A Look at The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Another long term military commitment for the United States, and another large scale failure. After Vietnam the idea that we could commit the same errors, engage in the same type of deceptions, and continue a war based on those deceptions, would not seem possible. Craig Whitlock, in the Afghanistan Papers, pulls the curtain down on the mess that the U.S. made out of this war.

Lessons Learned

Whitlock has gotten to the files of a U.S. government project called Lessons Learned, run by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) that contained interviews with many of the principals involved in policy formulation, as well as with the personnel responsible for developing the military strategies. The resulting work product was not pretty, and like the Pentagon Papers provided a damning view of how the war was conducted, the failure to come to grips with reality, the total deception used to justify continuing it, and the massive failure of the political leadership, from both parties, to confront the nonsense that was put forward by the military. Over the course of decades the Vietnam analogy has been overused, but not in this case. The similarities are eerie.

President George W. Bush, with near unanimous political and public support, launched military action in Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban. That is the mission that earned him such political support, and with the initial military success the effort seemed to be on solid ground. But the seeds of the eventual disaster were formed there.

“Speaking confidentially years later to government interviewers, many U.S. officials who played a key role in the war offered harsh judgements about the decision making during the conflict’s early stages. They said the war’s goal and objectives soon veered off into directions that had little to do with 9/11. They also admitted that Washington struggled to define with precision what it was hoping to accomplish in a country that most U.S. officials did not understand. “

The Afghanistan Papers. A Secret History of the War. Whitlock, Craig page 7

Mission creep. And mission creep without a plan. A recipe for disaster. So how did this extension of the original concept come to be? Stephen Hadley, Deputy National Security Advisor in the Bush Administration:

“ ‘We originally said that we don’t do nation-building but there is no way to ensure that al-Qaeda won’t come back without it,’ Hadley said to a Lessons Learned interview. ‘[We] did not want to become occupiers or to overwhelm the Afghans. But once the Taliban was flushed, we did not want to throw that progress away.’ “

The Afghanistan Papers. A Secret History of the War. Whitlock, Craig page 14

So the Administration that had vehemently criticized “nation building” now determined that there was no alternative to that very concept. Of course the American record on nation building, after the efforts with the defeated Axis powers post World War II, has been abysmal. This effort, kept up through multiple administrations, turned out to be a massive failure. Whitlock gives us some parts of the effort, like the poppy eradication program, that were so inept that clever Afghan farmers managed to get paid for destroying poppy acreage after they had cultivated, thereby doubling their income. Richard Holbrooke, who would get a chance in Afghanistan, said of the Bush Administration poppy eradication program:

“…. the emphasis on eradication ‘may be the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy.’ ‘It’s not just a waste of money. It actually strengthens the Taliban and al-Qaeda,’ Holbrooke wrote.”

The Afghanistan Papers. A Secret History of the War. Whitlock, Craig page 141

There was a revolving door of U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan, all of whom always expressed optimism about the prospects for victory, without defining what victory meant. With the start of the Obama Administration Defense Secretary Bob Gates dismissed one of those commanders, Get. David McKiernan, citing the need for a new direction.
McKiernan, in his last press conference as NATO and U.S. commander, from the book:

“McKiernan described the war as ‘stalemated’ in the south and ‘a very tough fight’ in the east. Hours later, at a private dinner at military headquarters, Gates told him he was done.”

The Afghanistan Papers. A Secret History of the War. Whitlock, Craig page 147

As soon as we got a bit of honesty from a war commander that general was cashiered. Whether that was the reason for the sacking may never be known but the message was sent nonetheless. After this sacking General Stanley McChrystal took over as commander, with General David Petraeus as his boss. They unveiled a counter-insurgency plan that would require a substantial infusion of new troops to undertake. McChrystal is a major talent, but his prescription had major flaws, and was undercut by a public announcement, from President Obama, that the “surge” would end by a date certain. The ability, surge or not, to win over the Afghan people was just not there, and while they were happy to take in all the cash being thrown at them, the American effort was simply inept, and never came close to achieving the goal of winning over the people of Afghanistan.

The American effort, as in Vietnam, was infused with an ignorance of the country that we were seeking to “help.” Like the government of South Vietnam the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai was riddled with corruption, and could not project military power beyond Kabul. Our ignorance of the tribal system in Afghanistan, and our belief that we could convert Afghanistan into a western style democracy was borne of the same hubris that led to disaster in Vietnam. Finally, as in Iraq, our understanding of the regional relationships between the nations in the neighborhood appeared to be non-existent. Our total failure with Pakistan, who was receiving major military and financial assistance from the U.S. while providing border sanctuary and some political support to the Taliban, is but one aspect of the total failure of American diplomacy.

Is this method of operation just baked into the American cake? I hope not, but the record is not impressive. Whitlock gives an excellent view of the 20 year failure of American policy in Afghanistan, with the words of the participants providing the evidence not only of failure, but of the deception that helped to create that failure.



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