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Veteran Responds To Washington Post's Afghanistan Papers

SPC Steven Haupt of the 173rd Airborne (L) raises his hand to take his re-enlistment oath from US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a ceremony 22 December 2005 in Khandahar, Afghanistan before Rumsfeld left for Baghdad. (Jim Young/AFP via Getty Images)
SPC Steven Haupt of the 173rd Airborne (L) raises his hand to take his re-enlistment oath from US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a ceremony 22 December 2005 in Khandahar, Afghanistan before Rumsfeld left for Baghdad. (Jim Young/AFP via Getty Images)

The Washington Postpublished documentsthis week that reveal the U.S. government lied to the American people about the war in Afghanistan. 

The blockbuster report is being compared to the Pentagon Papers — the documents that revealed the government did basically the same thing during the war in Vietnam. 

Senior U.S. officials in three administrations made rosy pronouncements about so-called progress in Afghanistan that they knew to be false. They hid unmistakable evidence that the war was becoming unwinnable after the U.S. invaded Iraq. 

The Post obtained nearly 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with generals, diplomats, aid workers and Afghan officials. One three-star general is quoted in the Post article as saying the U.S. military didn’t have the faintest idea of what they were undertaking in Afghanistan. 

Jason Dempsey, a retired Army officer who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, said he, like many of his fellow service members, went to Afghanistan feeling optimistic about the war. But over the course of his first tour, he says that optimism quickly faded away.    

“For me, it was being there in 2009 sharing all that optimism, just as the Obama administration was pouring troops in, thinking that we were all finally getting to the good war,” says Dempsey, who is nowa non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute For Responsible Statecraft and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“But then turning around, in my case, going back in ‘12 and ‘13 and realizing that we were essentially on a treadmill, that very little progress is being made and that every single rotation was repeating the efforts of the rotations prior to all that,” he says. 

The trove of confidential documents was acquired by the Post under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle. Dempsey says their release is important, but it’s “too little too late.”

“And given that we’ve been talking about it for years, the question is, will this finally be enough to get us to question some fundamentals about how we’re approaching Afghanistan now?” he says. 

Interview Highlights 

On the idea that many service members questioned their directions in Afghanistan 

“The interesting thing about the design of this war and where the military shares a large degree of culpability is in the way we rotated people through such that the majority of people who went there were going there for the first time and they went there with all the optimism and drive that you would expect of American service members. Unfortunately, that optimism and drive extrapolated over only … maybe a four, nine or 12-month deployment [which] means that everybody could leave at the end of their individual tour and pat themselves on the back and say, ‘Yep, I made progress,’ without considering whether or not what they did actually added up to anything that was sustainable or contributed to a meaningful long-term goal for the stability of Afghanistan.

On how the invasion of Iraq marked the moment when the war in Afghanistan went off track

“Unfortunately, this is a case where everybody shares a little bit of the blame, and we certainly took our eye off the ball. But there was also, even had we been there and stayed there, I don’t think we could have overcome some of that fundamental American arrogance and ignorance with the way we were approaching foreign countries, because remember, it went so fast that we took down the Taliban. And then, around all the hoopla over the Loya jirga and we were going to draft a new constitution for Afghanistan, I think we fell into that quintessential American trap of believing that because we have unchallenged military might, that that can translate into the ability to turn foreign countries into miniature versions of ourselves.”

On Trump’s statement on Thanksgiving that the Taliban wants to make a deal 

“This was in keeping with this commander in chief who has failed in almost every respect to be a commander in chief there. The statement caught everybody by surprise, including apparently the Taliban, including his negotiators, including the Joint Chiefs. It was something that he made up on the fly. And I guess it’s the perfect encapsulation of the absurdity of this and that reality be damned in Afghanistan. We’re just going to wish that it could turn out the way we want it to.”

On why the war in Afghanistan has been marked by failures 

“We’re stuck, unfortunately, in this weird situation where we’ve got this toxic and somewhat dysfunctional blend of both fear on the one hand and indifference on the other. What keeps us there, a colleague of mine … who was a veteran himself, who also worked in the Obama administration, Andrew Exum, said, ‘The reason we’re still there is because everybody’s afraid of what theoretically might happen if we were to leave.’ Now, nobody can quantify that. Nobody can say why Afghanistan is more of a threat than any other terrorist safe haven on Earth. But we’re not going to pull out because nobody wants an attack to come from there. Yet, we also don’t care enough to really dig in and say, ‘Well, are the actions we’re taking, are they actually making a sustainable difference?’ 

“And this is where every single metric you pointed out is absolutely true and almost all the metrics point to failure. Yet, the way we’ve run this war is that somebody like [John William Nicholson Jr.], former commander in Afghanistan, he can say, ‘Hey look, now we’re taking on the opium trade.’ And he can show you short-term metrics of, you know, blowing up factories or taking opium out of the countryside. But yet, as we all know, our opium policy has changed year by year by year. And so who cares if tactically we made a short or small dent in the opium trade over six months? We have not had a coherent strategy to deal with the opium trade writ large. And so overall, it’s largely been a failure. And that applies to almost every dimension of our effort in Afghanistan.”

On what he would do in Afghanistan 

“So for one, we have to realize that we are not going to create an Afghanistan looks like American. And unfortunately, what we’ve been building is a military that looks like ours. We need to cut that out and let Afghanistan figure out its own direction, its own path. And that’s going to be a little bit messy. And we have to have some faith in the fact that people actually want peace besides us. And so we should let them figure it out versus trying to impose our solution on Afghanistan.”

On if U.S. troops need to stay in Afghanistan to complete those goals

“I don’t think so because whenever troops are there, we’re inevitably drawn into fighting or checking the various groups. And until a peace deal is reached with the Taliban, any U.S. troops that are there will find themselves in a constant tension of fighting the Taliban. And at the end of the day, … they weren’t our original enemy. They don’t need to be our enemy now.”

Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on

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