We speak with Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock, author of the new book The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, which reveals how multiple U.S. presidents deceived the public about progress in the war despite widespread skepticism among defense and diplomatic officials about the mission. “The public narrative was that the U.S. was always making progress. All these presidents said we were going to win the war, and yet, in private, these officials were extremely pessimistic,” says Whitlock. He also discusses miscalculations in the initial invasion of Afghanistan, the collapse of the Afghan security forces and how U.S. defense contractors have benefited from the last two decades of war.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue to look at the situation in Afghanistan and the U.S. withdrawal. On Wednesday, President Biden defended his handling of the withdrawal in an interview on ABC News with George Stephanopoulos.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: No mistakes?
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No, I don’t think it could have been handled in a way that there — we’re going to go back in hindsight and look, but the idea that somehow there was a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens.
AMY GOODMAN: But just last month, on July 8th, Biden rejected the idea a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan was inevitable. Several top Democrats have vowed to probe Biden’s Afghanistan exit strategy. A report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said the U.S., quote, “struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy” over the last 20 years. In 2020, while on the campaign trail, then-candidate Biden acknowledged U.S. officials had lied to the public about the War in Afghanistan.
For more, we’re joined by Craig Whitlock, investigative reporter for The Washington Post, long covered Afghanistan, the author of the new book, just out, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War. It goes beyond Biden to look at how the past three presidents — Trump, Obama and George W. Bush — deceived the public year after year about the longest war in U.S. history.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Craig. I mean, the whole debate and congressional — Congress now saying they’re going to look at this exit strategy obscures what the U.S. did in Afghanistan for the past 20 years. And that’s what you so deeply look at in The Afghanistan Papers. First, describe what they are.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: The Afghanistan Papers are hundreds of interviews, notes and transcripts of interviews, that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan had conducted with key officials who played important roles in the war over 20 years. These were documents that were not made public, until The Washington Post had to sue the government to obtain them under the Freedom of Information Act. It took us three years to obtain these documents. But what they show is as you stated earlier. The public narrative was that the U.S. was always making progress. All these presidents said we were going to win the war, and yet, in private, these officials were extremely pessimistic. They said they didn’t have a campaign plan, they didn’t have a strategy, they didn’t understand Afghanistan and thought the war was unwinnable.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Craig, well, I guess the critical question is: Given all of the research that you did and what you found revealed in The Afghanistan Papers, were you surprised at all that Afghanistan fell so quickly to the Taliban — I mean, really, in a matter of days, provincial capital after provincial capital, and then Kabul on Sunday?
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, I was surprised that it happened so quickly. That said, I think it was pretty obvious that the Afghan government really didn’t have any popular support, or very little. It’s certainly been well documented that the Afghan security forces, the army and the paramilitary police, had real problems, that the U.S. government had tried — had spent more than $85 billion to train and equip this force, and yet it was barely functioning at the end.
I think what we saw in the last week were just commander after commander in the Afghan forces saw which way the wind was blowing, knew the Afghan government wasn’t going to last, and so they switched sides very quickly, either under threat from the Taliban or for offers of money. So, the Afghans, this is not uncommon for them. They know — they’ve had to suffer under 40 years of civil war or fighting with outside powers. And to survive, they’ve had to very quickly judge who’s going to win and how they should end up on the right side.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Craig Whitlock, there are two issues here over this 20 years. And if you could take us back through time? Because, again, what we are not getting is the brutality of the U.S. war and occupation, and the Taliban continually saying their main goal was to throw out the foreign invader. Talk about what the U.S. covered up. Then there’s the issue of the corruption of the government and the U.S. involvement with that, the Afghan government. But the record of the massacres, the working with warlords, the oppression caused by the occupation?
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Yeah, it’s a pretty — it’s not a pretty history, the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. As you mentioned involvement with the warlords, part of the problem was that the population in Afghanistan saw the United States as allying itself with warlords who had pretty brutal records during the 1990s, and certainly a long and deep history of corruption. And here was the United States partnering with them, and, frankly, spending billions of dollars on the Afghan government, which went into the warlords’ pockets. So, the population didn’t see the United States as bringing democracy and equal rights to Afghanistan; they saw them as propping up a corrupt and illegitimate government.
You know, the Taliban certainly has a very brutal record. I don’t mean to minimize that in any regard, particularly how they treat women and girls. But in the end, many Afghans, particularly in rural areas, said, “Look, we don’t like the Taliban, but we really hate our own government. You know, at least the Taliban, we see them as Afghans. They’re more sympathetic to our religious beliefs. And they’re not here to help with the foreigners.” So, I think, in the end, a lot of people saw the Taliban as the lesser of two evils.
AMY GOODMAN: And let’s go back to the very beginning — right? — when George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan. In that period when Rumsfeld was the defense secretary, you had the Taliban saying they would surrender in December, if just Mullah Mohammed Omar was allowed to live with dignity in Kandahar, where they established the Taliban. Rumsfeld said no. You have, even before that, in October, when Afghanistan said, “We will hand over Osama bin Laden.” Bush said no.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, I do think the Taliban offers to hand over bin Laden were maybe a bit overstated. They had many opportunities to do that, and I think they weren’t sincere.
The question I think you’re raising, which is an important one, is there were opportunities to try and bring the Taliban into the fold after the U.S. invasion in 2001. The Taliban government was toppled relatively quickly. But, you know, in retrospect, that was the moment to try to bring these factions together in Afghanistan, to try and have some kind of stable consensus of the political system. Instead, you know, the United States thought it had won a clear-cut military victory. It thought it had not just defeated the Taliban, but vanquished them. It lumped them together in the same boat with al-Qaeda as terrorist groups. And so it just saw no need to negotiate with them.
The problem was that, over time, the Taliban gradually came back, because, unlike al-Qaeda, they were really woven into the fabric of Afghan society. This wasn’t a group you could eliminate, you could vanquish. They had too much support in certain parts of the country. And I think that was the miscalculation the Americans made from the beginning, was the need to bring stability to Afghanistan, you had to bring all the actors into the fold.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Craig, can you talk about what you think the responsibility is now of the U.S. to people in Afghanistan, not only in terms of refugees and humanitarian aid, but also the fact that broader humanitarian assistance, the donor economy, is under threat now with the U.S. withdrawal, and such a large part of Afghanistan is still dependent on donor aid, the government as well as the armed forces? So, that, as well as the Taliban’s record on opium production, what the Taliban did when they were last in power, from ’96, and what you expect them to do now? Afghanistan is still, I think, the largest or second-largest producer of heroin in the world.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, that’s right: the largest by a long shot. These are all great points, Nermeen. The fact that, you know, Afghanistan’s economy has been propped up by international aid, and, frankly, also by the opium trade, that’s — the war economy and the drug economy is what has kept Afghanistan going for a number of years. Now all of a sudden you have the Taliban in charge, complete charge. What are the United States and other donor nations going to do about — are they going to cut off their funding? You know, that’s only going to set back and hurt the Afghan people even more. It’s a real paradox and real challenge right now to figure out how is the world going to deal with the Taliban. Look, like it or not, they have control of the country right now. Afghanistan is still very, very fragile. And how is this going to play out in the coming not just days — everybody is focused on what’s going on at the airport in Kabul — but how is this going to play out over the long term? And I don’t think anyone has a clear answer to that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And also, the fact that with the — you know, which you’ve just talked about earlier, and others have been talking about, too, the fact that the Afghan security forces relinquished control, surrendered so quickly, there’s also the question of what else they surrendered — namely, all the military equipment that they had as a result of the U.S. Where is that military equipment? And do you see it all now falling into the hands of the Taliban?
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well it did all fall into the hands of the Taliban. The United States tried to get as much military equipment as it could out of Afghanistan up through July. And, you know, so everything that wasn’t nailed down and wasn’t needed for the defense of Afghanistan was taken out. But, you know, the United States had spent over $85 billion over 20 years to train and equip the Afghan army and police and to pay their salaries. So there’s an awful lot of weapons, of ammunition and other resources that made the Afghan army fairly well equipped. That’s now all under the control of the Taliban. I don’t know — you know, what are they going use it for? They’re going to use it to consolidate their control of the country. But it’s kind of breathtaking to think how much the United States spent to create a standing army and police force in Afghanistan, and that’s either gone up in smoke or it’s gone to arm the Taliban.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Craig Whitlock, and he’s author of the new book The Afghanistan Papers. The Intercept reports, Craig, that military stocks outperformed the stock market overall by 58% during the Afghanistan War, including Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics. Quote, “[F]rom the perspective of some of the most powerful people in the U.S., [the Afghanistan War] may have been an extraordinary success. Notably, the boards of directors of all five defense contractors” in Afghanistan — if you can talk further about — I mean, the U.S. poured — and I’m sure it’s much more than this, the L.A. Times saying, “[A]t a cost of $83 billion, Afghan security forces collapsed so quickly and completely [that] the ultimate beneficiary of the American investment has” — so quickly and completely — “turned out to be the Taliban.” So the U.S. knows exactly what they have. In The Afghanistan Papers, what did you find in the relationship of military contractors also driving this war forward? It wasn’t just Bush. It was Obama, then Trump. And Biden certainly knew about the Obama years, because he was vice president at that time, and he’s the one who said, “Yes, you have been lied to, the American people.”
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, that’s right. And the height of spending during the war was during the Obama administration. When he sent a surge of 100,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2010, 2011, 2012, that’s when we were spending just enormous amounts of money in Afghanistan, not just to wage the war, but to try and build up the country — and, frankly, The Afghanistan Papers shows, far more money than the country could possibly hope to absorb. It just didn’t have the capacity to use all this money.
So, a lot of the money was also siphoned off by corruption, by Afghan warlords, by defense contractors. And by defense contractors, that could be anything from major American contractors who were profiting off the war to, you know, local contractors in Afghanistan, international ones that supplied, you know, supplies, ammunition, food, transport. I mean, the war was a very expensive war to wage in a landlocked country halfway around the world. And the United States spent more than a trillion dollars on its operations there. There’s not a whole lot to show for that, but a lot of people, whether it’s Afghans or defense contractors or, frankly, warlords and the Taliban, profited off that war for 20 years.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And lastly, Craig, on your book, the book that is out this month, The Afghanistan Papers, in addition to the reporting that you did that was published in The Washington Post as a series, “The Afghanistan Papers,” for the book, you’ve obtained access to copies of oral interviews with senior military and government officials documenting their perception of the Afghan War as it unfolded. Could you speak specifically about the role of General Mark Milley, who is now the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Yeah, General Milley has a —
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What you learned from the interviews with him.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Yeah, he has a long history in Afghanistan. I believe that he was first there in 2003. He was a colonel then. And ironically, his job at first was to help create an Afghan army and police force, and he was helping to oversee the training to really build this Afghan army from scratch. At the time, in his oral history interview, he’s sort of optimistic about this. He says, “This will work. Here are some of the challenges, but, you know, the United States can make this happen.”
Then, over the years, of course, Milley rose through the ranks. He kept rising up through the chain of command, until now he’s the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But, you know, it’s interesting. He has such a long history in Afghanistan, but, in public, he was always extremely optimistic. In 2013, he was the deputy commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and he would talk about winning and victory and how good the Afghan security forces were. And even as the United States started to withdraw during the Obama administration, Milley was among the generals who kept expressing complete faith in the Afghan forces. And even though there were clear reports that they weren’t doing that well, that they couldn’t hold territory, Milley always vouched for them in public.
Yet The Afghanistan Papers show that Army officials, U.S. Army officials, knew there were just fundamental flaws with the Afghan security forces and just didn’t have any faith that they would be able to defend their country. And that’s the paradox we see again and again in The Afghanistan Papers. The generals at the Pentagon kept telling the American people that they were making progress, that they would emerge victorious in the end, and yet, in private, many of these same people were admitting that they just didn’t see a good outcome, that this war was unwinnable, and that the truth really was being withheld from the U.S. people.
AMY GOODMAN: Craig Whitlock, we want to thank you for being with us, investigative reporter for The Washington Post, author of the new book The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War. It’s out at the end of the month.