Over the past two weeks, Americans have been horrified by the images from Kabul, where Afghans have been so desperate to flee the country after the rapid takeover by the Taliban that they hung onto the landing gear of planes taking off. The scenes were emblematic of a chaotic evacuation of Americans and Afghans by the Biden administration, following the near-instant collapse of Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government. This was just the latest of 20 years of clusterfucks, according to a scathing new book on America’s longest war.
The book by Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, meticulously details how the entire U.S. occupation was a series of fiascos almost since its beginning, from the failure to capture Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001 to Donald Trump’s bizarre brainstorm to invite the Taliban to Camp David in 2019. Whitlock and the Post obtained a trove of government documents from an internal study of the war — this war’s version of the Pentagon Papers. Whitlock writes that the book is not “an exhaustive record of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.” Instead, “it is an attempt to explain what went wrong,” and how U.S. officials spanning three administrations consistently lied about the war’s progress to the American people over two decades.
According to an advance copy of the book, which goes on sale August 31, the same day the withdrawal from Afghanistan is scheduled to be completed, the list of U.S. failures in the country ranges from the depressing to the absurd:
- Approximately $19 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars fell into the hands of the Taliban and allied groups, according to a study of Defense Department contracts in the country.
- The head of a construction firm had a brother in the Taliban and the two created terrorism’s version of an everlasting gobstopper. One brother would build infrastructure projects, and the other would destroy them, so the first would get the U.S. contract to rebuild.
- Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to the country, said bluntly of the Afghan police force that the U.S. trained and funded: “They are useless as a security force … because they are corrupt down to a patrol level.”
- As the Taliban gained ground in 2018, the U.S. stopped keeping track of how much territory both the Afghan government and Taliban controlled. It was too embarrassing.
- Americans were deeply ignorant of Afghanistan’s culture, leading to scenes out of some dark comedy. Afghans mistook urinals on military bases for drinking fountains, according to one U.S. military official, while a special forces officer being deployed to the country prepared by reading Islam for Dummies on his plane ride in.
These are just a handful of the grim examples in a book that at times seems to be one endless chronicle of failure in a war where over 2,300 American soldiers and at least 64,000 members of the Afghan security forces were killed, as well as 47,000 civilians. The consistent theme throughout is that the U.S. never quite knew what it was doing in Afghanistan. Were soldiers there to combat Al Qaeda or turn Afghanistan into a modern Western-style democracy? The mission seems to have never been set, allowing U.S policy to drift for decades, and without a clear goal, the tactics changed as well. Troops were surged into the country and then pulled out. American dollars sloshed through the Afghan economy, earmarked for an almost infinite number of projects without an overarching goal, save to spend every dollar that Congress appropriated.
Looking back at the interviews chronicled by Whitlock, U.S. officials bemoaned “the mission creep” and lack of clear objectives. In July, President Biden attempted to define American goals in Afghanistan as “to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden,” and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming another launching pad for terror attacks against the U.S. “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build,” Biden said, though that’s precisely what the American military had been doing in Afghanistan for at least a decade.
The one thing missing from the book, however, is any account of what went right, such as the liberation of girls and women from the Taliban’s oppressive rule. The crowds in Kabul desperate to flee is a testament that not everyone who benefited from the U.S. presence in the country over the past two decades was a warlord or a grifter.
The book, which closes with Biden’s April announcement of withdrawal, leaves the reader unable to fully appreciate the magnitude of our final failure in Afghanistan. Whitlock can’t be blamed for not foreseeing this. After all, the U.S. government didn’t, either.