In 2016, with Donald Trump campaigning, the investigative reporter for Washington Post Craig Whitlock got a tip from a source. “The information said that a retired American general who was becoming famous for campaigning for Trump had been interviewed by an unknown government agency that was studying what had gone wrong in Afghanistan and in it he counted all the mistakes made,” he recalls. . That general was Michael Flynn, who later became National Security Advisor to the President.
“It sounded interesting,” and Whitlock requested a transcript of the interview through transparency. The government resisted and “the Washington Post had to sue the Executive in court under the Public Records Law”. In this process, the journalist learned that that agency had interviewed hundreds of people who led and participated in the war and the newspaper went back to court to obtain access to all those documents. They won and received 2,000 pages of unpublished material on the war. Believing that their observations would never be made public, these officials had spoken out.
“They admitted that they didn’t know what they were doing in Afghanistan, that they didn’t have a strategy and that pretty much the entire war, from start to finish, had been a disaster,” he says. “This was the complete opposite of what these same people were saying in public under the Bush, Obama and Trump presidencies.” In one of those documents, the Secretary of Defense in 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, said: “I don’t know who the bad guys are in Afghanistan.” Now Whitlock has turned the exclusive on him into the book ‘The Afghanistan Papers’published in Spanish by Crítica and on sale from January 26.RELATED
How is it possible that in 20 years of war no one from the Government or the Army raised their voice about what was really happening in Afghanistan?
That’s a good question. There was a general who raised his voice a bit, David McKiernan, commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. It was the last year of President Bush’s term in office and the first of Obama’s, and McKiernan was the first general to he said publicly that things were going in the wrong direction.
They were pretty mild reviews. I was just stating the obvious, but what happened is that he was fired in May 2009. To give you an idea of how unusual this is, McKiernan was the first general in command of a mission in the US military to be fired since the War. of Korea, when General Douglas MacArthur was impeached by President Harry Truman for insubordination.
The Secretary of Defense was unable to give a clear explanation of the reasons. However, in the documents I got for the book there were interviews with officials who were in Kabul at the time and they said that McKiernan knew this was going to happen and told them that he had done too good a job telling the truth about what was going on in Afghanistan.
So no criticism was allowed at all
Was not allowed. Why couldn’t Bush, Obama, Trump or even Biden give a clear assessment of what was going on in Afghanistan? The reason is that this war, unlike the war in Iraq or Vietnam, was widely supported by the American people in 2001. Around the world it was seen as a justified war in response to the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on 9/11. from 2001.
For the first six months the American people thought we had won this war. The Taliban had been driven from power and Al Qaeda had disappeared, had been defeated and its leaders had either died or fled. From then on it is politically very difficult for a president, perhaps even impossible, to admit that they are slowly losing a war that the people thought they had already won and considered justified.
Did they knowingly lie?
Yes. All three presidents did. For example, President Obama in late 2014 announced that NATO’s mission was coming to an end and said that US and NATO troops would no longer participate in combat operations, but would only remain as advisers and trainers. .
It was not true. US and NATO troops knew they would continue to engage in combat. Many soldiers died fighting and were awarded decorations by the Pentagon. However, Obama and the White House kept insisting that the combat mission was over, even though they knew that was not the case. That was one of the biggest lies: they tried to sell that the war was over because it was no longer politically popular.
But trying to hide this was doomed to failure, right?
That’s how it is. And I’ll give you an example of how absurd it all became. Towards the end of Obama’s term and during Trump’s presidency there is such a great effort to hide what was happening that it was easier for journalists to get interviews with the Taliban or to be embedded in their forces than to have access to US forces or of NATO. The White House didn’t want the people to know what was going on.
Did the US media buy the official narrative of the war?
I think that unlike in Iraq, the media did a pretty good job in Afghanistan. They took a more skeptical position. Much has been reported about the lack of training of the Afghan police and army, the problems of corruption in the Government, etc. but it is very difficult as a journalist to say that things are not going well when the White House and the Pentagon insist that things are going well and constantly contradict you.
The important thing about these documents, precisely, is that in them the people who led the war admit that they had not told the truth and that things were going much worse than they said publicly.
People in the US still wonder how the Taliban, a rudimentary and ill-equipped force, could win a war against the world’s most powerful military and NATO alliance. In many ways, this book explains exactly how it happened.
Was the return of the Taliban to power a surprise for the US authorities?
I think it was a surprise how quickly they took control. The US government did not have much faith in the Ashraf Ghani government and they knew it was only a matter of time before the Taliban would take power, but they clearly underestimated how quickly the Taliban could do so. Neither the US nor its allies were prepared for this. The United States still did not understand Afghan society, politics and culture very well.
What do you think of Trump’s deal with the Taliban?
At that point it was too late and Trump did not have many options. He could stay indefinitely, as some of his generals advised, but I don’t think that would work because the Taliban were getting stronger and the Afghan government was getting weaker.
It was inevitable for Trump to try to negotiate with the Taliban, but the Taliban knew they had momentum, that time was on their side, and they were not interested in negotiating with a corrupt Afghan government. All they had to do was wait for the Americans and NATO to leave.
Now, you can criticize the way Trump did it. He was very erratic and inconsistent with his policies in Afghanistan. But at that point it was too late to win the war and all they could do was try to get out of there in some kind of situation to save his image. The turning point occurred years earlier, in 2001, when the United States and NATO missed the opportunity to incorporate the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political system.
In announcing the withdrawal, President Biden said that the US “should not be fighting and dying in a war that Afghan forces are unwilling to fight.”
Biden supported the war in Afghanistan for the first few years and then he realized that the United States could not reinvent or transform Afghan society and that our approach was doomed to fail and when he entered the White House as president he recognized that he wanted out. How he got out, of course, is another matter, but I think he was the first president of the four who was completely determined to get out.
Did the war in Iraq affect the war in Afghanistan?
The Bush Administration had made this false assumption that they had won the war in Afghanistan and shifted all their focus, attention and resources to Iraq even before the invasion in 2003. The US military stopped paying attention to Afghanistan.
In a case drawn from a memo written by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He proposed to Bush in 2002 to meet with two generals. One of them was preparing the war in Iraq and the other was in command of all US forces in Afghanistan. Bush agreed to meet with the former, but said he did not need to meet with the latter. During all this time, the Taliban slowly began to gain strength and build the insurgency, but when the US and the Bush Administration turned their attention again, it was too late.
After 20 years of war and seeing the current situation, was it worth it?
No. The most important objective of the US was to try to expel Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. That goal was actually achieved in the first six months. Ten years later, in 2011, Osama bin Laden was assassinated. But nothing that has happened since then has been a success. Nothing since bin Laden’s death was worth it. There were some improvements in Afghan society, but all of that has been lost with the Taliban takeover.
What is your opinion on US policy regarding the current tension with Russia?
The Biden Administration, unlike the Trump Administration, has seen the importance of obtaining consensus within NATO in dealing with Russia. And here is a connection with Afghanistan. During the evacuation from Afghanistan, many NATO allies were unhappy with Biden’s handling of the crisis and thought coordination and communication were poor. Biden has learned his lesson in that regard and has been doing a much better job on Russia and Ukraine than he has on Afghanistan.