In 1979, Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts, then senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, scrutinized the Pentagon Papers for a better understanding of the secretive internal decision-making processes that had led four administrations in a row to throw themselves into a pointless war in Southeast Asia. Their conclusions were as stark as they were unpopular: American leaders had not been duped into a war. Instead, they had been caught in a web of groupthink and bureaucracy, so focused on preventing Vietnam from falling to communism that they ignored the costs and potential off-ramps of America’s devastating conflict there. “U.S. policy toward Vietnam was not a ‘mistake’ or ‘aberration,’ ” Gelb wrote in a later preface to their book, “The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked.” “Rather, it flowed almost inevitably from the fundamentals of American democracy, political culture, and the typical machinations and calculations of the U.S. national security bureaucracy.”
Much has been made of the parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan, two quagmires a half-century apart that highlight the weaknesses of America’s superpower military against poor but determined insurgents. But it was not apparent to me, until reading “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” the excellent new book by The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, the extent to which the pathologies of America’s national security state in the war in Afghanistan mirrored those of Vietnam. As Whitlock’s book highlights repeatedly, America’s foreign policy elites knew that the Afghan war was failing, that graft was endemic to the country and that nothing approximating a viable state was emerging. Yet even with the example of Vietnam in recent history, they simply could not envisage or accept any other alternative than staying the course.
The consequences have become starkly apparent. Just weeks ago, U.S. officials were predicting that the Afghan government might be able to hold off the Taliban for months or even years. Instead, the Afghan national army collapsed swiftly, surrendering major cities to the militant group without a fight. The supposed gains of 20 years of training and trillions of dollars poured into creating a stable, democratic Afghanistan proved ephemeral, undone in mere weeks after the withdrawal of American forces.
You need only look at the past few weeks to see that policymakers must have misled the public about the progress being made in Afghanistan. Delving far deeper, Whitlock builds the case by drawing on an impressive variety of primary sources, most notably internal Defense Department oral interviews and memos. His is the first book-length treatment to assess the mass of formerly classified documents collectively known as “The Afghanistan Papers.” First published by The Washington Post in 2019, most of them required a series of lawsuits to obtain. And despite the contemporary description of these papers as bombshell revelations, it is perhaps more accurate to describe them as damning evidence of things we already intuited. As Whitlock puts it, “Many Americans had suspected all along that the government had lied to them about the war, and they were angry.”
Indeed, while the book is framed around the question of why the war in Afghanistan failed, it is the overarching narrative of deception that is most interesting. Certainly, Whitlock provides evidence of potential turning points, when a different outcome might have shifted fortunes in Afghanistan: had Osama bin Laden not eluded U.S. forces and escaped from Tora Bora in late 2001, had participants allowed the Taliban’s inclusion in the 2001 Bonn conference and — most cited — had policymakers not lost interest in Afghanistan after the invasion of Iraq. Whitlock provides mountains of anecdotes about the ways the United States sabotaged its own chances in the conflict by, among other things, prioritizing poppy eradication, elevating Hamid Karzai to the presidency, drenching the Afghan nation in cash, and attempting to enforce American norms and training methods on Afghan soldiers who had barely experienced primary education.
By placing these events in a chronological narrative, and by juxtaposing the newly available private documents with public statements, Whitlock shows just how early in the conflict and how thoroughly U.S. leaders began misleading the public — and themselves — about successes in Afghanistan. Even as doubts about the progress of the war spread widely within President George W. Bush’s Cabinet in 2003, for example, the administration put a rosy face on the conflict, from glowing news releases to purposely misleading statistics. In 2007, a suicide bomber almost killed Vice President Dick Cheney at Bagram air base; the Bush administration openly lied about how close the attack really came. By the time Barack Obama became president, spin about the war had become entrenched: Suicide bombings were portrayed as a sign of insurgent weakness, while rising casualties were said to show that the United States was “taking the fight to the enemy.” When Obama declared the war over in 2014 — and announced that U.S. troops would no longer be in direct conflict — officials knew it was mere sleight of hand.
Indeed, a defining feature of the book’s many vignettes is the sense of Groundhog Day. Whether in events on the ground or in the near-monotonous government spin, Whitlock underscores that Afghanistan wasn’t a 20-year war but a one-year war fought 20 times. Rotational deployments of U.S. troops tried new tactics, watched them fail and then returned home. Their replacements would replay the same sequence. Similar pathologies applied to America’s allies and to bureaucratic turf battles. Responsibility for Afghan police training passed back and forth between Berlin and Washington, with both repeating failed programs over and over. The Departments of Defense and State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, transferred responsibility for aid, drug policy, corruption and other hot-button topics among themselves in an attempt to avoid culpability.
And yet, it is hard to see from Whitlock’s narrative how things could have unfolded differently. As Whitlock puts it, “Almost no senior government officials had the courage to admit that the United States was slowly losing a war that Americans once overwhelmingly supported.” Indeed, they often went to extreme lengths to reassure themselves that things were improving, tracking random statistics (schools built, wells dug, number of surveillance towers built) to imply that things were headed in a positive direction. Self-delusion is a theme throughout the book; whether the problem was corruption, insider attacks or failed drug-eradication campaigns, the response of Washington’s political class was to bury the evidence and deny it. As military officials admit over and over in these interviews, “Truth was rarely welcome,” and “Bad news was often stifled.” Early on, the book offers a stunning statistic: On the day Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq — around the time that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld began to privately voice worries about the conflict — more than 95 percent of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan had yet to occur.
Just as their counterparts did during the Vietnam War, U.S. officials largely refused to acknowledge that America might not succeed in Afghanistan. As Gelb noted: “The United States did not blindly stumble and fumble its way into Vietnam; it believed its path into that hell hole. . . . The tragic strategy that resulted was to persevere, to press ahead with more of everything in the hope that something would work out.” The story Whitlock tells in “The Afghanistan Papers” reflects so many of the same pathologies in governance that one wonders if America is simply doomed to repeat this kind of mistake over and over. How can citizens hold their leaders accountable for a war like Afghanistan when the responsibility falls so broadly and the incentives to hide the extent of failure are so strong? Afghanistan was a whole-of-government fiasco: leaders from both political parties, military and civilian agencies. Many of the figures highlighted in the book remain prominent in Washington policy circles, from senior government diplomats to the leadership of major think tanks to columnists for key newspapers.
Yet if accountability is beyond our reach, Whitlock’s book suggests that at a minimum, we must seek to understand the failures of these conflicts in retrospect. The furor over similar choices in Vietnam was enough to spawn a generation-long antiwar movement. In the coming months, as the Taliban consolidates its rule in Afghanistan, it will be tempting to accept the narrative that this outcome was a result of President Biden’s choice to withdraw U.S. forces. In reality, as this book highlights, the problem started 20 years ago when American leaders put a smiling face on failure and called it success.
The Afghanistan Papers
A Secret History of the War
By Craig Whitlock
Simon & Schuster. 346 pp. $30