Craig Whitlock is an investigative reporter at The Washington Post and the author of The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.
It’s still shocking to me to read a lot of these documents and interviews in, The Afghanistan Papers, things that most people would think are obvious. What’s the plan to end the war? What benchmarks do we have to achieve so that we know we can leave? You know, none of those things were thought out or articulated.
- When did the War in Afghanistan Go Wrong
- The Lies and Deception in Communications on the War
- Differences in the Approach to the War Between Bush and Obama
- Failures to Provide a Long-Term Political Solution
- Lessons for Involvement in Ukraine and Beyond
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Today’s guest is Craig Whitlock. Craig is an investigative reporter at The Washington Post and the author of The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War. The failures in Afghanistan have made the United States hesitant to become too involved in Ukraine. Like Vietnam, it has become a warning for any foreign conflict. So, I wanted to revisit the lessons from Afghanistan to better understand how we should think about American involvement in Ukraine. The differences are significant, but Craig finds some lessons applicable to any form of international engagement for us to keep in mind. So, with that in mind… Here is my conversation with Craig Whitlock…
Craig Whitlock, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks very much for having me.
Well, Craig, the War in Afghanistan is a very difficult topic to tackle. It’s difficult for me to know really where to begin. I mean, your book touches on so many different topics, so many different angles. S,o let’s go ahead and start with the most difficult question. You write in the book, “This book is an attempt to explain what went wrong and how three consecutive presidents and their administrations failed to tell the truth.” Your book then goes on to explain what went wrong, but I wasn’t sure quite when it went off tracks. So, Craig, why don’t we start here? When did the war in Afghanistan go wrong?
So, the war in Afghanistan started to go wrong six months after it started and you can even point to some spots before that. But certainly, for the first six months the original mission, the original objective, was largely accomplished by March of 2002. And that mission, that objective, was to retaliate for the September 11th attacks and to destroy or defeat Al-Qaeda so that it couldn’t carry out more terrorist attacks like that. And certainly, by March of 2002, Al-Qaeda’s leadership had largely been killed, captured, or had fled Afghanistan.
So that original, very easy to understand objective that most Americans understood at that point. That had largely been accomplished by March of 2002. There had been a sort of last big battle with Al-Qaeda forces. The U.S. called it Operation Anaconda and a number of them were killed, but a lot of them fled over the border. So really by that point, Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan was pretty much nil. So, after that, things slowly started to go wrong or go off in different directions. But really, since that point, I think things went wrong.
What happened at the six-month point? You mentioned that we had effectively beaten the Taliban, but that was obviously not the objective. The objective was never to destroy the Taliban. The objective was to win the war on terror. So, at the six month point what was it that went wrong when the Taliban and their government effectively collapsed?
Yeah, so actually you’re right. We should meet that distinction. I was pointing out that in March, 2002, Al-Qaeda had been defeated in Afghanistan. That was the original enemy. Now as a corollary to that, the Taliban had actually been removed from power earlier. By December of 2001, the Taliban had fled Kabul, had disappeared from Kandahar, which was its original birthplace and stronghold and the Taliban essentially abandoned their own government in Afghanistan. They stopped fighting. So that had happened earlier before Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan was eliminated. But, you know, this is a really good point you bring up, because the original enemy in the War in Afghanistan was Al-Qaeda. Now the Taliban was certainly supporting Al-Qaida. The Taliban’s leader, Mohammed Omar, had refused to hand over Osama bin Ladin before the war started.
So, it was understandable why the U.S. was also fighting the Taliban. But, you know, there’s a really important distinction there, because Al-Qaida was the group that carried out the September 11th terrorist attacks. The Taliban wasn’t involved at all. There were no Afghans involved in the hijackings. This was completely an Al Qaeda operation. And bin Laden used Afghanistan as a base, as a safe haven, but the Taliban wasn’t really the main enemy back then. It was Al-Qaida. Yet what happened after March of 2002 and even before that was United States really started to blur the lines in terms of defining the enemy. The Bush administration would call them all terrorists and they would lump the Taliban and Al-Qaida in the same basket. That these are terrorists and we need to defeat them all as part of the so-called Global War on Terror.
So, things started to go off the rails at that point, once the Bush administration started redefining who the enemy was. It wasn’t just Al Qaeda anymore. It was also the Taliban and anybody else who was fighting against us in Afghanistan. And that became problematic really for the next two decades, because if you can’t clearly define the enemy, you know, that’s a real problem.
Now, my understanding though, is that the reason why we didn’t just pull out after we defeated Al-Qaeda in 2002 was the fact that there was a power vacuum in the country. Because my natural inclination would be that the moment we destroyed Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, we would have looked for where Al-Qaeda had gone next which namely would have been Pakistan. I would assume.
Well, I think your logic is very sound. Unfortunately, logic didn’t always carry the day during our 20 years in Afghanistan. So, Afghanistan wasn’t in danger of becoming a failed state. It was a failed state. You have to remember that Afghanistan was just in horrible shape back in 2001, 2002. Even before the United States sent military forces there, this country had suffered through 10 years of war with the Soviet Union. During the 1980s, it then went through rounds of Civil War that were also brutal. So, by the time U.S. troops arrived in Kabul along with their allies from the Northern Alliance, you know, descriptions of Kabul were that it looked like Berlin in 1945. There was no electricity. Buildings were demolished. There was no functioning infrastructure. There was real fear of a famine taking grip in Afghanistan.
So, it was a failed state already. There was an absence of government. And so, you’re right that’s why the Bush Administration realized it couldn’t just pull out, that it had a responsibility to try and bring some stability to Afghanistan. Not just from the humanitarian perspective, although certainly that alone would be reason enough to try and help the country. There was also a real fear that if Afghanistan remained a failed state that Al-Qaida or other radical groups that subscribed to their ideology might come back in. And so, the idea became we need to stabilize Afghanistan so it can defend itself and prevent other terrorist groups or Al-Qaeda from coming back.
So, after six months, it feels like our mission is over. We had defeated Al-Qaeda, but we feel that we still have a moral responsibility to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t get worse, like we wanted to make sure to clean up our mess, if we will. We didn’t leave at that moment when it would’ve made sense. Our mission had been accomplished. Was there a clear moment that the United States didn’t take when we really could have pulled out of Afghanistan before we actually did?
Well, there were many moments and I’m not sure that pulling out at that point would have been the right thing to do. And I know you said clean up our mess, but, you know, again, back in 2001, 2002, it was completely understandable, I think, why the United States went into Afghanistan and sent military forces there. We tried to send a light footprint. We only had about 4,000 troops there in January of 2002. And certainly, you know, war is a destructive thing and people died. But I don’t think it’s fair at that point to say the United States had destroyed the country. I think it was left with a responsibility for trying to help Afghanistan get back on its feet.
And I think that was the right thing to do. But that said, for a lot of reasons things went awry on that pivot point from trying to destroy Al Qaeda and eliminate it as a threat to trying to prop up Afghanistan. And one thing to remember is that the Bush administration really didn’t have a plan for doing this. When President Bush had campaigned for the White House in 2000, when he was competing against Al Gore, one issue that came up in the campaign was Bush was saying he didn’t want to use the military for any nation building programs. And he was critical of the Clinton Administration for using the military on so-called nation building campaigns in countries like Haiti or in the Balkans or Somalia. And Bush was adamant about this, ‘The military is for fighting wars. It’s not for nation building.’
Well, low and behold, less than a year after he becomes president, something that he hadn’t expected – All of a sudden there’s a war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan as a failed state is worse than those other places. And what do we do now? Bush had campaigned that he wouldn’t get involved in any nation building efforts in places like Afghanistan. Now he was stuck. What was he going to do? And he tried to kind of fob it off on the United Nations and our allies, but he also understood he had a responsibility. So, from a political perspective, it was a fine line to walk. How does he convince Americans that they have responsibility for a nation building campaign in Afghanistan, even though he had said he would never do such a thing?
This is where the mission starts to get murky and they really didn’t have a plan to stabilize Afghanistan. They were kind of going by the seat of their pants. So, for me that was a real issue right then. It wasn’t, ‘Can we pull out?’ Because at that point we really didn’t have many forces in Afghanistan. You know, there’s one passage in the book, I was shocked looking back at this, that in January of 2002, there were actually more U.S. troops guarding the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah than we had in Afghanistan. So, our presence on the ground was substantial, but, you know, it was pretty minimal.
So, it would have been a militarily okay to pull out. But I think the Bush Administration correctly realized and recognized if they left, the same thing might happen again. So, it needed to do something. But what that something was, they really hadn’t thought out.
So, what you’re saying is that after six months, it didn’t even feel like we were really occupying Afghanistan, because there were so few troops compared to some of our other international commitments. Am I understanding that right?
Well, I’m just trying to put it in perspective. I’m not saying we should have had a hundred thousand troops here by any stretch. But what I am saying is, you asked about pulling out, from a logistical standpoint it would have been pretty easy to pull out. We had a very light footprint in Afghanistan. At that point, we didn’t have these enormous bases. You know, the Afghan government was really in shambles. But I think we were trying to work together with our allies a bit to try and figure out what to do. But, you know, again, the Bush Administration was quick to go in, understandably, to respond to 9/11 and to try and defeat Al-Qaeda. And ended up toppling the Taliban, even though that wasn’t necessarily the original objective that really was to go after Al-Qaeda.
It’s very easy to start a war. But it’s much harder to end it. And this is my point. That by the spring of 2002, we didn’t have a plan to end the war. We didn’t know what objectives had to be met before we could leave. And this is something that persisted for years. There was one interview transcript that I obtained for the book with Ambassador Nicholas Burns. These days he’s Biden’s Ambassador to China. But back then he was Bush’s Ambassador to NATO. And he said even by 2004, there really hadn’t been any conversations in the senior levels of the Bush administration of how long do we need to stay in Afghanistan? What are the benchmarks we need to reach before we know we can leave? And he said, you know, looking back in hindsight, it’s kind of amazing they really had never discussed that.
And to me, that is amazing. We stayed there because we were there, there was no plan to leave. People started paying attention to other things. And if you don’t have a plan to end the war, it’s going to drag on.
So, if we hadn’t invaded Iraq, do you think that it would have changed? Because one of the themes in the book was that we took our eyes off of Afghanistan. If we hadn’t made additional commitments internationally in places like Iraq which took a lot of the focus, do you think that maybe we would’ve kept her eyes a little bit more firmly on Afghanistan and ensuring that we had a plan to exit, a plan to execute, and a sense of what it was that we were trying to accomplish?
Yeah. So, no question. I mean, the War in Iraq – it’s hard to overstate how problematic that was, not just for Iraq, and the disaster that unfolded there, but also in Afghanistan. And this is something you hear time and again from U.S. military commanders and just troops on the ground as well as diplomats who were interviewed in oral histories and other documents in my book. They say that the Pentagon’s attention, the White House’s attention, all shifted fundamentally to Iraq. And this didn’t just happen in March of 2003 when we invaded Iraq. It started happening really in early 2002 that the resources and attention – just everybody’s eyes went to Iraq.
The assumption was that the War in Afghanistan had been won. That Al-Qaeda had been defeated. The Taliban had been defeated. That we were there really on a peacekeeping mission at that point and hunting down a few stray suspected terrorists. So, there’s no question that attention shifting to Iraq certainly caused enormous problems in Afghanistan, because we really took our eye off the ball. But I’ll give you a couple of examples of this.
There was one memo I obtained for the book. It was a memo that Donald Rumsfeld had written. It was in, I believe it was, October, 2002 and he was recounting going to the White House where he briefly met with President Bush. And he told President Bush, you know, Mr. President I just want to make you aware. There’s a couple of generals who I think you should have a meeting with. You know, one of them was General Tommy Franks, who is the head of U.S. Central Command. So, he was in charge of preparing war plans for Iraq.
The other general that Rumsfeld said Bush should meet with was General Dan McNeil and Bush replied, ‘Oh, Tommy Franks. I want to meet with him to talk about Iraq, but who’s General McNeil? Who’s that? And Rumsfeld said, ‘Well, sir, he’s your commander in Afghanistan. He’s the top general in Afghanistan.’ And Bush said, ‘Oh, well, I don’t need to meet with him.’ You know, Rumsfeld put this in black and white in a memo. So, here you have the President of the United States, the commander in chief, a year after he started the war in Afghanistan who can’t even remember the name of his top general there. And even worse doesn’t want to spend any time talking to him. He’s completely preoccupied with Iraq. So, to me that summed up just how much that attention shifted.
And, of course, when you’re not paying attention to Afghanistan and you compound it by sending, you know, all the top officers and generals and war planners were all focused on Iraq, it almost seems obvious in hindsight why things started to go wrong.
So, you mentioned Rumsfeld and a memo from him. And a big part of the book is from a collection of memos from Rumsfeld that are called snowflakes. And it really struck me because snowflake is a very odd name for something to be used in the Defense Department. Can you tell me a little bit about what these are and how they even got the name snowflake?
Yeah, that’s a good question. Certainly, snowflake today has some different meanings to it, you know, when people talk about people being as fragile as snowflakes on social media. But back then snowflakes were a term that people in the Pentagon had for these memos from Rumsfeld. Because he was kind of old-fashioned. He didn’t use email. He actually dictated memos. You had the secretary stand up at his desk and he read off these memos into a recorder. And he was very concise and pithy in his memos. It might be just a few paragraphs or a couple of pages. But he dictated so many of these memos that would then get printed out onto hard copies that these sheets of paper would flutter down on everybody’s desk at the Pentagon from Rumsfeld.
So, they called them snowflakes because they were buried under this blizzard of memos from Rumsfeld. And because he’s the boss, they have to respond to them. So, they were kind of derisively calling them snowflakes. Even Rumsfeld came to call them snowflakes. He was proud of himself for dictating so many. And they’re actually fascinating to read because you really get into his mind and he’s unlike a lot of other bureaucrats in Washington. He writes and speaks pretty plainly. He doesn’t beat around the bush and use a lot of euphemisms. If he says things don’t make sense, they don’t make sense.
There is another fascinating snowflake to me, two years into the war and this gets back to our other discussion about the distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Two years into the war in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld writes a snowflake to his top civilian intelligence official, Steven Cambone, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. And he said, ‘I have no visibility into who the bad guys are in Afghanistan and Iraq.’ So, two years into the war he’s complained that I don’t know who the bad guys are. And this again, gets back to, if you can’t define the enemy, if you don’t know who you’re fighting, you’re up the Creek, but here’s the secretary of defense admitting he doesn’t know who the bad guys are.
Now the bad guys is an interesting term of art, because this is the shorthand that people in the U.S. military used for the enemy in Afghanistan. They would just call them bad guys. And many of them were bad guys. Right? There’s no question that Al-Qaeda were bad guys. And the Taliban certainly had a terrible reputation for brutality. So, they were bad guys too. But soldiers in the field, they didn’t know who they were fighting. They would just call them bad guys. There were other documents and interviews with soldiers who were in Afghanistan in the early 2000s who said they were over there ready to fight and they would tell these combat advisors, ‘Show us where the bad guys are. Where are the bad guys?’ Right? The enemy didn’t wear uniforms. It was a very different kind of war that way.
But they literally didn’t know who they were fighting and they would just call them bad guys without understanding who they were or why they were the enemy or why they were engaged in a fight with them. So, from Rumsfeld on down, you know, that was a problem from the beginning in Afghanistan. Who were the bad guys? Who was the enemy? And we never could really define it.
It’s interesting because you’re referencing a lot of material from within the book that comes from interviews and memos that are very frank admissions of people that were involved sometimes at a very high level, sometimes just random officers that explained how they felt about the war in Afghanistan. But that wasn’t what was explained to the American public. So, one of the big things in your book, the other enormous theme of this book, The Afghanistan Papers, is the fact that the military and our politicians, particularly our presidents, were not honest about what was happening.
In the book you write, “In public almost no senior government officials had the courage to admit that the United States was slowly losing a war that Americans once overwhelmingly support. With their complicit silence, military and political leaders avoided accountability and dodged reappraisals that could have changed the outcome or shortened the conflict.” I think that quote gets to the big theme of the book, because your purpose here isn’t to say, this is how we should have conducted the war. It’s really about the lack of honesty that came about in terms of executing the war. So, was this something that demonstrates a lack of character that existed within our military, within our government administration at the time?
Yeah, I think that’s a fair question. And at the same time, I’m a little hesitant to sort of make these broad, sweeping conclusions about people’s character and so forth. But I think what I really tried to do in the book was examine specific examples of how U.S. officials from the president on down were saying in public and how that contradicted what they themselves were thinking in private. And I think it’s important for a lot of reasons to document that. Because I do think it’s a primary driver of why the war went on as long as it did. So, you’re right. My initial question I was trying to answer with this book was, ‘What went wrong in Afghanistan?’ It’s a very simple question.
But, you know, I think it’s something people today are still grappling with. You know, what happened? How could we have been there for 20 years? How on earth did we lose this war to the Taliban? But it really gets back to the beginning, because the War in Afghanistan was fundamentally different from the War in Iraq or Vietnam or even Korea, which is that most Americans completely understood why we sent troops to Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, that this was seen as a justifiable war of self-defense in response to the 9/11 attacks. Congress voted almost unanimously to authorize the war. There was only one member of Congress, Representative Barbara Lee of California, who voted against the Authorization of the Use of Military Force in Afghanistan. Opinion surveys showed that the vast majority of people supported what Bush was doing in Afghanistan.
In the fall of 2001, people were really scared that Al-Qaeda could carry out another attack. And as we discussed, within six months people thought we had won that. You know, the Taliban had been removed from power. Al-Qaeda’s presence had been pretty much eradicated in Afghanistan. Although bin Laden was still on the loose in Pakistan, people thought we’d won this war within six months. So, what happened after that? Well, you know, a big argument in my book and I think I document this in great detail is the leaders of our country, whether it was the commanders in chief at the White House where people at the State Department and particularly those in uniform at the Pentagon, and at military headquarters in Kabul.
You know, it becomes really difficult to admit the war isn’t going well. That you’re slowly losing a war that Americans thought was justified and that Americans thought they had won. You know, what President politically is going to admit that things are going badly on their watch in a war that Americans thought was a righteous war and thought that we had won? It becomes very difficult to admit failure or to admit things aren’t going well. And so, I think that’s what we saw year after year. The generals and diplomats and presidents didn’t want to admit the truth. They didn’t want to tell the American people that you had this war we thought we had won, maybe it’s not winnable anymore. Maybe we can’t accomplish what we thought we could. Maybe our goals here don’t make any sense.
And so, you just see this doubling down for two decades instead of really leveling with the American people about what the situation was in Afghanistan. And my main argument is the war lasted for 20 years because the people at the top really weren’t telling the truth about what was happening.
Yeah. And I don’t want to give the impression that I’m saying that there’s a fatal flaw in the character of the politicians or the military as individuals. I guess what I’m getting at here is something that I think you already implied in your answer which is the idea that there’s some kind of defect within the institutions themselves… not the individuals. It seems that the lies and the mistruths, the misstatements that were purposeful and deliberate were not made because the individuals were dishonest or the individuals were bad people. But because the institutions seem to be designed or seem to have, at least at the moment, a defect that encouraged them to continue to do that.
Because it wasn’t one politician. It was all of the presidents who continued that process. It wasn’t one military general or one person in the military. It was systemic throughout the military as they talked to Congress. Am I kind of understanding that right or am I being too harsh on the institutions?
No, I don’t think you’re being harsh on the institutions at all. If anything, I think it might be both. I think certainly in institutions, there was not an encouragement to be honest and speak out publicly when people saw something going wrong. But I think it is fair to question individuals and their behavior in this in certain points. I mean, let’s talk about Donald Rumsfeld again back in April of 2002. So, again, this is just a little over six months after the war had started. We thought we had won.
President Bush takes a helicopter ride from the White House to Virginia to speak at the Virginia Military Institute in Southwest Virginia. And he’s sort of talking about that. You know, how well things have gone in Afghanistan and how the United States has a responsibility to help Afghan people stand on their feet. And he gives a pretty rosy outlook of how things are and he’s also reassuring the American people. ‘Don’t worry. We’re not going to get stuck in Afghanistan. It’s not going to be like what happened with the Soviets there. It’s not going to be like what happened with the British in the 19th century in Afghanistan. We’re not going to get stuck. It’s not going to be like Vietnam. Trust me.’
Well, in one of these Rumsfeld snowflakes, we found that on that same morning, the same morning that Bush gives this reassuring speech in public saying, ‘Don’t worry. We’re not going to get stuck.’ Rumsfeld sends a memo to several top generals and civilian aids at the Pentagon saying, ‘Look, we need a plan to get out of Afghanistan. If we don’t have a plan for the long-term in Afghanistan, we’re going to get stuck and we’re never going to get out.’ And he ends the memo with one word. It says Help: exclamation point.
So, in public Bush is saying, ‘Don’t worry, everything’s good. We’re not going to get stuck.’ And yet that same day in private, Rumsfeld’s writing a memo saying, ‘We don’t have a plan in Afghanistan. I’m worried we are going to get stuck and we’ll never get out if we don’t come up with a plan.’ So, I mean, Rumsfeld knew what Bush was saying in public and yet he was worried. So, what accounts for that deception and dishonesty? I mean, at that point, you know, I get the reality of politics in Washington. You’re not going to contradict the Commander in Chief. That said Rumsfeld really had a really prominent public profile. And, you know, I think he certainly has a responsibility and a duty to not be deceptive to the American people when he speaks in public and compare that to his private assessments.
And once that sets the tone, other people pick up on it. So, in the Pentagon, if you’re a uniformed leader, if you’re a general and you know what Rumsfeld and Bush are saying in public, you know, it would take some real courage to contradict them in public. You know, they take their cues from the boss. And I think that’s something that played out. And I think institutionally – Is that a defect in the institution? Well, it’s not such a simple answer. Right? We have civilian control of the military. We expect the generals and admirals to give their honest military advice when they’re called to testify before Congress. And certainly, they could have been more forthright when telling Congress, giving their assessments of the war. They’re also told and their culture is not to challenge the civilian leadership.
So, it’s a murky area, you know. Yes. I think they all have an obligation to tell the truth. It’s easy to say that. But, you know, realistically, do you expect generals to say my boss Rumsfeld is full of it and he knows it or that my boss, President Bush, isn’t telling you the truth. I mean, that would take some real courage, even if they thought that. But even if they thought that. The inclination, the culture is if you’re that opposed to what someone is doing, you resign quietly. You’re not the boss. The civilians are the ones in charge. You know, it raises a lot of tough questions about that. About what people should have done.
But my argument in the book is really just I think they all fell in line with this at the Pentagon. And in the field that they all repeated the same talking points that we were always making progress in Afghanistan. You hear that same phrase for 20 years. No matter what happened, we were making progress, officially, even though it was obvious that we weren’t. I think the generals and commanders were contributing to that, but, you know, it becomes a tougher question of, well, what should they have done? Otherwise, I don’t know that it’s so simple to say that we’d expect them all to resign or something.
Yeah, it’s a fine line. There were generals who spoke out about different issues during the Obama Administration, and that created a lot of controversy whenever they did. And Obama writes about it in his recent biography where he walks through some of the situations where the General’s actually spoke out publicly in a way that contradicted things that he was looking to do. And that kind of comes back to the idea that there is civilian control of the military. They’re supposed to follow the direction of people who are elected and then people that are appointed by those elected officials. And so, to ask them to speak out is both fair in some instances, but at the same time is unfair in others because they’re actually going against the direction of those duly elected politicians.
I think that’s right. I think there’s also a distinction to be made perhaps between generals who are advocating for certain policies that might be at odds with the civilians in control. That’s certainly an area they shouldn’t be doing publicly, but when you’re a field commander or general at the Pentagon, you’re asked to give your assessment of how things are going military. I think there is an expectation that they be honest about it. You know, that maybe they aren’t advocating for more troops or for the President to do this or that, they’re just giving their assessment of the situation.
And the best example of this, I think, was in the book about a top commander by the name of Army General David McKiernan. And he was the top general in Afghanistan at the end of the Bush Administration and the start of Obama’s first term. And this is when things aren’t going well in Afghanistan. It’s clear that the insurgency is making a comeback starting in 2005, 2006. McKiernan’s there 2008, 2009. And he’s really the first general to say in public several times that things aren’t really going well in Afghanistan. He’s the first general to say, you know, things are not going in the right direction. We’re not making progress. That we’re backsliding here and things aren’t looking good. And he was fairly muted in his comments.
But at the end of the Bush Administration, start of Obama’s first year in office, there was undoubtedly a change in his comments versus his predecessors. He was giving some pessimistic and bleak assessments of what was going on. Well, suddenly one day in May of 2009 after Obama took office, his Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, unannounced at the Pentagon holds a press conference. And he announces out of the blue that he’s removing General McKiernan as the war commander in Afghanistan. He’s fired him from the job. And to give you a sense of how rare and unusual that is this is the first war commander in the field to be relieved while in the middle of fighting a war since Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War when he was saying some, you know, seditious things about Harry Truman. He was removed from command by Harry Truman.
That was a big deal in military and political history. So, here’s General McKiernan, the next guy to get fired in the war, and reporters were asking Gates, ‘Well, boy, he must’ve done something really horrible. What did he do? Why would you fire your war commander? That’s unheard of.’ And surprisingly Gates really didn’t have much of an answer. He just said, ‘Well, I thought it was time for a change. We needed some new thinking.’ And he even said, ‘Gentlemen, McKiernan did nothing wrong. We just thought we needed somebody new at the top.’ And again, this didn’t make any sense on the surface because Gates had actually put McKiernan in that job several months before and up until then had professed confidence in him.
So, something happened. Well, some documents I use for the book were some oral history interviews with people who served in Afghanistan in the military and had known McKiernan and had said that he had given them a heads up that he was about to be fired. And he said, ‘We did too good of a job telling people how bad things are over here.’ So, whether that was Gates’ real reason or not, it clearly sent a message through the rank and file, but particularly among senior officers in the Defense Department that if you’re honest in saying that things aren’t going well in the field and that contradicts the message from the top, from the Defense Secretary or from the White House you’re going to lose your job.
So, essentially fall in line. Stick to the talking points. And don’t be too honest because look at what happened to General McKiernan. And you better believe that every general thereafter got that message and they stuck with those talking points.
Now, when Gates says it’s time for a change that to me implies that the commander has been in charge for like three years, four years, five years, maybe even since the beginning. You just hinted at the fact that McKiernan had only been there for just a few months. Had he even been there for a full year?
Not a full year, I think it had been about 10 months. Keep in mind, they rotated in and out typically for a year or two. They rarely stayed longer than two years. So, I mean, another strange question was, well, if he had waited two or three more months, it would have been fine to say, well, it’s just his time’s up because some of his predecessors had only been in there for that long or for a year. So, again, why did he feel a need to fire him right then and there? I think Gates was making a statement that this was in response to what McKiernan had been saying in public about how the war wasn’t going well. And they didn’t want to hear that anymore. And they wanted to make sure whoever came in after that stuck to the talking points. And that’s what happened.
How did Obama’s approach differ from Bush’s?
Well, the best way to describe Obama’s approach in comparison to Bush’s, Bush was always trying to do the minimum in Afghanistan. And in some ways, he was probably right if you look back, even though things didn’t farewell under him. I think he understood there was a real danger of getting mired in Afghanistan like the Soviets did or like what the United States did in Vietnam. Now, you can argue that if he had done more early on that might’ve stabilized Afghanistan. If he hadn’t shifted his attention to Iraq, maybe they could have made a success of Afghanistan early on. But he didn’t. He stopped paying attention and the Taliban was able to relaunch an insurgency. So, he really was trying to do it on the cheap, the nation building the war fighting.
He was trying to do it with as few resources as possible in Afghanistan. Obama took the opposite approach which was, you know, he kind of doubled down. He said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to make this work.’ You know, he had campaigned against the War in Iraq when he ran for president in 2008 and he wanted to make good on his promise to pull out of Iraq. But when he ran for the presidency, he didn’t campaign to end the War in Afghanistan. He said there was a real need to get it right in Afghanistan. That Afghanistan was seen as the just war, the righteous war. We had a responsibility to fix things in Afghanistan.
So, when Obama came into office, he was trying to do it quickly. When he announced this surge of troops in Afghanistan, at the same time he announced that they would start withdrawing within 18 months. Because understandably he didn’t want to get stuck in Afghanistan. Right? You know, this was the whole fear, ironically, that we would get stuck there like we did in Vietnam or the Soviet state in Afghanistan. So, when he announced this surge of troops and money, we also announced that we would start drawing down within 18 months. So, there is a real rush to try and fix everything really quickly. And this caused its own set of problems. Because we were flooding the war zone with so much money that it really led to more corruption. We ended up building a bunch of projects that fell apart.
We were really trying to throw money and troops at the problem to fix it as quickly as possible. And the results were sort of predictable. There was some temporary progress in terms of securing territory and building up parts of the Afghan government. But it ended up crumbling pretty quickly after we started drawing down the number of troops and scaling back.
Was Obama’s big mistake the fact that he gave a timeline, because a big critique was that he said on this date we’re going to effectively pull out, that he kind of gave the Taliban a sense of how long to be able to wait out the Americans.
Yeah, I think there’s no question that’s the effect it had. That the Taliban knew that they could just kind of hunker down for 18 months and the Americans and NATO would start to withdraw. You know, and certainly there has been a lot of justified criticism of Obama’s strategy for that. Even in some of the documents we obtained for the book, you know, there were people who were high up in the Obama Administration, civilians and in uniform who said that this just didn’t make any sense to put a timeline on it particularly one that quick.
At the same time, you know, I’m sort of sympathetic to Obama. You know, at that point, the war had already gone on for close to a decade by the time he wanted to begin his drawdown. And you know, this was after the financial crisis in the United States in 2008 and he said, ‘We have a responsibility to build our nation at home. You know, we’ve been doing this in Afghanistan for a long time. We can’t just stay there indefinitely.’ But I think the problems were bigger at that point. I think Obama was trying to fix a war. You know, he still made this judgment that the war was winnable. That we could have a military defeat of the Taliban and that the Afghan government would be strong enough to stand on its own with some help from the United States and its allies.
And I think that calculation, that assessment was incorrect. That our whole assumption that we could win and that there would be stability in Afghanistan, if we could beat the Taliban into submission. That turned out to be a false assessment. I mean, that’s something that Trump and Biden both wrestled with. That, you know, the Taliban was too much a part of the fabric of Afghanistan. You couldn’t just eliminate them. That the longer the war went on, there was much more resistance from many Afghans who were tired of the foreign forces, of the invaders, of all these civilian casualties and drone strikes. And the longer we were there, there was more fatigue among ordinary Afghans, particularly in rural areas. Even people who otherwise wouldn’t like the Taliban, they ended up seeing the Americans and their allies, corrupt allies, in the Afghan government as the problem too.
So, we were really kind of trying to put a band-aid on a lot of serious, fundamental flaws with the whole war and our whole strategy. You know, Obama was trying to do a quick fix by throwing money and people at the problem, but it wasn’t going to fix the underlying problems. So, it’s not that if Obama hadn’t put a timeline on it, that it would have been okay. I don’t think that would have fixed it either. I think either approach was kind of doomed to fail at that point.
Now we’re talking about how the Taliban was such a concern, and we’ve been talking about this militarily. But at the end of the day, the problem with Afghanistan, wasn’t our inabilities from a military aspect, it was our inability to make the politics work and the politics, not just with the Afghan people, but also with the Taliban itself. Like being able to understand, do they have a place and if so, what their place would be in a new Afghanistan? At the beginning, we talked about how the war kind of went off tracks after six months. Did the politics in Afghanistan kind of go off track when we didn’t invite the Taliban to help construct a new Afghan constitution?
Yeah, I think in retrospect, that’s absolutely right. That in December of 2001, there was this big sit-down conference called the Bonn Conference that the UN hosted in Bonn, Germany where the idea was to bring all the Afghan factions around the table. The Taliban had been removed from power. The world recognize that Afghanistan needed a lot of help, a lot of donors, a lot of friendly governments, from non-government organizations that Afghanistan needed help to get back on its feet.
And this was an effort to get all the players at the table in Afghanistan to try and come up with, for lack of a better description, a roadmap for a new government that would bring some stability to Afghanistan. Just about everybody got invited. All these Northern Alliance War Lords, you had people who supported the former Kings, Zahir Shah, who was in exile in Italy, you had groups that were close to Pakistan, groups that were close to Iran. So, you had all these factions come to Bonn to discuss ways to come up with a new constitution. But there was one group that was excluded. And that was the Taliban. And I think at the time people didn’t give it much thought.
They thought the Taliban had been militarily defeated, that they really associated them with Al-Qaida as terrorists, and there’s no question the Taliban, when they had been in power, their rule was really brutal. People remember about them cutting off people’s hands, about stoning adulterers, you know, women were just treated just horribly, you know, no education for girls. I mean, it’s a very authoritarian primitive rule. So, there weren’t many people standing up saying, ‘Well, we need to make sure the Taliban are represented.’ But in retrospect, I think that was a fundamental mistake.
As someone said in the book in one of these interviews, ‘We violated the Afghan way of war.’ That over the generations, you know, Afghanistan was accustomed to having conflict and usually when one group came out ahead. The other side would put down its arms and they’d re-imagine their alliances. And they would accept them back into the fold to try and bring some measure of stability. And a mistake made with the Taliban was the assumption that they didn’t have a place in African society that they had vanished or could be banished from the scene.
And yet this really gets back to a fundamental lack of understanding of Afghan society and culture and politics by the United States. That there were still many people in Afghanistan, particularly Pashtuns who were sympathetic to the Taliban. They saw that as a justified response to the corruption of the Northern Alliance Warlords. That a lot of people didn’t like the Taliban, but they gave them credit for bringing order and stability to the country and for not being corrupt. And so, we sidelined them and we didn’t want to bring them into those talks. You know, Rumsfeld was asked about this. He said, ‘No, the Taliban are terrorists. Why would we let them come in?’ And again, I understand the sentiment at the time shortly after 9/11.
But it wasn’t just then. There were other opportunities too to bring the Taliban back into the fold and have negotiations with them. Another good example would have been right after Afghanistan had its first presidential elections in 2005, when Hamid Karzai was elected president. It was seen as a free and fair election for the most part. The Taliban had tried to disrupt it and it failed.
That would have been another good time when they were weak to try and bring them back in the fold and to reach out to some of their leaders and say, ‘Okay, you know, this is the new system in Afghanistan. We’re going to have a democracy here. And if you can accept that, you know, we’ll bring you back into the fold.’ But really up to that point, the only place Taliban leaders had to go was to get killed or go to Guantanamo. They really had nowhere else to go other than to resume the insurgency.
Do you think though that the Taliban could have adapted to a democratic system? I’m not talking about the Taliban being in charge of a democratic system, but do you think that they could have participated kind of the way that Ennahda maybe over in Tunisia has adapted to democracy in recent years. Do you think the Taliban could have even had a place like could they have formed a political party? It’s hard to imagine them embracing democracy.
I think that’s right. I think it is hard to imagine them embracing democracy. That said, the time to try and bring them into the fold would have been in 2001, 2002, 2004. And there were overtures made by some people who were former senior leaders of the Taliban or people with contacts. That by the time Hamid Karzai was elected, and he was pretty popular in Afghanistan… I can’t say for sure. It wouldn’t have been a lock, but that would have been the time to try and bring them back into the system. And, you know, you got to understand they ran the government there. So, you know, if you negotiate, say, ‘Okay, you’re in charge of this ministry or you can form a political party.’ I don’t think it’s dead on arrival, so to speak.
But, you know, there just really wasn’t an effort made until Obama came into the presidency. And I think he recognized, I mean, his staffers recognized they had to have some kind of accommodation with the Taliban. But they never really could bring themselves to have direct peace talks either and there were complications with that because they wanted to support their allies in the Afghan government, President Karzai and then President Ghani. And they didn’t want to be seen as undercutting them. So, they kept encouraging the Afghan government to reach out to the Taliban. But that kind of went nowhere for two reasons. One, the Taliban saw the Afghan government as a bunch of American puppets. These were illegitimate rulers of Afghanistan. They didn’t want to deal with them. They only wanted to talk with the Americans.
And, of course, the government in Kabul, under President Karzai and President Ghani, they didn’t want to have talks with the Taliban because no matter how that ended, they would have to cede some power. They didn’t want to have to bring the Taliban into the fold, because they felt threatened by them politically. That this would inevitably dilute their own political power. So, that wasn’t going to work. You know, the United States tried to get those two sides to talk under Obama and Trump and it really went nowhere until finally Trump had enough of it and decided to have his own direct negotiations with the Taliban, which that’s what led to ultimately his agreement and Biden’s agreement to withdraw.
Now, one of the other issues with the creation of the constitution was that it became so centralized. The Afghan constitution was based off of an earlier constitution, which to be honest, every attempt to be able to build the state in Afghanistan so far has focused on a top-down approach rather than something that’s bottom up. And it feels very undemocratic to be honest with you. Do you think things would have turned out differently if they tried to build off of some of the more local institutions that they had that were functioning within Afghanistan?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I’m not enough of an Afghan political or cultural expert to say, yeah, this would have worked in there. Certainly, there are people who are a lot smarter on that front than me, but there is no question that this was a top-down approach where the United States encouraged Afghanistan to adopt a new constitution and government where it had a lot of power concentrated in the hands of the president, because we were comfortable at that point in Karzai being the leader. The Bush Administration thought, you know, this guy is suave. He speaks good English. He says all the right things about democracy and freedom and human rights. You know, this guy’s great. He’d been a former CIA asset when the Taliban was in power.
But things started to go sour over the years and suddenly he was our guy and we helped him get all this power in their constitution, but then the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration soured on him particularly as corruption became more of a problem. So, this is a problem. I think we sort of personalized the government. We thought Karzai was the exact right guy. We were comfortable with him having all the power consolidated in his hands. So, I’ll give you an example. Under the Afghan constitution, the President appoints all the governors of all the provinces. So, they don’t have local elections like we have in the United States. You don’t have this alternate power base. And really the president was controlling who the provincial governors were which was really important.
The parliament was kind of toothless compared to the president, same with the judges. So, all the power was really centralized in one person’s hands. And that works great if you have Winston Churchill in charge, but if you have somebody who, you know, isn’t a pure Democrat, it can become problematic. And that’s how things turned out in the end.
So, as we look to kind of wrap up Craig, there’s obviously a lot of lessons to be learned from Afghanistan. But at the same time, there’s really a hope that we don’t need to actually use any of them. I mean, the conflict in Afghanistan lasted so long. The feeling for most Americans is let’s just not enter ourselves into something that has the potential to drag on for an indefinite period of time. So, as we try to grapple with what the practical lessons are, especially as the United States right now is starting to express a very assertive foreign policy against Russia in terms of the conflict in Ukraine. What are the real lessons that we should be grasping that we should be taking from Afghanistan into our foreign policy and into the future?
Yeah. So, this is going to sound really simplistic. But I think it’s also really important if you’re going to get involved in a military conflict, particularly not one that was thrust upon you if you’re not just purely fighting in self-defense, you need to have clear definable objectives. What’s the end game here? What are we trying to achieve? And that was a big problem in Afghanistan. It’s still shocking to me to read a lot of these documents and interviews in The Afghanistan Papers, things that most people would think are obvious. What’s the plan to end the war? What benchmarks do we have to achieve so that we know we can leave? You know, none of those things were thought out or articulated. You know, we were just there until we could prop up the Afghan government.
But it was never really spelled out how long we’d have to stay or what we’d have to accomplish before we could leave. And you’re right. Ukraine’s a very different situation. The Russians invaded Ukraine and we don’t have direct military personnel on the ground. But we’re certainly getting involved in the war. But those same questions come back again. You know, what are we trying to achieve? What are our goals here? What are the objectives? Is it to force the Russians to withdraw completely? And there’s been a lot of confusion over what President Biden has said about Putin remaining in power. Whether that’s part of our policy objectives or not. Like you said, you know, you could see this conflict dragging on for a long time. You know, what are our goals and objectives? What are we trying to achieve?
You know, when there was all this discussion of no-fly zones or giving war planes to the Ukrainians, you know, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and the emotion of things. But, you know, those are still pretty basic questions that need to be answered. What are our goals? What are our objectives? What are we really trying to accomplish? And how is this going to help or not? You know, those are again, pretty basic questions you have to ask and answer whenever you get involved in a war.
Yeah. And of course, the work that you did in this recent book, The Afghanistan Papers, demonstrates that there’s probably a lot of conversations going on behind the scenes that may demonstrate the fact that some of these ideas are being worked out. Maybe they have a very clear vision of how we’re going to achieve different objectives. It’s also possible that some of those steps aren’t really defined. We’ll find that out in the course of history, when some of this information starts to come out. At the moment definitely our hearts are all with the Ukrainian people right now and hopefully things work out for the best. And thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about Afghanistan and some of the lessons we can learn for American foreign policy and maybe even some of the ways that this helps us understand some basic ideas about democracy for the future.
You bet, Justin, I really enjoyed talking with you and thanks very much for your interested in it. I think these are really important questions. And I do think Americans in general are kind of grappling with what happened in Afghanistan. It’s going to take us a long time to understand what went wrong, but I hope this book is a good first attempt to kind of frame those questions to make it a little easier for people to understand.
The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock
Afghanistan Papers Document Database at The Washington Post
“At War With Truth” by Craig Whitlock
Democracy Paradox Podcast
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Ilia Murtazashvili on Afghanistan, Local Institutions, and Self-Governance
Karen Greenberg on the War on Terror, Donald Trump, and American Democracy
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