On December 9, 2019, The Washington Post published an extensive article by Craig Whitlock entitled, “At War with the Truth: The Afghanistan Papers—A Secret History of the War,” featuring hyperlinks to the original sources upon which it is based.
Whitlock, an investigative reporter, has covered the global war on terrorism for the Post since 2001. His reporting as a foreign correspondent, Pentagon reporter, and national security specialist has won him the George Polk Award for Military Reporting, The Scripps Howard Award for Investigative Reporting, and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for International Reporting. He is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. This book, however, will not win him that elusive prize.
The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War expands that 2019 Post article. The book is modeled on the Pentagon Papers, which charged that the Johnson administration systematically lied to Congress and the public about the Vietnam War. The Afghanistan Papers makes the same charge against the Bush and Obama administrations. It focuses upon in-fighting between the Pentagon, White House, Congress, CIA, and State Department over their mission. Whitlock documents the ways that challenges that arose over 20 years shaped and frustrated political and military decision-making. From defeating al-Qaeda and eliminating the Taliban to stabilizing Afghanistan, the book focuses on how the chimera of nation-building, and a profound misunderstanding of Afghan culture and history, confounded American policy.
Throughout the book, Whitlock documents bureaucratic ineptitude, corruption, and stupidity. These problems are made clear by the story of the emergence of Afghanistan as a narco-state, enabled by misguided, ridiculously expensive, and futile efforts to curtail the opium trade. The refusal of generals, bureaucrats, and politicians to tell the truth about the real issues facing them led to false narratives and outright lies. More importantly, it led to heavy-handed asymmetric warfare, deluded strategies, futile projects costing billions, and tragic errors that cost innocent civilians their lives.
Whitlock deploys extensive evidence to make the case that there was systematic deception and corruption. The Post obtained the Lessons Learned interview documents from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) after filing multiple public-records requests beginning in 2016, and two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits. The lawsuits eventually compelled SIGAR to release more than two thousand pages of unpublished notes and transcripts from 428 interviews, as well as several audio recordings focused on events that occurred during the Bush and Obama administrations. SIGAR stipulated in court that the agency independently verified all the materials it released. Whitlock also made extensive use of Donald Rumsfeld’s memos (called “snowflakes”) held by the National Security Archive affiliated with George Washington University; Army oral-history interviews conducted by the Operational Leadership Experience project, part of the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; additional oral-history interviews housed at the US Center for Military History in Washington, DC, conducted with senior officers; the George W. Bush oral-history transcript collection at the University of Virginia Miller Center; and diplomatic oral-history collection at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.
The book is organized chronologically in six parts and 21 chapters. The narrative becomes increasingly redundant because the underlying issues facing policymakers remained constant. One hopes that the entirety of these sources will one day be published, just as the sources of the Pentagon Papers eventually were.
Readers following the debacle of the American evacuation that ended the war in August, and especially the resistance in the Panjshir Province led by the son of the Afghan hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, will be particularly frustrated: the valley is entirely missing from the provincial map of Afghanistan that bookends the text. Whitlock provides no historical context for war: the Northern Alliance and the Afghan hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before September 11, 2001, is barely mentioned, except in the context of Whitlock’s withering dismissal of the warlords as thugs and villains.
The most problematic aspect of the book is the way that it, like the very policies it criticizes, fails to register the popular cultural Afghan resistance to the Islamist ideology of the Taliban. Indeed, Whitlock implicitly endorses the ill-advised, bipartisan American policy of normalizing relations with the Taliban—a conditional policy initiated by Donald Trump and unconditionally deployed by Joe Biden.