Skip to main content

tv   Craig Whitlock The Afghanistan Papers  CSPAN  October 11, 2021 9:00pm-10:02pm EDT

9:00 pm
office to appear in the near future on booktv. ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪
9:01 pm
♪ >> good evening, everybody. i'm gady levy executive director of the temple emanu-el streicker center i'm honored to 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 will join 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. will be back in october to begin semester we are fairly proud of. please again soon. when we planned tonight program, a conflict that is gone on so long that almost disappeared from the evening news, then
9:02 pm
president biden pulled out all america's troops leading to -- leading to tonight event and a new set of questions. we are honored that craig whitlock joins us tonight to discuss a nationbuilding 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" can crake has come with the global war on terrorism since 2001 and as one sum of journalism highest honors. tonight he will be in conversation with his colleague carlos lozada, the pulitzer prize-winning nonfiction book critic. if you have questions please you free to post it in the chat window at anytime. we'll get to as many as possible. and now please join in welcoming craig whitlock and carlos
9:03 pm
lozada. >> thanks. >> 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. just to start off there's a bunch of equation i want to ask you about the book, but first off, in the debate over this war now, as were looking back on it, it's hard to sheikh the notion that america lost his work. the taliban is back in power. yet your president biden singh look, we accomplish what we wanted to accomplish.
9:04 pm
we defeated al-qaeda in afghanistan. so how do you square that difference? was it ever possible to truly win this war and what with winning it have actually looked like? >> those are questions, carlos, we should've asked a long time. or certainly our leaders should ask what were they trying to accomplish. it is hard for biden to square the result with what he said we accomplish what we set out to get when you see images of the taliban taking over the whole country, swooping into the airport in cobble after u.s. troops leave, there's no question that the united states and the afghan government have lost this conflict. from the comments perspective they are as sick toys as they could hope for. but the question is what can we hope to accomplish? i think people remember back in 2001 after the september 11 attacks the whole purpose of
9:05 pm
going to war in afghanistan was to attack al-qaeda, was to eliminate the threat from al-qaeda, this global terrorist group so that they couldn't carry out any more terrorist attacks against the united states targets or against allies around the world. in afghanistan we were pretty successful with that within the first six months. by april 2002 just about all of al-qaeda is leaders had been captured, killed or have fled afghanistan. they really didn't have a presence left after the spring of 2002. but from that point forward that's when mission creep started to set in pretty quickly, and has a lot of the documents show for this book, very bluntly, people said we lost focus, became unclear what our goals and objectives were both militarily and politically and strategically, and for the last 19 years we have never really been able to set out
9:06 pm
explicitly what we are hoping to in afghanistan. one thing president biden points to a lot is the death of osama bin laden in 2001 when he was killed in pakistan and biden says that was the last thing we wanted to accomplish. that is certainly true in terms of the original goal of dismantling al-qaeda but then that raises the question of what we really trying to accomplish for the ten years since then? >> why do you think american leaders believe they can remake of the countries, other societies, transform the politics? whether it's vietnam or iraq or afghanistan. in fact, president bush, president obama, president trump all say they would not engage in nationbuilding and yet they did, over 20 years. why? >> that's a a really good quen and i think one that our leaders
9:07 pm
haven't answered. there there was one interview in the afghanistan papers with a former navy seal made jeffrey eggers who worked at the white house on the nationals could he staff under bush and obama and he served in afghanistan, too, and he raised that same question. said why do we think we can transform societies like this? why do we take on these enormous tasks as a country? he said it really gets, is a question of human psychology. why do we think we can do this, accomplish these things? why don't we take a a step bak and question some of these basic assumptions? what were we thinking 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 that americans knew very little about going in and we never really got a better grasp of what afghan culture and society was like.
9:08 pm
there are very few u.s. officials who speak the language, speaking at the afghan a link which 20 years later. i think the answer is hubris. we tend to think because we are the most powerful nation in the world in many ways that we can do anything. this is the military mindset. the culture is a can-do culture and spirit. they say we can do anything and many times that's admirable but sometimes people need to take a step back and see what is realistic here? >> can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of this book? because 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. >> sure. like all good stories it started out with a tip five years ago.
9:09 pm
i doubt a contact of mine said i heard that this kind of obscure federal agency called the special inspector general for afghanistan have conducted an interview with recently retired general michael flynn, and today lynn is kind of notorious for being a political extremist but back in 2016 had just retired from the military during his army career. he was well known, had a pretty good reputation military intelligence and yet overseen nato and u.s. intelligence in afghanistan for a number of years. i heard this agency has it condd this interview with flynn and at the time he was in the headlines for support of trump and gone to the convention sang fokker up, lock her up, about heather klin. we were interested about a news perspective about what he said about afghanistan so i was just
9:10 pm
curious. i found out that inspector general had, in fact, conducted this interview when asked for a transcript of it because this had not been made public. first the inspector general office said sure, shouldn't be a problem, send in your request in writing. long story short, as trump started do well in the pulse 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 continuous this is public information. along the way i heard that inspector general actually had done this as part of a bigger project called lessons learned was interviewed over 400 people who were involved in the war in some capacity from generals and diplomats white house officials and aid workers for a program called lessons learned there
9:11 pm
were trying to sort of assess what people thought were mistakes that have been made in afghanistan. naturally that caught my attention because this was 2016-2017 and people thought the war was winding down but 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. inspector general really did not want to release any of these documents but we ultimately prevail. it took three years but were able to get about 2000 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're doing. we ended -- didn't understand the society. the criticism was blistering at
9:12 pm
a complete contrast from what inset in public over the preceding decade. at that point when you we had a good news story and we decided to make it into a pretty big project. in december 2019 republished the series, also posted all the notes and interviews we obtain in court so people could see for themselves. >> great about the book i think is it not only captures what you learned through the lessons project and what you report 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 memos from donald rumsfeld, the late don rumsfeld who was the defense secretary at the time of 9/11.
9:13 pm
and two years into the war, like 24 years into the war he's complaining in these memos, internal, i have no visibility into 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 of the enemy in the war in afghanistan? al-qaeda, the taliban, isis k? who were to court rumsfeld the bad guys that america was fighting? >> right. 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 in any. those the bad guys but by the time rumsfeld wrote that memo al-qaeda was gone in afghanistan but we were still fighting people. we were fighting people that we couldn't always understand what their motivations were, what group or network there were a part of it. we had this term the taliban but
9:14 pm
the taliban covered in the number of insurgent groups can sometimes they were criminal networks for smugglers are people who are just opposed to the people in charge in afghanistan. as rumsfeld said who are the bad guys? this is a simplistic view of the american set in afghanistan. there were good guys and bad guys. that's how we look at it but the problem was a lot of the good guys, americans like to think of ourselves at good guys but our allies in the afghan government, these warlords, corrupt government officials, they were not always so good and the population didn't like them very much. the bad guys was just shorthand for anyone who is shooting at us. yet we could always define their motivations. this was a problem that united states never figured out. fast-forward about 15 15 yean rumsfeld wrote that memo, the war commander and i think 2017
9:15 pm
general john campbell was testifying before congress and he was asked by senators if the taliban is in the? 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 countries idea, the taliban is not the enemy. we are trying to reconcile with them politically. even in recent days it's been very confusing, the images come from afghanistan that the taliban took over that 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 i'm going to recognize them diplomatically? this begs the question, why were we fighting the taliban for the last 20 years? early on it make makes sent the taliban government had hosted al-qaeda prior to 2001 and a refuse to give up bin laden. so there's no question that
9:16 pm
taliban was allied with al-qaeda but 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 really didn't understand the different factions very well. >> one, 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 nongovernmental leaders involved in afghanistan with the public declarations and the enormous contrast between them. as you mentioned early on, compared to iraq-afghanistan was a so-called good war, the one that made sense. that's where al-qaeda was when they perpetrate the 9/11 attacks.
9:17 pm
so why did officials feel the need to lie or spin to maintain support for the war the least initially had some support both nationally and internationally? >> i really good question, why would they feel the need because initially people were behind it. back in 2001 pulse showed more than 80% of americans supported the military operations and war in afghanistan. again it was seen as a war of self-defense, a just cause but that's precisely the reason why our leaders couldn't bring themselves to be blunt and honest when things were not going well because the united states thought we won this war back in 2002. the taliban the taliban had been removed from power. al-qaeda was gone. the bush administration had essentially declared victory. afterwards, one american president, what general, what secretary of state once just
9:18 pm
admit they are slowly losing the war that americans thought we had one and that was seen as the just cause? nobody wants to admit failure take her in a situation like that so it started out as a reluctance to admit that things were not going well but the longer we were there and the deeper the dishonesty god where our leaders were saying we're making progress, that the strategy was working, that we were winning, the whole gets deeper and deeper and it becomes much harder to admit the truth. there there's some other re. in military culture idea it's hard to contradict the boss. you never want to show off your commander and you never want to undercut or contradict the commander-in-chief. so if you're a general or a war commander and you start saying the things are not going well, that's not what the president by the white house wants to hear. one episode in the book, i go
9:19 pm
through in some detail is that there was one general who was admitting that things are not going well. his name was general david mckiernan picky was the war commander under bush at the end of his second term and the start of obama's first term and he was really the first general to say things are not going well. the taliban is getting stronger, and this isn't going in the right direction. we need more troops and more resources. so he was found honest about that. 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 a war. there was no good explanation given for this. the defense secretary at the time bob gates held a press conference, said he was leaving him but when asked why he just said i just thought we needed a change, we needed new thinking. he was pressed again and again why are you firing him? he wouldn't give a concrete
9:20 pm
reason but in documents we obtained for the book there are some army officers in afghanistan who work with mckiernan is that shortly before he was fired he confesses and said i did too good of a job telling the truth of how bad things are over here and he was paying the price. of course you better believe after that every officer in the defense department takes note of that. they know if they speak the truth or they contradict their balls it 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 you said in that response that just prompt other questions. one word that i will never think of in the same way after reading your book is progress. always throughout the war the line is we're making progress. we are not saying we're winning. we are making progress.
9:21 pm
felt like this 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? >> so progress was a talking point and all the generals mimic each other that way because they heard the other guy say it and the new it was an acceptable way to describe what is going on and make people feel like things are going in the right direction. they did say winning every once in a while but progress was definitely the word they loved the most and also like the phrase turning the corner. we we're turning the corner no, right? so those were two of the common phrases. there were times it felt like there was progress i think superficially but almost an
9:22 pm
illusion during obama's first term when he sent the surge of 100,000 troops to afghanistan. look like they would be 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 looked on the surface like progress but underneath what became clear in the documents i obtained for the book where people didn't have any faith this was going to last, they knew there were some fundamental flaws in the whole strategy. number one was 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 the
9:23 pm
afghan government was clearly corrupt, that afghans had no faith in their loan 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 shakedown artists. so you see this in different interviews where with afghans where they were asked, why are you siding with the taliban or why are you not supporting the government with all this work the americans are doing? the tribal elders would say welcome we don't like the taliban but we really don't like the government and we're waiting to see who wins, we think the taliban is actually as bad as they are there are more spot to join his than the government is. if you scratch the surface it became clear these allusions of progress were going to vanish. >> one thing i i love to hearr thoughts on this perceptions of the afghan security forces. throughout the book you shall
9:24 pm
officials making positive statements about the numbers and the skills and the training the afghan security. statements at odds with those that you also show, when you show what you are really think about it. now in the course of this withdrawal we'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. was that ever really possible, given what you saw about officials to impressions of how the security forces were developing? >> not the way we went about building an afghan army, i don't think it was possible. there were so many structural problems and flaws that guaranteed this whole project wasn't going to work. getting back to the question about hubris, why did we think
9:25 pm
we could create this pretty enormous afghan army and paramilitary police force, as many as 350,000 uniformed personnel? that's a pretty big arnie from scratch, and we designed it to look like the u.s. army where they had this very centralized chain of command and their expected use advanced weapons systems and this bureaucratic logistical resupply system. we built this an army that look like ours because that's what we knew how to do. in interviews, oral history interviews with u.s. army officers, trainers, going back to 2005-2006-2007 they were withering in their assessment of 2007 they were withering in their assessment of this. they said we are training the afghan recruits and it was just beyond our ability to make this work. they noted ill literacy was the
9:26 pm
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 who 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 has. or other afghan recruits they couldn't count, they couldn't tell their colors. how are we supposed to in ina matter of a few weeks of basic training mold these people into an army in our own image? it was a fool's errand. but as you point out, in public u.s. military officials kept saying where making progress, the afghans are doing great. they are more and more capable all the time. they will defeat the taliban. they knew because their own trains were telling them this that the afghan, they couldn't shoot straight. they were not very inspired to defend their own government. you could see this coming for a
9:27 pm
long time. >> you offer examples of these kinds of misleading statements coming from all administrations have been engaged in this war. but you're also right 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 with the worst offenders in terms of deceiving the public? 52 question one of the audience members, daniel writes, how do you think of president obama's role in this war? >> in reading these documents and interviews we did, it was worse than i thought. i cover the pentagon for several years from 2010-2016 s used to the happy talk about how
9:28 pm
things were going. you take that with a grain of salt but it's a part of unfortunate cover the governor of our time. when you read these documents you realize that they've taken it to a much more cynical level. there was one interview, lessons learned interview with a member of obama's national security team at the white house, this persons name was redacted from the document but we know somebody who worked at the widest at a pretty high level of alaska to counsel and he said we manipulated all the metrics for the duration of the war. what he was talking metrics hussein 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 that we intentionally manipulate them to make it look like we're making progress. he said we do this for two reasons. he said very bluntly one is to make the people in charge look good, and second, to maintain
9:29 pm
public support for the war so we can keep troops over there so that there wouldn't be this clamor for the troops to return. that's pretty bad, right? that's what happened in vietnam and this person is admitting this happen not just in the field but at the white house at the national security level all the way up to the president. when david give material to the president for a speech, obama would rattle off statistics that they knew were intentionally deceptive. that's pretty damning statement to come from some who work directly for the president to use this and other documents. they would say we collect all sorts of statistics but when you we had to spend them anyway to always make it look like we're making progress. i think obama and sometimes he told some of the biggest fibs about the war. in december 2014 there was a ceremony at u.s. military headquarters in kabul, and obama
9:30 pm
put out a statement saying this was the war in afghanistan is coming to our responsible conclusion, he announced the end of the combat mission for u.s. troops. obama and his war commander of the time general john campbell said the u.s. troops there will be a few thousand of them stay in the country but they're only there as advisors. the afghans are ready to take charge of the unsecured and they will be the ones fighting against the taliban. ..
9:31 pm
and that they shouldn't push for them to the war. he was trying to buy them. again, the deception, it went deeper and deeper as time went on. >> when you raised obama's speech, it reminded me of one of the moments that i had completely missed or forgotten that i -- i saw in your book and that is that that wasn't the first time that we declared the end of combat operations that the same -- at the same time that president bush was, you know, having his mission accomplished moment about iraq,
9:32 pm
the rumsfeld was in kabul declaring the end of combat operations in 2003. it was -- it's just -- thinking about -- reading why reading this book right now is so crazy to see these other moments when we've kind of declared that this thick is over. but you mentioned vietnam briefly and we have a question from a member of the audience, michael, who asks, do you view the debacle in kabul similar to sigone in 1975 and 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.
9:33 pm
that was quite a moment. he announces combat operations in iraq are over. this is may of 2003. that was just the start of the war in iraq, massive public relations blunder that really came back to hunt him. combat operations had ended because clearly they were trying to make, give people this impression that the two wars were over and we could declare victory and the thing about rumsfeld's speech in particular in kabul documents and were at military headquarters in kabul at the very time and they were shocked that rumsfeld said this and what is he talking about that combat operations are over, we never got anything to stop fighting and they rambled all of the name operations, operation
9:34 pm
this and that that was still going on and rumsfeld, again, this isn't just spin -- this is rumsfeld lying and he knew and the military knew that this was not true. these are two great examples. we sometimes -- we take people's word for it and it's hard to disprove when they say something that seems off. these are two mammoth falsehoods in 2003 and 2014 that the war was over when it clearly wasn't in fact, you know, back in 2001
9:35 pm
after president bush announced start of military in afghanistan, he was asked in news conference, are you worried that we might get sucked into a quagmire like vietnam. he said, oh no, we learned our lessons from vietnam, we will not get bogged down. he mocked reporters that asked are we going to get stuck like vietnam and someone brought up the word quagmire and he would made fun of people and put them down. rumsfeld writes to generals saying i'm really worried that we aren't going to be able to get troops out of afghanistan unless we come up with a plan to stabilize the country and ended the memo with one word, help
9:36 pm
with exclamation point. here dismissing any comparison to vietnam but in private, that's exactly what they are worried about. in some ways fast-forward almost 20 years, that's what happened with the biden administration. joe biden was asked in july and he was asked, could there be a sigone moment in afghanistan, meaning where you'd have evacuation off the roof of the u.s. embassy and helicopters and biden was very dismissive, oh, man, no way, that can never happen, that's not going the happen, that's not what's going on, of course, well, a few weeks later things actually look worse than helicopter off the roof. you had images of air force transport plane with these afghans running down the runway trying to cling to it. i mean, the images were terrible and we ended up evacuating,
9:37 pm
helping to evacuate a hundred thousand people just a few weeks, so, you know, i mean, yes there are parallels to sigone and vietnam. certainly there are differences and different aspects of it but the overall perception and the way we have to flee, really, while the enemy, meaning the taliban is seeking over, i mean, those are strong parallels and those are images that are hard to get out of your head. >> i want to ask us a couple more questions before i -- i go to -- i'm looking at 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 just flat out lie to the public about war versus, you know, the kind of putting good face on things or the
9:38 pm
self-delusion that sometimes happens in wartime at the highest levels. >> well, that's another good question. when i say lie, i don't say that lightly. the washington post were if any criticized for being too hesitant to use that word where you give people the benefit of the doubt and we don't know what's in their mind when they say something, we just point out that it's a false statement or contradicted by evidence and things like this. in researching this book, again, i covered the pentagon for many years and i've correspondent i'm use today spin and people give happy talk. i get that. there's certainly a lot of la, misleading statements. when you look at the actual documents and the correlation in time on what somebody said in public and what they clearly knew at the time was true or false, i mean, you can't do anything but conclude they're right. like rumsfeld saying major combat operations are over in
9:39 pm
2003. i mean, there's no doubt he knew that wasn't true at the time. you have testimony by people who served under him who just said this flat-out wasn't true and just like obama saying it was the end of the combat mission, he knew that wasn't true. he was the commander in chief and he had authorized the troops to keep fighting in combat. so 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. there also was a lot of, you know, inflation of expectations, a lot of people spinning things, a lot of rosy characterizations of what's going on, you know, that doesn't quite cross the line but 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 the lesson from that was you can't be honest with the american people and, you know,
9:40 pm
the old cliché truth is the first casualty of war so there's long history of this but at the same time when is your important moment for u.s. leaders to be honest with the public when people's lives are on the line and we are committing troops and a lot of money to conflict half way around world. they need to start being honest about it. >> and the speech this week, president biden stated categorically that the war in afghanistan is over, at the same time he said we will maintain fight against terrorism in afghanistan and we just don't need to fight a ground war to do it and we can strike from afar, with american boots on the ground, very few if needed. there seem to be some wiggle room there, you know, and based on what you've seen over the past two decades, what do you
9:41 pm
imagine future u.s. military action in afghanistan if any could look like? >> well, that's another phrase that people should watch out for, boots on the ground. that's something that obama said a lot and people may forgive this but when he sent troops back to iraq and syria, at first he said particularly there will be no boots on the ground, we are not putting u.s. groups on the ground in syria and, of course, they did and reporters would say, what do you mean no boots on the ground. we have pictures of literally 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. you know, i do think that biden -- i take him at his word that this is this complete troop can drawl from afghanistan and there's no afghan army or government to advise anymore. so that role is gone. there's no purpose of having them there. we are not going to be working
9:42 pm
hand and glove with the taliban in that same way but does that mean that the cia won't sent operatives in? i doubt it. the cia will try to find way to have presence and proxy forces perhaps and the war is going to continue in a different way. it's just not overmilitary conflict but, you know, it could be more like, you know, 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 but i'm just saying, you're right, there's a lot of wiggle room there for the u.s. to remain involved in afghanistan for counterterrorism operations. >> there were suitcases of money on the ground back in the 80's. so a few questions from -- from the -- the audience.
9:43 pm
one let's see gabriel asks, you know, craig, thank you for reporting. since the pullout from afghanistan there's been some conversation around how u.s. military contractors have benefited from the prolonged war. did you come across this topic in the course of your reporting, if so what did it look like? the roll of contractors in war is also a great way to fudge boots on the ground, so what did you -- 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? >> well, exactly. a way to be skeptical of what's going on but certainly military contractors, you know, 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
9:44 pm
whether it was ammunition or water or food or, you know, we had to send this enormous amount of supplies halfway around the world to this country in afghanistan and i think people sometimes don't realize what a logistical challenge and feat that was but we also spent enormous amounts of money doing that and people, whether they are u.s. defense contractors, foreign defense contractors, afghans, even the taliban, they all benefited from this. i mean, one thing that we would see in the interviews just how much money was -- and during obama's term during the surge the military conducted a review of all of the defense contracts.
9:45 pm
at that point there were more than $10 billion a year being spent in afghanistan and they concluded that as much as 40% of the money was being siffened off and went to military members or everybody was benefiting from this, the good guys and the bad guys. that certainly reduces any incentive to end the fighting, no question. >> that gets perfectly to a question, would things have ended differently had we eradicated corruption in afghanistan? 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 and one state department official barnett reuben said, there's one necessary ingredient for corruption and that's money and we are the ones with all the money and because we are
9:46 pm
flooding afghanistan with more money than it can possibly absorb whether it was defense contracts or nation-building programs or humanitarian aid, inevitable a lot of money ended up in people's pockets that shouldn't have gotten it. on the one hand the united states was lecturing the afghan government, you need to stamp out corruption and we would train judges and courts to deal with this. on the other hand, we are making it happen because we are sending all this money over there. you know, there's one episode in particular, diplomatic cable around 2006 that was sent by u.s. ambassador in afghanistan at the time name ron newman and talked about meeting with the afghan president in which the ambassador berating about all
9:47 pm
corruption and singling brother, strong man in southern afghanistan saying you need to remove him, he's corrupt to the core and in part this is his brother but his comeback, you are the guys giving all the money and he's on the cia payroll and the defense and, of course, what can you say to that, on the one hand we lectured the afghans to clean things up and we were responsible for a lot of those problems. and i think it was too difficult to eradicate corruption because of our role in it and the afghan saw this as a way and didn't know the money was going to go away and they were all trying to get a piece of it because you don't know how the war is going to turn out. i think it'll be very hard but the most devastating part of the
9:48 pm
corruption is that it really made the afghan people lose faith in their own government and saw a bunch of thieves looking out for their own interest and afghan sided with the taliban over their own government. there's no way we were going to win the war if that was going to happen. >> getting back to this motion of progress that we've discussed a little bit. people point to improvement girls in afghanistan as progress, is that valid? >> yeah, the question is what progress is going to be sustainable or not and right now that's a very open question and real concern. and this was -- but this is really the question because this gets to the point of what were we told to accomplish in afghanistan. when we went to war in 2001 it was to go after al-qaeda and wasn't to improve the lives of
9:49 pm
women and girls. that certainly was the nobel goal, that isn't why we went to war. that became part of the mission as it were. the bush administration rightfully said we should stick up -- we should try and improve human rights in afghanistan while we are there but this became mixed up with the original purpose of the war and i think a lot of times the americans, you know, we tend to project our own values in another country and to what degree can you really do that and hope it'll take group, i don't know. in the urban areas of afghanistan like kabul, you know, there is -- the lot of women and girls has come a long way. they're able to go to school. they can take jobs and important positions in the government and i don't want to minimize that
9:50 pm
but in rural areas, i think we are overreaching a bit for imposing our own values on what afghans were ready for and that has to be something that come from men in part and so this is something that we wrestled with but, again, never really sorted out. what were we hoping to accomplish and what was our purpose for being there and while there was progress made in many regards, the whole question now that we lost the war, what's going to happen? >> speaking of what's going to happen, let's get a little bit into what has just happened. president biden has expressed in recent days that, look, it was impossible to get out without some degree of chaos. this was always going to be the case and -- and karina asks if this is true, would there have been any better way the biden administration could have avoided the chaotic exit from
9:51 pm
afghanistan? >> i think they could have planned a lot better, no question. they clearly were caught off guard by how quickly the taliban was able to take over capitals and march right into kabul without any resistance. they clearly were not ready for that. i think intelligence assessments show that the biden administration thought they had at least a few months if not longer, that the afghan government and army could hold out and they weren't prepared for this and they should have had contingencies in place that the u.s. military plans for everything. at the pentagon there's plans on the shelf for invading canada, nobody ever expects to use them but there's plans and i am surprised that we didn't have better plans in place for a sudden evacuation if we needed it and particularly the plans was -- was deficient in trying to process immigrant visas for afghans who had helped the united states, interpreters or
9:52 pm
civil servants or other roles like that. the u.s. knew this getting back to obama administration that there's a huge bag lock of visas that hadn't been processed an couldn't be done quickly. the biden administration had made improvements on that since n the marginses since january but that was something that we should have better foreseen and better prepared for. we had to do evacuations that we were just -- there was no really way to process all of the applications, we were pulling people out willy nilly and very chaotic. so, yes, they could have done better at the same time, you know, there's never any easy way to end the war that you're losing. it's easy to start one but a lot harder to end it and you look at the last 7 years, obama and trump and biden all tried to end the war. obama promised he would by the end of second term and the reason he didn't is he was worried there would be a collapse of the afghan government and so he kept troops
9:53 pm
over there. same thing with trump, he promised to end war and generals advised him, if you pull out now the afghan government will collapse. you need to keep troops there even though he kicked the can down to road to biden to deal with it. biden made decision to end the war. it didn't have to be that chaotic. >> time for a couple more questions. i'm going to focus in on two that have to do with -- with journalism, micro sense and macro sense. i will take the micro sense first. linda asks, do you have researchers that work with you or was this a solo operation. did you work on other assignments over the course on work in afghanistan? >> no, i didn't work on other assignments. this was my full-time job when
9:54 pm
we were publishing the series in the post and then for 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 enormous amount of assistance in the newsroom on the original series in terms of editors, fact-checkers, page designers, we posted all of 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 worked with this. i was the sole reporter on this. in the book, i was the author but had tremendous help in the newsroom in terms of editing and presentation and i did have a fact-checker full-time who worked on fact-checking for the book and this isn't something that usually reporters are responsible for his or her fact-checking for news stories, so this is a washington post
9:55 pm
book and it joined the talents across people of newsroom, no question. >> i should point out as a fellow post staffer that on projects like these it's not uncommon to see, you know, multiple reporters and multiple bylines and one of the things that was so amazing when the papers came out as first project it was that it was by craig. [laughter] >> it was an arduous and story work but you're right, it's a big thing. the other question of journalism it's more of a macro question comes from -- let me scroll down to it. robert, robert asks, did the press fail in its roll role to
9:56 pm
inform the american public about the failures that you're reporting now? >> yes, i think the press can always do a better job. i don't want to seem 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 and afghanistan, about -- about the problems and training the afghan army and police force and certainly lots of stories questioning whether this withdrawal was going to go well and negotiations with the taliban and questioning skeptical coverage through the years. but maybe, you know, we didn't do enough of it or maybe certainly outlets didn't do more of it, there's 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 given as much attention over there and
9:57 pm
afghanistan kind of became the forgotten war for a while. so did we need to cover it more closely, absolutely. we look at what happened and there's 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, staying there. the washington post has had bureau in kabul ever since 2001 and so have other newspapers. the wire services like the associated press and reuters have covered things diligently and a lot of people put themselves at real risk to do so. i don't want to minimize that but could we have done a better job, sure, 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 and afghanistan papers and the book, you know, has genesis and that
9:58 pm
impulse is wonderful that the military officials and diplomatic officials would -- would want to, you know, get that down to 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 learned them. i think maybe we learned that we don't want to get into over our head and take on enormous ambitious security projects to remake countries overseas particularly countries we don't understand very well. i think maybe there's some humility and order here and i think certainly in public opinion nobody is clambering to go invade another country and try and transform the society. so i think there's a recognition that we overreached in afghanistan for a long time. that said, vietnam happened and
9:59 pm
we thought maybe we learned our lessons from there and we didn't. and some day 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 the situation that make come up that may be similar but in some other country and other part of the world and i'm skeptical that we've learned our lessons. the lessoned 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. >> craig, i can't imagine a more timely moment for your work to come out and 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 and i really want to
10:00 pm
thank the center for hosting us, it's 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 of what happened in the last 20 years and how things could go wrong seemingly so quickly and i hope the book has those answers and will give people a much better feel of why things went wrong. >> we want to thank you for joining us this evening and thank you all of you for tuning in and please check our website for many great fall programming and wishing everyone celebratin
10:01 pm
interview program with guest hosts interviewing top nonfictionauthors about their latest work . >>. >> host: i'm so excited about this conversation. >> guest: same here. >> host:


info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on