INTERVIEW: US officials lied about failure of Afghanistan war, says author of 'The Afghanistan Papers'

Heba Abdelsattar, Wednesday 22 Sep 2021

Craig Whitlock is responsible for covering the Pentagon and national security for the Washington Post

Craig Whitlock
The author of the“Afghanistan Papers”, Craig Whitlock

Since its release at the end of last month, coinciding with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the ‘Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of War’ has caused great controversy in political and popular circles in the United States and abroad, a controversy that propelled it to top-seller lists within a few weeks. Its author, Craig Whitlock, a veteran reporter, has made the rounds on talk shows and news channels in American media, sharing his opinion that the US’ so-called "War on Terror" in Afghanistan was a tragedy and a major crime.

Craig Whitlock is responsible for covering the Pentagon and national security for the Washington Post. He also headed the newspaper's Berlin office and covered terror networks in Europe, South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. He has reported in more than 60 countries and has been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism.

In an interview with Al-Ahram, Whitlock reveals how American leaders and officials lied simply with their refusal to admit failure, how the "War on Terror" turned into a war on the truth and the silencing of the media, and why it will be difficult to ensure accountability for the failures of the US in Afghanistan.

Al-Ahram: How does the book differ from the much-discussed series of articles published in The Post in late 2019?

Craig Whitlock:In addition to the documents that The Post published in 2019, the book is based on thousands of pages of additional documents about the war in Afghanistan, including the transcripts of several hundred oral-history interviews with US troops and senior officials who served under President George W. Bush. Also, the book is a chronological narrative of what went wrong in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021.

AA: What were the reactions of those interviewed for the book after it was published? You have mentioned they had spoken freely as they did not believe their words would be published.

CW: Since the book’s release, no one who was interviewed for the Afghanistan Papers has denied what they said in the original, documented interviews. Perhaps they were not eager to see their unvarnished commentary published, but no one has denied making their remarks.

AA: What, in your opinion, was the most shocking information in the Afghanistan papers? 

CW: The most shocking information, to me, were the blunt admissions that US policy in Afghanistan was inept and dysfunctional. Douglas Lute, a US army general who oversaw war policy under both Bush and Obama, said: “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.” Ambassador Richard Boucher, a diplomat in charge of South Asia policy under Bush, said the same thing: “We did not know what we were doing.” In addition, two commanding generals admitted they had tried to fight the war without a functional strategy. “There was no campaign plan. It just wasn’t there,” said US Army general Dan McNeill, who served under Bush. British general David Richards, who commanded US and NATO troops from 2006 to 2007, added: “There was no coherent long-term strategy.”

AA: You demonstrate in your book the contradiction between what leaders and decision-makers really believed and what they said in public. In your opinion, why did they continue to lie instead of finding an alternate strategy to withdraw with dignity?

CW: Senior US officials who were responsible for the war over the last 20 years are still very reluctant to admit that they did not tell the truth to the American people about how the conflict was going. No one wants to take responsibility and admit that they personally lied or deceived the public, even though my book contains documented example after example of this. At the same time, while individuals do not want to take responsibility, there is a growing acknowledgment that the US government and military overall were not forthright. Even President Biden has acknowledged that the US government lied to the public about how the war was going before he became president.

AA: Throughout the 20 years of the war, was there any official who told the truth in the media?

CW: The book does highlight the case of one US general who told the truth in public about how the war was going – and he was sacked for it. Army General David McKiernan commanded the war from 2008 to 2009 under President Bush and President Obama. In his public remarks, he was the rare general who admitted things were not going well. “In large parts of Afghanistan, we don’t see progress,” he acknowledged in October 2008. “We are in a tough fight. So, the idea that it might get worse before it gets better is certainly a possibility.”

AA: Were there any indication of his words being taken seriously?

CW: In May 2009, the Pentagon announced that McKiernan had been fired. No clear reason was given, but whatever the purpose, the message sent to the rest of the generals was this: If you tell the public that the war is heading in the wrong direction, you could lose your job.

AA: You write that the Afghanistan war “was grounded in near-unanimous public support” when it began in 2003. There was no need, then, for the Pentagon brass to lie about the war. Why did they lie despite that fact that there was no clearly articulated mission?

CW: After the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US Congress authorized the use of military force against Al-Qaeda by a vote of 420-1, and public opinion surveys showed that more than 80 percent of Americans supported military action in Afghanistan. At first, there was no need for the Pentagon brass to deceive the public about the war. Within a few months, the Taliban had been forced from power and Al-Qaeda’s leaders had been captured, killed or had fled Afghanistan. At that point – by early 2002 – Americans assumed they had won the war for good. Gradually, however, the Taliban regrouped and the insurgency intensified. That’s when the lies and deception started to become more pronounced, because no US president or general wanted to admit that they were suffering setbacks in a war that Americans thought they had already won. 

AA: One interviewee notes that the war could have ended in weeks if direct negotiations with the Taliban had been undertaken, which the US did do in the end with the peace agreement in Doha. Why did the US fail to take this path from the start? How did the US misread the situation? Who is to blame, the White House, the Pentagon, diplomats?

CW: In the interviews and documents from the Afghanistan Papers, several former diplomats and analysts said the United States and its allies made a mistake in not allowing Taliban representatives to attend the conference in Bonn, Germany in late 2001, when all of Afghanistan’s other political factions gathered to agree on a new political system and a timetable for writing a new constitution. The Bush administration – especially George W. Bush and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – categorized all Taliban leaders and fighters as “terrorists” and said the United States would not negotiate with them or allow them to join the new Afghan political system. In that regard, US officials put the Taliban in the same category as Al-Qaeda. Yet Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while supportive of each other, were two very different groups with different agendas. Al-Qaeda was solely responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks and consisted mostly of foreign fighters with a global agenda. The Taliban, in contrast, was a broad-based Afghan movement that still retained considerable support among the population. It was unrealistic for the Bush administration, or its Afghan allies in the Northern Alliance, to think that they could completely eliminate the Taliban. By refusing to include the Taliban in the new Afghan political system at a point when the Taliban was weak and defeated, this sowed the seeds for the insurgency to take root.

AA: What did the US get out of all that effort in Afghanistan. Was the occupation of Afghanistan worth it?

CW: After 20 years, it is difficult to see any lasting achievements for the United States in Afghanistan. The war was initially successful in reducing the threat from Al-Qaeda and killing or capturing many of its leaders. Eventually, Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, and the core Al-Qaeda network has not been able to conduct another terrorist attack in the United States on the scale of the September 11 hijackings. But now that the Taliban is back in power – and controls more of Afghanistan than ever before – there is a real concern that Al-Qaeda could find refuge again in Afghanistan. Separately, there is no question that all the money and time and sacrifices the United States made to create a democratic system of government in Afghanistan did not succeed.

AA: The US did not have any victories in Afghanistan. It allowed the Taliban to regain power, and rebuilding the country failed as well. The withdrawal and handing over power to the Taliban undermines the morality and feasibility of the "War on Terror"? What do you think?

CW: This is a difficult question and gets at a heart with one of the main failings of the war: The United States failed to articulate exactly what it was hoping to accomplish in Afghanistan. At first, the goal and objective seemed clear and focused: to destroy Al-Qaeda and prevent a repeat of the 9/11 attacks. That part was successful for many years. But then the mission became blurry. The United States soon became embroiled in a civil war in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban and other insurgents, instead of just Al-Qaeda. And the attempts to build a new Afghan government and to modernize Afghanistan were largely unsuccessful.

AA: Some analysts consider the "War on Terror" a golden goose for the military and defence industry, where military contractors thrived with US’ “forever war” in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places. This has also opened the doors for corruption. What do The Afghanistan Papers say about this?

CW: The Afghanistan Papers make clear that the United States helped open the doors for corruption in Afghanistan by flooding the country with more money than it could absorb. This money came in the form of humanitarian aid, reconstruction projects, and especially military spending. One State Department official, Barnett Rubin, said in an interview for the Afghanistan Papers: “There is one indispensable ingredient for corruption – money – and we were the ones who had the money.”

AA: The degree of misrepresentation about the war by military and civilian leaders should drive the creation of extensive oversight mechanisms. How can this be achieved to prevent the recurrence of such mistakes?

CW: Accountability for the US failures in Afghanistan will be hard to achieve because so many different people and institutions were responsible: Democrats and Republicans, the Congress and the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department. The only independent institution in the American political system that is likely to drive accountability is the news media. The news media, of course, can bring problems to light but has no direct power to pass laws or change official policies to prevent the recurrence of such mistakes.

AA: Secretary of State Antony Blinken blamed the Trump administration for its February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban, which he said tied Biden’s hands and caused the quick and unexpected collapse of the Afghan government and security forces that led to the Taliban takeover. What do The Afghanistan Papers say were the indications of what we are witnessing today?

CW: There has been a lot of political finger-pointing in America about who is to blame for the chaotic withdrawal of the United States and for the Taliban’s return to power. Setting that aside, however, it is clear from The Afghanistan Papers that US officials have known for many years that the Afghan army and security forces were weak, corrupt and no match for the Taliban in the long term. Yet year after year, US officials kept saying in public that the Afghan security forces were getting stronger and would be able to defend their government.

AA: The US’ bitter experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has undercut faith in American foreign policy for the Middle East and fostered resentment over the US’ intervention in some countries in the name of American national security. How do your interviewees deal with this issue?

CW: Several current and former US officials interviewed for the Afghanistan Papers acknowledge that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have undercut public support for American foreign policy in the Middle East. However, they say the war in Iraq was much more damaging in this regard. Although the war in Afghanistan failed in the end, most countries around the world supported the United States in 2001 and understood why it took military action in Afghanistan. That was never the case in Iraq.

AA: It seems that the US did not learn from the lesson of Vietnam. What are the most important lessons for the future?

CW: This is one of the biggest puzzles about the war. In 2001 and 2002, soon after the war in Afghanistan began, President Bush and senior officials in his administration reassured the public that they had learned their lessons from the war in Vietnam and that they would not allow the United States to get bogged down in an endless war in Afghanistan. Yet they still allowed it to happen. This was perhaps the result of overconfidence and hubris.

Short link: