cover image The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War

Craig Whitlock. Simon & Schuster, $30 (368p) ISBN 978-1-982159-00-9

U.S. government and military officials took part in an “unspoken conspiracy to mask the truth” about the war in Afghanistan, according to this searing chronicle. Expanding on a series of articles published in the Washington Post, Whitlock explains how he learned, in 2016, about a government program to interview hundreds of participants in the war for a report on policy failures in Afghanistan called “Lessons Learned.” Drawing on these transcripts and other oral history projects, Whitlock paints a devastating portrait of how public messaging about the conflict consistently belied the reality on the ground. He details internal rivalries in the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department, and the fatigue and pessimism of soldiers on the front lines. (“We were just going around killing people,” says one special forces officer.) A costly program to eradicate opium poppy fields in Helmand province backfired spectacularly, turning the region into a “lethal stronghold for the insurgency” and earning harsh criticism from veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke and others. Whitlock also delves into the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration’s skewing of statistics to support its war strategy, evidence of Afghan government corruption, and the Trump administration’s complex peace plan with the Taliban. Rigorously detailed and relentlessly pessimistic, this is a heartbreaking look at how America’s leaders “chose to bury their mistakes and let the war drift.” (Sept.)