53 pages 1 hour read

Craig Whitlock

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War is a 2021 book by journalist Craig Whitlock. It is based on a series of articles Whitlock published in The Washington Post in 2019 as well as other articles that focused on a “Lessons Learned” project by the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the US’s leading oversight authority on Afghanistan reconstruction. Conducting interviews with hundreds of participants from the US, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Afghanistan at all levels of command, along with compiling thousands of documents, SIGAR put together one of the most comprehensive accounts of the war, with high-level officials speaking with remarkable candor given that the result was designed only for internal circulation. With considerable effort, Whitlock was able to gain access to substantial portions of the SIGAR report (although other portions remain redacted) and thereby provide the most comprehensive journalistic account of the war and how it went on for as long as it did. The title of the project, the “Afghanistan Papers,” is intentionally meant to draw a comparison with the “Pentagon Papers,” a huge cache of documents from the Johnson White House relating to the Vietnam War that was ultimately leaked to The Washington Post in 1971 by former Department of State analyst Daniel Ellsberg. The papers painted a damning portrait of an administration that pursued a war knowing full well how badly it was going, and Post’s right to publish it became the subject of a major Supreme Court case (and, later, the 2017 film The Post starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep). Although Afghanistan never generated the public outcry that Vietnam did in its day, Whitlock and his Post colleagues are clearly hoping to raise awareness of history repeating itself and make sure that the “lessons learned” are not restricted to military circles.

This guide refers to the first hardcover edition published by Simon & Schuster (2021).

Content Warning: This guide contains accounts of terrorism and war-related violence, including suicide bombing, torture, and the killing of civilians.


The book proceeds in a roughly chronological fashion, but rather than offering a comprehensive history of the war itself, it focuses on the key mistakes made by the US. The first mistake was the failure to make any provision for ending the war upon its commencement on October 7, 2001, a mistake that became all the more glaring when the war ended much more suddenly than expected. Averse to nation building but fearful of leaving behind a destabilized country that had already been a haven for terrorists, the US waffled, seeking to transform Afghanistan into a stable democracy while strictly limiting the resources allocated to that immense task.

The second mistake was to invade Iraq. While a mistake in its own right, invading Iraq also relegated Afghanistan to the margins as the Taliban regained strength and the newly installed government proved incapable of securing popular loyalty. The worse things became, the more the US military and political officials insisted that it was merely the side effects of progress and that the overall mission was sound. The military insisted that the Taliban was a spent force, even as it doubled its attacks from year to year. The military insisted that opium would no longer fund the insurgency, even as efforts to stop production were utterly ineffective except in turning farmers against the US and its NATO allies. The military also insisted that Afghans would soon take over their own security, even as officers pocketed the salaries of imaginary soldiers and soldiers either sold their weapons or used them to extract from the population. After the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations all promised an end that never came, Joe Biden had the unenviable task of overseeing a withdrawal in August 2021, bringing America’s longest war to an end.