Dozens of good books on Afghanistan have been published over the last three decades, offering absorbing accounts of the former Soviet Union’s humiliating withdrawal from Kabul; the subsequent bloody internecine battles among mujahideen groups over control of the historic city; the unexpected rise, fall and re-rise of the Taliban; the emergence of the ultimate modern-day rebel Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan’s rugged mountains with his audacious dream and attempt to slay the mighty United States and, of course, the arrival of the US to these punishing, shoreless lands in search of raging revenge.
Then there is Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock, journalist for The Washington Post and multiple-finalist of the Pulitzer Prize. It is a riveting expose of the longest war waged by the US and a searing indictment of how even Hollywood could not have scripted such hubris.
The account has been pieced together — via a two-year court battle invoking the right to information law — deftly, and is entirely based on official documents obtained from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Pentagon, the White House and their various affiliates.
If the two-decade American debacle in Afghanistan — culminating in its chaotic and humiliating withdrawal from Kabul last summer, complete with front-page photos of military helicopters evacuating staff from the US embassy a la Vietnam in the last century — as it unfolded in global newspapers was a first draft of history, this book is a sure solid second draft that will easily serve as the baseline of certified facts.
More than half the book is Whitlock reproducing chunks of texts from the official notes of a staggering 1,000 classified ‘Lessons Learnt’ briefings or memos of “luminaries” of the war. These include presidents, secretaries of state and defence, chiefs of the CIA, the Pentagon and the United States Central Command (Centcom), ambassadors to Kabul, Islamabad and Baghdad as well as an assortment of generals, soldiers and contractors who served across Afghanistan over 20 years.
A riveting expose of America’s war in Afghanistan, culled entirely from official documents from the CIA, the Pentagon, the White House and their various affiliates, offers a searing indictment
The architect of the war, former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, alone left behind over 10,000 pages of memos — he issued so many short notes daily that his exasperated staff called them “snowflakes.”
This is a story that epitomises the adage of fact being stranger than fiction, such as current American president Joe Biden being rescued from an Afghan field ambush and a secretary of state narrowly escaping an assassination attempt in Bagram. Or that more American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan than Americans died in the Twin Tower attacks in New York. Or that the US ended up deploying more than twice the number of soldiers in Afghanistan (775,000) than the Soviet Union did (just over 300,000), of which 21,000 came home severely wounded, their lives upended forever.
Or that the total cost of the war (excluding civilian nation-building costs) was officially estimated at just over $1 trillion. This most expensive war in human history, in supreme irony, started by removing the Taliban from power through deadly Cruise missiles and ended with the Taliban 20 years later seizing Kabul from American and Afghan control without firing a single shot! You couldn’t make this up if you tried.
It is astounding that, from clarity on mission to implementation strategy, to adapting tactics to finessing delivery, five successive terms of three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders spectacularly failed to get the intended results.
Many official notes cited key officials repeatedly indicting their superiors of being clueless about both objectives and strategies. Often the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department were at odds over strategies. Strategy meetings ending unresolved and on a bitter note were not uncommon. At least thrice, presidents or defence chiefs fired or replaced chief commanders in Afghanistan — most famously Gen Stanley McChrystal by Obama — after they unguardedly criticised the political leadership in front of their troops.
The book references documented confessions or accusations by senior officials in control of the war that both the presidents and military commanders repeatedly deceived the public year after year about how much they were in actual control of the situation in Afghanistan and refused to heed — or worse, ignore — warnings and prudent advice.
Through sequential chapters, the book articulates a chronology of strategic blunders, gross incompetence and general drift that ultimately turned the war into America’s costliest and longest. Key among them were deviating from the goal of defeating Al Qaeda to prevent a repeat of 9/11. Soon after removing the Taliban from power, the mission swerved off course and opted for nation-building, then fighting a Taliban resistance that simply waited the US out.
But perhaps the biggest blunder was opening a much bigger front: getting distracted by the invasion of Iraq that quickly subsumed resources and attention away from Afghanistan without finishing the job there first. “There are certain sorts of basic policy conclusions that are hard to legislate [such as] just invade one country at a time,” says James Dobbins, a top diplomat charged with Afghanistan, in one of the ‘Lessons Learnt’ interviews.
Side-tracked by the Iraq war, American forces became stuck in an unwinnable guerrilla conflict in a country they did not understand. But no president wanted to admit failure and simply opted to perpetuate it by sending more and more troops to Afghanistan, all the while assuring the American public that they were making progress, despite no realistic prospect for an outright victory.
Afghanistan Papers cites official documents of meetings revealing former president Bush did not even know the name of his Afghanistan war commander and actually declined to meet him. Rumsfeld confessed in one of his “snowflake” memos that he had “no visibility into who the bad guys are.” His successor, Robert Gates, admitted in a ‘Lessons Learnt’ meeting: “We didn’t know jack shit about [Al] Qaeda.”
Whitlock divides the story of America’s 20-year doomed and expensive Afghanistan war into six phases. In the first (2001-02), he brings forth testimonies about a false sense of victory (“‘We are shifting from a conflict phase to a stability phase,’ said Rumsfeld in Kabul soon after its capture”) despite a muddled mission (“‘Why did we make an enemy out of [the] Taliban when the mission was about [targeting] Al Qaeda?’ said Jeffry Eggers, an adviser with the National Security Council under both Bush and Obama”).
The second phase, “the great distraction”, was 2003-05, during which Afghanistan — for both Bush and Rumsfeld — became almost an afterthought. Senior military strategists were seconded to Iraq, while alternative strategists arrived in Afghanistan on military planes with copies of Islam for Dummies and trying to memorise Arabic phrases for conversation. No one told them Arabic is not spoken in Afghanistan!
The third phase, 2006-08, was really when the Taliban lost the fear of America and staged a comeback, using the by-then American primary preoccupation of eradicating poppy crops and cosying up to warlords to trap them into elaborate law and order operations that took the focus off the bigger picture. This allowed the Taliban to win back public approval against the “blundering occupiers.”
The fourth phase, 2009-10, was with Obama in charge who, according to the book, bought into his advisers’ rhetoric of a new strategy of winning hearts and minds by pumping unbelievable amounts of money into civic projects through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) — often ones that Afghanistan either did not need, or want. There were so many projects that even USAID itself couldn’t keep track of them.
One particular project, the ‘Commander’s Emergency Response Program’, was spending $3 million a day on average. Of the $2.3 billion spent, audits could only trace projects worth $890 million. “‘It was nothing but walking-around money, cash handouts,’ said Ken Yamashita, USAID chief for Afghanistan. ‘A dark pit of endless money for anything with no accountability,’ said another NATO official exasperated with American understanding of development.”
In the fifth phase, 2011-16, things simply fell apart. The American “grand illusion” of nation-building, local army building and structuralising democracy that wasn’t delivering sucked Washington ever deeper into a policy muddle and quagmire. At one time, even Obama lost patience at the absence of an exit strategy and wanted to simply leave.
“There was no reasonable threshold we could reach where we could leave good governance behind,” Obama said in his ‘Lessons Learnt’ interview. Richard Boucher, in charge of diplomatic strategy, was more rueful. “Looking back after 15 years, we could have taken a thousand Afghan kids in fifth grade to get educated and trained in Indian schools and colleges. Then we could have brought them back on an airplane and by now said: okay you guys now run Afghanistan … [this would have been] better than having a bunch of [us] Americans going in and saying we can build it for you.”
The sixth phase, 2017-21, was with Trump — oddly enough, the most realistic of US presidents in finally accepting the need to simply pull out, credibility be damned. This was the phase when the US started direct talks with the Taliban on helping them share power with the erstwhile government of Ashraf Ghani.
Whitlock’s book came out some weeks before the Taliban rose to power like a phoenix. And you thought what happened in August 2021 in Kabul was the strangest part of the American involvement in the Afghanistan story.
The reviewer is a writer and analyst and works on media professionalism issues. He has an interest in journalism, literature and science. He tweets @adnanrehmat1
The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War
By Craig Whitlock
Simon and Schuster, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 13th, 2022