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Explosive investigative report says U.S. government misled public on war in Afghanistan

In a blockbuster story representing the culmination of several years of investigation and pursuit of government documents, The Washington Post reports that U.S. officials have been misleading the American public about the war in Afghanistan for the past 18 years. John Yang talks to The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, lead reporter on the story, about what the classified document trove revealed.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, The Washington Post has a blockbuster story, the results of several years of reporting and legal pursuit of government documents.

    For the last 18 years, according to the government reports obtained by The Post, senior U.S. officials have been misleading the American public about the war in Afghanistan.

    John Yang has the story.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, it was called Lessons Learned, a project started by a special inspector general tasked with probing U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

    And those lessons tell a very different private story, one of misguided and fatal dysfunction, that violently contradicts the narrative pushed by three successive U.S. presidents and their administrations.

  • George W. Bush:

    There has been a lot of progress since 2001. After all, girls are back in school.

  • Barack Obama:

    In pursuit of our goal, we're seeing significant progress.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We will see what happens. But we have made tremendous progress.

  • John Yang:

    The Washington Post waged a three-year legal battle with the government to obtain these Lessons Learned.

    Craig Whitlock is the lead reporter on the story. And he joins us now from the Post newsroom.

    Craig, you read through some thousands of pages of these interviews. What was the big takeaway that you came away with?

  • Craig Whitlock:

    Just how blunt the people in charge of the war were about the failings of the strategy, about why we were there, about who the enemy was.

    One of the first quotes that leapt out at me was from Army Lieutenant General Doug Lute. He was the Afghan war czar in the White House for both Bush and Obama. And he said, we didn't have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking in Afghanistan. We didn't know what we were doing.

    He said, 2,400 lives lost, were they lost in vain?

    When you see things like that from generals in charge of the war, they grab your attention.

  • John Yang:

    And you talked to a lot of these people who were interviewed. Did you get any sense from them why they weren't — they were saying these things in private to these — the interviewers, but why they weren't saying these things in public?

  • Craig Whitlock:

    You know, that's a really good question.

    And a lot of them haven't elaborated. I think what happened is, these people were being interviewed by another government agency, and many of them had assurances that they wouldn't be quoted by name, or that their comments wouldn't make it out without their approval.

    And The Washington Post took the position that these are public records. These are people, senior government officials, criticizing the war from top to bottom, that the public has a right to know that.

    So we have been fighting that for a long time. And we finally managed to pry a good number of them loose. But I think most of these people, they never — they never thought they'd be quoted in public.

  • John Yang:

    And you also say that these reports, as you say in the story: "Written in dense bureaucratic prose and focused on an alphabet soup of government initiatives, left out the harshest and most frank criticisms from the interviews."

    Did you get a sense of why that was?

  • Craig Whitlock:

    Well, I asked the inspector general whose office was behind this project.

    I said, here you have these commanders and ambassadors and White House officials all saying what a disaster the war was. How could you keep that from the public? If your job is to hold the government accountable for the war, how could you sit on this?

    And I didn't get much of an answer. They said, well, maybe they would get around to it in a forthcoming report.

    But I think there was a — this was so explosive, what people were saying, I think another government agency just found it too hot to handle and decided it would be better to bury it.

  • John Yang:

    But also, given the title of the project, Lessons Learned, you think they would want the harshest and most frank commentary to teach these lessons.

    But they were not interested in sort of spreading this around the government?

  • Craig Whitlock:

    I think part of the issue here is, when they started this project in 2014, you have to remember, everybody assumed the war was coming to an end.

    And I think they thought it was a safe time to do a Lessons Learned project and get people to look back in time to see what happened. Of course, at that point, President Obama said he was going to withdraw all troops by the time he left office. That didn't happen.

    And then, when Trump took office, he's actually escalated the war. There are more troops there. The bombing from the air — the air wars have intensified greatly. So, I think the war went on much longer than even this agency or anybody in government thought.

    So I think it became much more sensitive, and they felt they had to keep it under wraps while the war was still going on.

  • John Yang:

    And the people interviewed not only just talked about the military strategies, but also talked about the other strategies.

    You pointed out that more than — the amount of money that's been spent on Afghanistan, if adjusted for inflation, is more than the United States — the United States spent on The Marshall Project after World War II.

    And what's to show for it, as it were, from this report?

  • Craig Whitlock:

    Well, not much.

    I mean, what we heard in interview after interview that these people gave, particularly aid workers in the field, military officers, diplomats, they all said, this was more money than they could possibly spend, that they were ordered by Congress and officials back in Washington during the Obama administration to spend, spend, spend as quickly as they could as much as they could.

    And they were — they really just graded on how much money they spent, not on whether these projects made any sense. And the people who had to do this, they said, not only didn't it make any sense, but it backfired because it fueled corruption, it alienated the Afghan people against the Afghan government, and it just made everything much, much worse.

  • John Yang:

    And you're going to have more coming up in The Post in the coming days?

  • Craig Whitlock:

    We are.

    Every day, we're going to come out with a new volume. Tomorrow, we're going to have a piece on just how flawed the strategy was both for Bush and Obama, and, again, in the voices of the people who ran the war.

  • John Yang:

    Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post with some very important reporting, thank you very much.

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