experts, aid workers, and consultants. Their assessments were candid, often damning, and the government sought to keep them under wraps.
But the indefatigable Whitlock and his employer, the Washington Post, via two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, forced the government to turn over the files. These records became the foundation of an award-winning series for the Post; now, combined with several troves of documents from various public collections, these files make “The Afghanistan Papers” the most comprehensive American accounting of the conflict and help explain, better than any book yet, why so many of those who planned, guided, and fought the war failed so spectacularly.
Deftly assembling accounts thematically and chronologically, Whitlock allows America’s war managers to hang themselves with their own quotes, offering an encyclopedic catalogue of lies and ineptitude, delusion and denial, incompetence and corruption, and, most of all, rank cowardice. Again and again, Whitlock presents the pessimistic assessments and harsh judgments of officials who believed that their remarks would never become public — war makers who could have spoken out publicly but too often kept their appraisals under wraps or voiced them when it was too late to matter.
“We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” recalled Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House war czar under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“We did not know what we were doing,” said Richard Boucher, the Bush administration’s top diplomat for South and Central Asia.
“There was a tremendous … dysfunctionality in unity of command inside of Afghanistan, inside the military,” recalled Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, an early Afghanistan War commander.
“There was no campaign plan,” confessed Army Gen. Dan McNeill, who twice served as the top commander in Afghanistan under Bush. “I tried to get someone to define for me what winning meant, even before I went over, and nobody could.”
These and hundreds of other officials, military officers, diplomats, and analysts could have leveled with the American people immediately or at any time in the last 20 years. Had they done so, perhaps the war in Afghanistan could have been shortened by a decade or more; perhaps following conflicts wouldn’t have been so easy to start or proved so difficult to end; perhaps more than 770,000 people wouldn’t be dead and up to 59 million forced from their homes by America’s post-9/11 wars.
Instead, Americans muddled through the conflict in Afghanistan, unsure what they were there to accomplish, why they were doing it, who they were fighting, and what they were fighting for. “What were we actually doing in that country?” asked a U.S. official who served with the NATO senior civilian representative to Afghanistan. “We went in after 9/11 to defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but the mission became blurred.”
To call it confusion is the kindest possible assessment. Another is that, as Whitlock writes, the government was peddling pablum “so unwarranted and baseless that their statements amounted to a disinformation campaign.”
Whitlock does a masterful job of mining the hard-won SIGAR synopses and archived interviews to juxtapose private judgments with public comments. Bush’s first secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, recently died of multiple myeloma, but Whitlock ably demonstrates that shame ought to have taken him years earlier. Of all the craven war managers who take their star turn in “The Afghanistan Papers,” Rumsfeld may come off worst. “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are,” the late defense secretary wrote in an internal memo almost two years into the war. “We are woefully deficient in human intelligence.”
Rumsfeld never shared his pessimism with the American public. Instead, for years, he took the press to task for pushback while publicly crowing about signs of progress and corners turned. In 2003, Rumsfeld announced that the Taliban was finished. “To the extent that they assemble in anything more than ones and twos … they’ll be killed or captured,” he boasted. If there’s any justice, Rumsfeld is currently being grilled in the afterlife about whether it’s one or two Taliban fighters who are now overrunning cities and districts across Afghanistan.
So much in “The Afghanistan Papers” reads like an unsettling echo of the American war in Vietnam. During that conflict, the South Vietnamese military that was built, trained, armed, and funded by Americans was regularly (and not always unfairly) disparaged for its cowardice and incompetence. In the end, U.S. officials couldn’t understand how a 1 million-person army with billions of dollars’ worth of American weapons and equipment collapsed in 1975. In “The Afghanistan Papers,” Americans similarly disparage the Afghan military they built or make excuses for its weakness and ineptitude. How could the U.S. be at fault when its Afghan charges couldn’t read, write, or identify colors; mistook urinals for drinking fountains; couldn’t learn basic tactics or manage to shoot straight; and were both lazy and corrupt? Left unexamined is just why a rag-tag, under-armed, underfunded insurgency drawn from the same population, without an air force or superpower backing, was able to exist, much less make consistent progress, over 20 years, ending with a blitzkrieg that took one major city after another, including Kabul, in a matter of days.
Opium is another key overlap. During the Vietnam War, as heroin use among U.S. troops soared, Air America, a company run by the CIA, transported opium harvested by farmers in Laos who were also serving as soldiers in the agency’s secret army. Following its defeat in Southeast Asia, the United States sought to entangle the Soviet Union in its own “Vietnam” in Afghanistan, where, as the New York Times reported, “opium production flourished … with the involvement of some of the mujahedeen, rebels who were supported by the Central Intelligence Agency.” By the time Americans were fighting against some of those same mujahideen and their sons in the 2000s, the United States had turned against drug production and devoted billions to eradicating poppies, but Afghanistan nonetheless became the world’s top narco-state.
Whitlock offers Operation River Dance, a two-month joint U.S.-Afghan invasion of poppy fields in southern Afghanistan, as an object lesson. John Walters, the Bush administration’s drug czar, told reporters that the effort was “making enormous progress,” but in reality, everything went wrong. Bulldozers broke down; tractors got stuck in ditches; a State Department-leased plane filled with U.S. drug enforcement officials crashed into a group of houses, killing civilians; Afghans involved in the effort went AWOL; local farmers were angered and alienated; Afghan power brokers began using the operation to strike at rivals; and a previously tranquil region became a militant hotbed.
“They say it was very successful. I think that’s just plain B.S.”
“They say it was very successful,” then-Lt. Col. Michael Slusher, an adviser during the operation, told an Army interviewer. “I think that’s just plain B.S.”
“Just plain B.S.” is a fitting epitaph, not just for River Dance or the American drive to eradicate opium poppies, but for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan writ large. Just as in Vietnam, the military cooked the books at every level of command — lying about the war to itself, to Congress, and to the American people. “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” said Army Col. Bob Crowley, a senior counterinsurgency adviser in 2013 and 2014.
In the SIGAR interviews, Whitlock notes, “U.S. military officials and advisors described explicit and sustained efforts to deliberately mislead the public” from the battlefield on up to the White House, skewing data to make it appear that the U.S. was winning the war.
If a small library of Vietnam War books is any guide, hawkish historians, revisionist reprobates, and aggrieved war makers will pick up this mantle and try to recast the war in Afghanistan in favorable terms, excusing yet another American military defeat and casting blame on the usual suspects.
Before Kabul fell to the Taliban, a coterie of U.S. ambassadors issued a demand: “Don’t lose Afghanistan.” This August 6 post on the Atlantic Council’s blog by five men, all of whom played key roles in America’s long march to defeat, ended with a plea for more war premised on the final fallback position of intellectually and morally bankrupt war hawks. The United States, they insisted, “can, and must, act forcefully in Afghanistan with air and defense support along with robust diplomacy. The country’s future — as well as Washington’s global credibility — is at stake.” It harkens back to a formerly classified 1965 breakdown of U.S. objectives in Vietnam by Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton: “70% — To avoid a humiliating US defeat,” compared with 10 percent for the publicly stated goal of allowing “the people of [South Vietnam] to enjoy a better, freer way of life.” Credibility was the overwhelming (and secret) reason to prolong the war another 10 years at a cost of millions of lives in Southeast Asia.
H.R. McMaster — a retired lieutenant general, national security adviser to President Donald Trump, Vietnam War historian, and one of the Americans who lost the war in Afghanistan — also entered the fray. The same man who wrote that “the war in Vietnam was not lost … on the front pages of the New York Times, or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C.” recently tweeted, prior to the fall of Kabul, “US media is finally reporting on the transformation of Afghanistan after their disinterest and defeatism helped set conditions for capitulation and a humanitarian catastrophe.”
Thankfully, we have “The Afghanistan Papers” to inoculate the body politic against such delusion and abject kookery. “With their complicit silence, military and political leaders avoided accountability and dodged reappraisals that could have changed the outcome or shortened the conflict,” writes Whitlock. It’s a diplomatic way of saying that when faced with the opportunity to tell the truth and limit the amount of blood on their hands, America’s war managers consistently doubled down on violence.
“The Afghanistan Papers” helps provide some small measure of justice, forcing leaders to live with their now-public lies, and provides a convenient list of those who should be shunned by cable news producers, White House and Pentagon hiring committees, book publishers, and newspaper opinion-page editors.
In the wake of this week’s Taliban takeover, many are asking a question that will be repeated by future generations: “Who lost Afghanistan?” Whitlock’s “The Afghanistan Papers” offers the definitive answer.