U.S. officials failed to devise a clear strategy for the war in Afghanistan, confidential documents show
In hundreds of confidential interviews that constitute a secret history of the war, U.S. and allied officials admitted they veered off in directions that had little to do with al-Qaeda or 9/11. By expanding the original mission, they said they adopted fatally flawed warfighting strategies based on misguided assumptions about a country they did not understand.
The result: an unwinnable conflict with no easy way out.
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In unusually candid interviews, officials who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama said both leaders failed in their most important task as commanders in chief — to devise a clear strategy with concise, attainable objectives.
Diplomats and military commanders acknowledged they struggled to answer simple questions: Who is the enemy? Whom can we count on as allies? How will we know when we have won?
Northern Alliance fighters in Chaghatay, Afghanistan, in November 2001. (Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post)
Damulla Mohammad Nazar, 80, describes Taliban atrocities in Dasht-e Qalat, in northeastern Afghanistan, in October 2001. (Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post)
Northern Alliance fighters in Chaghatay, Afghanistan, in November 2001. (Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post) Damulla Mohammad Nazar, 80, describes Taliban atrocities in Dasht-e Qalat, in northeastern Afghanistan, in October 2001. (Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post)
Their strategies differed, but Bush and Obama both committed early blunders that they never recovered from, according to the interviews.
After a succession of quick military victories in 2001 and early 2002, Bush decided to keep a light force of U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely to hunt suspected terrorists. Soon, however, he made plans to invade another nation — Iraq — and Afghanistan quickly became an afterthought.
James Dobbins, a career diplomat who served as a special envoy for Afghanistan under Bush and Obama, told government interviewers it was a hubristic mistake that should have been obvious from the start.
By the time Obama took office in 2009, al-Qaeda had largely vanished from Afghanistan. But the Taliban had made a comeback.
“After ’03-04, once we were fully engaged in both wars, I can’t remember us ever saying, ‘Should we be there? Are we being useful? Are we succeeding?”
— Nicholas Burns, a career U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to NATO under BushListen
Obama tore up Bush’s counterterrorism strategy and approved a polar-opposite plan — a massive counterinsurgency campaign, backed by 150,000 U.S. and NATO troops, as well as tons of aid for a weak Afghan government.
In contrast with Bush, Obama imposed strict deadlines and promised to bring home all U.S. troops by the end of his presidency.
But Obama’s strategy was also destined to fail. U.S., NATO and Afghan officials told government interviewers that it tried to accomplish too much, too quickly, and depended on an Afghan government that was corrupt and dysfunctional.
Worse, they said, Obama tried to set artificial dates for ending the war before it was over. All the Taliban had to do was wait him out.
Over the past 18 years, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 came home wounded, according to Defense Department figures.
Marine Cpl. Burness Britt is transported after being wounded by an IED in Helmand province in 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)
Spec. Robert Lewis Warren, wounded in a Taliban ambush months before, shaves his head in Washington in 2010, days before undergoing surgery to repair his skull. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Marine Cpl. Burness Britt is transported after being wounded by an IED in Helmand province in 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP) Spec. Robert Lewis Warren, wounded in a Taliban ambush months before, shaves his head in Washington in 2010, days before undergoing surgery to repair his skull. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Today, about 13,000 U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan. The U.S. military acknowledges the Taliban is stronger now than at any point since 2001. Yet there has been no comprehensive public reckoning for the strategic failures behind the longest war in American history.
There has been no Afghanistan version of the 9/11 Commission, which held the government to account for the worst terrorist attack on American soil; no Afghanistan version of the Fulbright Hearings, when senators aggressively questioned the war in Vietnam; no Afghanistan version of the Army’s official, 1,300-page, introspective history of the war in Iraq.
In 2014, a small federal agency created by Congress decided to try to fill the void.
The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR, launched an $11 million project — titled “Lessons Learned” — to study the war’s core mistakes. After interviewing more than 600 people, agency researchers published seven reports that recommended policy changes.
(Video by Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)
To avoid controversy, SIGAR sanitized the harshest criticisms from the Lessons Learned interviews and omitted the names of more than 90 percent of the people it spoke with. It also scrapped plans to publish a separate report on deficiencies in the Afghan war strategy.
After a three-year legal battle, The Post obtained notes and transcripts, as well as several audio recordings, from more than 400 of the interviews. In stark language, the documents reveal that people who were directly involved in the war could not shake their doubts about the strategy and mission, even as Bush, Obama and, later, President Trump told the American people it was necessary to keep fighting.
The Afghanistan Papers
See the documents More than 2,000 pages of interviews and memos reveal a secret history of the war.
“The only thing you can do is to bomb them and try to kill them. And that’s what we did, and it worked. They’re gone.”
— Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, MSNBC interview
Rumsfeld’s premature declaration was the first of many times that senior U.S. leaders mistakenly assumed they could end the war on their terms. The Taliban was beaten down but hardly gone.
Lulled into overconfidence by the apparent ease of conquering Afghanistan, the Bush administration refused to sit down with defeated Taliban leaders to negotiate a lasting peace — a decision U.S. officials would later regret.
The Taliban was excluded from international conferences and Afghan gatherings from 2001 to 2003 that drew up a new government, even though some Taliban figures had shown a willingness to join in. Instead, the United States posted bounties for their capture and sent hundreds to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Taliban was not involved in the 9/11 attacks; none of the hijackers or planners were Afghans. But the Bush administration categorized Taliban leaders as terrorists because they had given al-Qaeda sanctuary and refused to hand over Osama bin Laden.
While the Taliban was easy to demonize because of its brutality and religious fanaticism, the movement proved too large and ingrained in Afghan society to eradicate.
Alleged Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees await transfer at the Shiberghan prison, in northwestern Jowzlan province, in 2004. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)
Belatedly, U.S. officials came to realize it was impossible to vanquish the group. Today, Pentagon officials say the only way to end the war is with a political settlement in which the Taliban reconciles with the Afghan government.
Last year, the U.S. government opened direct, high-level peace talks with the Taliban for the first time.
““First, you know, sort of just only invade one country at a time.”
— James Dobbins, a career diplomat who served as a special envoy for Afghanistan under Bush and ObamaListen
Five of the Taliban’s negotiators are former U.S. prisoners of war who each spent a dozen years in captivity in Guantanamo. The lead U.S. envoy is Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and later as ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations.
In a Lessons Learned interview in December 2016, Khalilzad acknowledged that by refusing to talk to the Taliban, the Bush administration may have blown a chance to end the war shortly after it started.
A year after Khalilzad’s Lessons Learned interview, Trump pulled him back into public service by tapping him as the U.S. envoy for negotiations with the Taliban.
Federal officials redacted extensive portions of Khalilzad’s interview before releasing a transcript to The Post in June, saying it contained classified information. In a court filing, the Justice Department said disclosure of the classified material “might negatively impact ongoing diplomatic negotiations.”
The Post has asked a federal judge to review whether Khalilzad’s remarks were properly classified. A decision is pending.
In Lessons Learned interviews, other officials said the Bush administration compounded its early mistake with the Taliban by making another critical error — treating Pakistan as a friend.
An army battalion graduates in Kabul after completing training in 2004. (Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post)
Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, had given the Pentagon permission to use Pakistani airspace and let the CIA track al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistani territory. As a result, the Bush White House was slow to recognize that Pakistan was simultaneously giving covert support to the Taliban, according to the interviews.
By late 2002, Afghanistan had become yesterday’s war in the eyes of the Bush administration. It was already preparing for a much bigger invasion, that of Iraq.
On Oct. 21, after spending several hours at the White House in meetings about Iraq, even Rumsfeld seemed taken aback by how much Afghanistan had receded from Bush’s mind, according to a previously unpublished memo that the defense secretary wrote later that day.
Just before 3 p.m., Rumsfeld got a few minutes alone with the commander in chief. Rumsfeld asked Bush whether he wanted to arrange a meeting with Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command, and Army Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill, who had been serving as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan for the past six months.
The memo was obtained as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute based at George Washington University, which shared it with The Post.
For his part, McNeill told government interviewers that he was given little strategic guidance. He said the Pentagon mainly cared about keeping a lid on the number of U.S. troops.
At the time, McNeill commanded about 8,000 troops — a tiny fraction of the number that would ultimately go to Afghanistan. A few contrarians in the Bush administration pushed to do more.
Rumsfeld, right, with aides Victoria Clarke and Larry DiRita in September 2002. (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
Richard Haass, a senior diplomat who served as the Bush administration’s special coordinator for Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, told government interviewers that he floated a proposal to deploy 20,000 to 25,000 U.S. troops, alongside an equal number of allied forces. But he said his plan was shot down.
By the time British Gen. David Richards took charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2006, the Taliban was giving U.S. and allied troops all they could handle in the eastern and southern parts of the country.
Richards said the alliance failed to adapt.
British marines run toward a Taliban position in Helmand province in 2007. (John Moore/Getty Images)
A U.S. soldier rests at the Restrepo outpost in the Korengal Valley, in Konar province, in 2007. (Tim A. Hetherington/Magnum Photos)
British marines run toward a Taliban position in Helmand province in 2007. (John Moore/Getty Images) A U.S. soldier rests at the Restrepo outpost in the Korengal Valley, in Konar province, in 2007. (Tim A. Hetherington/Magnum Photos)
The next year, NATO forces in Afghanistan got a new commander: McNeill, the general whose name Bush had once forgotten. McNeill was ordered back to Afghanistan to take command a second time as the Taliban launched a wave of suicide attacks and began planting bombs all over the country.
By March 2007, the number of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan had climbed to 50,000. Despite the increase, McNeill said nobody in charge was able to articulate a clear mission and strategy.
“As your commander in chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined.”
— Obama in a speech to Army cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., announcing he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan
Even before the new commander in chief moved into the White House, U.S. military leaders recognized they needed a fresh war plan. Years of hunting suspected terrorists was getting them nowhere. The Taliban kept gaining ground.
U.S. military leaders wanted to double down on a counterinsurgency strategy. The objective was to win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people by protecting them from the Taliban, limiting civilian casualties and building popular support for the new Afghan government.
The new strategy would require far more troops and far more aid for the Afghan government. A similar approach — dubbed “the surge” — had seemed to work in Iraq.
In August 2009, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then-commander of U.S. and NATO forces, wrote a classified 66-page assessment of the war that called for a “properly resourced” counterinsurgency campaign and laid out his proposed strategy in meticulous detail.
In the Lessons Learned interviews, however, U.S. and allied officials said McChrystal and the Obama administration glossed over two basic questions: Whom were they fighting? And why?
British and American troops watch pallets of water bottles dropped by NATO at a base in southern Afghanistan in 2008. (David Guttenfelder/AP)
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, reviews a map of Helmand province during a visit to Forward Operating Base Delhi in 2009. (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos)
British and American troops watch pallets of water bottles dropped by NATO at a base in southern Afghanistan in 2008. (David Guttenfelder/AP) Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, reviews a map of Helmand province during a visit to Forward Operating Base Delhi in 2009. (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos)
Obama had repeatedly declared the goal of the war was to “disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al-Qaeda.” But the first draft of McChrystal’s strategic review did not even mention al-Qaeda, because the group had all but disappeared from Afghanistan, according to an unnamed NATO official involved in the review.
Newly installed town leader Hagi Zahir, top left, meets with elders in Marja, in Helmand province, shortly after a U.S.-Afghan offensive to drive out the Taliban in 2010. (Moises Saman/Magnum Photos)
The official description of the mission was even more convoluted.
The long definition stated that the objective for U.S. and NATO forces was to “reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development, in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.”
After months of debate at the White House, Obama approved the counterinsurgency strategy.
In his December 2009 speech at the U.S. Military Academy, he announced he would deploy 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, on top of the 70,000 that he and Bush had previously authorized. NATO and other U.S. allies would increase their forces to 50,000.
But Obama added a last-minute wrinkle that caught many of his senior advisers by surprise. He imposed a timeline on the mission and said the extra troops would start to come home in 18 months.
Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., listen on Dec. 1, 2009, as Obama details his plans for a U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan. (Christopher Morris/VII/Redux)
“We’re going to have to break them, irreconcilable from reconcilable. If they’re irreconcilable, we will neutralize them.”
— Then-Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, on the Taliban, during a Senate hearing
Like Bush, Obama lacked an effective diplomatic strategy for dealing with the Taliban.
In public, the Obama administration called for “reconciliation” between the Afghan government and insurgent leaders. But the Lessons Learned interviews show his advisers disagreed strenuously over what that meant.
In the Lessons Learned interviews, Obama officials acknowledged that they failed to resolve another strategic challenge that had dogged Bush — what to do about Pakistan.
Washington kept giving Pakistan billions of dollars a year to help fight terrorism. Yet Pakistani military and intelligence leaders never stopped supporting the Afghan Taliban and giving sanctuary to its leaders.
In his December 2016 Lessons Learned interview, Crocker said the only way to force Pakistan to change would be for Trump to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely and give them the green light to hunt the Taliban on Pakistani territory.
At first, hopes were high that Obama’s strategy would turn the tide. But military and civilian officials interviewed for the SIGAR project said it soon became clear that lessons learned from one war zone did not necessarily apply to the other.
Others said the strategy was based on buzzwords and lacked substance. U.S. military leaders adopted an approach they labeled “clear, hold and build,” in which troops would clear insurgents from a district and remain until local government officials and Afghan security forces could stabilize the area with an influx of aid.
U.S. Marines in Helmand province, moments before an IED was triggered, in 2009. (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos)
Because they were operating on a tight timetable, U.S. commanders first tried to clear areas where the Taliban was deeply entrenched, such as Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan. The approach backfired when U.S. officials lavished aid on districts that remained supportive of the Taliban yet neglected peaceful areas that sided with the government in Kabul.
Afghan soldier Masiullah Hamdard, who lost both legs and his left forearm in an explosion in Kandahar province, takes his first steps using his new prosthetics in Kabul in 2013. (Javier Manzano for The Washington Post)
Army Lt. Joshua Pitcher, in his living quarters at Camp Spann in northern Afghanistan, after a mission in 2014. He returned to his unit two years after an injury in Kandahar province that cost him his leg. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
Afghan soldier Masiullah Hamdard, who lost both legs and his left forearm in an explosion in Kandahar province, takes his first steps using his new prosthetics in Kabul in 2013. (Javier Manzano for The Washington Post) Army Lt. Joshua Pitcher, in his living quarters at Camp Spann in northern Afghanistan, after a mission in 2014. He returned to his unit two years after an injury in Kandahar province that cost him his leg. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
Dozens of U.S. and Afghan officials told interviewers that the problems reflected a much deeper flaw. Despite years and years of war, the United States still did not understand what was motivating its enemies to fight.
Were you or one of your family members involved in the Afghanistan war? Tell us about your experiences.
Craig Whitlock is an investigative reporter who specializes in national security issues. He has covered the Pentagon, served as the Berlin bureau chief and reported from more than 60 countries. He joined The Washington Post in 1998.