Before that twisted dame Ida blew through the Gret Stet of Louisiana, I pre-ordered The Afghanistan Papers and planned to review it. It was in limbo for 10-12 days after its release before finally landing on my front porch. It was the first package I received after Ida put the debris back in Debrisville.
Because of this checkered history, I was reluctant to review it. Besides, I was in the middle of a fine biography of former CIA director Bill Colby, Shadow Warrior. Much of that book by Randall Woods is about Vietnam, counterinsurgency, and the delusions they inspired. It paired beautifully with The Afghanistan Papers, which is also about a lost war, counterinsurgency, and the delusions they inspired.
I was also on a roll before Ida turned my life upside down. The delusional and cliched media reaction to the fall of Kabul inspired some damn good writing if I do say so myself. And I do.
Now that I’ve spent 150 some odd words explaining why I’m reviewing The Afghanistan Papers, let’s get on with it.
The Afghanistan Papers began life in 2019 as an extended investigative piece in the Washington Post. Reporter Craig Whitlock did some digging, made multiple FOIA requests, and struck gold. The title is, of course, meant to evoke The Pentagon Papers as is the book’s extended title: The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History Of The War.
Whitlock’s book could also be called Wishful Thinking. That’s what characterized US government and military spin about the war. Starting with Team Bush and Rummy, the US saw what it wanted to see and believed what it wanted to believe in Afghanistan.
The war began as a 9/11 revenge mission that morphed into nation building. George W Bush ran against nation building in 2000. He also ran as a compassionate conservative who ended up favoring torture. Let it never be said that W doesn’t have a sense of humor: he appointed one of his father’s enemies, Donald Rumsfeld, as defense secretary. The results were not funny.
Rumsfeld is the main character in the first half of the book: issuing optimistic pronouncements that would have made Vietnam war planners blush. He showed only sporadic interest in Afghanistan after a second front was opened in the so-called war on terror in Iraq.
The Afghanistan mission was accomplished with the death of Osama bin Laden on May 11, 2011; yet we stayed until 2021. Then Vice President Biden advocated declaring victory and getting the hell out of there, but he lost the internal battle to the brass, Bob Gates, and Hillary Clinton. None of them wanted to leave because they were convinced that the Karzai government would collapse. They were right about that but wrong about staying.
Nation building in Afghanistan was based on false premises and wishful thinking. Afghanistan might as well have been an alien planet to American officials. We tried to impose centralized government on a decentralized tribal society. These misguided efforts and rampant corruption revived the Taliban as an alternative to what Afghans saw as a puppet regime.
Despite the Vietnam example, US leadership was convinced we could impose our will on a society so backward that Vietnam in the Sixties looks advanced in contrast. In addition to imposing our will, we kidded ourselves that things were going well in Afghanistan and covered up anything that disproved our delusional thinking. Those who say history never repeats were proven wrong again.
The most interesting bits in the book come from the accounts of Americans who served in-country, but didn’t buy the lie that things were going well. There’s story after story of how neither Afghans nor Americans understood one another. It was a bad fit that was bound to end badly.
The Afghanistan Papers is an absorbing and well-written account of a war that could never be won. Instead of accepting the bitter truths told by Craig Whitlock, the American MSM continues to be deluded about the war as they rant about our “chaotic exit” from that benighted country. War is chaotic. Lost wars are even more chaotic.
This war was lost when the Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq. The ensuing years were a waste of time, human life, and money. Victory was never possible. Stalemate or defeat were the only options President Biden was presented with in 2021. He chose to do something unusual: he told the truth about our Afghan misadventure. People don’t always want to hear the truth. In this instance, that was true of the media as well.
I give The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History Of The War 4 stars and an Adrastos grade of A.
The last word goes to Dusty Springfield: