tv Craig Whitlock The Afghanistan Papers CSPAN October 11, 2021 12:00pm-1:02pm EDT
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welcome you to our final virtual event of the summer. before we begin, i want to thank the hundreds of thousands of you from across the country and the world who have joined our virtual community, proving that learning and engaging, even at a distance makes us stronger. i invite you to check out our full catalog on our website. we'll be back in october to begin a semester we're very proud of. please join us again soon. when we planned tonight's program, the afghan war felt far away. a conflict that has gone on so long, that it almost disappeared from the evening news. then president biden pulled out all american troops leading to a massive withdrawal and letting tonight's event a new sense of importance and new set of questions. we're honored that craig whitlock joins us tonight to discuss a nation-building project doomed to failure as laid out in his newest book "the
afghanistan papers" which you can purchase right now using the link in the chat window. an investigative reporter for "the washington post," craig has covered the global war on terrorism since 2001 and has won some of journalism's highest honors. tonight he will be in conversation with his colleague, carlos lozada, the post pulitzer prize winning non-fiction book critic. if you have a question, please feel free to post it in the chat window at any time. we will get to as many as possible. now, please join me in welcoming craig whitlock and carlos lozada. thank you very much. it is such an honor to be here, and i could not be more excited to be in conversation with my colleague, craig whitlock, who i've admired from afar at "the washington post" for many years,
and to discuss a book and a subject that could not be more timely and crucial in this moment. so just to start off, there's a bunch of questions i want to ask you, craig, about the book. but first off, in the debates over this war now, as it looks like we're looking back on it, it's hard to shake the notion that america lost this war, the taliban is back in power. yet you hear president biden saying, look, we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish there. we defeated al qaeda in afghanistan. how do you square that difference? was it ever possible to truly win this war, and what would winning it actually have looked like? >> those are questions, carlos, we should have asked a long time ago, or certainly our leaders should have asked, what were they trying to accomplish. it is hard i think for biden to
square the result with what he's saying, we accomplished what we set out to. when you see images of the taliban taking over the whole country, swooping into the airport in kabul after u.s. troops leave, there's no question that the united states and the afghan government have lost this conflict. from the taliban's perspective, they're as victorious as they could have hoped for. the question is what do we hope to accomplish. i think people remember back in 2001, after the september 11th attacks, the whole purpose of going to war in afghanistan was to attack al qaeda, was to eliminate the threat from al qaeda, this global terrorist group, so they couldn't carry out any more terrorist attacks against united states targets or allies around the world. in afghanistan we were pretty successful with that for the first six months.
by april of 2002, just about all of al qaeda's leaders had been captured, killed or had fled afghanistan. they really didn't have a presence left after the spring of 2002. from that point forward, i think that's when mission creep started to set in pretty quickly. as a lot of the documents show for this book very bluntly, people said we lost focus. it became unclear what our goals and objectives were, both militarily and politically and strategically. for the last 19 years, we've never really been able to set out explicitly what we were hoping to accomplish in afghanistan. i think one thing president biden points to a lot is the death of osama bin laden in 2001 when he was killed in pakistan. biden says that was the last thing we wanted to accomplish. that's certainly true in terms of the original goal of dismantling al qaeda, but that raises the question of what were
we really trying to accomplish for the ten years since then. >> why do you think american leaders believe they can remake other countries, other societies, transform their politics, whether it's vietnam or iraq or afghanistan. you had president bush, president obama, president trump, all saying they would not engage in nation building, and yet they did over 20 years. why? >> that's a really good question and i think one that our leaders haven't answered. there's one interview in "the afghanistan papers" with a former navy s.e.a.l. named jeffrey eggers who worked at the white house in the national security staff under bush and obama. he served in afghanistan, too. he raised that same question. why do we think we can transform societies like this? why do we take on these enormous tasks as a country.
he said it's a question of human psychology. why do we think we can do this, accomplish these things? why don't we take a step back and question some of these basic assumptions? what were we thinking really trying to transform -- not just create a new afghan government, new afghan institutions, but in some ways transform afghan society? yet, this was a country americans knew very little about going in and we never got a good grasp of what afghan culture and society was like. there are very few u.s. officials who speak any of the afghan languages even today, 20 years later. i think the answer is uberous. we tend to think because we're the most powerful nation in the world in many ways, we can do
anything. some of this is the military mindset in america. the u.s. military culture is sort of a can-do culture and spirit. they say we can do anything, right? many times that's admirable, but sometimes people need to take a step back and say what's realistic here. >> can you tell us a little about the genesis of this book? in some ways i think the origin story itself is revelatory about the way that the war was prosecuted and that officials spoke or did not publicly speak about it? >> yeah, sure. like all good stories, it started out with a tip. five years ago i got a contact of mine that said, i heard this kind of obscure federal agency called the special inspector general for afghanistan had conducted an interview with recently retired general michael flynn. today flynn is kind of notorious for being a political extremist, but back in 2016 he had just
retired from the military. during his army career he was well known. he had a pretty good reputation in military intelligence. he had overseen nato and u.s. intelligence in afghanistan for a number of years. i heard this agency conducted the interview with flynn. at that time flynn was in his headlines for his support of trump. he had gone to the republican convention saying lock her up, lock her up about hillary clinton. we were interested in what he said from a news perspective about the war in afghanistan. flynn was known to be very outspoken, so i was just curious. i found out that the inspector general had, in fact, conducted this interview. when i asked for a transcript of it, because this hasn't been made public, at first the inspector general's office said sure, shouldn't be a problem. send your request in writing. long story short, as trump started to do well in the polls and was eventually elected and flynn became his national
security adviser, the inspector general denied my request and we ended up having to go to court. "the washington post" filed a freedom of information lawsuit, because our contention was this was public information. along the way, besides the flynn interview, i heard the inspector general had actually done this as part of a bigger project called lessons learned where they had interviewed over 400 people who were involved in the war in some capacity, from generals and diplomats, to white house officials and aide workers, for a program called lessons learned, where they were trying to assess what people thought were mistakes that had been made in afghanistan. so naturally that caught my attention, too, because this was 2016, 2017, and people thought the war was winding down. we thought maybe this would be a good way to get our arms around journalistically this assessment of what did go wrong in afghanistan. long story short again, we had to go to court again a second
time. the inspector general really didn't want to release any of these documents. we ultimately prevailed. it took three years, but we were able to get about 2,000 pages of these notes and transcripts of these interviews. they were really blunt. a lot of these people, again, ambassadors, generals were saying we didn't know what we were doing in afghanistan. we didn't have a strategy. we didn't have a campaign plan. we didn't know what we were doing. we didn't understand the society. so the criticism was really blistering and a complete contrast from what had been said in public over the preceding decade. so at that point we knew we had a good news story, and we decided to make it into a pretty big project. in december 2019 we published a series, and we also posted all the notes and interviews we obtained in court so people could see for themselves. >> what's great about the book i
think is it not only captures what you learned through the lessons learned project and what you reported in "the washington post," but there's a series of documents and cables and oral histories and new material that really creates even a fuller picture. in one of those that really struck me in reading the book, you have many of these kind of memos from donald rumsfeld, the late don rumsfeld who was the defense secretary at the time of 9/11. two years into the war, two full years into the war he's complaining in these memos, internal, i have no visibility into who the bad guys are, which is remarkable to think about, that you don't really know who the enemy is. so let me put that to you, who was the p enemy in the war in
afghanistan? al qaeda, isis-k. who were the bad guys that america was fighting? >> it sounds like a simple question, but we don't know who the bad guys were. we couldn't distinguish them. as i said before, at first it was clear al qaeda was the enemy, those were the bad guys, but by the time rumsfeld wrote that memo, al qaeda was gone in afghanistan, but we were still fighting people, right? we were fighting people that we couldn't always understand what their motivations were, what group or network they were a part of. we had this term the taliban. but the taliban covered any number of insurgent groups. sometimes they were criminal networks or smugglers or people who were just opposed to the people in charge in afghanistan. as rumsfeld said, who are the bad guys? this is kind of the simplistic view the americans had in afghanistan. there were good guys and bad guys, right? that's how we looked at it. but the problem was, a lot of
the good guys -- americans like to think of ourselves as good guys, but our allies in the afghan government, these warlords, corrupt government officials, they weren't always so good, and the population didn't like them very much. the bad guys was shorthand for anyone who was shooting at us, and yet we couldn't always define their motivations. this was a problem that the united states never figured out. if you fast forward about 15 years when rumsfeld wrote that memo, the war commander, i think it was 2017, general john campbell was testifying before congress. he was asked by senators is the taliban the enemy? are we fighting the taliban? general campbell kind of stammered and paused and didn't want to answer the question. and finally, he said, no, our country -- the taliban is not the enemy.
we're trying to reconcile with them politically. even in recent days it's been very confusing, the images coming from afghanistan that the taliban took over, but there's been cooperation at a military level between u.s. generals and the taliban. we sent the cia director to talk to the taliban leadership recently. there's a question, are we going to recognize them diplomatically. this begs the question why were we fighting the taliban for the last 20 years. early on it made sense in that the taliban government had hosted al qaeda prior to 2001 and they refused to give up bin laden. there's no question the taliban was allied with al qaeda. we started out with this war with the fight against al qaeda and we ended up getting dragged into or inserting ourselves in a long-running civil war in afghanistan where we didn't really understand the different factions very well. >> one of the -- the overriding
thrust of the book that makes it so powerful is that you contrast the private impressions of a series of diplomatic and military and non-governmental leaders involved in afghanistan with the public declarations and the sort of enormous contrast between them, but as you mentioned early on, compared to iraq, afghanistan was the so-called good war, right, the one that made sense. that's where al qaeda was when they perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. so why did officials feel the need to lie or spend to maintain support for the war that at least initially had some support, both nationally and internationally. >> a really good question. why would they feel the need because initially people were behind it. back in 2001 polls showed more than 80% of americans supported
the military operations and war in afghanistan. again, it was seen as a war of self-defense, of just cause. but i think that's precisely the reason why our leaders couldn't really bring themselves to be blunt and honest when things weren't going well because the united states thought we had won this war back in 2002. the taliban had been removed from power. al qaeda was gone. the bush administration had essentially declared victory. so afterward, what american president, what general, what secretary of state wants to admit they're slowly losing the war that americans thought we had won and that was seen as a just cause? nobody wants to admit failure, particularly in a situation like that. it started out as a reluctance to admit that things weren't going well, but the longer we were there and the deeper the dishonesty got where our leaders
were saying we were making progress, that the strategy was working, that we were winning. the hole gets dug deeper and deeper, and then it becomes much harder to admit the truth. there's some other reasons, too. i think in military culture, again, it's very hard to contradict the boss. you never want to show up your commander, and you never want to undercut or contradict the commander-in-chief. if you're a general or war commander and you start saying that things aren't going well, that's not what the president or the white house wants to hear. one episode in the book i go to in some detail, there was one general who was admitting things weren't going well. his name was general david mckiernan. he was the war commander under bush at the end of his second term and the start of obama's first term. he was really the first general to say, yeah, things aren't going well. the taliban is getting stronger and this isn't going in the right direction. we need more troops and more
resources. he was fairly honest about that. well, he gets relieved of command. he gets fired in the spring of 2009. he becomes the first american war commander since general douglas macarthur in korea to get fired in the middle of the war. there was no good explanation for this. the defense secretary at the time, bob gates, held a press conference, said he was relieving mckiernan. when asked why he was doing that, he said, i just thought we needed a new change, we needed new thinking. he was pressed again and again, why are you firing him? he really wouldn't give a concrete reason. but in documents we obtained for the book, there were army officers in afghanistan who worked with mckiernan who said shortly before he was fired, he confessed to them, he said i did too good of a job telling the truth how bad things are over here and he was paying the price. and of course you better believe after that, every officer in the defense
department takes note of that, right? you know, they know that if they speak the truth or they contradict their boss, they could lose their job. there was no real incentive to be honest with the american people when things were not going well. >> there's so many things in that response to prompt other questions. one word that i'll never think of in the same way after reading your book is progress. all right. you know, always throughout the war, the line is we're making progress. we're not saying we're winning, we're making progress. right. and, you know, that felt like this kind of meaningless filler term to kind of avoid ugly truths. but were there moments that you feel looking back on it that there was some sense of tangible, sustainable progress where things could have been headed in a better direction? >> progress was the talking point. all the generals mimicked each
other that way because they heard the other guys say it, and they knew it was an acceptable way to describe what was going on and made people feel like things were going in the right direction. they did say winning every once in a while, but progress was definitely the word they loved the most. they also liked the phrase turning the corner. things weren't going so well, but they said, yeah, but we're turning the corner now. those were two of the common phrases. there were times it felt like there was progress i think superficially, but it was almost an illusion. during obama's first term when he sent the surge of 100,000 troops to afghanistan, it looked like they were maybe making some progress in terms of taking a real -- weakening the taliban, building up the afghan government. we built tons of schools and clinics and hospitals and roads in afghanistan. we spent a ton of money over
there, and that looked on the surface like progress, but underneath what became clear in the documents i obtained for the book, was people didn't have any faith this was going to last. they knew there were fundamental flaws in the whole strategy. number one was that the whole purpose of obama's surge strategy was to build up the afghan government so that the afghan people, particularly in rural areas would side with the government over the taliban, that they would fight against the taliban to protect their own government. but in the field, people said that the afghanistan government was clearly corrupt, that afghans had no faith in their own leaders. they didn't have much faith in their own army, and they particularly hated the afghan police because they saw them as thieves and shake-down artists. you'd see this in different interviews with afghans where they were asked why are you siding with the taliban and why
aren't you supporting the government with all the work the americans are doing? the tribal elders would say we don't like the taliban, but we really don't like the government and we're waiting to see who wins. or we think the taliban is actually as bad as they are, they are more responsive to our needs than the government is. so, if you scratch the surface, it became clear that these illusions of progress were going to vanish. >> one thing i love to hear your thoughts on is perceptions of the afghan security forces. throughout the book, you show officials making positive statements about the numbers and the skills and the training of the afghan security forces, statements which are at odds with those that you also show -- when you show what they were really thinking about it. now, in the course of this withdrawal, you've had the biden administration often expressing sort of between surprise and
disdain for the afghan security forces, that they should have fought more effectively against the taliban. you know, was that ever really possible given what you saw about their officials' true impressions of how the security forces were developed? >> not the way we went about building the afghan army, i don't think it was possible. there were just so many structural problems and flaws that guaranteed that this whole project wasn't going to work. again, getting back to the question about uberous, why did we think we could create this pretty enormous afghan army and paramilitary police force, as many as 350,000 uniformed personnel. i mean, that's a pretty big army from scratch, and we designed it to look like the u.s. army where they had this very centralized
chain of command and they're expected to use advanced weapons systems and this bureaucratic logistical resupply system. and, you know, we built them an army that looked like ours because that's what we knew how to do. but in interviews we obtained, oral history interviews with u.s. army officers, trainers going back to 2005, 2006, 2007, they were withering in their assessments of this. they said, we were training these afghan recruits and it was just beyond our abilities to make this work. they noted that illiteracy was an enormous problem, that more than 90% of the afghan recruits couldn't read or write. many of them couldn't count. there was one u.s. official said you go to an afghan recruit and he can tell you the names of his brothers and sisters, but he can't tell you how many he has. other afghan recruits couldn't count, couldn't go 1, 2, 3,
couldn't tell their colors. they said, how are we in the matter of a few weeks of basic training, mold these people into an army in our own image? it was just a fool's errand. as you point out in public, u.s. military officials kept saying we're making progress, the afghans are doing great, they're more and more capable all the time, they're going to defeat the taliban. even though they knew, because their own trainers were telling them this, the afghans couldn't shoot straight. they weren't very inspired to defend their own government. you could see this coming for a long time. >> you offer examples of these kinds of misleading statements coming from all administrations that have been engaged in this war, but you also write that when it came to distorting statistics, indicators of progress, that the obama administration sort of took it to a new level.
what did you mean by that? should we conclude that essentially the obama team were the worst offenders in terms of deceiving the public? this gets to a question that one of the audience members, daniel, writes, how do you think of president obama's role in this war? >> well, the deceptions were bad across the board, but in reading these documents and interviews we obtained, it was worse than we thought. i covered the pentagon for several years, 2010 to 2016. i was used to the spin and the happy talk about how things were going. you take that with a grain of salt. it's a part of unfortunately covering the government a lot of time. but when you read these documents, you realize that, you know, they had taken it to a much more cynical level. there was one interview, a lessons learned interview with a member of obama's national security team at the white house. this person's name was redacted
from the document. but we know it was somebody that worked at the white house at a pretty high level on the national security council. he said we manipulated all the metrics for the duration of the war. when he was talking about metrics, he was saying all the stats to show progress, like number of schools built, roads paved or violence levels going up or down. he said, we had tons of statistics, but we intentionally manipulated them to make it look like we were making progress. he said, we did this for two reasons. he said very bluntly, one was to make the people in charge look good, and second to maintain public support for the war so we could keep troops over there, so there wouldn't be this clamor for the troops to return. so, you know, that's pretty bad, right? that's what happened in vietnam. this person is admitting that this happened not just in the field but at the white house at the national security level, all the way up to the president. so when they would give material
to the president for his speech, obama would rattle off statistics that they knew were intentionally deceptive. that's a pretty damming statement to come from somebody who worked directly for the president. you'd see this in other documents, too. they'd say we collected all sorts of statistics, but we knew we had to spin them in a way to make it always look like we were making progress. i think obama -- sometimes he told some of the biggest fibs about the war. in december of 2014 there was a ceremony at u.s. military headquarters in kabul, and obama put out a statement saying the war in afghanistan is coming to a responsible conclusion, and he announced the end of the combat mission for u.s. troops. obama and his war commander at the time, general john campbell said, the u.s. troops -- there's going to be a few thousand of them staying in the country, but they're only there as advisers.
the afghans are ready to take charge of their own security and they'll be the ones fighting against the taliban. obama and his generals knew that wasn't true, that u.s. troops were still going to be involved in combat. in fact, more than 100 u.s. troops died in combat after obama made that announcement. all u.s. soldiers in the war zone received combat pay. when they died they received combat decorations. the most vivid example of how combat was going on was from the air. we continued to fly more than 1,000 air strikes and bombings a year in which we were killing lots of people, both taliban and civilians. this idea that the combat mission was over was a complete fabrication, and yet obama knew this. the reason he clung to this description was because he knew that popular support for the war was waning, and he wanted americans to think that u.s. troops were no longer in harm's way and that they shouldn't push for an end to the war. he was trying to buy time.
again, the deception really just -- it went deeper and deeper as time went on. >> when you raised obama's speech in 2014, it reminded me of one of the moments that i completely missed or forgotten that i saw in your book. and that is that that wasn't the first time that we have declared the end of combat operations. at the same time that president bush was having his mission accomplished moment about iraq, don rumsfeld was in kabul declaring the end of combat operations in 2003. it's just -- that's part of why sort of reading this book right now is just so crazy to see these other moments when we've kind of declared that this thing is over. but you mentioned vietnam briefly.
we have a question from a member of the audience, michael, who asks do you view the debacle in kabul as similar to saigon in 1975. and, you know, there's so much to do with using and misusing historical parallels, but what do you see of any resonance in those two episodes? >> that's a great question. let me get to that in a moment. i'm sort of dying to tell more about the rumsfeld story. >> sure. >> that was quite a moment. everybody remembers bush's mission accomplished speech on the aircraft carrier where he announces that combat operations in iraq are over. this was in may of 2003. of course, that was just the start of the war in iraq, a massive public relations blunder that really came back to haunt him. people forget on that same day rumsfeld went to kabul where he announced the same thing in afghanistan, that combat operations had ended.
clearly they were trying to give people the impression that's the two wars were over and we could declare victory. the thing about rumsfeld's speech in particular in kabul, i obtained documents, army oral history interviews with army officers who were at military headquarters in kabul at that very time, and they were shocked rumsfeld said this. they said what is he talking about, that combat operations are over? we never got any order or anything on paper that said to stop fighting. they rattled off all these named combat operations, like operation mountain lion and operation this and that that were still going on. again, this isn't just spin, this is rumsfeld lying because he knew and the military knew that this just was not true. those are two great examples. i think we kind of -- sometimes we take people's word for it, and it's hard to disprove when
they say something that seems off, but these are just two mammoth falsehoods in 2003 and 2014 that the war was over when it clearly wasn't. getting back to vietnam -- sorry -- this is another fascinating comparison. right. you know, there's sort of this reluctance among u.s. government officials to ever compare anything to vietnam because the connotation is one of failure and not telling people the truth. nobody wants to associate anything with the outcome of the war in vietnam, but the parallels have been there since the very beginning. back in the fall of 2001, right after president bush announced the start of military operations in afghanistan, he was asked at a primetime news conference, mr. president, are you worried we might get sucked into a quagmire like vietnam? bush was dismissive of this and was very confident. and said, oh, no, we learned our lessons from vietnam.
we're not going to get stuck, we're not going to get bogged down in afghanistan like we did in vietnam. rumsfeld would do this, too. he would mock reporters who would ask are we going to get stuck like vietnam. any time someone brought up the word quagmire, he would make fun of people and put them down. but again, the irony is that six months into the war rumsfeld writes one of these memos to his generals saying i'm really worried that we aren't going to be able to get our troops out of afghanistan unless we come up with a plan to stabilize the country. he ended the memo with one word. it said "help!" so again, here in public, dismissing any comparison to vietnam, but in private, that's exactly what they're worried about. and i think in some ways, fast forward almost 20 years, that's what happened with the biden administration. joe biden was asked, i think it
was just in july, when u.s. troops had all but withdrawn from afghanistan, he was asked could there be a saigon moment in afghanistan, meaning you'd have an evacuation off the roof of the u.s. embassy and helicopters? biden was very dismissive of this. oh, man, no way, that could never happen. that's not going to happen. that's not what's going on. of course, a few weeks later, things actually looked worse than a helicopter off the roof of the embassy. you had images of u.s. air force c-17 transport plane with these afghans running down the runway trying to cling to it. the images were terrible. we ended up evacuating, helping to evacuate more than 100,000 people in just a few weeks. you know, i mean, yes, there are parallels to saigon and vietnam. certainly there are differences and different aspects of it, but the overall perception and the way we had to flee really while the enemy, meaning the taliban is taking over, those are strong
parallels and those are images that are hard to get out of your head. >> i want to ask a couple more questions before i go to -- i'm looking at these very good questions from the audience. and one is, how much -- i hope this is not too parsing, but how much do you think u.s. officials truly flat-out lied to the public about the war versus, you know, kind of putting a good face on things sometimes or even the kind of self-delusion that sometimes happens in wartime at the highest levels? >> that's another good question. when i say lie, i don't say that lightly. at "the washington post," if anything, we're criticized for being too hesitant to use that word. we give people the benefit of the doubt, if we don't know what's in their mind when they say splg something, we just
point out that it's a falls statement or contradict ed by evidence or things like that. in researching this book -- i covered the pentagon for many years, a foreign correspondent before that. i'm used to spin and people giving happy talk, and i get that. i'm not saying that that's a lie, but there's certainly a lot of that and a lot of misleading statements. when you look at the actual documents and the correlation in time between what somebody said in public and what they clearly knew at the time was true or false, you can't do anything but conclude they're lying, with rumsfeld saying major combat operations are over in 2003, there's no doubt he knew that wasn't true at the time. you've got contemporaneous evidence and testimony by people who served under him who said this just flat out wasn't true. like obama saying this was the end of the combat mission, he knew that wasn't true. he was the commander-in-chief and he authorized the troops to keep fighting in combat. those are two big, big lies, right?
there's no way around it. how else can you describe it? at the same time, you're right, throughout the war there was a lot of inflation of expectations, a lot of people spinning things, a lot of rosy characterizations of what's going on, doesn't quite cross the line into lying. but, you know, add it all up, it's not a good record of anybody telling the truth. as i mentioned, the one general who told the truth got fired, and i think the lesson from that was you can't be honest with the american people. and, you know, the old cliche is "truth is the first casualty of war." there's a long history of this. at the same time when is there a more important moment for our u.s. government leaders to be honest with the public when people's lives are on the line and we're committing troops and a lot of money to conflict halfway around the world.
i mean, they need to start being honest about it. >> in his speech this week, president biden stated categorically that the war in afghanistan is over. at the same time he said, we will maintain the fight against terrorism in afghanistan, and we just don't need to fight a ground war to do it. we can strike from afar. with american boots on the ground, very few, if needed. all right. there seemed to be some wiggle room there. you know, and based on what you've seen over the past two decades, what do you imagine future u.s. military action in afghanistan, if any, could look like? >> well, that's another phrase people should watch out for, boots on the ground. that's something obama said a lot. people may forget this, but when he sent troops back to iraq and syria, at first he said particularly in syria, there will be no boots on the ground. we're not putting u.s. troops on
the ground in syria. of course, they did. reporters would say, what do you mean no boots on the ground? we've got pictures literally of boots on the ground, of americans? they would use this to kind of, again, give people this misleading image that we don't have lots of troops there. i do think biden -- i take him at his word for the moment that there is this complete troop withdrawal from afghanistan. and we're not going to -- there's no afghan army or government to advise anymore. so that role is gone. there's no purpose for having them there. we're not going to be working hand in glove with the taliban that same way. but does that mean the cia won't send operatives in? i doubt it. i think the cia will try to find a way to have a presence, have proxy forces perhaps. you know, the war is going to continue in a different phase. it's not going to be this
overt military conflict. it could be more like -- you think in the afghan war when the soviets were in there, we were involved in that war even though we didn't technically have boots on the ground, but we were a big player in the war between the soviets and the afghan resistance at that point. i'm not saying that's what's going to happen now. i'm saying, you're right, there's a lot of wiggle room for the u.s. to remain in afghanistan for counterterrorism operations. >> yeah, there were suitcases of money on the ground back in the '80s. so a few questions from the audience. one -- let's see. gabriel asks, craig, thank you for your reporting. since the pullout from afghanistan, there's been some conversation around how u.s. military contractors have benefitted from the prolonged war. did you come across this topic in the course of your reporting?
if so, what did it look like? i mean, the role of contractors in war is also a great way to kind of fudge boots on the ground. what did you make of that in the course of your reporting, whether for this book or your overall reporting on the global war on terror? >> exactly. that's a good way to be skeptical of what's going on. certainly military contractors, they earned a lot of money throughout the war. in fact, just about everybody did in afghanistan who had any kind of presence there. the irony is we spent so much money on defense contracts and supplying our troops whether it was ammunition or water or food. we had to send this enormous amount of supplies halfway around the world to this landlocked country in afghanistan. i mean, i think people sometimes
don't realize what a logistical challenge an feat that was. we also spent enormous amounts of money doing it. people, whether they're u.s. defense contractors, foreign defense contractors, afghans, even the taliban, they all benefited from this. i mean, one thing we would see in the interviews for "the afghanistan papers" is how much money was being syphoned off, not just by crooks in afghanistan, corrupt contractors, but the taliban. you know, contractors had to pay protection money to the taliban to let their convoys go through. during obama's term during the surge, the military essentially conducted a sort of review of all the defense contracts. at that point there were more than $10 billion a year being spent in afghanistan. they concluded as much as 40% of the money was being syphoned off. it either went to criminal networks or the taliban or corruption afghan officials. so everybody was benefiting from this. the good guys and the bad guys.
and, you know, that certainly reduces any incentive to end the fighting, no question. >> that gets perfectly to a question that shamul asks. would things have ended differently had we eradicated corruption in afghanistan? i guess one way to think about that, had we not aggravated it as well? >> well, i think that's maybe the better way to look at it. one state department official, barnett rubin said in an interview, a lessons learned interview, he said there's one necessary ingredient for corruption, and that's money. we were the ones with all the money. because we were flooding afghanistan with more money than it could possibly absorb, whether it was defense contracts or nation building programs or humanitarian aid, inevitably, a lot of this money ended up in people's pockets who shouldn't have gotten it. on one hand, the united states was lecturing the afghan government, you know, you need to stamp out corruption, and we
would train judges and set up courts to deal with this. on the other hand, we're making it happen because we're sending all this money over there. there was one episode in particular i was struck by. there was a diplomatic cable around 2006 that was sent by the u.s. ambassador in afghanistan. at the time his name was ron newman. he talked about meeting with hamid karzai, the afghan president, in which the ambassador was berating karzai about all these corrupt officials on his payroll, the afghan government. and he was saying that in particular, he was singling out karzai's half brother, ahmed wali karzai, a strong man in kandahar in southern afghanistan, you need to remove him from power, he's corrupt to the core. karzai was, of course, furious about this, because this was in part his brother. his comeback was, you're the guys giving him all the money. he's on the cia's payroll, and the defense department is giving
him all these contracts. why are you blaming me? you're the guys -- he's your best friend down there. of course, what can you say to that? on one hand we lecture the afghans that they need to clean things up, but we were responsible for a lot of those problems. now, the question is, if we had eradicated corruption, would things have been successful? i think it was too difficult to eradicate corruption both because of our role in it and because the afghans saw this as a way -- they didn't know when the money was going to go away and they were trying to get a piece of it because they didn't know how the war was going to turn out. i think it would have been very hard. the most devastating part of the corruption is it made the afghan people lose faith in their own government. they saw their own leaders as a bunch of thieves looking out for their own interests. in the end, particularly in the rural areas, afghans sided with the taliban over their own government. and, you know, there was no way we were going to win the war if that was going to happen. >> getting back to this notion
of progress that we've discussed a little bit, bonnie asks, people point to improved conditions for women and girls in afghanistan as progress. is that valid? >> sure, absolutely. you know, the question is what is that progress going to be sustainable or not? and right that's a very open question and a real concern. but this is a really good question because this gets to the point of what were we trying to accomplish in afghanistan? when we went to war in 2001, it was to go after al qaeda. it wasn't to improve the lot of women and girls in afghanistan. that's certainly a noble goal, no question. but that isn't why we went to war. that became part of the mission creep, as it were. the bush administration, rightfully so, said we should stick up -- we should try and improve human rights in afghanistan while we're there, but this became mixed up with
the original purpose of the war, and i think a lot of times the americans, we tend to project our own values on another country, and to what degree can you really do that and hope it will take root, i don't know. kabul is a very different place from the rest of afghanistan. never really sort it out. what were we hoping to accomplish, what was our purpose for being there, and while there
was progress made in many regards, the whole question is now that we lost the war, what's going to happen? >> let's get a little bit into what just happened. president biden has expressed in recent days that, look, it was impossible to try and get out without some degree of chaos. this was always going to be the case. and karina asks if this was true? would there have been a better way that the biden administration could have avoided this chaotic exit from afghanistan? >> they could have planned better, no question. they clearly were caught off guard by how quickly the taliban was able to take over provincial capitals and really just march into kabul without any resistance. they clearly were not ready for that. i think intelligence assessments show the biden administration thought they had at least a few
months, if not longer, that the afghan government and army could hold out. they weren't prepared for this, and they should have had contingencies in place. the u.s. military plans for everything. at pentagon, there is plans on the shelf for invading canada. nobody ever expects to use them, but there's plans. i'm surprised we didn't have better plans in place for a sudden evacuation if we needed it. particularly the planning was deficient in trying to process immigrant visas for afghans who had helped the united states as interpreters or civil servants or other roles like that. the u.s. government knew this dating back to the obama administration, that there was this huge backlog of visa applications that hadn't been processed and couldn't be done quickly. i think the biden administration had made some improvements in that in the margin since january, but that was something
we should have foreseen and should have been better prepared for. so in the end we had to do this big evacuation, but there was no way we could process all those applications. we were just pulling people out willy-nilly and it was just very chaotic. yes, they could have done better. at the same time, there is never any easy way to end a war that you're losing. it's easy to start one, but it's a lot harder to end it. and you look at the last seven years, obama and trump and biden all tried to end the war. obama promised he would by the end of his second term, and the reason he didn't is he was worried there would be a collapse of the afghan government, so we kept troops over there. same thing with trump. he promised to end the war, but his generals advised him, look, if you pull out now, the afghan government could collapse, so you need to keep some troops there, even though he cut this deal with the taliban to withdraw. he kind of kicked it down the road for biden to deal with it. biden made the decision to finally end the war, and it
probably was going to be chaotic no matter what, but it didn't have to be that chaotic. >> i have time for a couple more questions. i'm going to focus in on two that have to do with journalism, both in a micro sense and a macro sense. i'll take the micro sense first. linda asks, do you have researchers or other staff that work with you, or was this a solo operation? did you work on other assignments over the course of your work on "the afghanistan papers"? >> no, i didn't work on other assignments. this was my full-time job when we were publishing the series in "the post" and in 2020 and so far in 2021, this is all i did was work on the book. i did my own research for it, but i certainly had an enormous amount of assistance in the newsroom on the original series in terms of editors, fact
checkers, page designers. we posted all these documents on the internet and made them easy to search so people could see them. so we had this huge effort on the staff, photographers, videographers, designers. so many people helped with this. i was the sole reporter on it. in the book, again, i was author but had tremendous help in the newsroom in terms of editing and presentation, and i did have a fact checker full-time who could work on fact checking for the book. that isn't something we ordinarily -- usually reporters are responsible for his or her own fact checking for news stories. so this is a "washington post" book, drawing the talents of people across the newsroom, no question. >> i should point out as a fellow "post" staffer that on projects like these, it's not uncommon to see multiple reporters and multiple by-lines, and one of the things that was so amazing when "the afghanistan
papers" came out as a "post" project, it was by craig whitlock. it was an arduous and extraordinary work. but you're right, there is a big team. the other question about journalism that is more of a macro question comes from -- here, let me scroll down to it. is robert. robert asks, did the press fail in its role to inform the american public about the failures you're reporting now? >> i think the press can always do a better job. that said, i don't want to appear defensive, but i think many reporters did a very good job of covering the war in afghanistan, and many of these issues were reported, were made public about corruption in
afghanistan, about the problems in training the afghan army and police force. you know, certainly lots of stories questioning whether this withdrawal was going to go well and negotiations with the taliban. there was a lot of questioning skeptical coverage through the years, but maybe, you know, we didn't do enough of it. or maybe certain outlets didn't do more of it. there is no question in recent years, since 2014, when obama announced an end to the combat mission, a lot of reporters left kabul and the television networks in particular haven't given as much attention over there. afghanistan kind of became the forgotten war for a while. did we need to cover it more closely? absolutely. we look at what happened and there is no question we could have done more. but i also don't want to minimize the risks and sacrifices that many journalists made in going to afghanistan and staying there. the "washington post" has had a bureau in kabul ever since 2001.
so have other newspapers. the wire services like "the associated press" and "reuters" have covered things diligently and many have put themselves at risk to do so. i don't want to minimize that. could we have done a better job? absolutely. but i don't know that we failed. >> we have -- i'm going to sneak in one last question. i was struck from the very beginning that both your reporting in the "post" on "the afghanistan papers" and the book has its genesis in lessons learned impact. and that is wonderful, right, that military officials and diplomatic officials would want to, you know, get that down to sort of assess what they have learned. what do you think we have learned? what are the lessons learned
from the afghan war? >> i don't know that we've learned. i think maybe we've learned we don't want to get in over our head and take on these enormous, ambitious security projects to remake countries overseas, particularly countries we don't understand very well. i think maybe there is some humility in order here. and i think certainly in public opinion, nobody is clamoring to go invade another country and try to transform to society. i think there is a recognition that we overreached in afghanistan for a long time. that said, vietnam happened and we thought maybe we learned our lessons from there and we didn't. and someday there's going to be another crisis somewhere in the world, and the united states tends to react militarily if it's under threat. and the question is, how are we going to react and how are we going to deal with a situation that may come up that may be similar but in some other
country and some other part of the world? i'm skeptical that we've learned our lessons. the lessons may be there to read and see and hear, but are they going to sink in? i guess that's the question. and only time will tell with that. >> well, craig, i can't imagine a more timely moment for your work to come out in this book, and i hope that it will help us reflect and maybe even learn some of those lessons. >> well, thank you, carlos. thank you for the great discussion. i really want to thank the striker center for hosting us. it was a real privilege and honor. these are terrific questions, and it is encouraging the public response. people do want to know what went wrong in afghanistan, and they want to hear it straight, and they want an explanation over what happened the last 20 years, how things could go wrong seemingly so quickly.
i hope the book has those answers and will give people a much better feel for why things went wrong. >> on behalf of the striker center, craig and carlos, we want to thank you for being here this evening. thank you all for tuning in, and please check our website for many great fall programming and wishing everybody celebrating a very happy rosh hashana. >> you can follow along on booktv and on twitter, instagram and facebook. what caused student loan debt in the u.s. to rise more than a trillion dollars up next on book tv's author interview program "afterwords." josh mitchell talks about this growing debt for parents and students. he is interviewed by npr education reporter.
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