After a poorly-planned and haphazardly executed retreat earlier this year was followed by the Taliban rapidly regaining control of Afghanistan, many people turned their attention to the country in a way they hadn’t in far too long. Long-ignored problems were suddenly main topics of conversation. Afghanistan consistently made it onto mainstream news again (at some point, we decided that our nation’s longest war wasn’t worth prime time). But how did an overwhelmingly popular war lose the nation’s support and interest, as months stretched into years and years stretched into decades? And why were we there for so long, anyway?
Craig Whitlock, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post who has covered the war on terrorism for twenty years, offers us the answers to those very questions in his newest book, “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.” Using firsthand accounts, from low-ranking service members to the highest levels of government bureaucracy, Whitlock builds a clear case as to how our military went from chasing Al-Qaeda to attempting (and failing) to build a Western-style democracy on the other side of the world with little guidance, meager support and no long-term plan.
What to most people would be an indecipherable conglomeration of data is, to Whitlock, a linear tale of underdeveloped strategy, rudimentary cultural and historical knowledge, fragmented leadership and lies. Decades of internal memos from the federal government — many of which were only recently released to the public — are integrated with interviews and speeches to form a coherent narrative.
However, Whitlock’s journalistic skill does not make the narrative he creates any less baffling. On only the eighth page, Whitlock writes, “Lt. Cmdr. Philip Kapusta … said the Pentagon’s initial orders in fall 2001 were short on specifics. It was unclear, for instance, whether Washington wanted to punish the Taliban or remove it from power. He said many officers at U.S. Central Command — the military headquarters in charge of fighting the war — didn’t think the plan would work and viewed it as a placeholder to buy time to develop a more refined strategy. Whitlock quotes Kapusta saying, “We received some general guidance like, ‘Hey, we want to go fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.’”
Even looking past the fact that entering into a war with no real strategy, no clear objective and no exit plan goes against both common sense and military best practices, the “refined strategy” that leaders promised never materialized in any meaningful form. This lack of clarity and rationale in 2001 set the tone for the rest of the war. Spurred by a desire to retaliate hard and fast against terrorists and their allies and desperate to save face in front of American citizens and the world, leaders from all parts of the U.S. government and military acted in ways inconceivable in hindsight (and, had it been made public at the time, perhaps inconceivable in real-time, too).
“The Afghanistan Papers” is not just an account of military endeavors — it is an account of how our government functions and how, for all our best efforts, its processes remain deeply flawed. Regardless of your stance on the government (its size, scope and trustworthiness) and our political parties, it is undeniable that this war was repeatedly mismanaged and misrepresented to the public under three administrations and two parties.
Though this book makes no direct arguments about what we should do to ensure that a war of this nature never happens again, it leaves you dwelling on these questions nonetheless. How much of our government’s deliberations, decisions and operations should the public be privy to, both in wartime and in peace? How can we be sure we can trust what our elected officials are telling us? What aspect of our culture allowed this once-manageable war to turn into a decades-long, nation-building catastrophe without significant protest?
An older American might have very different takeaways from “The Afghanistan Papers” than I did — after all, I was only one year old when the Twin Towers collapsed and still in elementary school when Osama bin Laden was killed. Until a month ago, I had never known an America that didn’t have troops in Afghanistan. For those who witnessed the war’s beginning and watched its long drag into defeat (and especially for those directly involved in the war), the revelations in these pages might stir reactions stronger than the surprise, frustration and bewilderment I felt.
But regardless of your previous understandings of or opinions on this war, “The Afghanistan Papers” is a crucial addition to our collective knowledge that brings twenty years’ worth of new revelations about our nation to light.
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.