Secret History of War in “The Afghanistan Papers”

Did Past US Administrations Mislead the Public?

Book cover
Book cover

Secret History of War in “The Afghanistan Papers”

About a month before the publication of this book, on the 31st of August, The Washington Post published excerpts from it, for the main reason that the book author, Craig Whitlock, had been one of its leading reporters. The excerpts were published before the fall of Kabul into the hands of the Taliban, but the excerpts – and, later, the book – gained more publicity after the fall.

Not only was the book’s title in the footsteps of “The Pentagon Papers,” another “secret history” of another war, the Vietnam War (1965-1975), but also the new book elaborately referred to the Vietnam War as a previous extensive and expensive, multi-years military operation that ended in failure.

Whitlock, who has covered the US-led Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) for the Post since 2001, won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for International Reporting two years ago, among other awards.

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The award was when he published in the Post excerpts from documents collected by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction that the Post had obtained after a legal request under the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents revealed that almost ten years earlier top American civilian and military officials in Afghanistan believed that the Afghanistan War was unwinnable. In his book, Whitlock detailed the documents, interviewed more top officials, made comparisons with Vietnam’s “Pentagon Papers,” and reached the conclusion of "explicit and sustained efforts by the US government (under three presidents, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump) to deliberately mislead the public.”

“Unlike the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 had near-unanimous public support. At first, the goals were straightforward and clear: to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent a repeat of 9/11. Yet soon after the United States and its allies removed the Taliban from power, the mission veered off course and US officials lost sight of their original objectives.”

The interviews ranged from top White House officials to generals and soldiers at the Pentagon, aid workers, as well as civilian and military Afghani officials. The book’s conclusions were that the US government’s strategies were a mess, the nation-building project was a colossal failure, and that drugs and corruption gained a stranglehold over their allies in the Afghan government.

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These are some of the book’s revelations:

1. On certain occasions, President Bush didn’t want to meet the Pentagon general who was leading the war in Afghanistan because he knew the Pentagon was going to ask for more money and more troops.

2. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, admitted he had “no visibility into who the bad guys (in Afghanistan) are.”

3. Robert Gates, another Secretary of Defense, said: “We didn’t know jack shit about al-Qaeda.”

4. In 2007 a suicide bomber almost killed Vice President Dick Cheney at Bagram Air Base but the White House lied about how close the attacker was.

5. In 2014, when President Obama declared the war was over and that U.S. troops would no longer be in direct conflict with their enemies, he was just lying.

6. So as to shift blame, the Pentagon, the State Department and the Agency for International Development (USAID) often changed the responsibilities for aid, fighting drugs and fighting corruption.

Probably the most controversial character in the book was Rumsfeld who was shown as sharing Bush's opinion that Taliban and Al Qaeda were inseparable, as extreme and violent Muslim groups. But Rumsfeld, on the other hand, was the one who worried most about the cost and length, not only of the Afghanistan War but that of Iraq, as the latter mostly reflected him as a strongly opinionated man but also not sure of what he was saying. 

For example, his famous reply to a reporter’s question about evidence of an alliance between Al-Qaeda and Iraq (the main reason of the invasion of Iraq):

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult one.”

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