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Abandoning Afghans From the Start

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War
Craig Whitlock & The Washington Post
Simon & Schuster, $30 (cloth)

As one provincial capital after another fell to the Taliban with little to no resistance, establishment pontificators filled U.S. news outlets with criticism of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some said the military should have stayed to finish creating a state that could defend itself. Others advocated redeploying troops to forestall defeat or defend a few cities. Some claimed that twenty years of war had created enough hope and opportunity—especially for Afghan girls and women—to justify indefinite continuation. 

One way to justify failed and irredeemable wars—a method spawned by the Vietnam War and already evident in the days after the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul—is to attribute their disaster to errors of judgment rather than unchecked imperial ambition; to blame tactical mistakes rather than moral or ideological flaws. This produces a laundry list of historical “if only’s”: if only we had supported a different leader (or stuck with the one we had); if only we had bombed more ruthlessly (or less); if only we had sent in more troops faster (or fewer for longer); if only we had done more to root out corruption or learned more about the nation we invaded. “If only” we had done something differently, one way or another, we might have been victorious. These debates constitute much of what passes for “lessons learned.” Very few commentators, at least in the major corporate media, have dared to argue that no historical redo can offset the fact that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was misbegotten and morally tainted from the outset.

An exception to this trend is Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock, whose recent book, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War (2021), draws evidence from interviews with some 1,000 people who participated in the war, including U.S. military officers, officials, aid workers, and Afghan leaders. About half of these oral histories were collected by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) for a “Lessons Learned” project. Yet it took Whitlock three years of Freedom of Information Act requests and two federal lawsuits to force the public disclosure of these documents from the very agency charged by Congress to provide accountability for the resources the public expended on its longest war. The book also draws on interviews conducted by the U.S. Army and the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, as well as thousands of once classified memos written by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to his subordinates (so many of Rumsfeld’s white-paper queries and admonitions piled up on their desks they called them “snowflakes”).

In late 2019 Whitlock and his colleagues at the Washington Post began writing about these documents, dubbing them the “Afghanistan Papers.” The name was intended to remind people of the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page top-secret history of the Vietnam War leaked to the press in 1971 by former government official Daniel Ellsberg. Like the Pentagon Papers, the Afghanistan Papers expose two decades of war-related deceit by multiple presidential administrations of both parties. Both sets of documents demonstrate that most U.S. leaders were pessimistic about the prospects for victory even as they repeatedly lied to the public and Congress by expressing faith in the war’s progress. Indeed, Whitlock makes a convincing case that “many senior U.S. officials privately viewed the war as an unmitigated disaster.” One of them, Army Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the White House “war czar” under Presidents Bush and Obama, reports: “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

Read entire article at Boston Review