Chronicle Book Review: The Afghanistan Papers

Chronicle Book Review: The Afghanistan Papers: The Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock (2021, Simon & Schuster, 346 pp., $30 HB)

Well, this is a book that could hardly be more timely. Coming out in the immediate wake of the chaotic debacle that was the final American withdrawal from Afghanistan, The Afghanistan Papers takes advantage of voluminous troves of heretofore unseen accounts of the war to paint an unflattering portrayal of two decades of our seemingly interminable occupation of the country in the name first of fighting Al Qaeda and then of vanquishing the Taliban.

While the book is about the war effort as a whole, for devotees of drug policy, it has two chapters specifically to opium production, its role in the war, and American and allied efforts to suppress it. More on that below.

The author, Craig Whitlock, is an investigative journalist with The Washington Post who spent the last two decades covering the global war on terror and has won prestigious journalistic awards for his efforts. In 2016, he learned of the existence of hundreds of interviews with war participants -- civilian and military alike -- conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) under the rubric Lessons Learned.

For reasons that would become obvious upon their release, SIGAR did not want to release them, but the Post sued under the FOIA Act, eventually prevailing and producing a series of stories based on them in 2019. Here, Whitlock supplements those Lessons Learned interviews with oral history interviews of officials who served at the US embassy in Kabul conducted by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, interviews with more than 600 Afghanistan war veterans conducted by the Army's Operational Leadership Experience project, as well as hundreds of previously classified memos Pentagon head Donald Rumsfeld drafted between 2001 and 2006.

Woven together in Whitlock's narrative, the interviews and documents present a devastating indictment of American hubris, cluelessness, and fecklessness as general after commanding general came and went, all proclaiming "progress" even as the war effort slipped deeper and deeper into the Afghan morass and the body count -- both allied and Afghan civilians -- grew ever higher.

"We didn't have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking," said Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, war czar under Bush and Obama.

"We did not know what we were doing," said Richard Boucher, the Bush administration's top diplomat for South and Central Asia.

"There was no coherent long-term strategy," said British Gen. David Richards, who led US and NATO forces in 2006 and 2007.

Yet officials like these, and many, many more, spent the war years playing up illusory successes, minimizing real defeats, and always proclaiming "progress" was being made. But after about 2005, the only progress really being made was by the Taliban, which had returned from defeat to begin an insurgency that would slowly, year by year, envelop ever more of the country until in August it swept into Kabul and once again took control of the country.

The American project to do nation-building in Afghanistan, always half-baked and half-hearted project failed despite the billions upon billions of dollars poured into the country. Or perhaps because of it. As one interviewee noted, the only thing the US managed to build in Afghanistan was "massive corruption."

Enter the opium economy. Not only were leading members of the American-backed Afghan government stacking up personal fortunes out of the US largesse, they were also deeply implicated in the illicit, but economically dominant, opium economy. Even when the Afghan or Americans developed solid cases of drug trafficking, connections inside the government ensured that traffickers remained protected. The Taliban profited from the trade, but so did everybody else.

And even when the Americans managed to snag one of the traffickers, things tended to go screwy. In 2008, they lured an alleged Afghan trafficker named Haji Juma Khan to Jakarta, where Indonesian authorities extradited him to New York to face trafficking charges brought by a federal grand jury. But when he got to court, his defense attorney mentioned in open court that he was an informant for the CIA and DEA, the judge cut her off and later sealed the legal proceedings. His legal proceedings then vanished into a black hole. He was never convicted of any charges but still spent 10 years in US custody before being released in 2018. That tale ought to raise some Orwellian fears.

Whitlock provides a concise history of our efforts to suppress the opium economy as well as the profound contradiction at the heart of the effort: Any attempt to suppress the opium economy undermined the counterinsurgency project. In other words, you could have your war on terror or you could have your war on drugs, but you couldn't have both.

Not that the US and its allies didn't try. In 2003, the British offered to pay farmers to eradicate their crop in one province, but the farmers just took the money and harvested the crops anyway. In 2006, the Bush administration launched Operation River Dance, siccing tractors and weed whackers on the poppy fields of Helmand province. The tractors broke down, the hand eradicators quit and worked harvesting poppies whey they got better pay, and corrupt local officials ensured that only disfavored farmers got raided. Not only was the operation a flop -- despite the de rigueur press releases announcing "progress" -- it was severely counterproductive to the war effort because it enraged the opium economy-dependent population of the province, already a Taliban hotbed, and turned them decisively against the Americans and their Afghan allies in Kabul.

The Obama administration tried a different tack: Alternative development, along with crackdowns on smuggling and trafficking. That didn't work either; between 2002 and 2017, Afghan acreage devoted to opium production quadrupled, even as the US spent $9 billion to stop it. The Trump administration reverted to Bush-style tactics, although in 2017 instead of going after poor peasants, it unleashed high-tech bombers and fighter aircraft on "heroin laboratories" that turned out to be mostly easily replaceable mud huts. The destruction of those mud huts was yet another sign of "progress" that was soon forgotten.

If the American withdrawal from Afghanistan this fall was a debacle, it has many fathers. Joe Biden just got to clean up the mess left by his predecessors, and as Whitlock makes achingly clear, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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