In a cache of previously unpublished interviews and memos, key insiders reveal what went wrong during the longest armed conflict in U.S. history
For 18 years, America has been at war in Afghanistan. As part of a government project to understand what went wrong, a federal agency interviewed more than 400 people who had a direct role in the conflict. In those interviews, generals, ambassadors, diplomats and other insiders offered firsthand accounts of the mistakes that have prolonged the war.
The full, unsparing remarks and the identities of many of those who made them have never been made public — until now. After a three-year legal battle, The Washington Post won release of more than 2,000 pages of “Lessons Learned” interviews conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Those interviews reveal there was no consensus on the war’s objectives, let alone how to end the conflict.
To augment the previously undisclosed interviews, The Post also obtained hundreds of confidential memos by former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld from the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute. Known as “snowflakes,” the memos are brief instructions or comments that the Pentagon leader dictated to his underlings as the war unfolded.
Together, the interviews and the Rumsfeld memos reveal a secret, unvarnished history of the conflict and offer new insights into how three presidential administrations have failed for nearly two decades to deliver on their promises to end the war.
Below are four revelatory themes from the documents.
Year after year, U.S. officials failed to tell the public the truth about the war in Afghanistan.
“The strategy became self-validating. Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible.”— Bob Crowley, retired Army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser at U.S. military headquarters in Kabul from 2013 to 2014
The Lessons Learned interviews contradict years of public statements by presidents, generals and diplomats. The interviews make clear that officials issued rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hid unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable. Several of those interviewed described explicit efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public and a culture of willful ignorance, where bad news and critiques were unwelcome. Read the story.
U.S. and allied officials admitted the mission had no clear strategy and poorly defined objectives.
“I have no visibility into who the bad guys are.”— Donald H. Rumsfeld, U.S. defense secretary from 2001 to 2006
At first, the rationale for invading Afghanistan was clear: to destroy al-Qaeda. But once that had been largely accomplished, officials said the mission grew muddled as they began adopting contradictory strategies and unattainable goals. Those running the war said they struggled to answer even basic questions: Who is the enemy? Whom can we count on as allies? And, how will we know when we have won? Read the story.
Many years into the war, the United States still did not understand Afghanistan.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing.”— Douglas Lute, Army lieutenant general who served as the White House’s Afghanistan war czar under Presidents Bush and Obama, then U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017
Dozens of U.S. and Afghan officials told interviewers that many of the U.S. policies and initiatives — from training Afghan forces to fighting the thriving opium trade — were destined to fail because they were based on flawed assumptions about a country they didn’t understand.
The United States wasted vast sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan and bred corruption in the process.
“You just cannot put those amounts of money into a very fragile state and society, and not have it fuel corruption. You just can’t.”— Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan
Despite promises to the contrary, the United States engaged in a huge nation-building effort in Afghanistan, drenching the destitute country with more money than it could absorb. There was so much excess that opportunities for bribery, fraud and corruption became limitless. One U.S. adviser said that at the air base where he worked many Afghans reeked of jet fuel because they were smuggling out so much of it to sell on the black market. Read the story.
Six stories based on revelations in the documents
At war with the truth
How officials put their spin on 18 years of setbacks.
Stranded without a strategy
Conflicting objectives dogged the war from the start.
Built to fail
The United States has wasted billions on nation-building.
Consumed by corruption
How the United States allowed graft and thievery to thrive.
Why the effort to train Afghan security forces was mission impossible.
Overwhelmed by opium
Poppy farming exploded despite attempts to curb it.
Editing by Danielle Rindler and David Fallis. Copy editing by Annabeth Carlson and J.J. Evans. Document illustration by Nick Kirkpatrick.
Photos by The Washington Post, AP, AFP/Getty Images, Getty Images, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. National Guard, International Security Assistance Forces, U.S. Embassy in Kabul, White House, C-SPAN, George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies, U.S. Institute of Peace, New America, Council on Foreign Relations, Naval Postgraduate School, U.S. Army Warrior Care and Transition and Center for Transatlantic Relations.
About this investigation
The Washington Post obtained the Lessons Learned interview documents from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) after filing multiple public-records requests beginning in 2016, and two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits.
SIGAR redacted most of the names of the people it interviewed, citing a variety of FOIA privacy exemptions. SIGAR also redacted substantial portions of what people said in the interviews, as well as some information that was later classified by the State Department, Defense Department and Drug Enforcement Administration.
The Post has asked a federal judge to order SIGAR to disclose all the redacted information, arguing that there is a compelling public interest in knowing which government officials criticized the war and the full scope of what they said. A decision is pending.
In more than 30 cases, The Post determined the identities of people who were interviewed by the context of what they said and through additional reporting. Most of those people later confirmed to The Post that they had been interviewed. A few did not respond to requests for comment.
For the rest of the interviews with redacted names, The Post is providing shorthand descriptions of the individuals — such as “senior State Department official” or “U.S. combat adviser” — based on the context of what they said or how they were labeled by SIGAR in other documents.
The Rumsfeld snowflake memos were shared with The Post by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research organization based at George Washington University. The Archive obtained tens of thousands of Rumsfeld’s snowflakes after filing a FOIA lawsuit against the Defense Department in 2017. More information on the Archive’s snowflake collection can be found here.
If you have information to share about The Afghanistan Papers, contact The Post at email@example.com.
Editing by David Fallis and Jeff Leen. Copy editing by J.J. Evans and Annabeth Carlson. Photo editing and research by Nick Kirkpatrick. Design and development by Leslie Shapiro, Armand Emamdjomeh, Jake Crump, Danielle Rindler and Matt Callahan. Video by Joyce Lee. Senior video production by Tom LeGro. Video animation by William Neff. Audio editing by Ted Muldoon. Digital operations by María Sánchez Díez. Audience engagement by Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn and Ric Sanchez. Project management by Julie Vitkovskaya. Research by Julie Tate.