The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War

  • By Craig Whitlock
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 368 pp.
  • Reviewed by Larry Matthews
  • August 16, 2021

A damning, gut-punch account of a misguided — and misrepresented — military debacle.

As you read this, what’s left of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan has all but collapsed. Nothing, it appears, went right, despite a massive expenditure of lives, suffering, and American taxpayer dollars. The incompetence and miscalculations are laid out in sordid detail in The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, by Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock, recipient of prestigious journalism awards and a three-time Pulitzer finalist.

There is nothing in this book to cheer about. I didn’t know whether to read it with interest or throw it across the room. Whitlock does an outstanding job of laying out the failure. His source material is a project called Lessons Learned, interviews with hundreds of participants in the war, including the generals and others who made the decisions. Lessons Learned was produced by a federal agency called the Office of the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.

The war began as a response to 9/11 and was, in the beginning, aimed at al-Qaeda. Here are quotes from three generals:

“There was no campaign plan.”

“There was no coherent long-term strategy.”

“We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

That was just the beginning. It got worse.

The United States went from conducting a limited action against those who had attacked us to an all-out war against the Taliban, despite early statements that we would not wage war against them given that there was no proof they had anything to do with 9/11.

Regarding al-Qaeda, former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “The reality is that on 9/11 we didn’t know jack shit about al-Qaeda.” As it turned out, al-Qaeda was a network of Arabs, not Afghans.

Whitlock takes us through the fiasco at Tora Bora and Osama bin Laden’s escape to Pakistan, the duplicity of the Pakistani intelligence service, and our misunderstanding of who the Taliban are.

Into this mix of ignorance and poor planning came the idea of “nation building” in a place that has never been a “nation” in the classic sense. Afghanistan has never had a strong central government, an effective national army, or anything else that might provide a base for tying the place together. For a thousand years, it’s been a collection of tribal areas, warlords, double-dealers, and lots of people living a 13th-century life even today.

In the beginning of our war there, Afghanistan had no money, no army, very few functioning toilets, and very little trust in infidels and their big ideas. The U.S. set out to create an army. Whitlock writes:

“An estimated 80 to 90 per cent could not read or write. Some could not count or did not know their colors. Yet the Americans expected them to embrace PowerPoint presentations and operate complex weapons systems.”

Six years into the conflict, Army General Dan McNeill arrived to take charge. “I tried to get someone to define for me what winning means, even before I went over, and nobody could,” he said.

Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump changed commanders and ordered an endless stream of “comprehensive reviews” of U.S. strategy and goals. As with America’s previous experience in Vietnam, the U.S. government resorted to obfuscation and outright lies about how the war was going.

Then came the invasion of Iraq, and suddenly Afghanistan became the undercard. Iraq joined Afghanistan as a mismanaged military adventure with putrid political overtones: lives lost, billions squandered, no real exit plan, and no hard definition of victory.

Nothing went right. Billions were spent to eradicate Afghanistan’s opium poppies, the country’s most lucrative cash crop, but the effort only hardened feelings against the Americans. Whitlock writes that the United States spent more money, adjusted for inflation, in its failed nation building in Afghanistan than it spent rebuilding Europe after World War II under the Marshall Plan.

In the end, the people we were there to bring into the 21st century saw us as foreign infidels who didn’t know anything about their culture. The Taliban, a collection of true believers, opportunists, and tribal actors, were the guys who understood. They could, and did, wait us out.

Full disclosure: I have a personal interest in the war in Afghanistan. My oldest grandson was a machine-gunner in an Army rifle company and was in combat there for 10 months. He came home with his idealism shattered, convinced that the U.S. needed to get out fast. He was right. Our family knows the stench of bad war policy. I am the third of five generations to serve. We’ve been in every major war since WWI in 1918. My father and I both carried the odor of Vietnam for years.

Americans’ faith in government is low. Recent polls show it somewhere around 25 percent. The other three-quarters of us don’t think our leaders are to be trusted. The Afghanistan Papers only confirms that opinion. It is not a joyful read. It’s a sad journey of runaway hubris. Whitlock ends the book by quoting the leaders of Afghanistan’s insurgency:

“The United States had all the clocks but the Taliban had all the time.”

Larry Matthews is the author of Take a Rifle from A Dead Man.

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