The U.S. fought the war in Afghanistan for almost twenty years, but for that entire time the political and military leaders never knew what they were doing and had no clear idea of what they were trying to achieve. To make matters worse, the US government knew almost nothing about Afghanistan and its politics at the beginning of the war, and right up until the end it had learned remarkably little about the country in the intervening decades. These are some of the recurring themes in Craig Whitlock’s The Afghanistan Papers, which compiles the findings of his Washington Post investigation and additional research that he has done since the first reports were published in 2019. Whitlock calls this a "secret history of the war," but the only secret here is the open secret that US political and military leadership lied about the conduct of the war and its likelihood of success for decades. Whitlock does a good job recounting how and why the US war effort was unsuccessful, and he holds all three administrations responsible for the war accountable for their errors and deceptions.
"So for the next two decades, the war in Afghanistan was waged against people who had nothing to do with 9/11," Whitlock writes in one of the first chapters. This sentence sums up the folly and futility of the US war as well as any. The US launched the war in reprisal for the 9/11 attacks, and the memory of the attacks helped to keep the war going long after it had ceased to serve any conceivable US security interest. Like the larger war on terror of which it was a part, the war in Afghanistan expanded to include enemies that had not attacked the United States and could not do so even if they wished to try. The persistence of these new enemies served as a pretext to keep fighting indefinitely. Even now, the Biden administration is promising to carry out attacks inside Afghanistan from "over the horizon."
The government insisted for decades that who ruled Afghanistan was a matter of vital importance for the United States, but it never was. The truth is that Afghanistan would have been better off if the US had pulled out its forces in 2002 and left the country alone. Instead, the US prolonged the country’s suffering, and it helped to resuscitate the Taliban through heavy-handed opium eradication operations, teaming up with criminal warlords, and terrorizing the civilian population with airstrikes and night raids.
One of the most important but least surprising things that Whitlock documents in his review of the Lessons Learned interviews with government officials and military officers is the government’s profound ignorance about Afghanistan, its people, and its culture. It was arrogant and foolish enough to think that the US could install its own political model in a distant land, but to attempt such a policy when Americans were oblivious to local cultural norms and unable to speak the local languages was even worse. Whitlock recounts how the military’s cultural training "was worthless or tailored for the larger masses of troops headed for Iraq, based on the misguided assumption that people in all faraway Muslim countries were the same."
The anecdotes of American ignorance about Afghan culture underscore how hopeless the mission was, but this shouldn’t create the impression that better training and more knowledge about the country would have saved it. The nation-building project that the Bush administration began and that the Obama administration continued was bound to fail because the goals were far beyond the capabilities of the US government and the political structure that the US sought to impose was not only alien but also antithetical to Afghan political traditions. All that the US managed to build in the end was a tottering kleptocracy so rotten that it fell over with the first strong breeze.
Afghanistan was a colossal bipartisan failure and yet another indictment of the competence and judgment of US foreign policy leaders. It is no wonder that there has been such a fierce backlash from these same leaders against the decision to withdraw from the war. The withdrawal fully exposed the policy as a fraud when everything that the US had built collapsed within days. Almost all political actors and institutions in Washington are implicated in the costly failure, and the people most closely associated with the war have every incentive to spin the defeat as someone else’s fault. The same habits of misleading the public and lying about the war that sustained the war for so long have all been on display in the relentless effort to whitewash the records of the generals and politicians most responsible for the debacle.
If there is one lesson that ought to be learned from defeat in Afghanistan is that the US should never again wage a war in a country that we do not understand at all and where we have no vital interests. The US is not only incompetent at nation-building, as Whitlock’s book documents in detail, but it also has no business even trying to impose a new political system on another nation. Until our government learns that lesson, the US is likely to fight more unwinnable wars in the future.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.