Craig Whitlock’s The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War is a hallmark achievement of primary source reporting. It gathers interviews, documents, memos, and cables to tell the story of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan in the words of those in charge of the war, who tried, who failed. This book indicts the mission we sent our men and women to accomplish, in retaliation for what happened 20 years ago. It lays out how our efforts began with patriotic resolve and became a failure in planning, strategy, commitment, and imagination.
An investigative reporter for the Washington Post, Whitlock wrote the book assisted by a team of Post reporters and others, first for a 2019 series at the Post. Much of the material was gathered through lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to access thousands of government documents, creating this comprehensive account of deception and delusion.
“The gold standard are these public records and documents. This is exactly what we’re reaching for—records that haven’t been made public before, that are revelatory. That’s the whole point when you’re an investigative reporter,” Whitlock told The Daily Beast. “You can’t be accused of making stuff up, or using anonymous sources, because it’s right there in black and white.
“We had to fight like hell in court for a few years to get our hands on them, but I think we got a credible and honest set of documents and reflections on what went wrong in the war,” Whitlock said.
The evidence reveals high-level figures at their most unguarded and reflective. Archival memos provide comparisons of what military and political leaders said publicly versus privately at the same time. The sources sprawl from lengthy “Lessons Learned” interviews conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), down to “snowflake” memos dispatched by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—named by Rumsfeld’s staff for the “white-paper notes from the boss that piled up on their desks,” Whitlock wrote.
It’s a bad metaphor; snowflakes melt, Rumsfeld’s memos have remained.
Amidst this journalistic era of anecdotes, anonymity, and opinions masquerading as fact, The Afghanistan Papers reminds readers of the power of reportage built on documented evidence with names attached.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan. We didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” is a quote not from a junior-enlisted soldier bellyaching to an embedded reporter at some backwater outpost—it is from Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, appointed by President George W. Bush as the Deputy National Security Adviser to help coordinate strategy for Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It’s really much worse than you think,” Lute said in that Lessons Learned interview in 2015. “There is a fundamental gap of understanding.”
As an investigative reporter, Whitlock had seen surprising documents before, but even he was stunned by such stark revelations at such high levels.
“It was the general officers saying it—I’m paraphrasing, but Lute is just going on that we didn’t know what we were doing, that we had a fundamental ignorance,” Whitlock told the Beast. “He sounds like the low-level guys, except he’s in charge. It’s a blistering assessment.”
Many of the SIGAR Lessons Learned interviews were conducted in 2014-15, so participants reflected on a war they knew hadn’t gone well but were prepared to sum up their experiences. Whitlock said the context of the interviews came at an anticipated end to U.S. involvement, with few thinking it would go on for five more years.
“I was surprised by the extent of the self-criticism and honesty,” Whitlock said. “Those being interviewed clearly thought these interviews would be kept confidential. If I had sat down as a Post reporter at the same time and asked the same questions, no doubt the answers would have been much different and more guarded and careful. Because they thought they had control of how these interviews would be used, they were much more frank and kind of unburdened themselves.”
After successful lawsuits to gain access to the interviews, the material arrived without an “organizing principle,” Whitlock said, requiring careful examination, trying to pick things out as the evidence revealed itself to the Post team.
“After a while, some themes jumped out to me,” Whitlock said. “First was the number of generals who said we didn’t have a strategy, not even bad or poorly thought out—no strategy at all.
“That became a theme, that lack of strategy, both in the U.S. government and also our allies, criticizing unclear objectives,” he said. “Once you start getting a theme, you start looking at material that might fit that subject.”
The big picture theme of a lack of strategy connected like a spider web to all aspects of the war effort—to counterproductive efforts to stop the opium trade, to alliances with bad actors trading loyalty for money, to government corruption. There was no strategy in the biggest way, so there was no strategy in any way.
By 2006, U.S. Army Col. Christopher Kolenda told the Lessons Learned interviewers in 2016, the Afghan government had “organized into a kleptocracy. The priority of the Afghan government became not good government but sustaining this kleptocracy. It was through sheer naiveté, and maybe carelessness, that we helped to create the system. Kleptocracy is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.”
Whitlock writes, “By allowing corruption to fester, the United States helped destroy the legitimacy of the wobbly Afghan government they were fighting to prop up. With judges and police chiefs extorting bribes, many Afghans soured on democracy and turned to the Taliban to enforce order.”
If Kolenda’s observations are taken at face value—and, granted, he is just one officer interviewed years after the fact—the war was lost by 2006, when the Afghan government became unsustainable.
Whitlock quotes George W. Bush at a press conference on March 1, 2006. “We’re impressed by the progress your country is making,” Bush told Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
In another Lessons Learned interview, an unnamed official said, “The turning point came at the end of 2005, beginning of 2006, when we finally woke up to the fact that there was an insurgency that could actually make us fail.”
In February 2006, Ronald Neumann, the ambassador to Afghanistan, told U.S. officials that “a confident Taliban leader had warned, ‘You have all the clocks, but we have all the time.’”
Americans would not have known this from public pronouncements by wartime leaders. Leading up to 2006’s fifth anniversary of the start of the war, Whitlock said that “Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry (then-Commander, Combined Forces Afghanistan) did an interview and he said, “There are challenges but we’re making progress and we’re winning. We haven’t yet won, but we’re winning,” Whitlock said. “In diplomatic cables, Neumann had written a cable a week or two before that interview, and Eikenberry was copied on it—‘We are not winning.’”
Eikenberry would have been welcome to disagree, but the 180-degree difference in public and private is like moon and sun.
“One main theme of the book is to contrast what people were saying publicly and what they were saying in these documents,” Whitlock said. “We pulled, forgive me, a shitload of transcripts—press conferences, interviews, with generals, cabinet secretaries, politicians,” and entered it into a data entry system to collate the raw material. “We’d use the phrase ‘turning the corner,’ ‘progress,’ ‘winning,’ and contrast it with other documents and we see what they say in public and then a couple days later here’s Rumsfeld saying the exact opposite.”
Americans often saw just one side of these exchanges, so there was faith in a plan, beleaguered though we knew it was.
While it was 20 years ago, memories of Rumsfeld holding court with adoring reporters feel fresh when recreated in the book. Rumsfeld tells the press that, “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 a reason for 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,” Whitlock writes.
This is not a book that criticizes the media, but a few observations remind readers of the hero worship that went on during the heady days of war and adventure: “David Petraeus liked to challenge reporters to push-up contests. He answered their questions if they could keep up during his daily five-mile runs. Stanley McChrystal ‘pushes himself mercilessly, sleeping four or five hours a night, eating one meal a day,’ gushed a New York Times profile,” Whitlock writes.
So there’s plenty of blame to go around, for why it all turned into so much magical thinking.
Because the names of some of the Lessons Learned interviewees were redacted, it’s possible that Rumsfeld, who died this past June, participated. If he didn’t, Whitlock still brings Rumsfeld’s voice and style to life through the unclassified “snowflake” memos, thousands of pages of which were made available.
In the original Washington Post series in 2019, highlighted links allowed readers to hover over text and see images of the memos themselves, a virtual and visceral reminder of past events and history.
“We made a point that people could see the documents, and when you can see a Rumsfeld sentence, ‘now I believe it.’ I think we’ve been trained to sort of tune out the whole anonymous source, but you can say, damn, he really did say that in that memo,” Whitlock said. “When you can show readers that their leaders were lying, it can evoke an emotional response in people that other things might not.
“I think people reading it do get angry, and one of the reasons is we were able to document it all. These aren’t anonymous sources backbiting, trying to make themselves look good,” Whitlock said. “I didn’t do original interviews for the book [except for fact-checking], this is all documentary evidence.”
In the book, Rumsfeld’s written memos recreate his brusque and sarcastic personality, and show his press conference confidence was a well-acted put-on.
“In February 2005, Rumsfeld forwarded a confidential report to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the Afghan National Police. The report was titled ‘ANP Horror Stories,’ and described how most of the police were illiterate, underequipped and unprepared,” Whitlock writes.
Rumsfeld writes Rice: “My impression is that these two pages were written in as graceful and non-inflammatory a way as humanly possible.”
“Something like that, you don’t get much higher up than the Secretary of Defense and State, about what a disaster this was,” Whitlock said.
Rumsfeld was President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Defense and was ambassador to NATO during President Richard Nixon’s final year. He knew the power of written evidence and wrote these memos knowing they could become public. He had used some in his own biography, Known and Unknown.
“Nobody dictates memos like that anymore, or they just don’t put anything into writing. Rumsfeld put everything into these memos. He knew he was creating a paper trail and that historians might get to them eventually,” Whitlock said. “He’s never trying to make himself look stupid, and he’s often trying to pin blame on other people. But we’re able to keep track of them chronologically by subject with what he’s saying in public and private.”
Rumsfeld’s eye toward his own reputation comes across early in the book. He dictated an October 2002 memo—some could call it an alibi—to a redacted associate that he had wanted General Tommy Franks, already planning the invasion of Iraq, and General Dan McNeill, current commander in Afghanistan, to meet with President Bush.
Whitlock writes, “Bush seemed perplexed, according to a snowflake that Rumsfeld wrote later that day. “He said, ‘Who is General McNeill?’ Rumsfeld recalled. “I said he was the general in charge of Afghanistan. He said, ‘Well, I don’t need to meet with him.’”
Rumsfeld was a veteran of the Nixon administration’s evidence-driven destruction. It is fair to claim that Rumsfeld would put such events in writing, in documents he knew could be revealed by court order or declassification, because he saw a distant day when congressional subcommittees or dogged reporters would come asking who knew what and when did they know it.
“Why Rumsfeld put that in a memo, whether he wanted to blame Bush for something, or anything, it just says volumes about just how distracted they were from Afghanistan by Iraq,” Whitlock said.
“Historians, I’ve got to think, don’t come across stuff this clear-cut, these admissions. These unadorned assessments were really striking,” he said.
Rumsfeld had the good sense to die before he got to see this final conclusion to what he led at the beginning. He would no doubt be in front of the camera, justifying and excusing.
“The irony is that the whole country agreed this war was justified, and yet in the end it looks like this,” Whitlock said. “That’s why it’s so appalling.”
The chaos of the Afghan government’s collapse, the desperate evacuation, the embarrassment of an abandoned U.S. embassy on the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, “It really goes to show that the United States still didn’t have good insight into Afghanistan,” Whitlock said. “General Lute says we were fundamentally devoid of understanding, we saw it all through American eyes, and we just didn’t get it.”
As a black mirror of the past two decades, The Afghanistan Papers is a damning display. It should make readers angry. But readers angry only now, at the war’s bitter end, failed to pay attention for 20 years. They don’t deserve the emotion.
Whitlock is not that harsh toward his fellow citizens.
“Most people go about their daily business, not tracking this stuff that closely, and listening to their elected officials,” Whitlock said. “The way I look at it as a reporter, the best example is when military officials testify before Congress. They get sworn in to tell the truth and give advice regardless of politics. People see these generals. They have a lot of credibility; they carry a lot of weight. They believe them.”
I never went to Afghanistan. My investment with our Middle East adventures does date back 31 years, to August 1990, when I was a young soldier who volunteered to go somewhere, anywhere, with the expeditionary force deploying to Saudi Arabia to defend against Iraq. I got my wish. My later-now-distant embedded reporting trips to Iraq in 2007-09 were easy to manage—a plane from Kuwait to Baghdad, and short jaunts to downtown forts after that. I paid attention to Afghanistan but embeds required flights to Bagram and helicopters and convoys to who knows where, to climb mountains to impossible outposts.
Go to Afghanistan? Too much trouble.
Afghanistan has not entered its final act. Before the U.S. arrived in 2001, it was a nation of tribes and corruption and dreams and violence and life and it remains the same. All that ended is the United States’ large-scale involvement there.
“I would have thought the Defense Department would have had a better plan,” in the event of a sudden government collapse such that occurred, Whitlock said. “It seemed like such an obvious concern. We knew we were pulling the plug, we knew we had these interpreters, and we knew the physical layout of the country. Yeah, I’m pretty surprised we didn’t have better plans in place—this wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.”
But The Afghanistan Papers has presented 20 years of poor planning at every turn, so why would the catastrophe of the ending ever have been different? Individual operations were well-executed of course, but never in enough service to a coherent whole.
The war began in October 2001 with near-unanimous support with a clear-cut reason with a specific target in Osama bin Laden with retaliation for the September 11 attacks on all our minds. It took about nine-and-a-half years to find and kill bin Laden on May 1, 2011. Our involvement lasted 10 more years, with four extra months tacked on for good measure, and U.S. lives lost to the very end.
There are 2,500 dead U.S. service-members, a trillion dollars in cost, and lies for every day spent in Kabul’s streets, Nuristan’s mountains, and Helmand’s fields. The true number of the dead citizens of Afghanistan will never be counted.