THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR by Craig Whitlock

(Former President Bush flashes a thumbs-up after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier in 2003. He now says declaring mission accomplished was a mistake.)

In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision, that the U.S. government had not met “the heavy burden of showing justification for the enforcement” of prior restraint. The Court ordered the immediate end of the injunctions against publication which led to the dissemination of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times.  The Pentagon Papers, officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force is a Defense Department history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Though Washington Post national security reporter Craig Whitlock’s new book, THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR does not rise to the level of the Pentagon Papers according to the author it is based on “interviews with more than a 1,000 people who played a direct part in the war.  The Lessons Learned Interviews, oral histories and 59,000 Rumsfeld snowflakes comprise more than 10,000 pages of documents.  Unedited and unfiltered, they reveal the voices of people – from those who made policy in Washington to those who fought in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan – who knew the official version of the war being fed to the American people was untrue, or aggressively sanitized at best.” (xx)

The publication of Whitlock’s monograph coincides with the disjointed American withdrawal from Afghanistan the last few weeks.  The partisan debate that President Biden’s abrupt exit sparked creates the need for a more nuanced and objective analysis of the past 20 years since 9/11 and its is our good fortune as the war for America seems to have concluded a series of new historical monographs have emerged.  Apart from Whitlock’s book readers can choose from Carter Malkasian’s  THE AMERICAN WAR IN AFGHANISTAN: A HISTORY; David Loyn’s THE LONG WAR; Peter Bergen’s THE RISE AND FALL OF OSAMA BIN-LADIN; and Spencer Ackerman’s REIGN OF TERROR.  There are also a number of works that have been written over the last decade that one might consult.  The works of Steve Coll come to mind, GHOST WARS  and DIRECTORATE S; also important are Dexter Filkins’ THE FOREVER WAR; Anand Gopal’s NO GOOD MEN AMONG THE LIVING; and Lawrence Wright’s THE LOOMING TOWER.

A great deal of Whitlock’s commentary is similar to the observations of previous authors.  However, what separates Whitlock’s narrative, analysis, and insights is that they are based on documentation and interviews of key commanders, soldiers on the ground, government officials, and even important foreign players who had significant roles in the war.  Whitlock’s monograph is written in a concise and clear manner and his conclusions point to the disaster the war had become after removing the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2002.  Whitlock astutely points out that military strategists are always taught to never start a war without having a plan to end it.  From the outset, the Bush administration never articulated how the war would be ended.  For years, the American people were told the war would be difficult but on an incremental basis we were always winning.  The happy talk of the Bush, Obama, and lastly the Trump administrations never measured up to events on the ground.

(Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and American troops in Afghanistan)

Most historians and journalists agree the swift early American success in 2002 turned out to be a curse as it gave the Bush administration the confidence to change policy from hunting terrorists to nation building.  Despite the arrogance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the war turned against the Americans with this change in strategy, a dominant theme that Whitlock develops as it seemed periodically Washington would change strategies and commanders on a regular basis.  One of the major problems American troops faced was that they could not distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.  For American troops Taliban and al-Qaeda were the same, a gross error in that the Taliban followed an extremist ideology and were Afghans, while al-Qaeda was made up of Arabs with a global presence who wanted to overthrow Middle Eastern autocrats allied with the United States.  By 2002 the United States was fighting an enemy that had nothing to do with 9/11 which was the stated purpose of the war.

The early success would deteriorate as the Bush administration shifted its focus to Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power.  Troops, supplies, and funding dissipated quickly as Whitlock quotes numerous individuals whose frustration with Rumsfeld and company for their lack of interest and refusal to provide the necessary equipment, troops, and funding to bolster the American effort in Afghanistan only providing the minimum level of support to keep the war going.

Whitlock organizes his narrative around American errors, the corruption of the Afghan government, and the refusal of American leadership to face the facts on the battlefield. Similar to the overall war strategy the nation-building campaign suffered from an obvious lack of goals and benchmarks.  The idea of imposing an American style democracy on a country with no foundation or history of the elements of that type of governmental system was idiotic from the outset and no matter what fantasy the Bush administration could cobble together preordained its failure.

Whitlock presents a number of important chapters chief among them is “Raising an Army from the Ashes” in which he describes the issues in constructing an army from scratch.  The entire episode portended the results witnessed a few weeks ago when a 300,000 man army collapsed and faded away when confronted by the Taliban.  Other chapters point to the basic complaint by officers and troops of the lack of preparation in understanding Afghan culture which led to many disastrous decisions.  Another key issue was the role of Pakistan which had its own agenda visa vie the Taliban and indirectly its fears of India.  By creating a sanctuary for the insurgency, it made the American task very difficult.  Whitlock’s insightful analysis mirrors that of Steve Coll’s DIRECTORATE S as it explains ISI duplicity and the fact that the Islamabad government knew how to play both ends against the middle to gain American financial and military support in return for very little.

afghanistan map explainer

American errors are numerous as recounted by Whitlock.  Flooding the country with money for projects that were not needed or absorbable was very detrimental to the American mission.  Support for Hamid Karzai and his corrupt regime, along with alliances with murderous warlords was self-defeating.  Trying to eradicate the opium trade was high minded, but with no alternate source of income Afghan farmers and warlords learned to manipulate the American strategy to reduce the drug trade was very problematical.

Whitlock introduces the major players in the war from Rumsfeld, Cheney, McChrystal, Petraeus,  Obama, and Trump with all of the flaws exhibited by their thinking that led to failure.  Whether implementing counterinsurgency, huge infrastructure projects, building inside enemy territory, and Petraeus’ strategy of being “hellbent at throwing money at problems” was doomed to failure.  The bottom line as Army Lt-General Douglas Lute, a Director of Operations for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon states is that “we were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan-we didn’t know what we were doing…What are we doing here?  We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking…There is a fundamental gap of understanding on the front end, overstated objectives, an overreliance on the military, and a lack of understanding of the resources necessary.” (110)

The Trump administration would run into the same roadblocks in trying to ameliorate the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.  Trump’s tough talk about “winning,” increased bombing that resulted in higher death counts for civilians, and more happy talk did not accomplish much.  It was clear once Trump’s promises “to deliver ‘clear cut victory’ had failed he ordered the state Department and Pentagon to engage in formal, face to face negotiations with the Taliban to find a way to extricate U.S. troops from Afghanistan without making it seem like a humiliating defeat.” (264) 

For over a  decade American policy makers and commanders  knew that a lasting military defeat of the Taliban was not in the cards as they were a Pashtun-led mass movement that represented a sizable portion of the population and continued to gain strength.  However, the Bush and Obama administrations made only half-hearted attempts to engage the Taliban, deferring to the Afghan government in the diplomatic process which they would paralyze.  The U.S. would squander attempts at a negotiated settlement in 2001 by excluding the Taliban from the Bonn Conference, three years later they did not take advantage of the democratic election of Hamid Karzai as president to implement the diplomatic process.  By 2009 the Obama administration took a hardline approach with its “reconciliation” requirements dooming any hope for talks to begin and progress as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other important policy makers believed that the Taliban would never desert al-Qaeda.

People arriving from Afghanistan make their way at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman [Abdul Khaliq Achakzai/Reuters]

(People arriving from Afghanistan make their way at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman)

The Trump administration finally negotiated a deal whereby all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.  Like his predecessors Trump failed to make good on his promise to prevail in Afghanistan or bring what he mocked as “the forever war” to completion.  Instead, he left an inheritance to Joe Biden who chose not to renege on Trump’s settlement with the Taliban to avoid further warfare.  This provoked a firestorm among conservative Republicans and veteran’s groups, many of which had argued against continuing the war for a number of years. Many have chosen to blame Biden for an abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan and a Taliban victory, however that result was because of two decades of obfuscation and a war strategy that was doomed to failure once we turned our attention to Iraq and took our foot off the pedal that drove the war in Afghanistan..

No matter what successes were repeatedly announced publicly by the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations spokespersons, in private they knew that Afghan security forces showed little progress in safeguarding the country, the Taliban retained safe havens in Pakistan, and corruption pervaded Afghan governments alienating and angering people.  If there is one theme that dominates Whitlock’s analysis is that “U.S. leaders knew their war strategy was dysfunctional and privately doubted they could attain their objectives.  Yet they confidently told the public year after year that they were making progress and that victory—winning was over the horizon.” (277)  Whitlock makes it clear that “it was impossible to square negative trends with the optimistic public messaging about progress, so US officials kept the complete datasets confidential.” (205) 

After reading Whitlock’s book it is clear that the US mission in Afghanistan was doomed to failure once we turned to nation building.  Whitlock the first important synthesis of the most basic and essential elements that led to the American withdrawal.  For those who need a quick primer or a thoughtful approach to the conduct of the war, Whitlock’s monograph is critical for our understanding as to what went wrong.

On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant 'Mission Accomplished' banner+4

The infamous phrase was echoed by Trump (pictured at the White House on April 13)+

 (On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, (left) a phrase echoed by Donald Trump (pictured at the White House on April 13, 2018)

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