The Afghanistan Papers | Craig Whitlock

Summary of: The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War
By: Craig Whitlock


Discover the untold story behind the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan and how the war that began in 2001 evolved into a quagmire without a clear endgame. ‘The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War’ by Craig Whitlock offers insights into the decisions, miscalculations, and misperceptions that shaped one of the longest wars in American history. Learn about the early successes of the Bush administration and its subsequent ambivalence about nation-building, the Pentagon’s struggle to define the enemy, the flawed strategy of the Obama administration’s surge, and the eventual capitulation to negotiating a troop withdrawal during Trump’s tenure.

Afghanistan War Strategy

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration ordered a successful invasion of Afghanistan, which crumbled the Taliban resistance, leading to minimal casualties. However, despite the promising start, there was no clear plan for ending the war. The administration was wary of Afghanistan’s history and wanted to put as few troops as possible. The success soon turned into a quagmire as the US didn’t want to abandon the nation but feared sending too many troops would lead to blame for the country’s troubles. The United States didn’t want to pursue ambitious nation-building initially, but didn’t want to waste the progress achieved after flushing the Taliban.

Afghanistan, A War Without End

The U.S. entered the War on Terror without a clear understanding of the conflict, the culture, and the people they were fighting. Despite public statements that the war was won, private emails from officers revealed the Taliban and al-Qaeda had only retreated. Two chances to end the conflict were missed, and the U.S. mishandled its treatment of the Taliban, treating them as terrorists and denying them a role in the postwar peace process. Many Afghans viewed the Taliban as a better choice than the foreign interlopers and their puppet regime in Kabul.

The Failure of Nation-Building in Afghanistan

The Bush administration spent $143 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, with the goal of establishing a centralized government like the US. However, Afghanistan’s history of tribal governance made this a futile effort. Despite pointing to progress like road construction and voter registrations, many of the nation-building exercises were wasteful and ineffective. The United States pumped so much money into building projects that bureaucrats completely lost track of how much they were spending.

America’s Misguided Priorities in Afghanistan

The Bush administration’s focus on Iraq instead of Afghanistan led to inadequate resources for building Afghan security forces. This contributed to the resurgence of the Taliban, which caught the US off-guard. The US was then forced to scramble to train Afghan soldiers with little marksmanship or driving skills, leading to discipline issues and rampant illiteracy in the recruits.

The Bush administration shifted its focus from Afghanistan to Iraq after falsely claiming victory in Afghanistan. This left American officers in Afghanistan struggling to build their forces, as the best officers and troops were redirected to Iraq. As a result, the mission in Afghanistan became hazier with the resurgence of the Taliban caught the US off-guard. When the US realized its mistake, it scrambled to train Afghan soldiers without considering their lack of basic skills and discipline issues. This resulted in rampant illiteracy and innumeracy in the recruits. The book highlights how misguided priorities and inadequate resources can lead to unexpected consequences.

Poor Understanding of Afghanistan

American troops and diplomats lacked deep knowledge of Afghanistan’s cultural and linguistic context. Most of them were trained in Iraq’s customs and languages, which hindered their ability to understand the nuances of the country. Additionally, soldiers served for just six months to a year and then were replaced by inexperienced ones, leading to a limited understanding of Afghanistan. The diplomatic corps at the embassy followed a similar policy. As a result, there was a poor understanding of Afghanistan’s history, religious customs, and tribal dynamics.

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