It took three years and two federal lawsuits for The Washington Post to pry loose more than 2,000 pages of interview notes with generals, ambassadors, diplomats and other insiders who offered firsthand accounts of the mistakes that have prolonged the war in Afghanistan.
The Post has made all of those interviews, plus hundreds of confidential memos by former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld public and easily accessible so that Americans can see for themselves what has been done in their name.
From the more than 400 interviews, The Post has selected — and annotated — 25 that are essential reading and put key revelations from The Afghanistan Papers into stark relief.
White House war czar for Afghanistan, 2007-2013. Retired U.S. Army lieutenant general. Former U.S. ambassador to NATO. Interviewed on Feb. 20, 2015.
Key quote: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing.”
Former Afghan minister for rural rehabilitation and development. Interviewed on April 12, 2016.
Key quote: “Foreigners read ‘Kite Runner’ on [the] plane and believe they are an expert on Afghanistan and then never listen. The only thing they are experts in is bureaucracy.”
Former U.S. national security adviser, 2005-2009. Deputy national security adviser, 2001-2005. Interviewed on Sept. 16, 2015.
Key quote: “After 2005, my impression was that the warlords were back because Karzai wanted them back and he only understood the patronage system. Karzai was never sold on democracy and did not rely on democratic institutions."
U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer. Served as economic development officer in southern Afghanistan. Interviewed on Jan. 11, 2015.
Key quote: (About a 37-acre industrial park project to which the United States had committed $8 million) “It was impossible to get info on it, even where it was located. It was that much of a blank spot. Nobody knew anything about anything."
Retired U.S. Army lieutenant general. Former national security adviser and former director of Defense Intelligence Agency. Interviewed on Nov. 10, 2015.
Key quote: “New Ansari [Bank] was just incredibly corrupt. It had double books and people were just stealing us blind. … Was anyone held accountable? No, no one was held accountable.”
Former senior Pentagon official. Deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats, 2009-2012. Deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations, 2012-2015. Interviewed on Nov. 1, 2016.
Key quote: “I am not aware of any civilian effort that told the military what they should do in counternarcotics. The military would have been happy with a civilian counternarcotics strategy.”
Former civilian adviser on Afghanistan to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Interviewed on Oct. 19, 2015.
Key quote: “Right now, it is all ad hoc. There is no doctrine, no science to it. It gets done very unevenly. When you are creating security forces for another society, it is the most important political act you will ever do. That requires an awful lot of thought and sophistication."
U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, 2002-2003. Interviewed on Oct. 22, 2015
Key quote: “This is a systemic problem of our government. We can’t think beyond the next election. When we went to Afghanistan everybody was talking about a year or two, and I said to them that we would be lucky if we were out of here in 20 years."
Retired U.S. diplomat. U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, 2011-2012, and acting ambassador, 2002. U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, 2004-2007. Interviewed on Jan. 11, 2016.
Key quote: “I always thought Karzai had a point, that 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.”
Financial investigator. Former lead forensic accountant for U.S. military task force that investigated corruption. Interviewed on March 23, 2016.
Key quote: “We can at least instill a sense of fear, that the international community will support rule of law, and come after you. The flip side is, people say, ‘I can steal all this money because Karzai will protect me, or Karzai’s brother is on the board.' ”
Retired U.S. Army brigadier general. Former director of Joint Staff, Indiana National Guard. Served in Khost province in 2009. Interviewed on Feb. 25, 2016.
Key quote: “Congress gives us money to spend and expects us to spend all of it. … The attitude became we don’t care what you do with the money as long as you spend it.”
Former director of Security Sector Governance Center at U.S. Institute of Peace. Interviewed on Oct. 20, 2016.
Key quote: “[The Afghan Local Police] was a corrupt force, run by warlords.”
Retired Navy SEAL. Former National Security Council staffer during the Bush and Obama administrations. Former senior director for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Interviewed on Aug. 25, 2015.
Key quote: “Why did we make the Taliban the enemy when we were attacked by al-Qaeda? Why did we want to defeat the Taliban? … Collectively the system is incapable of taking a step back to question basic assumptions."
Retired U.S. Army general. Commander, U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, 2010-2011. Former CIA director. Interviewed on Aug. 16, 2017.
Key quote: “What drove spending was the need to solidify gains as quickly as we could knowing that we had a tight drawdown timeline. … And we wound up spending faster than we would have if we felt we had forces longer than we did."
Retired U.S. diplomat. Assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs, 2006-2009. Interviewed on Oct. 15, 2015.
Key quote: “If there was ever a notion of mission creep it is Afghanistan.”
Retired British Army general and former chief of defense staff. Commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, 2006-2007. Interviewed on Sept. 27, 2017.
Key quote: “We were trying to get a single coherent long-term approach — a proper strategy — but instead we got a lot of tactics. There was no coherent long-term strategy."
Retired U.S. Army general. Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, 2002-2003, and NATO forces, 2007-2008. Interview date unknown.
Key quote: “I tried to get someone to define for me what winning meant, even before I went over, and nobody could. Nobody would give me a good definition of what it meant."
Retired U.S. Army colonel. Strategic adviser to three commanders in Afghanistan. Interviewed on April 5, 2016.
Key quote: “The kleptocracy got stronger over time, to the point that the priority of the Afghan government became not good governance but sustaining this kleptocracy.”
Former senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Former adviser to chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff. Former NPR reporter. Interviewed on May 26, 2015.
Key quote: “It was devastating that we were willing to patch up the elections. … While we had the opportunity to say that corruption is important, explicit instructions were given that it is not."
Former DEA agent and director of counternarcotics task force at U.S. embassy in Kabul. Interviewed on April 19, 2016.
Key quote: “Drugs was a nasty thing that had to be contended with. The biggest problem was corruption in Afghanistan and drugs was part of it. You couldn’t deal with one without dealing with the other.”
Retired Marine general. Commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, 2011-2013. Interviewed on Nov. 2, 2016.
Key quote: “[Afghan entrepreneurs and government officials] wanted the entire country pacified before they were willing to do anything. That meant to me they weren’t serious about the stabilization they so desperately needed.”
Financial consultant and business executive. Former forensic operations program manager for anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan. Interviewed on Oct. 6, 2015.
Key quote: “No one wanted accountability. … If you’re going to do anti-corruption, someone has got to own it. From what I’ve seen, no one is willing to own it.”
Former governor of Kandahar province, 2008-2014. Interviewed on Jan. 7, 2017.
Key quote: (About a U.S. public-health project to teach Afghans how to wash their hands) “It was an insult to the people. Here people wash their hands five times a day for prayers. Moreover, hand wash project is not needed. Think about employment, and think about enabling people to earn something."
U.S. combat adviser assigned to an Afghan army battalion as part of Task Force Phoenix, 2007-2008. Interviewed on April 11, 2017.
Key quote: “The [Afghan National Army] had beautiful rifles, but didn’t know how to use them.”
Former National Security Council director for Afghanistan, 2007-2009. Retired U.S. Army colonel. Interviewed on June 17, 2015.
Key quote: (About the counternarcotics strategy) “If the heroin had been going to the U.S. it might have played out differently.”