A Big, Dumb Machine

The problem in Afghanistan wasn't mere incompetence. The problem was a broken system.


It is common to chalk up America's failures in Afghanistan to incompetence, ignorance, or stupidity. Yet The Afghanistan Papers, by The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock, shows an American government that, although it had no idea what it was doing when it came to building a democracy in Afghanistan, did an excellent job manipulating the public, avoiding any consequences for its failures, and protecting its bureaucratic and financial interests. The problem was a broken system, not a generalized incompetence.

In 2016, Whitlock received a tip that the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) had interviewed hundreds of participants in the war, including top American and Afghan officials, military leaders, and outside consultants. When the paper tried to get its hands on the results, SIGAR fought it every step of the way; it took a three-year legal battle to get the documents. The Post then published them on its website—along with some related items, such as memos from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—and those formed the basis of this book.

Ultimate responsibility must start on top. No matter what he told himself, President George W. Bush acted as a man who simply didn't much care what happened to Afghanistan beyond how it influenced his political fortunes. One of Rumsfeld's memos notes that in October 2002, Bush was asked whether he'd like to meet with Gen. Dan McNeil. The president asked who that was, and Rumsfeld answered that he was the man leading the war in Afghanistan. Bush responded that he didn't need to see him. The president was presumably preoccupied with the Iraq war he would launch five months later. (That is, he was preoccupied with selling the war. He didn't really think much about what the U.S. would be doing in that country either.)

The bureaucracy beneath the president comes across as a big dumb machine that was unclear about what it ultimately wanted, and whose different limbs sometimes worked at cross purposes. Many parts of that machine were extremely aware of how hopeless the mission was. As Gen. McNeil said, "There was no campaign plan. It just wasn't there." The British general who headed NATO forces in the country from 2006 to 2007 similarly remarked that "there was no coherent long-term strategy." American military personnel would be sent to Afghanistan on more than one occasion over the two decades of conflict and, in Whitlock's words, "the war made less sense each time they went back."

To fight the Taliban, the U.S. empowered brutal warlords, who would often rape and terrorize the local populations. One of the most prominent of these, Abdul Rashid Dostum, was such a destructive force that one American diplomat offered to make him the executive producer of a movie just to get him out of the country. At the same time, the CIA was paying him $70,000 a month. Whitlock's account includes an endless number of similar stories, in which one part of the American government was doing things that completely negated the actions of others. Anand Gopal's No Good Men Among the Living documented this on the ground, showing how the same individual might be an ally to the CIA and an enemy to the military, and how ultimately this hurt the Afghan people more than anyone else.

As of 2006, Afghanistan had one successful industry: growing up to 90 percent of the world's opium. Under pressure from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and members of Congress, and over the objections of the military, the Bush administration decided to start destroying those crops. This only fueled the insurgency, even as opium production increased. When the U.S. tried paying farmers not to grow opium, more had an incentive to start planting the crop—and many of them still sold the harvest on the open market anyway after taking American money. According to one official, "urging Karzai to mount an effective counternarcotics campaign was like asking an American president to halt all U.S. economic activity west of the Mississippi."

The Bush administration was convinced that opium was funding the insurgents. Yet even if it was, that wasn't a good reason to destroy the most successful industry in a country where the U.S. was trying to bring economic stability and growth. Helmand province, an area that had been quiet through the first few years of the conflict, erupted in insurgency only when NATO brought the drug war to the region. Legalizing the opium trade, which the Taliban had stamped out, seems like it would have been the perfect way to win hearts and minds and build the Afghan economy. But of course such a possibility was never seriously considered in a system more concerned with rules, procedures, and vested interests than actually winning the war.

Even more absurdly, many of those profiting from the drug trade were the warlords that the U.S. was using to fight the Taliban. Fahim Khan, a Tajik commander who was appointed defense minister after the U.S. invasion, became angry when he heard American forces had destroyed a drug lab in northern Afghanistan, only to be relieved to find out that they had actually eliminated his competition. American officials had to balance their desire for ending the opium trade with their need to placate leaders who often were also drug kingpins.

They faced a similar dilemma when they tried to go after corruption. Corruption made the government more dysfunctional, but fighting it often meant going to war with the very men the U.S. needed to keep order and fight the Taliban.

Each part of the American war machine had its own mission, and was going to do what it did regardless of the facts on the ground. The DEA wanted to destroy opium, the human rights bureaucracy pushed women's rights, and the military wanted to keep the war going. Nobody was there to force these disparate parts to work towards a common goal in a way that made sense. Theoretically, the president should have done so, but the American system clearly rewards political competence more than it does the ability to build stable democracies on the other side of the world. Often extremely self-aware, American officials were not as stupid or incompetent as they were self-interested cogs in a system filled with misaligned incentives.

While this system has an almost unlimited capacity to excuse egregious corruption and incompetence, it comes down hard when its own interests are threatened. In May 2009, Gen. David McKiernan was fired as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, a historically rare event for a leadership class that almost never faces real accountability. McKiernan's misstep was being too honest with the media—he had told them the war was stalemated. He was replaced by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who could be relied upon to issue optimistic predictions. The violence in Afghanistan got worse, and McChrystal is now a well-regarded author and corporate consultant.

The transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump shows how flexible the Pentagon could be to keep the war going. When working for the former law professor, the generals used more rhetoric about human rights and became experts at manipulating statistics to show how they supposedly were making people's lives better. Under Trump, they realized that they could maintain his support for the war by talking of victory and killing bad guys. In both cases, the generals successfully resisted a president who was skeptical about their mission. The military seemed relatively indifferent to whether it was spending its time building girls' schools or undertaking a more expansive bombing campaign, as long as it could keep the war going. Joe Biden watched the generals box in Obama, and he came into the White House determined not to be similarly manipulated.

The waste that accompanied the surge in the early Obama presidency is staggering. Of the $2.3 billion that the U.S. spent on the Commander's Emergency Response Program, which allowed commanders to spend on infrastructure projects, an audit found that only $890 million could be accounted for. It is unclear what good even that money did. In the words of one Special Forces advisor, "we were building schools next to empty schools," even when it was clear that the locals didn't want them. Whitlock attributes such waste to carelessness and to the nature of the mission; he does not consider American corruption as a possible explanation of how $1.4 billion disappeared. All the while, as the CIA bought off warlords and parliamentarians, Americans lectured Afghans leaders that their corruption was undermining the government.

Afghanistan is not the only place where American leaders have done a better job protecting their own interests than solving social problems. The U.S. government has morphed into a machine with the power and resources to destroy, but with little accountability and few if any mechanisms to ensure that its actions serve a greater purpose. Let's keep that in mind as the war machine pivots toward treating China as its main justification for large budgets and foreign entanglements.

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, by Craig Whitlock, Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $30