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How Government Officials Misled The Public About The Conflict In Afghanistan


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Over the past 18 years, more than three-quarters of a million American troops have deployed to Afghanistan, 2,300 have died and more than 20,000 were wounded in action. Yet the U.S.-backed government remains weak, and Taliban forces have an active presence in large parts of the country. Some reasons for U.S. failures in Afghanistan are starkly illustrated in internal government documents recently published by our guest, Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock.

Through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, the Post secured material generated by an internal review of the Afghanistan war called Lessons Learned. The documents include records of interviews with hundreds of military leaders, diplomats, aid workers and Afghan officials. They tell a story of muddled strategic thinking, staggering waste and corruption and repeated failures to understand both their adversaries on the battlefield and the civilian population they were supposed to serve.

Craig Whitlock has covered the Pentagon, served as the Berlin bureau chief and reported for more than 60 countries. He joined The Washington Post in 1998. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Craig Whitlock, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's just start with a look at the scale of this conflict. It's been 18 years. Tell us a bit just about the casualties, the cost and the current state of this war.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Sure. So 2,300 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. That's only a fraction of the overall casualties in the war, though. The brunt of the casualties have been borne by the Afghan people themselves. There's about 60,000 Afghan security forces who have been killed, over 40,000 Afghan civilians, according to estimates. We know less about the number of Taliban fighters who've been killed. But overall, if you add it all up, the best estimates are that more than 160,000 people have lost their lives since 2001. So - and those totals keep mounting, particularly among the Afghan people.

In terms of costs, again, this is the kind of thing that - the government doesn't break it down very well. But according to some estimates, the inflation-adjusted cost of the U.S. government, just for the Defense Department and State Department, is close to $1 trillion since 2001. That doesn't include many other expenses, such as the cost of providing medical care for wounded troops, intelligence agencies such as the CIA or the debt on the money that we had to borrow to pay for the war. So those costs are escalating all the time.

DAVIES: Now, the remarkable documents that you got ahold of were part of a project to examine the war that was begun, I think, in 2014. Tell us who undertook this and for what purpose.

WHITLOCK: Yes. So it's sort of an obscure government agency called the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. This was an inspector general that was created by Congress about 10 years ago to investigate fraud, waste and abuse with defense contracts in the war zone. But back in 2014, this inspector general decided to take on a new mission, a new project, called Lessons Learned. This wasn't an investigation as sort of a policy review where they were going to interview people who played some kind of role in the war, from generals and ambassadors on down to field workers or soldiers who served in Afghanistan, to sort of get a sense of the mistakes made during the war so that the United States wouldn't repeat any of these if it got stuck in another conflict in the future.

At the time - you have to remember. In 2014, everybody thought the war was coming to an end. President Obama had pledged to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of his term in January 2017. There had been a drawdown of forces already. They had declared an end to U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan. None of those things came to pass. Of course, we still have troops in Afghanistan, about 13,000 today, which is about 5,000 more than when Obama left office. And the air wars have actually intensified. The U.S. drops more bombs in Afghanistan now than it did at any time during the war.

DAVIES: This effort generated some reports. They weren't written in a very journalistic way, I take it.

WHITLOCK: No, that's right. They were written in a way that you would expect in a government report. They're dry. They're kind of turgid. They're accurate. They're well-footnoted, and they certainly highlight a lot of problems with the war, with corruption, spending, the development of a private sector. But these had a pretty narrow audience. But what we found is, to our surprise, this inspector general had actually interviewed several hundred people for these reports. They had omitted virtually everything they had said in their public reports as well as their names.

And so we asked, under the Freedom of Information Act, for copies of the transcripts and notes of these interviews. Long story short, it took us three years and two federal lawsuits to pry them loose from the inspector general. But once we finally did, that was the basis for "The Afghanistan Papers" as we published them.

DAVIES: Right. And there were some very stark, candid assessments by people who had firsthand involvement, going back to the beginning and spanning the course of the war. Why were these folks so forthcoming?

WHITLOCK: Well, that's a good question. We really don't know the motives exactly. I think there were two reasons. One; some of them - many of them were speaking under the assumption that they wouldn't be named in public, that they would have their anonymity preserved by the inspector general. So I think they were forthcoming, thinking their names wouldn't be attached to what they said. Others spoke on the record with the inspector general and were just as blunt as anyone else about the problems with the war. And I think a number of them were looking to get things off their chest about the problems from 2001 to the present.

And so I think several of them spoke very openly about that. One example is General Doug Lute, who was the war czar in the White House for both Obama and Bush. He spoke on the record to the inspector general about just how fundamentally flawed the war was, how the United States really didn't have any idea of what it was doing in Afghanistan. He even suggested that the 2,300 lives lost by U.S. troops may have been in vain. These were pretty striking statements to come from somebody who worked in the White House, but these were also things that the inspector general buried and did not include in their public reports.

DAVIES: Now, besides these documents from this internal review, you got some previously classified memos dictated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, under George W. Bush. Do you want to describe what these were?

WHITLOCK: Sure. These memos are referred to colloquially in the Pentagon as snowflakes, and Rumsfeld is sort of a traditional executive. He didn't use email, but he liked to dictate a lot of memos. Sometimes, he'd dictate, you know, scores or dozens of them a day. Oftentimes, they were just a page, maybe a few sentences each where he was essentially barking out orders on paper. And these snowflakes, as it were - they were obtained by an agency called the National Security Archive, which is a nonprofit based at George Washington University under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

The archive shared them with the Post, and we highlighted the ones that Rumsfeld wrote about Afghanistan. What's remarkable about them is, again, these are in Rumsfeld's own voice. And he's, you know, betraying essentially how worried he was about how the war was going in a number of respects. And when you see what he wrote or see what he dictated, a lot of it really jumps out at you.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, he was known for expressing such confidence in the U.S. military and its capability. Give us an example of something that betrayed some doubt.

WHITLOCK: Well, in 2002, just six months after the war began, one of his snowflakes was to some of his generals and senior aides where he says, we need to plan for what we're doing in Afghanistan. If we don't come up with a plan, we'll never get our troops out. And then he ended the memo, the snowflake, with one word. It was help, exclamation point. This was just six months into the war, when - you know, such a contrast to what he and President Bush we're saying in public, which was - you know, they were just full of confidence with how things were going. And yet, you know, these memos show that 17 years ago, Rumsfeld was aware of a lot of the problems that were to come and how he and his generals really didn't have an answer for them.

DAVIES: Do we know that the Donald Rumsfeld memos were called snowflakes? Who came up with that?

WHITLOCK: So people in the Pentagon came up with the term snowflakes, and Rumsfeld embraced it. He actually refers to them as snowflakes too. The best explanation I've receive for why they're called snowflakes is that Rumsfeld dictated so many of them - and they were printed out - that they would flutter down like snowflakes on his underling's desk. They were they were buried in a blizzard of snowflakes, so that's why they referred to them as such.

DAVIES: When you looked at the interviews overall, was there any general consensus about how well the war was managed and whether the government was telling the truth about it?

WHITLOCK: Well, there was a consensus that the war was not well-managed. In fact, the very fundamental underpinnings of the war - that's what was so striking, to read these statements from people who were involved in running it. They said, you know, we didn't have a strategy. We didn't have a real plan; such fundamental issues as, we didn't know who the enemy was. We went into Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks and to fight al-Qaida, but it quickly turned into something else. You know, within six months of the war, al-Qaida's leaders had either been captured, killed or had fled to other countries, like Osama bin Laden did to Pakistan.

So when you read these interviews, the diplomats and generals, White House officials, acknowledge that the mission changed. It kind of got very murky and muddled. And it went from fighting al-Qaida to, we weren't even sure who the enemy was at that point. Was it the Taliban? Was it foreign fighters in Afghanistan? Was it al-Qaida, who wasn't even there anymore? What were we still doing there? So the consensus pretty early on became, why did we stay? What were we hoping to accomplish? What were we fighting for? And those are still questions, frankly, that can't be answered today.

DAVIES: And what did the interviews reveal about how honest the government was being about how the war was going?

WHITLOCK: Well, by themselves, the interviews - the contrast between what the government was saying in public and what these people are saying in private is - well, frankly, it's touched a real nerve with our readers. People feel infuriated at the difference. In these interviews, the people in charge of the war are constantly disparaging how it was carried out. They say we weren't accomplishing our mission. The planning was a disaster. You know, things were not going well.

And yet, in public, some of these same people were saying, we're making progress. Yes, it's a tough fight, but we're making progress. We're turning the corner. It's worth it to invest more money and more troops into this war. They were essentially making the case to the American people why the war had to continue. And yet, in these same interviews, they say, you know, the war really didn't make any sense, and we lost our way early on.

DAVIES: Craig Whitlock is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. We'll talk more about the internal government review of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock. He led a team at the paper which recently published an extensive set of documents generated by a U.S. government project to draw lessons from the United States' 18-year military involvement in Afghanistan, the longest armed conflict in U.S. history.

So let's go over the strategy - or lack of one - as the war progressed. You know, after al-Qaida was rousted following the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban government was toppled - the government which had given sanctuary to al-Qaida, there was the question of what direction to take. What did the Bush administration decide to do with Afghanistan? Did it lose its focus? How did things shift?

WHITLOCK: Well, it did lose its focus. And there's a number of documents that illustrate this in, you know, almost an eye-popping way. And one of them is a Rumsfeld snowflake, a memo he wrote in 2002 - October, 2002, so this is one year after the war began. Rumsfeld dictates a memo to himself in which he says that he went to the White House to visit President Bush to get his attention because he wanted to set up a meeting between Bush and two generals. One of the generals was Tommy Franks, who was the head of U.S. Central Command, who was going to oversee the war in Iraq that was to come six months later.

Rumsfeld also asked Bush, you know, I'd like to set up a meeting with you and General McNeill. According to the memo, Bush responded, well, who's General McNeill? And Rumsfeld said, well, General Dan McNeill, he's the commander of our forces in Afghanistan. And Bush replied, well, I don't need to meet with him. So, I mean, here's the commander in chief, who's already taken his eye off Afghanistan, doesn't even know who his top commander is there and is just focused on the forthcoming war with Iraq.

Then there's some interviews that McNeill gave as part of the Lessons Learned project, which we obtained separately. McNeill's an unusual figure in that he actually served twice as commander of forces in Afghanistan on two separate occasions. And he acknowledges bluntly that there was no strategy. He says he was sent over to Afghanistan both times without any clear marching orders. In one memorable line, he says that when he went over as the commander of all NATO forces in 2006, he asked, somebody define winning for me. What is winning? What do you want to accomplish in Afghanistan? And he said, nobody could define it for me. They just said, go over and do your best and try and do good things. So, again, here is a commander that Bush had forgotten about who was given no clear marching orders and said quite bluntly, we didn't have a strategy. They just kind of winged it as they went along.

DAVIES: You know, one of the questions that would have confronted policymakers was, what is the posture we take towards the Taliban? Which, you know, had ruled the country for many years and was no longer ruling the country but clearly a presence in a lot of places. Do you negotiate with them? Do you hunt them down and kill them or put them in prison? What was the approach?

WHITLOCK: So this is a real problem that really reflects the core failings of the war. What do you do with the Taliban? And in 2001, the United States pretty quickly was able to topple their hold on power in Kabul and the Afghan government, as it were. And the Taliban leaders were either captured, killed or receded to their villages or across the border in Pakistan.

In the Afghanistan Papers, one thing that becomes clear is that many people saw this in retrospect as a missed opportunity to negotiate an enduring peace with the Taliban. The Taliban was on its heels. It was a defeated force. But these interviews show that there were some Taliban leaders who were willing to talk at that point, who were willing to have a discussion and a negotiation of their role in some kind of future Afghan political system or government. But the United States saw itself as the conquerors at that point. It had vanquished the Taliban. It equated them with terrorist groups like al-Qaida. And it didn't want to negotiate. It wasn't interested. It sent many of their leaders off to Guantanamo.

So in retrospect, this certainly was a potential turning moment in the war in 2002, 2003, when we could have talked to the Taliban and did not. Now, ironically, here we are in 2019, the end of 2019, and President Trump is the first U.S. president to approve direct negotiations with the Taliban, and the State Department has been trying to cut a deal directly with them through the withdrawal of U.S. troops and some kind of agreement to negotiate a separate peace with the Afghan government.

DAVIES: Now, I'm sure the argument against negotiating with the Taliban was, look - this was a repressive religious regime which imposed oppressive restrictions on women and was truly antithetical to all of the democratic values that we uphold, so let's get them out of the way, make a clean start and build a new democratic society in Afghanistan. I guess, was that the dominant thought?

WHITLOCK: That was the dominant thought, and it's certainly understandable. The problem is that the Taliban, while very unpopular and brutal and, no question, their treatment of women was abysmal - you know, this was a really, you know, Stone Age thinking that went into their ideology - but the Taliban represents, tribally, religiously a certain sliver of Afghan culture and society, and to kind of assume that it could be vanquished, I think, in retrospect, wasn't the right decision. It's a force that has to be reckoned with, and we see that more and more today.

The other thing was there was no real foundation for a democratic Afghan society like we'd like to think. You know, our other partners in the war were warlords from northern Afghanistan and other parts of the country who were also oppressive, were also brutal. Those are the people we hitched our wagons to. So Afghanistan is not Switzerland, probably never will be, but we kind of had this idea we could turn it into a modern democratic nation, and that's been very difficult to pull off.

DAVIES: So by 2009, when President Obama takes office, the Taliban were back. I mean, they had become a much more effective force in Afghanistan, as the American forces had been more focused on Iraq. And Obama unveils a new strategy - we're going to get serious. What did he propose?

WHITLOCK: So Obama adopted a counterinsurgency strategy, and by that, he was trying to curtail the insurgency of the Taliban by sending a big surge of U.S. troops - 100,000 U.S. troops, plus 50,000 NATO troops to Afghanistan - to try and militarily beat back the Taliban, while at the same time trying to win the support of the Afghan population by doing various aid projects, building up Afghan infrastructure and, generally, trying to get the Afghan government built up to the point where it would win the allegiance and support of the population so that Afghan villagers and people in cities would turn against the Taliban.

So he was essentially rolling the dice that he could build up an Afghan government that would win the support of the people while militarily fending off the Taliban. This was a very expensive proposition, both in terms of taxpayer money from the United States but also in terms of lives of U.S. troops. This is when the U.S. casualty numbers and rates reached their highest points during the war.

But there were a number of other problems with the strategy in retrospect. You know, the idea that the United States could win hearts and minds of the population was a dubious one because many of the Afghans saw the United States as foreign occupiers, and many of them, frankly, sided with the Taliban. They saw them as religious men, many of whom were Afghan. So it was hard to persuade many people in the countryside that the United States and the Afghan government were a better alternative. Many Afghans saw the Afghan government as corrupt, as brutal, as, frankly, a worse choice than the Taliban. So it was hard to win those hearts and minds, both from our perspective but also for the Afghan government.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Craig Whitlock, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post who secured internal government documents about the war in Afghanistan through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. After a break, they'll talk about wasteful American spending on poorly conceived nation-building projects in Afghanistan and the chaotic efforts to build up Afghan security forces. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock. He recently secured thousands of pages of documents about the 18-year war in Afghanistan, generated by an internal government review of the war titled Lessons Learned. The materials include accounts of candid interviews from military and political leaders who described a shifting, often dysfunctional approach to the war, which alienated many Afghan civilians and failed to defeat the Taliban. Whitlock noted that in 2009, President Obama adopted a counterinsurgency strategy which involved more American troops and heavy spending on projects to win the support of Afghan civilians.

DAVIES: So talk a bit about all of this spending, right? I mean, the idea was that there's - you know, the American taxpayers are prepared to fund bridges, roads, schools, hospitals, things that will - that the population needs. What happened when those billions came flowing into Afghanistan?

WHITLOCK: Well, this is a really tough question to answer over 18 years of war. But I can best put it like this - under the Bush administration, you have to recognize that in 2001, Afghanistan was just in shambles. It was a devastated country. It had been constantly at war since the Soviets invaded in 1979. So this country really needed help. It needed nation building. At first, the Bush administration was really reluctant to spend much money on those things. It wanted the United Nations, international donors, other countries to help rebuild Afghanistan while the United States hunted the Taliban and kept a few troops there. So it was very slow to do much.

Obama kind of took the opposite approach. He tried to overcompensate for Bush's inaction on the nation-building front and, in a short window of time, tried to flood Afghanistan with so much money for rebuilding roads, clinics, schools, hospitals, hydroelectric dams, all sorts of things. But we sent so much money in there in such a short period of time that the country just couldn't absorb it. So many of these projects, if they got built, they weren't built well. They fell apart. The Afghans couldn't maintain them. Or more concerningly, most of that money, or at least a large share of that money ended up in people's pockets, and it fueled a lot of corruption.

DAVIES: You want to give us an example of that?

WHITLOCK: I think the corruption is so endemic and so widespread. One of the most prominent examples was a financial institution called Kabul Bank. This was - became the biggest private financial institution in the country, and in 2010, it almost collapsed. It almost went bankrupt overnight. People were lining up in the streets trying to get their deposits out.

The bank was run by a number of politically connected insiders, including one of the brothers of former president - Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as well as the vice president of Afghanistan, Mohammed Faheem Khan (ph), who was a warlord from the north. It turned out that this bank had loaned these insiders hundreds of millions of dollars, which they didn't - were not required to put up any collateral. It was essentially a big Ponzi scheme fueled indirectly with U.S. money that went into the pockets of a few well-connected individuals. And in the end, the bank was saved by the Afghan government but at enormous costs, both to the Afghans and U.S. taxpayers, and yet very few people were held to account for it.

DAVIES: Yeah, this is a striking case because it essentially involved hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars just going out the window to warlords and others who had connections. And a recording surfaced of a top aide to President Karzai, I guess, being involved in a bribe here connected to this. He was initially arrested because it was felt important to demonstrate to everyone that corruption won't be tolerated. What happened then?

WHITLOCK: Well, very quickly, within 24 hours, the aide - his name is Mohammed Salehi. His boss, Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, ordered him released from jail, and he forbade Afghan prosecutors or investigators from continuing the case. So essentially, they sent a very clear message both to the Afghan government and to the Americans that President Karzai wasn't going to tolerate people in his inner circle being held accountable for corruption, and that really put to an end any efforts by the Afghan government to go after other people, except for some low-lying officials here and there for other projects.

And this was - in the Afghanistan Papers, many people described this as a pivotal moment, a moment when the United States essentially lost its war against corruption, in which the Afghan government knew the U.S. government was held over a barrel and wouldn't pursue this subject very far.

DAVIES: So let's go down to the village level, where things really matter. I mean, you have an area where there are local Taliban forces, typically from the area, and so the local population knows them. And now you have all these new government officials coming in and new security officials who have plenty of money to spend. What's the dynamic there? What's the effect on, you know, the beliefs of the population?

WHITLOCK: So in the countryside, the villagers, by and large, saw the Afghan government as corrupt. And by corrupt, I mean they would always try and extricate bribes. If you needed to go to city hall, so to speak, to get a permit, you wanted to borrow a tractor, you wanted to plow a field, you wanted to take your goods to market, you had to pay off somebody, from the low level to the mid-level to the high level. And of course, this doesn't engender a lot of faith or support in the Afghan government. It doesn't win hearts and minds; it just alienates them.

And another example of this is the Afghan justice system. The U.S. government spent billions of dollars trying to encourage the Afghans to set up a justice system, a way that they could fairly settle disputes. It could pursue criminals. But this justice system itself became so corrupt and, at a minimum, took forever to adjudicate cases, so at the village level, people would prefer to go the Taliban. They would say, well, they might chop off somebody's hand, they might get tough, but they would be fair, and they would handle it quickly, whereas if they had to go to the Afghan government to settle disputes, this could take months or years, and they'd have to pay bribes. So, again, it sort of backfired. People sided with the Taliban instead of the Afghan government.

DAVIES: Of course, a lot of this money for nation building went through the Afghans themselves. I mean, they didn't want, you know, American officials controlling all of it. But that meant that, for example, when jobs were available for a local village leader or a local police commander, Afghan officials would decide who got it. Did people pay for their jobs as this thing got rolling?

WHITLOCK: Well, yes. And so some money did go through the Afghan government, some didn't. This was a perpetual debate and discussion within the U.S. government. You know, how much money do we trust to the Afghans, and how much of this aid should we disburse ourselves? But to do that, the U.S. would have to disperse it through non-governmental agencies or defense contractors or other contractors with the State Department. And neither way worked very well. You know, there were a lot of complaints that the contractors or non-governmental organizations would - you know, their overhead was so high. They would spend enormous amounts of money on people who would fly in and fly out of Afghanistan, spend the weekend in Dubai or come back to Washington. So the expense of doing it the American way was extraordinary, yet if they funneled the money through the Afghan government, there was a real, legitimate fear that a lot of that money would get pocketed, too, by the Afghans. So neither model worked at all.

You know, the Afghan government, as it were, was not set up to handle payments of billions of dollars, much less, you know, over 18 years. So it was a real conundrum. Which way do we go here? What's the best way to do it? And in the end, a lot of the money that was sent to rebuild Afghanistan ended up getting funneled through the U.S. military. So here's a military force that's very good at fighting wars and battles and killing people. But increasingly, a large sector of the military was - ended up being responsible for building the schools, building the clinics, digging the wells. You know, that's not really the military's primary job, but because it had such a big bureaucracy and so much reach in Afghanistan, the military ended up doing a lot of this nation building.

DAVIES: Right. There was a program, the Commander's Emergency Response Program - this is remarkable - where a commander could spend up to a million dollars on an infrastructure project on their own - just on their own discretion.

WHITLOCK: And not just on their own discretion, but the - during the Obama era, the first term of President Obama, they were encouraged, they were ordered to spend as much as they could. The Afghanistan papers made clear that back in Washington, or even at headquarters in Kabul, the higher-ups didn't care what people were spending the money on in the field. They just ordered the commanders, these battalion commanders, company commanders, to spend as much as they possibly could.

And there was very little accountability for how those funds were spent. And in many cases, they were contracted out anyway, and it was unclear if they were ever built. So it was just this rush to spend money without really any concern as to whether it was doing any good.

DAVIES: Right. And, you know, if you think about it, I mean, building a school or a clinic, throwing up the building is one thing. But you have to have staff, right? You have to have a future. You have to have to have a program for making it an ongoing concern. I guess that didn't happen a lot of the time.

WHITLOCK: There was one interesting example that was described in the Afghanistan papers in Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan. And they had the idea of hiring Afghans, paying them cash to work. It was a make-work project to dig ditches and clear them for irrigation. So they ended up paying about 90 bucks a month to the Afghans to dig ditches, which in the local society was pretty good money.

So what happened were all these people signed up to dig ditches, including a large percentage of the schoolteachers in that area of the province. So the school teachers stopped teaching school, even though the United States and Canada had spent all this money on new schools. They went to dig ditches because that paid better. And you can imagine how disruptive that was for school kids. So here we are. We're flooding that area literally with money, but the schools weren't filling up. And we ended up spending it on people to dig ditches. It just didn't make any sense.

DAVIES: Craig Whitlock is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. We'll talk more about the internal government review of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock. He led a team at the paper that recently published an extensive set of documents generated by a government project to draw lessons from the U.S. 18-year military involvement in Afghanistan. It's the longest armed conflict in U.S. history.

There was also an effort to beef up Afghan security forces, particularly in the Obama years, when there was this counter-insurgency strategy. What do the documents show about how effective this was?

WHITLOCK: So you're right. This was the lynchpin of the whole strategy. The idea was if we could build up an Afghan army and national police force that could defend the country on their own, that could repel the Taliban and suppress any internal threats as well as any external threats, then, you know, the United States and its NATO allies wouldn't have to be there anymore. You know, it's very logical.

But the Bush administration was reluctant to spend very much on this. Again, it didn't want to get stuck footing the bill for a big, expensive Afghan army. So it was really kind of stingy in that approach back when the Afghanistan government really needed it the most. By the time Obama took power in 2009, again, he was trying to overcompensate for Bush's shortcomings. So we ended up spending an enormous amount of money to train hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops and police officers in a very short window of time.

This didn't go well either. Many of these conscripts, in fact, most of them, were illiterate. They would get maybe a week of literacy training, a couple weeks of security training, and then they'd be thrown into the field to fight the Taliban. And the results were - well, they were pretty bloody. The casualty rates among the Afghan army and police force over the past decade, they've been so bad that the Afghan government has deemed them classified information. It doesn't want to publish the casualty figures for the army and police because they're worried it would demoralize the population and prevent recruits from joining.

DAVIES: The people who responded to the calls to join the army or the police forces were motivated by the salaries, I assume. What did that do to their sense of loyalty or commitment to the job?

WHITLOCK: Well, desertion is a big problem. So it makes it very difficult to recruit people or keep them in the ranks. In the Afghanistan papers, there are all sorts of stories about recruits who'd go through basic training, they'd collect their government-issued rifle or their weapon and their uniform, and then they'd abandon ship, so to speak. They'd go back to their village with their new clothes, maybe some money and their rifle, and that was that. And so the cycle would start all over again. We'd have - the Afghan government would have to recruit new people. They'd hand out the equipment. The equipment would disappear. There's no question there are many Afghans who are serving their army and police force and do so in a meaningful way and are trying to defend their country, but there's a lot of corruption at the top. So these soldiers and police, a large percentage of their salaries - which are paid, incidentally, by U.S. taxpayers - a portion of those salaries ends up in the pockets of their commanders.

There's another problem - the Afghan security forces - with what they call ghost soldiers. For a long time, the U.S. government was paying for the equivalent of a force of 350,000 Afghan soldiers and police. It turned out that at any given time, there are maybe 250,000 who would actually show up. So there were about 100,000 ghost soldiers and police officers the U.S. government was paying for their salaries. And that money, of course, ended up in senior commanders' pockets for many years.

DAVIES: So through the Obama years, you know, hundreds of billions go into infrastructure projects, nation building, training local forces. Where did this leave us at the end of the Obama term?

WHITLOCK: Well, not in very good shape. I mean, certainly the Afghan security forces were a lot bigger, at least on paper. And again, on paper, they were the ones who were responsible for leading the fight against the Taliban. In reality, we had hoped by the end of Obama's term that we wouldn't need to have U.S. military troops there anymore, that the Afghans could defend their own country, but that just didn't happen. They were incapable of defending their country. That's why President Trump had to send more troops there and escalate our air war there with our fighter jets and drones because the Afghan security forces couldn't defend the country on their own.

And there's still real worry that today, 18 years into the war, that if U.S. government cut a deal with the Taliban, what would happen? Even if we were able to withdraw U.S. troops, could the Afghan government defend itself or would it collapse? Nobody knows that question. It's a real gamble, but that's something that, you know, only time will tell. Can the Afghan government stand on its own? And if not now, when?

DAVIES: So what has Donald Trump's approach been to this war?

WHITLOCK: Well, he hasn't talked about it a whole lot. And it's been kind of contradictory. When Trump ran for office, he said it's time to get out. You know, enough of these forever, unwinnable wars, which we're spending all this money on countries overseas instead of spending that money at home, and that's something that certainly, I think, resonated with a large percentage of the population. But once he got into office, Trump actually sent more troops to Afghanistan. There's now about 13,000 there, as opposed to about 8,000 when Obama stepped down.

And as I mentioned, the air war has escalated. We're dropping more bombs now in Afghanistan than we were at the height of the surge under President Obama. It's just you don't hear or see very much about this war. The U.S. military has stopped talking about it. The commander there, General Scott Miller, rarely gives press conferences or appears in public. The Pentagon is very reluctant to embed reporters with its forces in Afghanistan. So it's a war being fought in the shadows, largely out of the eyesight of the American people. But it's escalated in many ways.

At the same time, Trump has been much more aggressive than his predecessors about trying to negotiate a direct peace with the Taliban. He was close to cutting a deal last fall, and he almost invited senior members of the Taliban to come visit in Camp David in the United States to have a signing ceremony of some kind but cut it short at the last minute. They're renegotiating now. We'll see what happens. But, you know, that's something that I think most military analysts and commanders agree is necessary, that we can't win this war in the military sense by vanquishing the Taliban. There has to be some kind of political settlement.

DAVIES: Well, and the striking thing about the negotiations is that they don't involve the Afghan government at all, right?

WHITLOCK: That's right. And this was always an obstacle when Bush and Obama were in office, that the idea back then was the United States should not negotiate directly with the Taliban, that this would weaken the position or undercut the Afghan government that they were trying to prop up. This is still a debate today. The Afghan government is not happy being left out of these direct negotiations with the United States and the Taliban. They're worried that their interests will be sold short.

At the same time, the Taliban has always been very consistent that it refused to negotiate directly with the Afghan government because it saw them as illegitimate, and it wanted to negotiate directly with the United States, which it saw as the foreign power that was controlling things. So the Taliban hasn't budged on that position, which has made it necessary for the United States to talk directly to them.

DAVIES: Craig Whitlock is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. We'll talk more about the internal government review of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock. He led a team at the paper that recently published an extensive set of documents generated by a government project to draw lessons from the U.S. 18-year military involvement in Afghanistan. It's the longest armed conflict in U.S. history.

The documents that you looked at seemed to show a staggeringly ineffective approach for the last several years of spending money which gets wasted or stolen and developing Afghan security forces which aren't effective and failure at winning over the hearts and minds of the people. Are the Taliban much stronger in the field today than they were 10 years ago?

WHITLOCK: That's a good question, and this is something the U.S. government doesn't like to talk about very much, except by all indications, they are much stronger. Back in 2009, 2010, sometimes U.S. military would estimate that about 25,000 Taliban fighters were under arms at any given point. Today, those estimates are probably double, perhaps even triple. So the Taliban has certainly gathered strength over the last 10 years, even as the United States has drawn down. It's really a stalemate at this point.

As long as U.S. military is there, particularly with its air power, as long as we keep paying for the Afghan security forces and keep recruiting new Afghan soldiers and police, it's a real stalemate in the country. The Taliban has slowly gaining ground in many areas, but the Afghan government manages to keep control of the cities. That equation probably won't change as long as the United States stays involved. But it's also highly unlikely that the United States or the Afghan government are going to be able to control much more territory at the Taliban's expense.

DAVIES: As I read a lot of these documents, it reminded me so much of the mistakes of Vietnam. How apt do you think the comparison is? How much is this like Vietnam?

WHITLOCK: Well, there's all sorts of parallels. There's some differences. So the most common difference that people say is, look - we weren't - on 9/11, we were attacked by a group that was based in Afghanistan. So we had a responsibility to defend ourselves. Vietnam, you know, we were never attacked in the United States by the Viet Cong or by Vietnamese forces. This was a war we were getting involved in for strategic reasons to countercontain communism, the spread of communism, but the threat was much different. So that's certainly a big difference.

But the parallels are pretty overt. I mean, these are both long wars in faraway Asian countries where we didn't understand the society. We didn't have a very effective strategy. And there is a real unwillingness among the military leadership and U.S. presidential leadership to admit that we were stuck in an unwinnable war. You know, Lyndon Baines Johnson didn't want to go down as the president who failed to win a war, and that's why he kept sending more troops to Vietnam. I think there's also a reluctance among military leaders today to admit that they lost in Afghanistan or that this was an unwinnable war. So the result is the war drags on. It's this stalemate, but it drags on. And that's why it's gone on for 18 years.

DAVIES: You know, you mentioned that the special inspector general wrote some of these reports, but it didn't have the really striking criticisms that they got from officials, in part because there's a reluctance to offend all of these agencies within the government. How are the agencies who don't come off very well in this reacting to this information?

WHITLOCK: I think they're being pretty quiet. The Pentagon put out a statement soon after our reporting appeared where it said, well, we always try and be forthright with the American people. It's not true that we mislead the public. But they also sort of say, you know, most of these issues happened long ago, and the interviews were with people who left government awhile back. So they're trying to make a distinction between people in office today and people who were in power under Bush and Obama. But I think there still today has been a real reluctance among people in government to come to grips with this.

The encouraging thing, the response to our reporting and the publication of these papers, is that I think it has sparked a renewed debate in public. You know, our reader response has been enormous. People seem very grateful that we're able to publish these documents and have an honest debate about what went wrong in Afghanistan and also question why are we still there and how much longer should we stay. I - you know, that's a debate that's been missing for a number of years because the American people kept - were being told that the war was going well or, frankly, that the war had come to an end on a number of occasions when, in fact, that wasn't true.

DAVIES: Well, Craig Whitlock, thanks for the reporting and thanks for speaking with us.

WHITLOCK: You bet. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Craig Whitlock is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about the internal government documents about the war in Afghanistan that he secured through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. You can read his reporting and see the original materials on the Post's website.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Adam Sandler, who stars in the new crime thriller "Uncut Gems," and Josh and Benny Safdie, who wrote and directed the film. Sandler plays a jeweler in Manhattan's Diamond District who's deep in debt to a loan shark and is an obsessive gambler on basketball. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.