‘The Afghanistan Papers’ exposes the U.S.’s shaky Afghanistan strategy

Despite American presidents and military leaders providing years of positive assessments that the U.S. was winning the war in Afghanistan, behind the scenes there were clear warnings of an unsuccessful end. Those stories of failure, corruption and lack of strategy are the focus of Craig Whitlock's discussion with Judy Woodruff and his new book "The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Despite American presidents and military leaders providing years of positive assessments that the U.S. was winning the war in Afghanistan, behind the scenes, there were clear warnings that things were headed in another direction.

    Those harbingers, stories of failure, corruption and lack of a clear strategy, are the focus of Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock's new book, "The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War."

    And Craig joins us now.

    Thank you so much for being here. Congratulations. This is a definitive book.

    Craig Whitlock, you interviewed over 1,000 people and you had access to documents that your newspaper, The Washington Post, had to sue to get. And they tell a very different story in many cases from what the public has been told over the last 20 years, don't they?

  • Craig Whitlock, The Washington Post:

    Yes, these documents were interviews with — the core of them, with more than 400 officials who played a key role in the war.

    And this is from White House officials, to generals, diplomats, aid workers, and also Afghans. And they really — they thought these were confidential interviews the government had conducted, and they thought that — their assessments were brutal.

    They said that the U.S. government didn't know what it was doing in Afghanistan, it didn't have a strategy, and it misled the American people of how the war was going for 20 years. So, it was a complete opposite of the message that was being delivered in public year after year, that the U.S. was making progress, that victory was around the corner.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And this goes back to the very beginning.

    President Bush goes into the U.S. goes into Afghanistan initially to get Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, but it very quickly changes to nation-building. And you have a lot of behind-the-scenes information from then on about what was going on and how what was being assessed was different from what people were being told.

  • Craig Whitlock:

    Well, and one of earliest examples of this is, President Bush gave a speech in April of 2002 to the Virginia Military Institute.

    At that time, the Taliban had been defeated, al-Qaida was on the run. But Bush was addressing concerns already that Afghanistan could turn into a quagmire, like Vietnam, or like what had happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan or the British in the 19th century. And he was dismissing these concerns, saying, don't worry, we won't get bogged down. This isn't going to happen to us.

    On that very same day Bush gave the speech, his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, dictated a memo to several of his generals and top aides at the Pentagon. And he said the exact opposite. He expressed his real fear that we could get bogged down. He said, if we don't come up with a plan to stabilize Afghanistan, we will never get the troops out.

    And he ended the memo with one word. It said, "Help!" on the very same day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that was Donald — the late Donald Rumsfeld.

    But you write about a number of instances during the Obama administration, then, of course, into Trump, and just this new administration.

  • Craig Whitlock:

    That's right. I mean, this happened with all the presidents.

    People may recall, back in 2014, President Obama said that the war was coming to a conclusion. There was actually a ceremony in Kabul at NATO headquarters, in which the U.S. officials said that the combat mission for U.S. troops was over. And yet, behind the scenes, the Pentagon and Obama all knew that U.S. troops were still going to be in harm's way and people were still dying in combat for the duration of the war.

    More than 100 people died in Afghanistan, U.S. troops, after Obama said that mission was coming to an end.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Craig Whitlock, you cite one military leader after another. I'm thinking of General David Petraeus, who's been out very critical lately of President Biden, saying that he should have realized that the Afghan military was helping fight off ISIS and al-Qaida.

    But you cite him and other military leaders telling Congress again, as you're saying now, that things were going well, when they weren't.

  • Craig Whitlock:

    That's right.

    We heard this month after month, year after year under Bush, Obama and Trump, that the Afghan army and police forces were capable of defending their own country, that they no longer needed U.S. troops to fight the Taliban in ground combat. And yet, in these interviews in "The Afghanistan papers," U.S. military trainers and other officials were sending up highly critical reports of the Afghan forces.

    They said they couldn't shoot straight, they were illiterate, their leaders were corrupt. And they expressed real doubt that they could stand up in a fight to the Taliban.

    So the Pentagon has known this for many years. And yet, again, as you said, in public, they kept telling the American people that this — everything was going according to plan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And when people try to understand what went wrong over all these years, I mean, you have got a chapter on corruption. You have got another chapter on the opium trade, the poppies that so many the farmers were growing, and again on the military that — the Afghan military, how hard it was, with change in leadership after change, how hard it was to get the results that Americans were looking for.

  • Craig Whitlock:

    That's right.

    And I think most Americans, they knew the war wasn't going well. But they always assumed there was a plan, that there was a strategy that was in place that was maybe just tough to carry out.

    But in these interviews in "The Afghanistan Papers," generals, ambassadors, other people, they were very blunt. They said, we didn't know what we were doing in Afghanistan. They literally would say this. We never understood the country. In their early years, there was no strategy.

    So it really was worse than people thought.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about the role of Pakistan next door? It's been hard for many Americans to understand what that has been really all about, the connection between Pakistan and the Taliban.

  • Craig Whitlock:

    And this is something the U.S. government has never really figured out what to do.

    It took the Bush administration several years to really come to the realization that the government of Pakistan was — on one hand, it was fighting al-Qaida, but it was lending support secretly to the Taliban. It took them a while to sort of accept that Pakistan was playing a double game.

    During the Obama administration, I think they recognized that, but they were really dependent on Pakistan for supply routes to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. So they really couldn't get that tough on the Pakistanis. Same under Trump. There was all this tough talk about getting the Pakistan to clamp down on the Taliban. But we never really had an effective strategy to deal with that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And when we hear President Biden today saying, among other things, that he really had no choice, that President Trump had negotiated this withdrawal date, and he really couldn't change it, and that the alternative was to escalate, is that the whole story here?

  • Craig Whitlock:

    I don't think it's the whole story.

    I mean, certainly, President Biden was not obligated to accept Trump's deal with the Taliban. He could have tried to modify it or take a different approach.

    But I think he's right in one respect, that this was not a winnable war, and the Taliban had held off on attacking U.S. troops since Trump cut his deal with them in February 2020. So I think he's right.

    If we were going to try and have a military victory over the Taliban, which was highly dubious, we would have had to commit more troops and double down on the fighting there. And that was something that Biden didn't want to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Can you come away with all this research and reporting you have done, Craig Whitlock, with lessons for future American leaders, when we are tempted to go into another country to fix a problem, to fight an enemy?

  • Craig Whitlock:

    Well, and that's right. And the parallels to Vietnam are very strong.

    But the irony here is, we don't learn these lessons from history. At the beginning of the war, Bush and Rumsfeld and others, again, they said, we learned our lesson from Vietnam. We're not going to do that again.

    So they knew about it, but it still happened. And I think, sometimes, we turn a blind eye to history, and we forget. And we had a lot of hubris in Afghanistan, that we thought we could do something that clearly, in retrospect, failed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Were there particular truth-tellers who stood out to you in all your research?

  • Craig Whitlock:

    I think, in these interviews, which the government tried to keep a secret from the American people, there were truth-tellers.

    People admitted that the strategy was a failure and…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    After the fact.

  • Craig Whitlock:

    After — and not too many. I wish there have been more people that spoke up.

    There was one in particular. General David McKiernan was the war commander during the end of Bush's term and the beginning of Obama's. And he was the one general who said in public that the war wasn't going well, that things were going south. He was fired in the Obama administration.

    And there was really no concrete reason given, but he the first war commander relief since Douglas MacArthur in Korea. In the documents we obtained, there are military officials who said McKiernan knew that he was getting in trouble for telling the truth about how things weren't going well, and that was the reason.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, based on what you have learned about the Taliban, what is your expectation about what's going to happen now in Afghanistan?

  • Craig Whitlock:

    Well, this is really fascinating.

    We fought this war on the assumption that the Taliban was the enemy. Right now, the Taliban, they have gotten everything they wanted to kick out the foreign forces, but they crave diplomatic recognition from the United States. They want humanitarian aid and other assistance to flow in.

    I think the Biden administration is going to be slow to recognize a diplomatic — give diplomatic recognition to the Taliban, but they have already started to do business with them militarily. And you may recall that the CIA director, Bill Burns, made a visit to Kabul recently to meet with the Taliban leadership.

    So I think, on counterterrorism operations against groups like the Islamic State, I think the U.S. and the Taliban will probably work together fairly closely. They just may keep it hidden from the public.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which is what so much of the book is about, just a remarkable book, as we say, I — definitive, in my view, "The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War."

    Craig Whitlock, thank you very much.

  • Craig Whitlock:

    Thank you, Judy.

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