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Craig Whitlock discusses Afghanistan withdrawal on “The Takeout”

Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock, who helped uncover years of official deception about the Afghanistan war as part of the team that published the Afghanistan Papers, suggests the chaos on the ground in Kabul is the fulfillment of the fears of four presidents.  

“There was always this fear that the Afghan state, as we had created it and propped it up, would collapse, that the Afghan army and police forces wouldn’t fight or wouldn’t be effective,” Whitlock told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett on “The Takeout” podcast. “That’s why the war dragged on as long as it did, because Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden were all scared that things would fall apart and they frankly kicked the can down the road. But that’s what we’re seeing now.” 

Whitlock added that the U.S. is now is now in the position of having to seek permission from the Taliban for Americans and other Afghans for safe passage from the country they now control. He said the risks of hostage-taking or the shoot-down of a departing American-led evacuation flight are real. 

“All it takes is [a Taliban soldier] to start firing his AK-47, hit the wrong people, or let’s say they kill an American soldier, an American diplomat. Then who knows what will happen,” Whitlock said. “I mean, we saw how close things came- those images of the U.S. C-17 [cargo plane] trying to take off with these crowd of Afghan guys running down next to it, trying to clamber aboard. I mean, as shocking as that was it could have turned out worse.” 

The Afghanistan Papers is a collection of more than 2,000 of pages of documents and interviews collected by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan as part of a U.S. government effort to understand how its military efforts in the country failed. The Post won the release of the documents after a three-year legal battle with the U.S. government and published them in 2019. 

The Afghanistan Papers, Whitlock said, showed that while government officials from the last three administrations claimed publicly that U.S. military forces “were making progress, that victory was around the corner,” in the fight against the Taliban, in private, they “were very pessimistic about where things were going” including some who saw the war in Afghanistan as “unwinnable.” 

“They would say things publicly — how great things were going. And then in private, there would be diplomatic correspondence,” Whitlock said. “If you have a war that drags on for 20 years, by definition, it’s not going very well, especially if it’s a war that your country started.” 

The U.S. is sending 6,000 combat troops to Afghanistan to help with evacuations, but the troops will remain at the Kabul airport to protect the facility. Defense officials say they will not search the capitol or other parts of the country for stranded Americans or Afghans approved for relocation. 

The Afghanistan Papers also revealed the role of U.S. financial aid in one of Afghanistan’s most persistent problems: government corruption.   

“We flooded the country with so much money, so much aid, trying to build things up in such a short period of time that Afghanistan couldn’t possibly absorb it all,” Whitlock said. “And that’s where the corruption got worse. And we hear about the corrupt Afghan government, which is true. But the United States was the one with the money. We gave them the money. So we were responsible directly for a lot of that corruption.” 

Highlights: 

  • The Afghanistan Papers:  “The Afghanistan papers are a collection of notes and transcripts of hundreds of interviews that were conducted with key policymakers in the war. This would include White House officials, generals, diplomats, aid workers who had served in Afghanistan over 15 to 20 years, mostly during the Bush and Obama administration. The interviews were conducted by an obscure government agency called the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan as part of a program called Lessons Learned to try and figure out what went wrong in Afghanistan.” 

  • Main takeaway from the Afghanistan Papers: “The line they were telling the public throughout the war for three presidential administrations that we are making progress, that victory was around the corner…  nobody really believed that privately, that all these people who were in charge of the war or who played a role were very pessimistic about where things going. They saw the war is unwinnable. So there is this real contrast between what people are saying publicly and what they were saying in these confidential interviews.” 

  • How the U.S. got here in Afghanistan: “U.S. officials were really struggling as far back as the Bush administration to figure out how do we get out of Afghanistan. And that’s persisted for the better part of 20 years. And I think what we’re seeing now is frankly, the final outcome of that. There was always this fear that the Afghan state, as we had created it and prop it up, would collapse, that the Afghan army and police forces wouldn’t fight or wouldn’t be effective. And that’s why the war dragged on as long as it did, because Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden were all scared that things would fall apart and they frankly kicked the can down the road. But that’s what we’re seeing now.” 

  • U.S. government role in funding corruption in Afghanistan: “We flooded the country with so much money, so much aid, trying to build things up in such a short period of time that Afghanistan couldn’t possibly absorb it all. And that’s where the corruption got worse. And we hear about the corrupt Afghan government, which is true. But the United States was the one with the money. We gave them the money. So we were responsible directly for a lot of that corruption.” 

For more of Major’s conversation with Whitlock, download “The Takeout” podcast on Art19, iTunesSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, and Stitcher. New episodes are available every Friday morning. Also, you can watch “The Takeout” on CBSN Friday at 5pm, 9pm, and 12am ET and Saturday at 1pm, 9pm, and 12am ET. For a full archive of “The Takeout” episodes, visit www.takeoutpodcast.com. And you can listen to “The Takeout” on select CBS News Radio affiliates (check your local listings).    

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