When I asked Craig Whitlock, a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and Washington Post reporter, whether he’d have time for an interview last week, he responded with a dose of self-deprecation.
“I don’t think too many people in NC still remember me,” he said, before quickly agreeing to chat.
Whitlock is busy these days. His groundbreaking investigative series on the Afghanistan War—“The Afghanistan Papers”—is back at the center of the national debate thanks to its cutting and insightful critiques of American policy and execution over the course of the 20-year war.
But whether or not North Carolina remembers him, a Duke graduate and seven-year veteran of the News & Observer, Whitlock certainly remembers the state.
“I really learned a lot about records, documents, and not taking no for an answer,” said Whitlock of his journey from the N&O’s Chapel Hill bureau, to its Durham team, before eventually arriving at the state desk, where he got to wander from mountains to the sea looking for stories and projects, like a sprawling and detail-filled profile in 1997 exploring banker Hugh McColl’s rise to power.
His time in North Carolina set him up to jump to The Washington Post, first as a statehouse reporter, and later as the Berlin Bureau chief. He’s now an investigative reporter at the Post.
“The journalistic ambitions were high and the standards were high,” he said about the N&O. “No question that affected my whole career.”
In December 2019, The Washington Post published a groundbreaking investigative series by Whitlock, “The Afghanistan Papers,” that quickly became a foundational text for understanding the war in Afghanistan.
Over the last year, Whitlock has turned the original reporting into a full length book: The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.
Based on interviews with soldiers, diplomats and policymakers by a government watchdog, it chronicles years of recklessness and bad decision-making that the nation is still grappling with today. The book is one-part indictment of mission creep and American hubris, and one-part warning to future leaders.
I met Whitlock when I interviewed at The Washington Post; he was one of the reasons I wanted to work there. His coverage of the Fat Leonard probe, a corruption scandal that ensnared more than 60 admirals, is bonkers. I read an advance copy of The Afghanistan Papers and found the book both riveting and maddening.
I’ve covered Afghanistan since 2004 and the country holds a special place in my heart. I find the people and place intoxicating. The country is beautiful. The people are warm and resilient and full of life. Watching scenes from Kabul this week, a place I longed to return to this year, breaks my heart. Much of my reporting has been about the people on the ground. Whitlock’s work is about the big picture.
To read The Afghanistan Papers is to understand how the inevitability of a Taliban victory, something many felt keenly when they were on the ground, came to be. The book lays clear the contrast between official reports promising progress by NATO and Afghan forces and the morass that was apparent to all who spent time in the country.
For those following Afghanistan, the government run by President Ashraf Ghani was a terminally ill patient. Still, it’s one thing to know an end is coming, it’s another to have it happen so quickly.
“In recent months the signs were all there [that] this force was ready to crumble,” Whitlock said. But the speed still surprised him. “The war didn’t end the way anyone expected.”
He called the Afghan security forces a “paper tiger.” They had a force of over 300,000 soldiers and police on paper, but in reality, that number was padded by ghost soldiers – no shows who were never purged from the rolls. Many of those who did show up for duty had not been paid or supplied in months.
The level of deceit and rot in Afghanistan is astounding. I’d experienced it during my trips from little “c” corruption like soldiers taking an extra uniform to big “C” corruption like fuel-theft rings and officers pocketing the pay of ghost soldiers.
American policy created a system where the only constant in Afghanistan were the Afghans. They got to know the system far better than the soldiers who rotated into the country every few years.
In 2010, a story was circulating about a new Special Forces team leader who’d been duped by Afghan elders in a village. Like all rumors, the details were vague and no one knew the team or the location. An apocryphal tale.
The story, as I heard it, started with a Special Forces team leader finalizing plans for a project. One version had them digging wells, a favorite American good will project. Other times I heard it was a clinic or a school. Everyone agreed the project, whatever it was, would be a boon for the village and a group of elders accepted the contract to build it.
The team made the initial payment and returned to the base. A few weeks later, they returned to check on the progress and were shocked to find not one shovel of dirt had been turned over. They went to one to the village elder’s compound and demanded to know why no work was being done on the project.
The village elder was puzzled. Through an interpreter, he asked them what project they were talking about. When the team leader told him, the elder shrugged. He didn’t know anything.
The team leader found out later that the group of people he’d paid to complete the project weren’t even from the village and had taken the money and left. The Afghans knew the process of project commissioning better than the rotating Americans and it showed.
The corruption got so bad, Congress created the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to ferret out fraud, waste and abuse. As part of their mission, SIGAR carried out a series of unclassified oral interviews with former commanders, policymakers and diplomats hoping to capture best practices and to create a record of the war.
It’s from those interviews that Whitlock’s investigation emanated. During the 2016 election, Whitlock heard Mike Flynn, a retired general tapped to be President Trump’s first and very short-lived national security advisor, was interviewed by SIGAR after serving in Afghanistan.
Whitlock wanted to see the transcript and filed a records request. SIGAR was, at first, happy to comply. But soon, they started to drag their feet, especially after Trump’s victory. The Washington Post eventually sued to get access to the interview archive.
SIGAR provided the interviews in batches, including ones with high-ranking commanders like Fort Bragg’s General Dan McNeill, who led American forces in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003. McNeill gave a devastating critique of the war and absence of strategy.
“It started to dawn on me this is a bigger story,” Whitlock said. “I’m not a trained military historian, but to have a commander admit they didn’t have a strategy at all. That was kind of shocking.”
The Afghanistan Papers detail the shift from a war to eliminate Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, which American forces largely accomplished in the first six months, to a broader effort to stabilize and build a nation, and hold back a resurgent Taliban. The war should have been over in those first few years, when the Taliban were seeking a peace settlement, one that was repeatedly rejected by American officials.
“After Iraq, things went downhill,” Whitlock said, pointing to the start of the Iraq war as the shift in American focus that allowed the Taliban to survive and eventually thrive.
“For 18 years, the war lacked a clear objective,” he continued. “The mission was getting fuzzy. There was never an end state that anyone could articulate.”
One interview that stands out for him was with Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, who served as Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan, in the Bush and Obama administrations. Lute told SIGAR interviewers that NATO didn’t understand Afghanistan and American and allied lives lost fighting for a war with no clear objective.
“For an army general to question if they lost lives in vain that is almost unheard of,” Whitlock said. “You could feel the pain coming out on the page.”
When the documents first published in December 2019, it hardened the public’s understanding of what went wrong.
“Craig, in a very graphic way, showed all the flaws of this war and told the story through the people who were running it,” said Marty Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post when the series was published. “These were their unvarnished accounts and we finally heard that they really thought. We should have been hearing this before.”
The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War comes out on Tuesday, and has been getting rave reviews. It’s been called “searing,” “timely,” and “important.” Kirkus Reviews, in a starred review, called it impressively documented, adding “by this authoritative account, the Afghanistan War has been a colossal failure that should have been ended years ago.”
For Whitlock, the project is as much about government and transparency than it is about Afghanistan. The heart of the story is really about exposing a 20-year government coverup.
“No administration told the truth,” Whitlock said. “It shows the lengths they went to lie, distort the facts.”
Because the facts are simple. There was no strategy for victory because no one could definitely state what winning looked like or even what Americans were fighting for.
After years of mission creep, the war ended last week, with Afghanistan arguably back to where it started before American boots hit the ground nearly twenty years ago.
Top Image: Afghan National Army recruits listen to the explanations of their instructor during a training session at the Kabul Military Training Center in Afghanistan, Sunday, July 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)