In a cache of previously unpublished interviews and memos, key insiders reveal what went wrong during the longest armed conflict in U.S. history
For 18 years, America has been at war in Afghanistan. As part of a government project to understand what went wrong, a federal agency interviewed more than 400 people who had a direct role in the conflict. In those interviews, generals, ambassadors, diplomats and other insiders offered firsthand accounts of the mistakes that have prolonged the war.
The full, unsparing remarks and the identities of many of those who made them have never been made public — until now. After a three-year legal battle, The Washington Post won release of more than 2,000 pages of “Lessons Learned” interviews conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Those interviews reveal there was no consensus on the war’s objectives, let alone how to end the conflict.
To augment the previously undisclosed interviews, The Post also obtained hundreds of confidential memos by former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld from the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute. Known as “snowflakes,” the memos are brief instructions or comments that the Pentagon leader dictated to his underlings as the war unfolded.
Together, the interviews and the Rumsfeld memos reveal a secret, unvarnished history of the conflict and offer new insights into how three presidential administrations have failed for nearly two decades to deliver on their promises to end the war.
Below are four revelatory themes from the documents.
Year after year, U.S. officials failed to tell the public the truth about the war in Afghanistan.
The Lessons Learned interviews contradict years of public statements by presidents, generals and diplomats. The interviews make clear that officials issued rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hid unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable. Several of those interviewed described explicit efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public and a culture of willful ignorance, where bad news and critiques were unwelcome. Read the story.
U.S. and allied officials admitted the mission had no clear strategy and poorly defined objectives.
At first, the rationale for invading Afghanistan was clear: to destroy al-Qaeda. But once that had been largely accomplished, officials said the mission grew muddled as they began adopting contradictory strategies and unattainable goals. Those running the war said they struggled to answer even basic questions: Who is the enemy? Whom can we count on as allies? And, how will we know when we have won? Read the story.
Many years into the war, the United States still did not understand Afghanistan.
Dozens of U.S. and Afghan officials told interviewers that many of the U.S. policies and initiatives — from training Afghan forces to fighting the thriving opium trade — were destined to fail because they were based on flawed assumptions about a country they didn’t understand.
The United States wasted vast sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan and bred corruption in the process.
Despite promises to the contrary, the United States engaged in a huge nation-building effort in Afghanistan, drenching the destitute country with more money than it could absorb. There was so much excess that opportunities for bribery, fraud and corruption became limitless. One U.S. adviser said that at the air base where he worked many Afghans reeked of jet fuel because they were smuggling out so much of it to sell on the black market. Read the story.
By Craig Whitlock, Leslie Shapiro and Armand Emamdjomeh