When the last American troops bugged out of Hamid Karzai International Airport at the end of August 2021, the Beltway spin cycle churned furiously. Charges and counter-charges flew over the partisan wire. Instapundits snapped to attention at the think tanks barnacled around America’s ever-expanding foreign-policy security-state apparatus unaffectionately known as “The Blob”. Sundry hangers-on Zoom’ed in to cable news shows or flung op-eds at the last remaining newspapers and websites of note. Everyone had opinions about how the longest war in American history had been lost and who lost it.
It was Joe Biden. It was Donald Trump. It was Barack Obama. It was George W. Bush. It was corruption. It was opium. It was Pakistan. It was imperialism. It was too many troops. It was not enough troops. Somewhere in the social media ether, at least one account probably pinned the war’s loss on critical race theory. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, many of those arguments (save the last) grasped a fragment of the truth. Very few of them saw the whole. Those who read Craig Whitlock’s almost eerily-timed The Afghanistan Papers will get a better glimpse of the whole elephant.
Starting in 2014 – 13 years after America overthrew the Taliban and began constructing a new Afghanistan state in ad hoc fashion – a little-known federal agency called the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) started a series of “Lessons Learned” interviews with participants in the war. When Whitlock, an investigative reporter at The Washington Post, got wind of the reports, he found they “omitted the harsh criticism and finger-pointing that I heard the interviews contained.”
Several years and multiple lawsuits later, Whitlock got hold of the original SIGAR transcripts, along with many of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s classified “snowflake” memos and many other previously secret interviews conducted by the military about why they were losing the Afghanistan War. The results, some of which were published in The Washington Post starting in late 2019 and are laid out here in more damning detail, show how three administrations ignored all the evidence, avoided making tough decisions, and instead “chose to bury their mistakes and let the war drift.”
Whitlock highlights an interview with a Special Operations planner who worked on the war plans that followed the first bombing campaigns in October 2001: “We received some general guidance like, ‘Hey, we want to go fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.’ In fact, in the original plan, regime change wasn’t necessarily an objective.” Buzzy with confidence after the Taliban’s quick collapse, the Bush administration “jumped into the war with only a hazy idea of whom it was fighting” and blurred the line between al-Qaeda (an enemy who had attacked America) and the Taliban (who had a mutual support agreement with al-Qaeda but was not an enemy).
Once Rumsfeld’s insistence on using a “light footprint” — massive airpower, bands of anti-Taliban Afghan fighters, and small units of elite American soldiers and CIA agents (some wearing comedically bad attempts at local garb) — resulted in Osama bin Laden slipping away in late 2001, the Taliban were more interested in negotiating than fighting. Several diplomats described the American decision to hunt down the Taliban rather than negotiate with them as the start of the grinding guerrilla war. Only the Americans didn’t seem to realize they were even fighting a war. They definitely did not appear to understand that they were about to try and build a whole new country. But that was what happened anyway.
After the Taliban defeat, the US discovered itself essentially in possession of a largely rural nation whose already negligible modern infrastructure had been decimated during the Soviet occupation and the following civil war (which caused anywhere from one to two million Afghan lives and epic levels of suffering). American diplomats and State Department officials argued that leaving Afghanistan in that shape was not just unconscionable but unwise, leaving a strategic vacuum. But years of cuts had left the non-military side of the government in poor shape to do anything on that scale.
So, in the way that Rosa Brooks described in How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, the Pentagon took on a task it never wanted. The plan – to build an American-style federal government based in Kabul under the control of the suavely dressed, urbane, and English-speaking tribal leader Hamid Karzai – made no sense in a tribal nation like Afghanistan. One US diplomat noted that “The time frame for creating a strong central government is one hundred years, which we didn’t have.”
That blundering, practically accidental assumption about what Afghanistan needed makes a kind of sense, given the level of cultural ignorance that Whitlock lays out in the blackly comic “Islam for Dummies” chapter. Readers who have followed the forever wars are used to stories of Western troops in Iraq and Afghanistan banging through towns and villages like armored aliens who know nothing of the language or culture and are then shocked when they cannot win hearts and minds.
One particularly illustrative story has a stateside instructor interrupted in the middle of his PowerPoint about Iraq by a soldier telling him they’re deploying to Afghanistan. His reply? “Oh, Iraq, Afghanistan. It’s the same difference.” It is easy to understand how US troops would have difficulty with being told to look the other way when their warlord allies “proclaimed their status by keeping tea boys or other adolescent male servants as sex slaves.”
Less comprehensible is the number of officers who wish somebody had just taught them Afghan manners (build relationships, accept offers to drink tea, learn at least a few phrases of the language). In the absence of a meaningful or cohesive counterinsurgency strategy, the Taliban gained strength throughout the 2000s, aided by the rampant corruption and ineffectualness of the Karzai government and abetted by Pakistan, which provided safe bases over the border.
Between 2001 and 2020, the US spent over $143 billion on aid, security, and reconstruction in Afghanistan. This was more, Whitlock notes, than was used by the Marshall Plan to put a shattered Western Europe back together after World War II. A good part of The Afghanistan Papers, and among its more infuriating aspects, deal with just how much of that money was just wasted.
In December 2009, President Obama approved the ultimately pointless military “surge” that failed to put a significant dent in the Taliban, and he also approved a push to get the civilian government to where it could stand on its own. Between 2008 and 2010, billions in American aid flooded in without an organized spending plan. Phantom projects and white elephants resulted. “We were building schools next to empty schools,” one adviser said.
There was also some ingenious entrepreneurship. One eastern province featured a thriving business: a Taliban leader blew up new projects and then the Americans would pay a local construction firm run by his brother to rebuild them. With that little strategic intelligence, it can be difficult to see how the US held on to Afghanistan as long as it did.
Whitlock is a brisk and chipper writer, despite the grueling nature of his subject. The Afghanistan Papers makes for uncomfortable reading, as tales of human weakness and blindness tend to be. Like the Pentagon Papers, the secrets contained here were not really secrets to the people running the war. One Army colonel says that in the face of political pressure to show that the war was being won, “truth was rarely welcome.”
Indeed, Washington’s descriptions of the war were permeated with fantasy, abstraction, and what one special inspector general described to Congress as an “odor of mendacity.” The view that Whitlock provides is one of a war that was started in confusion, erratically pursued, and concluded in chaos.
Ten, 20, 50 years hence, when a once-again ascendant America is looking to prove itself militarily in a faraway land, The Afghanistan Papers will be one of the books that that war’s hapless planners will eventually kick themselves for ignoring.