'The Afghanistan Papers' Reveals How Officials Knew The U.S. Was Likely To Fail There

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Tearful eyes are seen painted on a flag as members of the Los Angeles Afghan community and their supporters hold a vigil for Afghanistan outside the West LA Federal Building in Los Angeles, Aug. 17, 2021. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
Tearful eyes are seen painted on a flag as members of the Los Angeles Afghan community and their supporters hold a vigil for Afghanistan outside the West LA Federal Building in Los Angeles, Aug. 17, 2021. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

In April 2002, former President George W. Bush warned that insurgents were trying to undermine any peace and progress the U.S. achieved in Afghanistan.

“We know this from not only intelligence but from the history of military conflict in Afghanistan. It's been one of initial success followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure,” Bush said to the audience at Virginia Military Institute. “We're not going to repeat that mistake.”

Yet for all of the positive spin from multiple administrations, there is well-documented doubt and confusion behind the curtain.

In Craig Whitlock’s new book, the author and investigative journalist at The Washington Post looks at what went wrong in Afghanistan over the two decades the U.S. had troops there.

The Post sued the federal government to obtain previously undisclosed documents that reveal how military leaders, diplomats and other officials publicly praised U.S. progress and success in Afghanistan while privately knowing that there was no clear strategy or mission. The documents also suggest they knew the U.S. was probably not able to win.

Whitlock outlines these findings in “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War." He says when the war started after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, everyone could identify the enemy — members of al-Qaida.

“That was a pretty successful part of the mission: Within six months, by early 2002, pretty much all of al-Qaida's leadership had been killed, captured or had fled Afghanistan. At that point, the enemy was pretty amorphous,” Whitlock says. “That's where things started to go awry.”

With al-Qaida largely quelled, the Pentagon — under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s leadership — was struggling to a “remarkable degree” to clearly define who the enemy was shortly after the war began, Whitlock says he discovered in the memos obtained for “The Afghanistan Papers.”

Rumsfeld, Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney would lump together al-Qaida, the Taliban and other insurgent groups, Whitlock says, often calling them “the bad guys.”

“For instance, Rumsfeld wrote a memo to his intelligence chiefs a year or two into the war in which he said, ‘I have no visibility into who the bad guys are in Afghanistan,’ ” Whitlock says. “And frankly, that wasn't something we ever sorted out over the last two decades.”

Interview Highlights

On Foreign Service Officer Todd Greentree stating in an oral interview that the U.S. provoked the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan by hunting them down

“Greentree goes on in his oral history interview to say that we sort of violated the Afghan way of war, that over the centuries Afghanistan has been overrun by foreign occupiers. They've also had civil wars. We have commanders from different parts of the country fighting each other, but they know how to switch sides and change allegiances. And so that's the way you sort of end the conflict in Afghanistan, is you have some kind of reconciliation.

“But the United States didn't do that. It thought it had defeated the Taliban back in 2002. And rather than allow for some sort of reconciliation for a way to politically end the fighting, we kept creating this bigger and bigger list of bad guys, which in turn just made the list get longer and longer.”

On uncovering an interview with Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who told U.S. war auditors in 2015 that “if we're doing such a great job, why does it feel like we're losing?”

“Well, Flynn was head of military intelligence for NATO and the United States in Afghanistan. He served many tours there. And before he got involved in politics and became known as a political extremist, he was well respected in the military for his intelligence assessments. And his point here is that because we kept sending in new units every year, troops would rotate in for nine or 12 months at a time. Same with diplomats at the U.S. Embassy.

“He's really getting to the question of human nature here that, particularly in the military, nobody wants to admit they didn't accomplish the mission, and part of that is the can-do spirit of the military. But it's also this unwillingness to admit that the situation was unfixable or that you failed. You don't want to take responsibility for failure on your watch or even to question the mission. The instinct is always to say you succeeded.”

On how the apparent problems with the U.S. partnership with the local Afghan army doesn’t square with public messaging of a strong alliance

“The slogan that the Pentagon put out was that we're shoulder to shoulder with the Afghans in the field. We're training them, we're mentoring them, we're patrolling with them. But the reality on the ground was that, as Secretary [Robert] Gates points out [in an interview obtained in ‘The Afghanistan Papers’], we sort of dictated the terms of what they were supposed to do and expected the Afghans to follow along. Now, part of that was hubris on the part of U.S. officials that we thought we knew best, even though we really didn't understand Afghanistan that well.

“But underlying all that was a sort of distrust of our Afghan partners. You see that in a lot of oral history interviews with U.S. troops who are serving as trainers or mentors. They just didn't think the Afghans were up to the job. The Afghan army recruits couldn't read. They couldn't shoot straight. They deserted often. And so this is a very, very difficult task to train an Afghan army that was competent. And frankly, the Americans at the field level didn't have much confidence that this was going to work. But in public, the American generals kept reassuring the public that everything was going great. So there's this extreme disconnect between what the American people were being told and what military officials thought behind the scenes.”

On Foreign Service Officer Michael Metrinko’s comments during an oral interview that CIA officials on the ground in Afghanistan did not understand the country

“The fact is, we didn't understand the place very well at all. Michael Metrinko is a foreign service officer who is a rare bird because he spoke Dari, one of the Afghan national languages, and he was pretty scathing in his assessment of anybody else in the U.S. government, but particularly the CIA.

“And as he pointed out, the CIA sort of thought they understood Afghanistan and would come in beards and dress like the locals and hand out bags of cash to warlords to try and get them on their side. But Metrinko said whenever he would talk with Afghan elders in their native language, they would sort of laugh at how blind the Americans were in their understanding of Afghanistan.

“Again, this is something we see throughout the war. There was an interview we obtained with [Lt. Gen.] Douglas Lute, who is the war czar for both Bush and [former President Barack] Obama, and he said we didn't have the foggiest idea of what we were doing. We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan. And that's something you hear again and again that even though we were there for 20 years, we never really understood the place. And this was just an enormous reason why the war failed.”

The flags of Afghanistan and the United States are seen on the table before a meeting between the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on June 25, 2021. (Alex Brandon/AP)
The flags of Afghanistan and the United States are seen on the table before a meeting between the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on June 25, 2021. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Book Excerpt: 'The Afghanistan Papers'

By Craig Whitlock

Two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, as the United States girded for war in Afghanistan, a reporter asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a straightforward question: Would U.S. officials lie to the news media about military operations in order to mislead the enemy?

Rumsfeld stood at the podium in the Pentagon briefing room. The building still smelled of smoke and jet fuel from when American Airlines flight 77 exploded into the west wall, killing 189 people. The defense secretary started to reply by paraphrasing a quotation from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Rumsfeld explained how the Allies, prior to D-Day, ran a disinformation campaign called Operation Bodyguard to confuse the Germans about when and where the invasion of western Europe would take place in 1944.

Rumsfeld sounded as if he were justifying the practice of spreading lies during wartime, but then he pivoted and insisted he would never do such a thing. “The answer to your question is, no, I cannot imagine a situation,” he said. “I don’t recall that I’ve ever lied to the press. I don’t intend to, and it seems to me that there will not be reason for it. There are dozens of ways to avoid having to put yourself in a position where you’re lying. And I don’t do it.”

Asked if the same could be expected of everyone else in the Defense Department, Rumsfeld paused and gave a little smile.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” he said.

The Pentagon press corps laughed. It was classic Rumsfeld: clever, forceful, unscripted, disarming. A former star wrestler at Princeton, he was a master at not getting pinned down.

Twelve days later, on October 7, 2001, when the U.S. military began bombing Afghanistan, no one foresaw that it would turn into the most protracted war in American history—longer than World War I, World War II and Vietnam combined.

Unlike the war in Vietnam, or the one that would erupt in Iraq in 2003, the decision to take military action against Afghanistan was grounded in near-unanimous public support. Shaken and angered by al-Qaeda’s devastating terrorist strikes, Americans expected their leaders to defend the homeland with the same resolve as they did after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Within three days of 9/11, Congress passed legislation authorizing the Bush administration to go to war against al-Qaeda and any country that harbored the network.

For the first time, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invoked Article 5, the alliance’s collective commitment to defend any of its member states under attack. The United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the “horrifying terrorist attacks” and called on all countries to bring the perpetrators to justice. Even hostile powers expressed solidarity with the United States. In Iran, thousands attended candlelight vigils and hardliners stopped shouting “Death to America” at weekly prayers for the first time in twenty-two years.

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.

No one wanted to admit that the war that started as a just cause had deteriorated into a losing one. From Washington to Kabul, an unspoken conspiracy to mask the truth took hold. Omissions inexorably led to deceptions and eventually to outright absurdities. Twice—in 2003 and again in 2014—the U.S. government declared an end to combat operations, episodes of wishful thinking that had no connection to reality on the ground.

Excerpted from THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock. Copyright © 2021. Available from Simon & Schuster.

 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on August 30, 2021.


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Scott Tong Co-Host, Here & Now
Scott Tong joined Here & Now as a co-host in July 2021 after spending 16 years at Marketplace as Shanghai bureau chief and senior correspondent.



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