An attempt to explain what went wrong and how three consecutive US presidents covered facts on the US operations in Afghanistan
Truth, it is often averred, is the first casualty in war, and this phrase has a special resonance in relation to the US-led global war on terror (GWOT) that formally concluded in August 2021. The image of an American Marine general—the last US soldier to exit Afghanistan— wearily walking up the ramp of a transport aircraft symbolised the shambolic withdrawal of the lone superpower from one of the world’s poorest nations, having expended vast amounts of treasure in waging a war that was ill-conceived and swaddled in layers of falsehood and make-believe. The war in Afghanistan that was triggered by the enormity of 9/11 may well go down in history as a macabre Barmecidal ‘feast’, wherein US taxpayer money was ostensibly spent to wage war in a distant land, even while most of it was ploughed back through contractors to an opaque military industrial complex. The tragedy that warrants the macabre tag is that in many cases, US taxpayer money was expended through a web of deceit and lies to indirectly arm the adversary to kill American troops.
The truth and war linkage goes back to the 18th century, and English essayist Samuel Johnson (1709-84) is deemed to have the copyright on this tenet when he observed in 1758: “Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.” The intersection of sectarian interest and collective credulity was nurtured in a fertile American ecosystem for almost 20 years, where the truth was buried in layer after layer of falsehoods even as the calamities of the Afghanistan war mounted.
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The narrative of the US war on terror that began in 2001 was carefully embroidered by successive incumbents in the White House beginning with President George Bush and it was left to President Joe Biden to declare closure in 2021. He pronounced that the original US objective was achieved—to destroy the Al-Qaeda’s stronghold in Afghanistan.
Was this the truth or was there more to the US-led GWOT that is estimated to have exceeded one trillion dollars in war-related expenses and thousands killed on all sides?
It is to the credit of Craig Whitlock, an investigative reporter with the Washington Post, that the unalloyed story of the US war in Afghanistan is recounted with journalistic rigour (based on interviews with more than 1,000 people directly involved in the war) and the diligence of the committed researcher (270 end notes spread over 38 pages). The publisher is to be commended for the timing of ‘the Afghanistan Papers’ which hit the stands even as the US was withdrawing from Kabul in August.
In his foreword, Whitlock clarifies that his book is not a work of military history that dwells on combat operations but “an attempt to explain what went wrong and how three consecutive presidents and their administrations failed to tell the truth.”
In 21 short chapters, the author provides a compelling account of how the war in Afghanistan began and victory was soon declared by the Bush team with US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld as the key cabinet member. Narratives about war—often told from the perspective of the victor—are a critical element of human history and in the first iteration, they are shaped/distorted/fabricated to advance the interest of the dominant power cluster. The Afghan story with its myriad actors and kaleidoscopic perspectives is detailed meticulously by Whitlock and his prose is a mix of seasoned journalism—telling the story in a manner that the reader is hooked—and yet adding that bit of understated editorial comment.
The degree of falsehood and sophistry that was deliberately resorted to is mind-boggling and the casual manner in which resources—fiscal and material were expended in a war that seemingly had no cogent strategy or purpose is staggering. The US focus on the war in Afghanistan was soon blurred by the monumental blunder of lunging into Iraq and there is a bizarre conversation where the US President did not even recognise the name of his top general waging the Afghan war and was not interested in meeting him.
The many sides of Donald Rumsfeld from swagger to devious to sinister have been subtly presented by Whitlock and the role of a ‘fawning’ US media in the image-building exercise has many correspondences with the current Indian experience. The overbearing defense secretary often bullied his generals into meek submission and took visible pleasure in reducing the US top brass to ‘jelly’, as recounted by a British officer witness to such encounters.
Pakistan’s duplicity in the war on terror is touched upon and it is instructive that Rumsfeld reviewed a 40-page SECRET report that detailed the Pakistan ISI perfidy—but it was buried as an ‘interesting report’.
Rumsfeld was once asked by a TV anchor if he was ever tempted to lie about the war in Afghanistan during his frequent press conferences and this exchange is import-laden and encompasses the multi-layered tragedy of the GWOT. The anchor asks: “How often are you forced to shave the truth in that briefing room, because American lives are at stake?” The earnest Rumsfeld replied: “I just don’t. I think our credibility is so much more important than shaving the truth.”
That credibility lies in tatters and Craig Whitlock is to be commended for his tenacity in seeking the truth about the war in Afghanistan from unadulterated facts. Hopefully this material will be used in the appropriate manner by analysts and academics to burnish this first draft of America’s longest war.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War
Simon & Schuster
Pp 346; $30