The interviews were part of a project conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a little-known government agency tasked with investigating fraud in the war. The office published seven “Lessons Learned” reports based partly on the interviews, but it left out the harshest assessments from people who shaped or carried out U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The Post had to sue SIGAR twice to compel it to release the documents. To augment the interviews, The Post also obtained hundreds of previously undisclosed memos from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld during his time at the Pentagon.
The Post’s Craig Whitlock, who wrote the series, David Fallis, the deputy editor of The Post’s Investigative Unit, and Danielle Rindler, graphics editor, recently answered questions from readers as part of a live online discussion. Below is a condensed and edited version of the chat.
What prompted this investigation by The Washington Post?
It began when Craig got a tip that retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn had been interviewed by SIGAR. When Craig filed a FOIA [a request for records under the Freedom of Information Act] for the interview, SIGAR denied the request. That piqued our interest further. Craig learned there were hundreds of other interviews, and we began pushing to get them all. The more interviews we were able to obtain, the more significant we felt it was to gather them and make them public. — David Fallis
Why are these revelations being viewed as a massive shock? SIGAR has been providing quarterly reports to members of Congress ever since its inception.
It’s true that SIGAR has published many audits and reports pointing out fraud and waste. I think what makes The Afghanistan Papers different is that you have people who were directly involved in the war talking honestly, bluntly and unsparingly about the war’s failures — in direct contrast to what our leaders were saying in public. — Craig Whitlock
Why was this dropped on the public at this moment?
The bottom line is that we publish when the material is ready, which is what happened in this project. I’ve been in this business for three decades, and slow news days are pretty much a thing of the distant past. … Ours is a most competitive news environment, so waiting for a perfect window also leaves open the possibility of getting scooped, which is never a good thing. — David Fallis
How did you handle potential topics or issues that could endanger people’s lives that were revealed in the papers?
We didn’t come across situations like that. We reached out to everyone who gave an interview, and those concerns were not raised. Also, the material in the interviews was not of that nature. — David Fallis
From the investigation, did at any point a feasible plan to exit Afghanistan come even close to being executed?
Yes. There are several interviews in which senior U.S. officials said there was a realistic opportunity to cut a peace deal with the Taliban in 2002 or 2003, when they were at their weakest. Among those who said this was Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Ironically, he is now the Trump administration’s lead negotiator with the Taliban. — Craig Whitlock
What would happen if the United States removed all military from Afghanistan?
That’s the question of the moment. Is the Afghan military capable of holding off the Taliban by itself? (Many U.S. officials are dubious.) Will the Afghan government collapse? After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, their puppet government actually held on for a while — and then the country plunged into an awful civil war that further devastated the country. — Craig Whitlock
How many people read all of the papers?
From Craig Whitlock: I read them all — at least twice. Some of the interviews were really boring and full of jargon. Others were electrifying. I wouldn’t recommend reading them all in one sitting, but our database page makes it easy to search by name and topic.
From Danielle Rindler: Craig was definitely the person who spent the most time poring through these documents, but after he had done his magic, there were several others of us who checked and reread the significant passages, particularly those quoted in the stories. One of our graphics reporters, Armand Emamdjomeh, had the thankless task of reading every document that appeared in a story, highlighting the quoted excerpts and linking those quotes to the document on the database page.
How did SIGAR select the people for interviews?
We don’t know. SIGAR wouldn’t talk about it. — Craig Whitlock
You frame many of the excerpts as “quotes,” except they’re not — many are taken from notes rather than direct quotes that can be attributed to any individual — notes individuals didn’t have the opportunity to review and correct. Why is that?
Indeed, you are right — some of them are notes and some of them are quotes. We make that clear in our reporting that the interview documents we obtained took both forms. By linking to the underlying documents, and also providing audio when we had it, I think the underlying form of the documents is pretty clear. — David Fallis
How has Congress responded? Is there any investigations being launched or added to as a result of the papers released?
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), both of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for hearings based on our reporting. — David Fallis
Did you receive any reaction from other countries on your story?
Yes. In fact, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai gave an interview to the Associated Press the other day. He said The Afghanistan Papers prove the United States was at fault for his country’s corruption problems. Certainly the U.S. was at fault, but the Afghan government didn’t prosecute many people for corruption or fraud, that’s for sure. — Craig Whitlock
Are other U.S. allies tainted by this?
There is certainly a lot of criticism aimed at other NATO countries. One example: The British were in charge of doing something about Afghanistan’s thriving opium industry during the first several years of the war. The Brits failed miserably on that count, and there are several British officials who admit this in The Afghanistan Papers. — Craig Whitlock
Where’s the section for solutions?
Good question. Journalists are generally better at pointing out problems and holding officials accountable than we are at suggesting solutions. As for the war in Afghanistan, I know most U.S. military commanders have come around to the view that the only way to end the conflict — or at least U.S. involvement — is to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. — Craig Whitlock
Do you believe there was a concerted bad-faith effort to conceal the truth from the public? Or a more institutionalized failure and tendency for government officials to spin things politically that led to where we are now?
If you read the underlying interviews and notes of the interviews, one conclusion is that all of the above is true. In some cases, people intentionally misled the public about the state of play in Afghanistan. In other cases, people left out important facts. In some cases, it was the act of an individual. In others, it was institutional. Either way, it continued for 18 years. — David Fallis
What are the similarities and differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan?
There are many similarities. We got stuck in a long, stalemated war in an Asian country we didn’t understand very well, fighting an amorphous enemy. One guy who kept bringing up the lessons of Vietnam was Richard Holbrooke, who served as Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But most other Obama administration officials got tired of hearing the comparisons, according to George Packer’s terrific biography of Holbrooke. — Craig Whitlock
What comes next?
We’re still fighting in court to obtain more documents and to force the government to identify everyone they interviewed for The Afghanistan Papers. As for the war, that’s a tougher question to answer. Right now, the Trump administration is holding direct peace talks with the Taliban. Most people agree the only way to end the war is to cut a deal — we won’t militarily defeat the Taliban. — Craig Whitlock
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