A timely, illuminating, necessary, but strangely limited book
The groundbreaking investigative story of how three successive presidents and their military commanders deceived the public year after year about the longest war in American history…
Unlike the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 had near-unanimous public support. At first, the goals were straightforward and clear: to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent a repeat of 9/11. Yet soon after the United States and its allies removed the Taliban from power, the mission veered off course and US officials lost sight of their original objectives.
Distracted by the war in Iraq, the US military became mired in an unwinnable guerrilla conflict in a country it did not understand. But no president wanted to admit failure, especially in a war that began as a just cause. Instead, the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations sent more and more troops to Afghanistan and repeatedly said they were making progress, even though they knew there was no realistic prospect for an outright victory.
Just as the Pentagon Papers changed the public’s understanding of Vietnam, The Afghanistan Papers contains startling revelation after revelation from people who played a direct role in the war, from leaders in the White House and the Pentagon to soldiers and aid workers on the front lines. In unvarnished language, they admit that the US government’s strategies were a mess, that the nation-building project was a colossal failure, and that drugs and corruption gained a stranglehold over their allies in the Afghan government. All told, the account is based on interviews with more than 1,000 people who knew that the US government was presenting a distorted, and sometimes entirely fabricated, version of the facts on the ground.
Documents unearthed by The Washington Post reveal that President Bush didn’t know the name of his Afghanistan war commander — and didn’t want to make time to meet with him. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted he had “no visibility into who the bad guys are.” His successor, Robert Gates, said: “We didn’t know jack shit about al-Qaeda.”
The Afghanistan Papers is a shocking account that will supercharge a long overdue reckoning over what went wrong and forever change the way the conflict is remembered.
This must be one of the best-timed books of the year. With President Biden’s recent announcement that the American presence and responsibilities in Afghanistan are over, Whitlock’s book has understandably generated a lot of interest and attention (far more, it seems, than the articles it’s based on received). In the days since the withdrawal, it seems as though every article has quoted Whitlock’s book (well, the introduction, mostly). I decided it was time that I got around to it, too, after leaving it languishing on my TBR for a couple months. It is an interesting and quick read, with plenty of illuminating and damning discoveries. It was also somewhat limited, however.
There have been a slew of books recently that examine America’s wars in Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq. The most recent notable book, in my opinion, is Robert Draper’s To Start a War, which examines the Bush administration’s shift from Afghanistan to Iraq. Like many people who were of the right age and temperament to pay attention to US politics at the time, Afghanistan quickly became the forgotten war. The president, the US government (and British), the media all turned their attentions to Iraq and forgot about the original plan for Afghanistan: to go after and destroy al Qaeda, the terrorists responsible for the attacks on 9/11. Whitlock does address this, and has found plenty of quotations and criticisms of the shift in strategic focus, and how that affected the work in Afghanistan.
With such strong backing, U.S. officials had no need to lie or spin to justify the war. Yet leaders at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department soon began to make false assurances and to paper over setbacks on the battlefield. As months and years passed, the dissembling became more entrenched. Military commanders and diplomats found it harder to acknowledge mistakes and deliver clear-eyed, honest assessments in public.
I think the synopsis oversells it, a bit, when it says that four presidents effectively lied despite knowing that there was never any hope for victory. What comes through very clearly in the book is that the military knew full well that there was no chance of victory, and that they spent a great deal of time and effort (not to mention cash) obfuscating and misdirecting information related to the likely chance of success. In part, this is perhaps because dissent was smothered during the Bush years, and those who questioned any part of policy were shunted aside, reassigned, or dismissed. However, the fact that it continued under a president with a wholly different temperament and fealty to the military (Obama) suggests that the military were not shrinking violets in the face of presidential authority. Rather, Whitlock includes plenty of evidence to suggest that military leaders were the driving force behind the continued, seemingly-never-ending conflict — even though many of them couldn’t explain with any degree of coherence what they were doing there after the first couple of years. (At one point, Whitlock writes, “In the end, the generals won the argument.” He’s referring to a specific instance, in which Obama ultimately caved to sending more troops, but it’s a statement that could have been the subtitle of the book.)
Whitlock even makes it clear that the military brass played Trump like a fiddle, appealing to his vehement hatred of Obama in order to get their way. For example, in relation to the Surge(which was also a manipulation of policy, strategy, and the American people on many fronts) and other increases in troop levels on the ground:
They argued that Obama had bungled his troop surge by announcing that it would only last for eighteen months. The Taliban had just laid low and waited him out. Don’t be like Obama and tip your hand to the enemy, they advised the president.
The criticism of Obama was catnip to Trump, who detested his predecessor. He approved sending several thousand more forces to Afghanistan. He also agreed to keep the troop increase open-ended.
Whitlock’s best case, I think, is when he characterized the official position or version of the war as being “untrue, or aggressively sanitized at best.” Much of that sanitization, save for a few instances, appears to have come from the military — perhaps because they fell victim to groupthink, but ultimately because the stench of failure would stick to so very many leaders in both parties and across all branches of government. As a result, so many decisions were made using “inaccurate or unverified data”.
The most damning content in The Afghanistan Papers relates to how well prepared America was, at any time, during the 20 year war. Specifically, that it started out woefully ignorant of the country, its people and its culture, and never really learned anything along the way.
One reason the war dragged on for so long was because the United States never really understood what motivated its enemies to fight. At the war’s outset, scarcely any U.S. officials possessed an elementary understanding of Afghan society or had visited the country since the American embassy in Kabul closed in 1989. To an ignorant foreigner, Afghanistan’s history, complex tribal dynamics, and ethnic and religious fault lines felt bewildering. It was much easier to divide the country into two camps: good guys and bad guys.
This lack of understanding exacerbated every problem and mistake that was made over the decades: from the endemic corruption; the continuation of Afghanistan’s opium industry and what to do about it; the well-meaning but misplaced allocation of resources; the continuing distrust of, alternately, the Americans, the Taliban, the warlords, the Afghan government, Karzai, and pretty much everyone else; and so many more. There’s no way to come away from this book without a sense of frustration that, with all the staggering resources available to it, the US and its military failed to do the simplest of things: understand who they were fighting against, and also who they were fighting for. The mistakes, blunders, and lies all resulted in a tangled mess that could have only ended up how it has ended.
I mention at the top that I found the book somewhat limited. It is perhaps an unfair critique, but I would have liked Whitlock to introduce a bit more of a conversation into the text. For example, many of the government and appointed officials quoted in here — for example, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, Zalmay Khalilzad, Presidents Bush and Obama, Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, to name but a few — have all written books and memoirs about their time in office. With only one exception that I noticed (Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir), Whitlock doesn’t put anything found in the papers into conversation with what else these people have written. There were a few mentions of congressional statements and so forth, but not much else. Indeed, it would be very interesting to go back and read some of these published accounts of the conflict, knowing what we know now. Incorporating a bit more of this would have made The Afghanistan Papers a really important book, in my opinion. There is, in other words, about three-quarters of a superb book in here. But, unfortunately, I can’t see that book ever being written, now — who is likely to cover the same ground, but with greater context? It’s an opportunity missed, in my humble opinion.
U.S. officials wanted to pull out but feared the Afghan state would collapse if they did. Bin Laden had hoped for this exact scenario when he planned 9/11: to lure the U.S. superpower into an unwinnable guerrilla conflict that would deplete its national treasury and diminish its global influence.
“Instead of bringing stability and peace,” it is made clear, “the United States inadvertently built a corrupt, dysfunctional Afghan government that depended on U.S. military power for its survival.” While we can critique the way in which President Biden’s withdrawal happened (and many, many people already have without knowing even half of the facts; but the opinion media will do what the opinion media does), it is hard to disagree with the need to end the American war and presence in Afghanistan. Whitlock’s book includes plenty of valuable context, and also explains the lingering popular appeal of the Taliban among some of the Afghan population (and goes a little way to explain their resurgence in the wake of the American departure — a resurgence that was predicted by many Americans, in public and in private).
“Biden faced the same conundrum as his predecessors: how to end an unwinnable war? As the leaders of the insurgency were fond of saying, the United States had all the clocks but the Taliban had all the time.”
Given recent events, Biden must have decided that he was done keeping those clocks ticking.
The Afghanistan Papers is a must read for anyone interested in America’s recent overseas misadventures, as well as anyone with an interest in US foreign policy in general.