Cover image of "The Afghanistan Papers," a book about the Afghanistan war

There was “progress” at every turn, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. And that evidence was well known to the Pentagon and the White House. Every new strategy was a “game-changer” that “turned the corner” toward victory. Yet the facts showed the war growing steadily worse. During the 20 years when American troops were on the ground in Afghanistan, a period spanning four presidencies, our government fed us a steady diet of lies, half-truths, and distortions about the fighting on the other side of the world.

An eerie and unwelcome echo of the war in Vietnam

For anyone who witnessed General William Westmoreland lying through his teeth on television in a similar manner about the Vietnam War, none of that should have been a surprise. Yet we were all shocked by the Taliban’s overnight victory when President Biden finally pulled the plug on the country’s $1 trillion boondoggle that was the Afghanistan War. And now Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock comes to us with The Afghanistan Papers, the documentary evidence that explains exactly how and why that debacle came to be.

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock (2021) 359 pages ★★★★★  

Image of General David Petraeus, one of the US commanders in the Afghanistan war
General Petraeus lied about US “progress” in the war in Afghanistan. But so did almost every other senior official, civilian and military, in the Bush and Obama Administrations, including both Presidents. Image: C-Span

A masterful job of research

Whitlock, no doubt with the assistance of other staff at the Washington Post, has done an extraordinary job of research to produce this account. In a foreword, he details the disparate sources for the book. All seem obscure to a nonspecialist. And he was able to access many of the documents only after Freedom of Information Act requests and subsequent lawsuits. One principal source, repeatedly cited in the text, are the Lessons Learned exit interviews conducted with junior officers who had served in the war.

Whitlock notes that the “interviews broadly resembled the Pentagon Papers.” But this was no well-organized history of the war. Whitlock had to assemble the pieces, many of which came from sources other than the official documents (including his own interviews with participants in the conflict). The result is a remarkably consistent picture of deceit by the Pentagon and the White House that is almost universally contradicted by the junior officers and many of their superiors in post-mortem interviews. Rarely does history show us the past with such clarity.

The staggering cost of the war

Reading this or any other book about the war it’s all too easy for us here at home to suppress memories of the grim reality that unfolded in the war from 2001 to 2021. “Over two decades, more than 775,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan,” Whitlock reminds us. “Of those, more than 2,300 died there and 21,000 came home wounded. The U.S. government has not calculated a comprehensive total of how much it spent on war-related expenses, but most estimates exceed $1 trillion.” And that summation doesn’t cite the unimaginably higher price paid by the Afghan people. Estimates of the number of Afghan deaths range from 106,000 to 170,000 as well as 2.6 million refugees. And the end result? The same people the US invaded the country to depose are now back in power, and the embattled land they command is now badly scarred and its people starving.

About the author

Image of Craig Whitlock, author of this book about the Afghanistan war

Craig Whitlock (1968-) covers the Pentagon and national security for the Washington Post as an investigative reporter. He holds a bachelor’s in history from Duke University. The Afghanistan Papers is his first book. Whitlock is married to journalist Jennifer Toth. They live in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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