3 Bush Oral History Excerpts That Shed Light on Current Events in Afghanistan

August 17, 2021 By Caroline Newman, news@virginia.edu Caroline Newman, news@virginia.edu

The news and images coming out of Afghanistan over the past week have been tragic, as Afghans – some of whom assisted American troops over the past two decades – have flooded Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, desperate to escape the dangers of Taliban rule as U.S. troops withdraw. Others have gone into hiding, and many more, especially many Afghan women, fear the loss of hard-won rights and freedoms.  

As rapid as the Taliban’s advance has been this month – sweeping the country and the capital city in just nine days – these scenes are at least two decades in the making and many clues to their origins reside at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.

Home to the Presidential Oral Histories Project, the Miller Center has conducted comprehensive oral histories for every president since Jimmy Carter, with interviews for the two most recent administrations, those of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, still ongoing. Each one attempts to recreate life in the White House during that administration, “developing a portrait of the uncertainties, pressures and contingencies as they existed at the time,” as the program’s co-chair, Russell Riley, put it.

“This portraiture is exceedingly valuable for understanding what the job of the president is really like,” Riley said. “In the current circumstances, for example, it helps to understand Joe Biden’s decision [to withdraw troops] if you know how each of his immediate predecessors viewed this problem. You may still disagree with Biden, but it helps to know how frequently his predecessors have wrestled with the same issues – and contemplated actively the exact course he chose.”

To get that understanding, scholars are turning to the George W. Bush oral history interviews, which include numerous firsthand recollections from advisers, politicians, diplomats and military leaders who were making the decisions at the time the U.S. entered Afghanistan in 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Because the Taliban had provided a known safe haven for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, there was no question after the trauma of 9/11 that the United States would strike rapidly and aggressively there to seek retribution,” Riley said. “Our oral history interviews with senior Bush administration officials recapture both the agony of those early days after the attack and the palpable sense of urgency in taking action both to protect the American people and to claim justice for the victims.”

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They also show that “little thought was given to long-term consequences or to exit strategies,” he said.

“‘How does this end?’ would typically accompany any significant recommended armed intervention,” Riley said. “But not in this instance. Our Bush oral histories reveal the all-consuming urgency of those times. We got into this conflict with little attention at the outset to how we might get out of it. That reality has shaped every presidency since.”

Additionally, Riley said, the interviews show that the Bush administration soon shifted its focus to Iraq – what we are seeing in Afghanistan is an “opportunity cost” of that shift, Riley said – and interviews with senior Obama officials “demonstrate the persistent inability of American policymakers to make durable progress over time in Afghanistan.”

“That story of 20 years of persistent frustration is necessary for understanding why Presidents Trump and Biden have acted as they did to bring the American engagement to a conclusion,” Riley said.

“Our oral histories abundantly demonstrate how each administration has grappled with this dilemma, including testimony from political advisers, senior diplomats and key military leaders. The accumulated evidence from these interviews, tracking almost 20 years of history, demonstrates just how unsolvable the problem was – unless the Americans were willing to keep in place an active force forever. Nobody, neither Republicans nor Democrats, seems happy with the current outcome. But everybody, both Republicans and Democrats, has testified over the years at how unhappy they are with permanent stalemate.”

Below are three relevant excerpts from transcripts of the Bush oral history used by Washington Post journalist Craig Whitlock in his new book, “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.”

They include interviews with a former ambassador, an aide to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. You can find more information and interviews – including with three military leaders – on this Miller Center page dedicated to the events in Afghanistan.

Ryan Crocker, U.S. Ambassador: Occupying or Empowering?

Ryan Crocker speaking

Ryan Crocker has served as ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, among other appointments. (U.S. Department of Defense photo)

Crocker, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon during his time in the foreign service, discussed how American officials viewed their mission in Afghanistan and the awkward balance of empowering Afghan leaders while also asserting some control.  

[A] clear imperative was asserting right from the beginning, “We are not an occupying power.” That was the importance of the Bonn Conferences, the UN-brokered formation of the Afghan Interim Authority, a fully sovereign authority at least in name.

Avoiding the appearance and the reality of unilateralism. Not the Americans calling the shots. It all goes through [former Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai. And to ensure we were all sending that signal, hence the importance of the relationship with General [John] McColl [of Britain]. He and I, it’s kind of interesting because it’s what [David] Petraeus and I did later in Iraq. We would normally go see – my breakfasts were separate but McColl and I, a couple of times a week, would go together to see Karzai. Military-civilian, American and international, in support of an Afghan authority. Trying to avoid the narrative of another Western occupation of Afghanistan from taking hold.

We could not be styled as occupiers, yet we had to have enough leverage to prevent really bad things from happening. And we saw that contradiction play out fairly early on. – Ryan Crocker, U.S. Ambassador

And, in an ironic way, the very small force footprint we had at that time actually assisted in that, because you didn’t have American soldiers on every street corner. It was this careful balance. We could not be styled as occupiers, yet we had to have enough leverage to prevent really bad things from happening. And we saw that contradiction play out fairly early on.

My strong sense, based on my experience there, was that there wasn’t a great deal of high-level interest anywhere in Washington as to what happened next in Afghanistan. We had gotten rid of the Taliban. We had answered 9/11. DoD in particular absolutely did not want to see us get involved in nation building, hence the total economy-of-force effort. We had knocked off the bad guys. We had paid back for 9/11. Our work there basically was done.

Douglas J. Feith Undersecretary of Defense for Policy: International Frustration

Douglas J. Feith speaking

Douglas J. Feith was a senior aide to the late former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. (U.S. Department of Defense photo)

Feith was a trusted aide to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; Rumsfeld, who died in June, served under Bush from 2001 to 2006. Feith spoke about working with other countries to help build up capabilities in Afghanistan, and the frustration he felt when those efforts did not go as planned.

In Afghanistan we took what was called the “lead nation approach” to reconstruction. This was an idea promoted by the UN. It was supported by the U.S. government. Major sectors in reconstruction were assigned to different countries. Police training was assigned to the Germans. Security forces were assigned to the United States. Disarmament and reintegration of militias were assigned to Japan. The judiciary was assigned to Italy – go figure. Counternarcotics was assigned to the British. This was called the lead nation approach.

The idea was that these were all supposed to be multilateral efforts, but for each there was a lead country. It didn’t work. What happened was the United States put substantial resources into its area of responsibility and did a reasonably good job. The British put some resources, but not enough, into the counternarcotics efforts.

The Germans accepted the police training, which in Afghanistan required starting at square one, including officers, interior ministry people, forensics people. You needed everything. The Germans came in and said, “We’re going to fulfill our responsibility by building an academy to train police officers. Not the patrol guys, but the officers. We’re going to build the academy. It’s going to take a few years.” What’s supposed to happen in the meantime? The Germans basically redefined their responsibility to being a thin slice of what needed to be done, and then they didn’t do much even to do the thin slice.

This was an example of leaving important tasks to the “international community” and not a lot happened. – Douglas J. Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy

I don’t want to be overly harsh on the allies. These were at least people who were willing to do something. There were allies who didn’t want to do anything. I’m not saying this to mock or knock the allies, but it tells us about the pitfalls of multilateralism. This is a lot harder to do than is understood by people who say that the United States is just stupidly arrogant when we assert that if there is no U.S. leadership, nothing gets done. This was an example of leaving important tasks to the “international community” and not a lot happened.

As for the Italians, who were responsible for the judiciary, after something like two years, they had not even assigned a single person full-time to the job. I personally went over and spoke to their national security advisor and said, “One person, full time, would be an improvement.” It was unbelievable, the negligence on these various projects.

Rumsfeld said something like, “You see how we did it in Afghanistan? We can’t do it that way. If you’re not going to do it on the lead nation concept and the United States is clearly going to be responsible, and you’re not going to separate civilian and security reconstruction, so the same person has to be responsible for the military efforts and the nonmilitary efforts. Statutorily there are only two people in the whole U.S. government who are allowed to give orders to the military, and those are the president and the secretary of defense. By a rather easy logical process, the person who has to be responsible is me.” “Me” being Rumsfeld.

In Afghanistan there was enormous frustration in the first days. We had no war plan on the shelf for Afghanistan. Nobody anticipated that we were going to go to war in a landlocked country in the middle of central Asia. We got hit on 9/11 and we started the war on Oct. 7, less than a month later. The whole war plan got worked out in that period. This is a process that in many cases takes years under normal circumstances. It was done. It was planned and implementation began in three weeks.

Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense: Reality vs. ‘Pipe Dreams’

Robert Gates  headshot

Robert Gates was involved in Afghanistan through two administrations as secretary of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. (U.S. Department of Defense photo)

Gates served as secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011, working for both Bush and Obama. He spoke about his goals for Afghanistan and some of the problems he encountered.

[M]y goals in Afghanistan were very simple and straightforward. It affected my attitudes under both Bush and Obama, which was to crush the Taliban, weaken them to the extent you possibly can, strengthen the Afghan security forces so that they can keep the Taliban out or down on their own, and prevent anybody from ever using the country as a launchpad against us again, period.

Under both Bush and Obama, the political aspirations and articulated goals I thought were a pipe dream; they were talking about the work of generations, at least decades. But if you did stabilize the security and if you did keep bad guys like the Taliban under your thumb, then these other good things could develop over time. It went to the same issues I had with the Obama administration’s attitude toward the Arab revolutions. Democracy and freedom depend on democratic institutions, on the rule of law, on civil society. None of these countries has any of that. Until those institutions are built, there cannot be enduring freedom or a democratic process.

I used to argue that there were three wars in Afghanistan. There was the war in 2001, early 2002, which the United States out-and-out won, boom, done deal. The Taliban are out of power, they’re gone, hold elections, reconstitute a government, and so on.

The second war was between 2003 and the end of 2008, and that’s where the Taliban reconstituted, came back into Kandahar, Helmand, and so on into their old stomping grounds and increasingly denied access to coalition forces, to Afghan government, Afghan forces, and so on, and essentially occupied significant swatches of territory in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Then the third conflict began in the spring of 2009, when Obama approved the additional 17,000 troops and continues until this point. One of the continuing themes through all three periods is the insufficiency of civilian expertise from the American government. But a second is that until really 2008, our efforts with respect to training and building the Afghan security forces were minimal. While our political objectives in Afghanistan were quite ambitious, our objectives with respect to the Afghan security forces were ludicrously modest. Through 2003–04, we were planning and thinking about an Afghan security force of 5,000 people, because we were scaling it to what we thought they could afford.

Whether it was aid or military strategy, we told the Afghans what we were going to do; we didn’t ask them what they needed or ask for their ideas. – Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense

The other problem that we had all through that period was that we kept changing guys who were in charge of training the Afghan forces, and every time a new guy came in, he changed the way that they were being trained. The one thing they all had in common was they were all trying to train a Western army instead of figuring out the strengths of the Afghans as a fighting people and then building on that.

This is an excursion away from your question, but it goes to my view of the whole campaign in Afghanistan, which was our unwillingness to make Afghans our real partners in this; we were going to run the show. Whether it was aid or military strategy, we told the Afghans what we were going to do; we didn’t ask them what they needed or ask for their ideas. It is one of the reasons why so many of the development projects are so detested. They are what the Dutch or the Germans or the Americans thought the Afghans needed or what they wanted to do, as opposed to what the Afghans wanted.

This is part and parcel of a real neglect of the whole Afghan approach, until the very end of the Bush administration and then the Obama administration.