Quick Review: THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS by Craig Whitlock (Simon & Schuster)

WhitlockC-AfghanistanPapersA 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. Continue reading

Quick Review: TO START A WAR by Robert Draper (Penguin Press)

DraperD-ToStartAWarUSHCAn interesting, well-written, and extensive investigation into what the US went to war with Iraq

Even now, after more than fifteen years, it is hard to see the invasion of Iraq through the cool, considered gaze of history. For too many people, the damage is still too palpable, and still unfolding. Most of the major players in that decision are still with us, and few of them are not haunted by it, in one way or another. Perhaps it’s that combination, the passage of the years and the still unresolved trauma, that explains why so many protagonists opened up so fully for the first time to Robert Draper.

Draper’s prodigious reporting has yielded scores of consequential new revelations, from the important to the merely absurd. As a whole, the book paints a vivid and indelible picture of a decision-making process that was fatally compromised by a combination of post-9/11 fear and paranoia, rank naïveté, craven groupthink, and a set of actors with idées fixes who gamed the process relentlessly. Everything was believed; nothing was true. The intelligence failure was comprehensive. Draper’s fair-mindedness and deep understanding of the principal actors suffuse his account, as does a storytelling genius that is close to sorcery. There are no cheap shots here, which makes the ultimate conclusion all the more damning.

In the spirit of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat, To Start A War will stand as the definitive account of a collective process that arrived at evidence that would prove to be not just dubious but entirely false, driven by imagination rather than a quest for truth — evidence that was then used to justify a verdict that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and a flood tide of chaos in the Middle East that shows no signs of ebbing.

“Why did Bush et al shift their focus from Afghanistan and al Qaeda to Saddam and Iraq?” This is a question that many have been trying to answer, with varying degrees of success ever since the shift happened. In his latest book, Draper presents an account of how the United States ended up in Iraq. It’s an interesting, wide-ranging investigation. Continue reading