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The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War
by Craig Whitlock
(Simon & Schuster, 2021)
I am amazed at the amount of history we have witnessed in our lifetimes. From the end of World War II to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world has changed, America has changed, and we have learned to be flexible… as a nation, and also as individuals. Unfortunately, most of us have been busy with careers, families, hobbies, interests, or even an occasional get-away vacation. And, while we weren't looking, another batch of history happened. I wonder what the history books will write about the last few years.
It may not come as a surprise if I suggest we have all missed a few of those historic events over the past 75 years. Also, age has become a factor, and we may even have inadvertently forgotten a few important happenings or a few of the details. Take the war in Afghanistan, for instance. Most of us recall that the George W. Bush administration and his gang of neocon chickenhawks rushed us into a war in Afghanistan as a knee-jerk reaction to the deaths of 2,977 Americans on 9/11. Within six weeks, the US had overwhelmed the Taliban-led government in Kabul and killed or captured hundreds of Al-Qaeda fighters. Terrorist leaders, including Osama bin Laden, escaped hiding in neighboring countries. However, almost immediately, members of Bush's cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff worried that there was no exit strategy from Afghanistan, but they kept their fears and misgivings private. The American people were encouraged to heap praise upon our heroic military, especially Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
There was no exit strategy, and as the years began to pass, the military kept itself busy with "mission creep." The initial objective was to punish Al-Qaeda for knocking down the twin towers of the Trade Center in Manhattan, and then it evolved into a campaign to eradicate the Taliban and all of the groups it worked with, especially Al-Qaeda. At the urging of the neocons, the mission soon became to convert the Afghan government to an American-style body with democratic elections, a functioning Supreme Court, an anti-corruption authority, a women's ministry, and a vast network of newly-created public schools offering a modernized curriculum. With the help of a cadre of anti-Taliban warlords, our "Northern Alliance'' forces quickly took control of all of Afghanistan's northern cities, and the American leadership became concerned. They felt responsible for steering the country toward democracy, but there was no plan. They brought in cots so GIs wouldn't have to sleep on the ground, and they had showers installed. "The guys just played video games," one Major admitted. "They worked out in the morning and did some training in the afternoon." Another Major said it was "actually very boring." A Green Beret wrote an e-mail to the Pentagon from Kandahar, "formerly known as 'The Home of the Taliban', now known as 'Miserable Rat-Fuck Shithole.'"
The Afghans soon learned that if they wanted to eliminate a personal rival, all they had to do was tell the Americans that their adversary belonged to the Taliban. Eager to elicit local help, the CIA dangled bags of cash and recruited war criminals, drug traffickers, smugglers, ex-communists, and other dregs of Afghan society. Things were about to get noticeably and incessantly worse. When President Biden pulled the plug in 2021, the US had spent trillions. More than 775,000 American troops had deployed there, and more than 2,300 died there. More than 21,000 came home wounded, many maimed or incapacitated. We will never know how many Afghans, from all segments of the society, have died or been grievously wounded. Years ago, the Pentagon decided we don't need to know.
Like the infamous Pentagon Papers that revealed to the American public the sad, duplicitous, truth behind the Vietnam War, investigative reporter Craig Whitlock's The Afghanistan Papers is a revealing history of the lies, self-serving statements, phony reports, and unrepentant hubris by senior government officials and top-level military officers. The deceits pile up like rush-hour cars on an ice-covered highway, crunching and crashing the reader's sensitivities, but the Afghanistan War was no accident. This book reveals all that's wrong with America's headlong militarism and the terrible, inept, out-of-control Congress and cadre that have been steering the ship of state onto the rocks. I strongly recommend that, after reading them both, you place this book next to Tim Bakken's The Cost of Loyalty on your favorite bookshelf. As we witness the accelerating decline of America's role on the world stage, these two books will tell you why, and who has been responsible. Who is responsible today, and strong indications of who will be responsible and where we are headed in the future.
As this is written, Russian tanks are rumbling into Ukraine. Russian President Putin has put his nuclear forces on alert. The planet is trembling. As Vietnam veterans, we know that our military is corrupt and self-serving, and terribly incompetent. It's small comfort but damned important to know that these books are out there. Hopefully, some of our leaders will read them and think about their messages. The future of our country, and possibly our planet, is at stake. I highly recommend you read The Afghanistan Papers, and I hope you will learn from it. If America is to survive, we must defund the Pentagon and hold incompetent leadership accountable. One fact you won't find in The Afghanistan Papers is that not one lying general has been court-martialed, demoted, or sent to prison!
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW and the author of two books about the Vietnam War. See www.johnketwig.com.