America’s longest war is ending in tragedy. Once discarded to the dustbin of history, the Taliban have returned to power in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghans are attempting to flee in panic. Millions more face a future of unrelenting violence, privation, and fear. The life prospects of women and girls have been incalculably dimmed, if not extinguished.
The progress, whatever there was of it, that was made by the U.S. and its partners in the 20 years since 9/11—at a cost of at least $2 trillion in U.S. taxpayer dollars and the lives of 2,448 American troops—lies in ruin.
Donald Rumsfeld saw it coming. On the morning of April 17, 2002, just months after a small force of U.S. Special Operations troops and Northern Alliance fighters routed the Taliban and took control of the country, the sitting defense secretary sent a classified one-page memo to senior Pentagon officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“I may be impatient. In fact I know I’m a bit impatient,” Rumsfeld wrote. “We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave. Help!”
Known to Rumsfeld’s staff as “snowflakes,” the secretary of defense’s private memos betrayed a far gloomier assessment of conditions in Afghanistan than those conveyed publicly by Rumsfeld and his boss, President George W. Bush. “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are,” Rumsfeld lamented in one 2003 memo. In another, he confided that while the U.S. might achieve some form of success in Afghanistan, “it will be a long, hard slog.”
Rumsfeld’s snowflakes are among the trove of documents unearthed by Craig Whitlock, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post, whose new book, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, provides a bracing and indispensable account of the American misadventure in Afghanistan, told in the words of the officials who oversaw it.
Lessons Learned and Unlearned
The book is based on Whitlock’s 2019 series in The Washington Post, which detailed the content of some 428 “Lessons Learned” interviews conducted by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. Whitlock draws on those interviews—as well as on Bush-administration oral histories, testimonials from U.S. Army veterans, and 59,000 pages’ worth of Rumsfeldian snowflakes—to argue not just that the campaign to transform Afghanistan was doomed from the beginning but that officials at the highest levels knew as much.
And yet for two decades and across three administrations, the country’s leaders “avoided accountability and dodged reappraisals,” Whitlock writes, and instead “lied about what was happening and kept insisting they were making progress.”
Even for those familiar with the ebbs and flows of the conflict—from the lightning overthrow of the Taliban and the long pursuit of Osama bin Laden to the years of grinding counter-insurgency and the final, shambolic retreat—Whitlock’s book reveals new depths of Western folly.
The $85 billion effort to build a national Afghan army, for instance, was plagued by the Afghans’ absenteeism and illiteracy and the failure of U.S. commanders to adapt. “An estimated 80 to 90 percent [of recruits] could not read or write,” Whitlock writes. “Some could not count or did not know their colors. Yet the Americans expected them to embrace PowerPoint presentations and operate complex weapons systems.”
“We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave. Help!”
Elsewhere Whitlock details the “dark pit of endless money” for development projects that produced little more than monuments to inefficiency, while fueling local corruption on a massive scale. For example, a U.S. military plan to supply electricity to Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, required six years and $775 million to complete, yet it remained too complicated and expensive for the Afghan government to operate on its own.
Whitlock quotes the “Lessons Learned” interview of Jeffrey Eggers, a Navy SEAL who served in Afghanistan and in the White House: “Why does the U.S. undertake actions that are beyond its abilities? This question gets at strategy and human psychology, and it is a hard question to answer.”
The Afghanistan Papers contains few combat scenes or moments of high tension inside the Situation Room. It lacks the human intimacy of Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living and the geopolitical intrigue of Steve Coll’s two volumes on the C.I.A.’s operations in Afghanistan, Ghost Wars and Directorate S. What Whitlock delivers instead is a clear-eyed, clinical indictment of members of the country’s military and political establishments, who, year after year, continued to issue upbeat and patently false assessments of a war that many privately conceded was lost.
In one particularly egregious example, bureaucrats were pressured to manufacture evidence that President Obama’s surge of troops to Afghanistan had made the country more stable. “We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory, and none of it painted an accurate picture,” an unnamed Obama-administration official says. “The metrics were always manipulated, for the duration of the war.”
Who lost Afghanistan? The better question is whether it was ever winnable. As early as 2002, Rumsfeld predicted in a memo to Bush that “U.S. and coalition forces would grow in number and we could run the risk of ending up as hated as the Soviets were.... The Soviets had over 100,000 troops and failed.”
Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. troops was an acknowledgment of the futility of the American project in Afghanistan, but it now risks plunging the country deeper into chaos, with grave consequences for America’s security, its credibility in the world, and the success of Biden’s presidency. The inescapable, if depressing, conclusion one draws from The Afghanistan Papers is that it couldn’t have turned out any other way.
Romesh Ratnesar is an editor at Bloomberg Opinion and a fellow at New America. He covered the aftermath of the Iraq invasion for Time and served in the U.S. Department of State from 2015 to 2017