For the project, The Washington Post attempted to contact everyone whom it was able to identify as having given an interview to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction for its Lessons Learned program. The documents disclosed by SIGAR identified 62 interviewees by name. Through additional reporting, The Post independently identified 33 other people who were interviewed, including several former ambassadors, generals and White House officials.

Many of those interviewed by SIGAR declined to comment or said they wanted to read the Afghanistan Papers before commenting. Some could not be reached. Below are reactions from those individuals who wanted to respond further. (All were emailed statements except where noted.)

John Allen, former commander of U.S. and NATO forces

Quoted in UNGUARDED NATION:

For almost two decades, U.S. military commanders have assured the public they are making progress on the cornerstone of their war strategy: to build a strong Afghan army and police force that can defend the country on their own

“The Afghan forces are better than we thought they were,” Marine Gen. John Allen told Congress in 2012.

Allen’s additional comment (from a Post interview): “We found the Afghans to be better than we thought they would be, than they thought they would be, because they were put into the operational lead a full year ahead of what we had intended. . . . They were coming in early, they knew they were coming in early, and they still stuck their nose in the fight. That’s why they were better than we thought.

“I want to acknowledge my homage to the Afghans for their sacrifices. [While I was commander] there were so many Afghans killed fighting every week for their country. . . . That deserves to be acknowledged, because sometimes it is just lost.”

Quoted again in UNGUARDED NATION:

Marine Gen. John Allen, who served as commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013, defended the Afghan local police (ALP) and described them as a major success.

Allen’s additional comment: “The ALP were an important component of a much larger strategy. It was a layered strategy with respect to the development of the Afghan security forces. . . . It only worked when we had our Green Berets embedded with them, and that was the challenge I had. . . . Where we had the Green Berets with them they turned out to be pretty good. And then the decision was made to withdraw and I had to pull out Green Berets. We didn’t have time to get [the ALP] where they needed to be. . . . It was a good concept. It worked where we had Green Berets associated with it. . . . That’s not to say there weren’t problems. There were problems.”

Gert Berthold, former manager for anti-corruption task force

Gert Berthold, a forensic accountant who served on a military task force in Afghanistan during the height of the war, from 2010 to 2012, said he helped analyze 3,000 Defense Department contracts worth $106 billion to see who was benefiting.

The conclusion: About 40 percent of the money ended up in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates or corrupt Afghan officials.

Berthold said the evidence was so damning that few U.S. officials wanted to hear about it.

Berthold’s additional comment: “Don’t know where the $106B comes from. I believe this was more in the range of $30B, but not sure anymore. The full set of contract values — as I recall — over the years 2010-2012 was $19B in 2010, $18B in 2011 and $13B in 2012. Our efforts focused on the big $ contracts that had local vendor networks involved. What’s written and portrayed is what I said, but this may have been an interpretation or a threading of information to highlight the potential extreme. Where we identified anomalies in the flow of procurement funds, we typically proved, through financial records, that 16-25% of funds (where anomalies were identified) went to bad actors. We were told that this percentage was low, some saying that it was more like 40%. My statement and comment to those offering that higher percentages prevailed was that may be true, but feel it is appropriate to state what was found and proven. Other than that is speculation, perhaps well founded, but still speculative.

“There were many estimations put forward by varying groups of 25-30% of procurement funds being diverted to bad actors. We found sufficient anomalies in assessments to personally say that range may not be out of the realm of possible for specific categories of spend.”

Michael Callen, Afghan public-sector specialist

Quoted in UNGUARDED NATION:

In a 2015 Lessons Learned interview, Michael Callen, an economist who specializes in the Afghan public sector, recalled working with a newly arrived U.S. colonel who wanted to set up a secure system that would pay Afghan police officers by mobile-phone transfers instead of cash.

Mobile phones are common in Afghanistan, and the Interior Ministry eventually set up a pilot program to pay a small number of police officers with mobile-phone credits. U.S. officials said the experiment worked well, but the Afghan government did not implement it widely.

Callen’s additional comment: “Over the last few years, I’ve worked closely with Afghan Office of the President to implement a mobile salary program. Now, all employees in the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs, and Disabled (MoLSAMD) and a large share of the employees in the Ministry of Education (about 40k) working in Kandahar, Nangahar, and Parwan provinces are now paid using mobile money. This reform is entirely an Afghan initiative, in the sense that it’s not receiving much support from the US, but . . . provides a very nice counter-narrative that major anti-corruption reforms are possible. The World Bank is now in the process of scaling up the reform, though the dust from the most recent election will need to settle a bit before that moves forward.

“We’ve run the entire reform as an at-scale randomized control trial, and, in the process collected quite a bit of data on ghost workers, leakage in salary disbursements, teachers satisfaction with how they are paid, and so on. We’re still in the middle of the study and so have a bit of work to do before we can quote specific numbers. But, at a minimum, the government did get the system off the ground.

“The most relevant point, related to the quotations in your email, is that once the government decided to instead focus the reform on places that had the potential for a mobile money ecosystem to develop, it did move forward and seems to be working reasonably well, particularly in the cities.

“My quotation in 2015 reflected my views of how things worked in the Karzai administration. The current mobile salaries reform project, I’m almost certain, would not have succeeded in [Hamid] Karzai’s administration. The Ghani administration has been much more pro-active in trying to implement truly novel reforms.”

Sarah Chayes, former adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

In the end, the Obama administration brokered a deal in which Karzai was declared the winner after he agreed to share some power with his main rival. But in Lessons Learned interviews, several U.S. officials said the messy result ruined U.S. credibility.

Chayes’s additional comment: “The quote as you have it from the SIGAR notes doesn’t really sound like me. I rarely use the expression rule-of-law, and most of it is much vaguer than I usually am. It sounds like someone taking notes, not transcribing a recording.

“On the first half, what I meant was that I was devastated the U.S. was willing to enter into negotiations about the total number of votes Karzai would be said to have won in an election — which every Afghan knew he had blatantly tampered with — rather than calling the whole exercise off for fraud. (In an analogy I often used at the time, I would say, if someone is found doping in the Tour de France, the number of minutes he is estimated to have gained is not added to his total — he is thrown out of the race.) How are people supposed to have faith in an election whose outcome has been negotiated between one of the candidates and a dominant foreign power?

“The second part of the quote as you transmitted it does not seem to follow from the first half. What I think I probably said (or certainly meant) — in a quite different context from the election — was ‘while we kept insisting that corruption was important in public and private statements, explicit instructions came down from the interagency process that made clear it was not.’ ”

Anthony Fitzherbert, British agricultural expert

In a Lessons Learned interview, Anthony Fitzherbert, a British agricultural expert, called the cash-for-poppies program “an appalling piece of complete raw naivete,” adding that the people in charge had “no knowledge of nuances and [I] don’t know they really cared.”

Fitzherbert’s additional comment: “This clearly refers specifically to the British Government’s ‘cash for poppies’ programme that took place between 2002 and 2004, (as I recall) in the main opium poppy growing provinces of south west Afghanistan — Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan; south east Afghanistan — Nangahar, Konar and Laghman and in north east Afghanistan — Badakhshan. The ‘cash for poppies programme’ was finally abandoned and cancelled when it became clear that it was not only not working, but that it was having negative consequences.

“I hasten to add here that I myself had no direct involvement with this programme in any form or capacity. However, in the course of the field work I was doing at the time over this period for other agencies . . . I had the opportunity to observe the ‘Cash for Poppy’ programme as it was being implemented in the field and its consequences.”

Peter Galbraith, former U.N. and U.S. diplomat

In the end, the Obama administration brokered a deal in which Karzai was declared the winner after he agreed to share some power with his main rival. But in Lessons Learned interviews, several U.S. officials said the messy result ruined U.S. credibility.

Peter Galbraith, a Karzai critic who served as a deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan in 2009, was removed from his post after he complained that the United Nations was helping cover up the extent of the election fraud. An American, Galbraith told government interviewers that the U.S. government also stood by when Karzai appointed cronies to election boards and anti-corruption posts.

Galbraith’s additional comment: “The most important point is this: The U.S. and its allies pursued a counter insurgency strategy in Afghanistan which requires a local partner to succeed. The problem is that there is no partner. The government of Afghanistan is corrupt, ineffective and, as a consequence of repeated electoral fraud, illegitimate. The U.S. never treated the electoral fraud seriously and never understood its connection to the other forms of corruption. Stealing elections is what enabled Afghan politicians to steal everything else.

“In 2010, the [U.S. and NATO military] anti-corruption task force (Task Force Shafafiyat or “transparency”) partnered with the Karzai-appointed Afghan anti-corruption czar who, in 2009, had been the Karzai-appointed Chairman of the Independent Election Commission that engineered the electoral fraud that secured a second term for Karzai. Needless to say, the anti-corruption effort went no place.”

John Garofano, military strategist

John Garofano, a Naval War College strategist who advised Marines in Helmand province in 2011, said military officials in the field devoted an inordinate amount of resources to churning out color-coded charts that heralded positive results.

But Garofano said nobody dared to question whether the charts and numbers were credible or meaningful.

Garofano’s additional comment: “With the hindsight of eight years, I see things a bit differently: These guys were executing. But where was the strategic oversight? There was no independent body in the Congress or Pentagon that asked, What is working and what is not? Should we continue building Highway One? Can we build an economy that will sustain the nation and society we are trying to construct? Washington, no less than operators on the ground, fought the war one year at a time. It was easier to provide just enough resources to prevent catastrophe than to reassess strategy and tactics. And reassessment will not occur on the ground any more than assembly line workers will re-design an automobile.”

Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to President George W. Bush

Quoted in BUILT TO FAIL:

Hadley’s additional comment: “There is a good reason we do not have a stabilization model that works. The United States has rightly invested heavily and consistently in our military — and produced the finest military the world has ever known. But the United States has underinvested in those civilian tools and capabilities of diplomacy, economic and social development, democratic governance, infrastructure development, and civilian institution building that are essential for any post-conflict stabilization effort to succeed. Even so, a lot positive was accomplished in Afghanistan.”

Richard Haass, retired senior diplomat

Richard Haass, a senior diplomat who served as the Bush administration’s special coordinator for Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, told government interviewers that he floated a proposal to deploy 20,000 to 25,000 U.S. troops, alongside an equal number of allied forces. But he said his plan was shot down.

“It was seen as too much and that is ironic given where we ended up. In retrospect, it looks like a bargain.”

Haass’s additional comment: “There was no enthusiasm — as contrasted with Iraq, where there was altogether too much enthusiasm.”

Andre Hollis, former Pentagon official

Andre Hollis served as the Pentagon’s top civilian official for drug issues from 2001 to 2003 and later as a senior adviser to the Afghan Counternarcotics Ministry. He said the U.S. Defense Department “fundamentally didn’t understand what getting involved in counternarcotics entailed.”

Hollis’s additional comment: “Afghanistan and narcotics remains a strategic and dangerous issue at which, sadly, we continue to fail.”

Thomas Johnson, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School

Quoted in BUILT TO FAIL:

For one project in Kandahar, U.S. and Canadian troops paid villagers $90 to $100 a month to clear irrigation canals, according to Thomas Johnson, a specialist on Afghanistan who works as a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.

It took a while for the troops to figure out their program was indirectly disrupting local schools. Teachers in the area earned much less, only $60 to $80 a month.

“So initially all the school teachers quit their jobs and joined the ditch diggers,” Johnson said in a Lessons Learned interview. He served as a political and counterinsurgency adviser to the Canadians from 2009 to 2010.

Johnson’s additional comment: “The Canadians instituted an innovative Operation ‘Kalay’ (Village) in Deh-e-Bagh in Kandahar’s Dand District in 2009-10. The operation employed local villages in a major irrigation project and paid these villagers $90-$100 per month. Unbeknownst to the Canadians the village’s few school teachers who were making between $60-$80 per month immediately quit their jobs to dig irrigation canals at a higher salary and obviously disrupted the village’s educational system. As soon as this fact was relayed to the Canadians, they raised the salaries of the schoolteachers and the problem was corrected.”

David Marsden, former USAID deputy director

Quoted in BUILT TO FAIL:

Then, they said, Congress and the White House made matters worse by drenching the destitute country with far more money than it could possibly absorb. The flood crested during Obama’s first term as president, as he escalated the number of U.S. troops in the war zone to 100,000.

Marsden’s additional comment: “I hope through some of your research you find what I consider the most important issue that affected the outcome that was totally in our control: the one-year rotation of personnel. As a very rare person who worked on Afghanistan in and out of the country for eight years I learned the impact of that almost like an Afghan.”

Edward Reeder, retired Army general

Even before [Obama] moved into the White House, U.S. military leaders recognized they needed a fresh war plan. Years of hunting suspected terrorists was getting them nowhere. The Taliban kept gaining ground.

“At the time, I was looking at Afghanistan and I was thinking that there has to be more to solving this problem than killing people, because that’s what we were doing and every time I went back security was worse,” Army Maj. Gen. Edward Reeder, a Special Operations commander who deployed to the war zone several times before retiring in 2015, told government interviewers.

Reeder’s additional comment: “At the time of the quote in 2009, I was quite content with how General David McKiernan, Commander ISAF, was prosecuting the counterinsurgency campaign and had no issues with supporting his strategy.

“My point of the quote at the time I arrived in February 2009 as the commander of the Combined Forces Special Operations Command, I felt we need another alternative to attacking the Taliban. I had four previous rotations to Afghanistan twice as a Special Forces Battalion Commander serving as a Special Operations Task Force and twice as a Special Forces Group Commander serving as a Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force. I thought we needed a grass roots, local defense initiative approach that would make the Taliban uncomfortable with fighting locals of the same ethnicity and shared tribal affiliation vice fighting the Afghan Multi-Ethnic Army.

“When I arrived General McKiernan was doing just that with his Afghan Public Protection Forces (APPF) concept in one province which proved to be very successful. Upon General McKiernan’s departure we took that local defense concept, expanded it, and developed the Community Defense Initiative (CDI) countrywide which morphed into the Village Stability Operations (VSO) which morphed to the Afghan Local Police (ALP).”

Barnett Rubin, Afghan expert and former senior State Department adviser

The Taliban was excluded from international conferences and Afghan gatherings from 2001 to 2003 that drew up a new government, even though some Taliban figures had shown a willingness to join in. Instead, the United States posted bounties for their capture and sent hundreds to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“A major mistake we made was treating the Taliban the same as al-Qaeda,” Barnett Rubin, an American academic expert on Afghanistan who served as an adviser to the United Nations at the time, told government interviewers. “Key Taliban leaders were interested in giving the new system a chance, but we didn’t give them a chance.”

While the Taliban was easy to demonize because of its brutality and religious fanaticism, the movement proved too large and ingrained in Afghan society to eradicate.

Rubin’s additional comment: “Let me explain the term ‘threat reduction.’ During the 2009 policy review, we worked a lot to get the option of political negotiations with the Taliban (reconciliation, political settlement) on the table. [Richard] Holbrooke said that those terms were too inflammatory. We finally settled on the term ‘threat reduction’ to describe a potential political track with the Taliban. The idea was that a political settlement by whatever name would lower the level of threat faced by the Afghan state and no longer require the totally unsustainable security forces that we were building. In the back of my mind was the certainty that one way or another somehow the US was going to leave Afghanistan, and we had to keep that in mind in everything we did. Note, however, that this option was NEVER DISCUSSED during the policy review. There was one meeting on October 13 or 14, 2009, where we had prepped Secretary [Hillary] Clinton to present our position, but [national security adviser James] Jones didn’t even recognize her until the military had made all their presentations, and she just said, ‘I agree with Secretary [Robert] Gates.’ Did not present our proposals.”

Barnett Rubin, the Afghan expert, was serving as an adviser to the State Department at the time. He told government interviewers he and other U.S. officials were “stupefied” when they heard Obama reveal the timeline during the West Point speech. All the Taliban had to do was lay low until U.S. and NATO troops left.

He said it was understandable that Obama wanted to put the Afghan government on notice that the Americans wouldn’t fight forever.

Rubin’s additional comment: “I am surprised I said that. Maybe the notes are wrong. I always firmly believed that the audience for the timeline was the Pentagon, no one else. I understood why the president wanted to do that, but he did not take into account how it would be heard in the region.”

Rubin, who favored talking to the Taliban, told interviewers that some hard-liners defined reconciliation as, “We’ll be nice to people who surrender.”

In particular, he said, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was “very reluctant to move on this,” because of her presidential aspirations.

Rubin’s additional comment: “They were not hardliners in the Obama administration. They were the members of the permanent national security establishment, the so-called ‘deep state.’ I don’t use the term though because it implies a conspiracy, whereas it is just the normal inertia of a trillion-dollar bureaucracy.

“[On Clinton] I would add: she had little or no faith that it would succeed. She understood the logic behind it, but did not see why she should take the political risk for something that would probably fail. Obama too did not want to take the political risk. He wanted Clinton to take the lead on it in the interagency. This is why [national security adviser] Tom Donilon accused State of not doing enough for a political settlement, even though we were the only people doing anything. I once told the [National Security Council] I would refuse to attend a meeting to discuss it unless [Army Lt. Gen.] Doug Lute opened the meeting by saying the president had decided we were going to pursue a political solution and wanted our advice on how to do it. I would not attend a cage match with [the Defense Department], which we would always lose.”

“Holbrooke hated Hamid Karzai. He thought he was corrupt as hell.” — Barnett Rubin, senior adviser to Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 to 2010, in a Lessons Learned interview.

Rubin’s additional comment: “I tried to convince Holbrooke that he was blaming Karzai for problems whose source was the U.S. Given the system we had set up of off-the-books money for counterterrorism forces and militia leaders, Karzai could not compete politically without getting access to the same sources of money himself. The ‘official’ political system of elections and so on was a facade for the real power game. The former was supported by the State Department, the latter was run by CIA and the Defense Department.”

Some U.S. officials suggested part of the problem was that Washington fundamentally misunderstood Afghanistan and mistakenly viewed opium as just another crop.

“Afghanistan is not an agricultural country; that’s an optical illusion,” Barnett Rubin, an academic authority on Afghanistan who served as a senior adviser to Holbrooke, said in a Lessons Learned interview. The “largest industry is war, then drugs, then services,” he added. “Agriculture is down in fourth or fifth place.”

Rubin additional comment: “The main problem is that opium cultivation is a livelihood strategy for a significant part of the population in the poorest country in Asia and one of the poorest in the world. You can’t criminalize people’s livelihood strategies and expect them to support you. The global regime of criminalization of drugs cedes the production and sale of an addictive substance to organized crime and its protectors. The whole drug policy regime is a disaster, and we imported it into our Afghan policy.”

Jordan Sellman, former USAID official

Quoted in BUILT TO FAIL:

Few Afghans knew much about the outside world. A large majority was illiterate. The country’s ousted rulers, the Taliban, a movement of religious zealots, had banned many hallmarks of modern civilization, including television, musical instruments and equal rights for women.

Sellman’s additional comment: “When stated out of context, the statement falsely characterizes the entire country as locked in another era. Blanket characterizations was one of the main challenges we faced, with individuals trying to bring a one-size-fits-all solution to a complex problem. The actual context is different for the two separate quotes. When strung together, it changes their meaning.

“The first quote about the King and the Russians references an interaction between military colleagues and a villager in a rural mountain valley during the lead-up to the 2004 elections as the troops were promoting community participation in the elections. The anecdote demonstrated how isolated some Afghan communities were and the challenges associated with this isolation in the context of centralized political, economic, social, technical, and legal systems. The second quote was relating to bringing mobile financial services to rural communities, to demonstrate the problems with last-mile-first initiatives vs building a strong core system and building out.”

Nils Taxell, anti-corruption expert

In another interview, Nils Taxell, a Swedish anti-corruption expert who served in Afghanistan, mocked foreign officials for justifying [warlord Gul Agha] Sherzai as “a benevolent asshole” because he “didn’t take or keep everything for himself, he left a little for others.”

Taxell’s additional comment: “I must admit that I don’t recognize the specific language attributed to me by SIGAR, so the qualifier ‘as recorded by SIGAR’ is rather pertinent.

“Furthermore, I want to be clear that in my line of reasoning I was not expressing my opinion on any particular individual. Rather I was hypothesizing on what the considerations of development partners might have been.”

Ken Yamashita, former USAID mission director for Afghanistan

Quoted in BUILT TO FAIL:

Despite its best efforts, the U.S. military could spend only about two-thirds of the $3.7 billion that Congress funded for CERP [the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program], according to Defense Department figures. Of the $2.3 billion it did spend, the Pentagon was able to provide financial details for only about $890 million worth of projects, according to a 2015 audit.

Officials from other agencies told government interviewers they were appalled at the waste and mismanagement.

“CERP was nothing but walking-around money,” said Ken Yamashita, USAID’s mission director for Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014, likening the payments to cash handouts for political purposes.

Yamashita’s additional comment: “In my opinion, CERP is walking-around money in the sense that it was never meant to be used as long-term reconstruction funding. Some of the reconstruction was meant to rebuild after military engagement; at other times it was meant to provide support to community leaders. In this second purpose, it did serve a political purpose by supporting the leadership of the community. It led to support and stability which was crucial to our military engagement, and it also allowed reconstruction and development projects to get off the ground.”

Susannah George, Sharif Hassan and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.