long . lines and ripples

Craig Whitlock and the 'Afghanistan Papers'

The Perilous Situation of Major Mony
John Murphey, "The Perilous Situation of Major Mony, 23 July 1785," Source: Rijksmuseum. Original (Public Domain).

Craig Whitlock's new book, The Afganistan Papers, is based on a trove of formerly unreleased interviews with hundreds of U.S. officials who participated in the War in Afghanistan.1

What makes Whitlock's book so great are its minutia, produced by interview subjects who were thinking on the fly in spontaneous conversation, and who didn't necessarily know that their thoughts would be made public. Many of these details will likely never find a home in more synoptic accounts, but they add a fascinating texture to the broadest accounts so far of the U.S. occupation.

Given recent events, the book couldn't have been better-timed. The early sections cover important questions about the motivation to stay in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

From the first chapter: In the war's first months, the U.S. troop presence was kept so small and provisional that there were almost no facilities of any kind. Whitlock writes that "soldiers who wanted fresh clothes had to fly their dirty laundry by helicopter to a temporary support base in neighboring Uzbekistan," and there were no showers until around Thanksgiving 2001:

Some of the guys had been there for up to thirty days, so they needed a bath,” Maj. Jeremy Smith, the quartermaster who oversaw the laundry unit in Uzbekistan, said in an Army oral-history interview. His superiors didn’t want to send any extra personnel or equipment to Bagram but finally relented.

“Eventually they said, ‘Okay, let’s go ahead and do this,’ ” Smith recalled. “But it was, ‘We’re not sure how long we’re going to be here, we’re not sure about a whole lot of things, so our presence here is going to be as small as possible. How few people can you send?’ The smallest number I could send was two. ‘What’s the smallest shower configuration you can send?’ ‘Well, it’s designed for twelve, but the smallest we can realistically send is a six-head shower unit.’ The mixer and the boiler and the pumps were all designed for a twelve-head shower, so a twelve-head shower only going through six heads had some really good water pressure. Everybody liked that.”

Over time, Bagram would balloon in size to become one of the largest U.S. military bases overseas. When Smith returned to Bagram a decade later for a second tour of duty, he was greeted by a fully functioning city with a shopping mall, a Harley-Davidson dealer and about 30,000 troops, civilians and contractors. “Even before the plane stopped,” Smith said, “I instantly recognized the mountains and after that I noticed it was the same smell. Then getting off, it was like, ‘Holy cow! I don’t recognize hardly anything.’ ”2

It's a great anecdote about the initial U.S. reluctance to create the smallest roots of a permanent base. That first shower stall wasn't a meaningful investment in any material sense, but it said something about the U.S. status as an occupier, more than all the showers that would be built in the years after.

But even the eventual sunk costs of the war effort--the massive facilities and aid that marked the long-term occupation--do not add up to any kind of explanation for why the U.S. stayed so long. This year's pullout showed that the U.S. has no problem leaving an expensive footprint behind.

The little stuff just makes it easier to get through the next day and week, to be slightly more comfortable with not making a decision about whether to leave. The act of building a facility gave the occupiers a task to avoid boredom, so that they did not ask harder questions to their superiors about why they were there, and so that, when nothing else was happening on the ground, they could wait for what's next. If the war planners only allowed amenities like laundry and showers with great reluctance, it says a lot about warding off a symbolically troubling frame of mind for the war effort: construction, maintenance, strategy, planning, etc. Whitlock's The Afghanistan Papers documents how this worry plagued the leadership, long after the people on the ground had started wondering about, and improvising, these very things.

Later on in the same chapter, on broader motivations for the occupation:

The Bush administration was still leery of getting bogged down. But the swift and decisive military victories boosted U.S. officials’ confidence and they tacked on new goals.

Stephen Hadley, the White House’s deputy national security adviser at the time, said the war shifted into “an ideological phase” in which the United States decided to introduce freedom and democracy to Afghanistan as an alternative to terrorism. To make that happen, U.S. troops needed to prolong their stay.

“We originally said that we don’t do nation-building but there is no way to ensure that al-Qaeda won’t come back without it,” Hadley said in a Lessons Learned interview. “ [We] did not want to become occupiers or to overwhelm the Afghans. But once the Taliban was flushed, we did not want to throw that progress away.”

By the time Bush gave his speech to the Virginia Military Institute cadets in April 2002, he had settled on a much more ambitious set of objectives for the war. The United States, he said, was obligated to help Afghanistan build a country free of terrorism, with a stable government, a new national army and an education system for boys and girls alike. “True peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations,” he added.3

When it came to ideological justifications for the war, the doublethink went down a pathway not entirely dissimilar to the intense ambivalence about the practicalities of maintaining an on-the-ground force. The country let itself develop ambitious plans for Afghanistan, but it needed to avoid the most plausible characterization of those plans. For example, U.S. officials, including President Bush, were especially reluctant to call their operation "nation-building:"

After the United States invaded Afghanistan, President George W. Bush told the American people that they would not get stuck with the burden and expense of “nation-building.” But that presidential promise, repeated by his two successors, turned out to be one of the biggest falsehoods uttered about the war.

Nation-building is exactly what the United States tried to do in war-battered Afghanistan—and on a colossal scale. Between 2001 and 2020, Washington spent more on nation-building in Afghanistan than in any country ever, allocating $143 billion for reconstruction, aid programs and Afghan security forces. Adjusted for inflation, that is more than the United States spent in Western Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II.4

Justifications for the occupation were tied back to the success of the invasion, which ended after a few months. The toppling of the Taliban, which scattered Al-Qaeda, was a lot easier to defend (to a domestic audience, to the world) as a response to September 11th. Everything that came after was not. And so the U.S. found itself in a position where nation-building was both everywhere--because the U.S. was indisputably doing it--and nowhere, because the very people who were doing nation-building said that it was indefensible, on grounds both historical and strategic.

Put these two facets about the Afghan war together--the tiniest implementation details and grandest arguments--and one comes away with a situation that was only tolerable so long as it could not be accepted for what it was, a kind of national exercise in procrastination around policies and objectives that helps to explain how twenty years could go by without a plan.

  1. Whitlock, a journalist, first wrote about these interviews in a well-received series of articles for the Washington Post in 2019. ↩︎
  2. Chapter One, "A Muddled Mission" ↩︎
  3. Chapter One, "A Muddled Mission" ↩︎
  4. Chapter Three, "The Nation-Building Project" ↩︎


Craig Whitlock, "The Afghanistan Papers." Simon & Schuster, 2021.