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CNN Special Reports
America's Longest War, What Went Wrong in Afghanistan. Aired 9- 10p ET
Aired September 12, 2021 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN Special Report.
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon. I'm speaking to you today on the same spot President George W. Bush informed our nation that the United States Military has begun strikes --
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT: -- Military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime.
BIDEN: We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. We delivered justice to bin Laden a decade ago.
BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT: The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
BIDEN: That was 10 years ago. Think about that.
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: We're going to stay until we have a deal or we have total victory.
BIDEN: I learned the hard way there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The Taliban is continuing its offensive across Afghanistan. Taliban fighters have broken through the front line.
MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: The Afghan army has collapsed and the central government has fallen.
BECKY ANDERSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Panic fills the air in Kabul.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Biden said this is not going to be a Saigon. And guess what?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: There has been an explosion outside the Kabul airport.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: 170 Afghans killed.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thirteen American troops killed.
BIDEN: I stand squarely behind my decision, it's time to end America's longest war.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is it a mistake?
BUSH: I think it is, yes. Because I think the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I must see that it's a moral defeat for the United States.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): I think the president is right. Enough is enough.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What was all of this for? That has to be the question veterans are asking.
(END OF VIDEO CLIP)
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR, THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER: Two decades, more than $2 trillion, more than 6,000 American lives, more than 100,000 Afghan lives later, the bipartisan debacle that was the war in Afghanistan ended much like it began.
GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (RET), COMMANDER, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ASSISTANCE FORCE 2009-2010: We've made a lot of mistakes.
TAPPER (voice-over): Now the real story of what went wrong.
GEN. DAN MCNEILL (RET), COMMANDER, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ASSISTANCE FORCE 2007-2008: Before I go to my grave, I'll get that question answered.
TAPPER: The mission.
(On-camera): Do you think the surge worked?
(Voice-over): The mistakes.
LT. GEN. DAVID BARNO (RET), COMMANDER, COMBINED FORCED COMMAND- AFGHANISTAN 2003-2005: I personally resented the war in Iraq.
TAPPER: The truth.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Corruption was one of the main reasons.
TAPPER: And the lies.
CRAIG WHITLOCK, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: They just couldn't bring themselves to tell the truth.
LT. COL. JASON DEMPSEY (RET), U.S. ARMY: I always loved the physical fitness of being in the military. It was only probably after being in the military for a while that I realized that I turned to physical fitness and things like biking that that was de facto mental health for me. To get on a bike and just turn yourself inside out and not think about anything else is a key component of staying sane and healthy.
My name is Jason Dempsey. I was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. I was in Afghanistan for all 2009, again in 2012 and '13, and then for a brief assessment visit in 2014. What makes the problem of assessing our failure in Afghanistan difficult is everyone can think they're doing their best. We all left with great writeups and we got a pat on the back. We convinced ourselves that we were doing well but never held anybody accountable for, wait a minute, if everybody gets an A but the overall effort is still an F, who do we hold accountable?
It means it's super easy for political leaders to say, well, the military has this. The Congress has shown decade after decade that they have no desire to own any kind of oversight of the way we're fighting. But there comes a point when the line between self-delusion and a lie is irrelevant if you're still pursuing something that doesn't make sense, and you're inappropriately using the blood and treasure of the American people.
We have to have these discussions, right? The lives of the American soldiers, even if it's just a dozen, it's got a goddam rounding error. Those are lives. So anyone who truly respects the military should absolutely be calling for a congressional hearing. It means that you are absolutely questioning the generals so that we don't replicate what we did in this war for the next one.
TAPPER: During the final weeks of America's withdrawal back in Washington, I met with almost all of the war's chief architects. The commanders of the war in Afghanistan for some tough questions and painful reflections on what went wrong, on what they could have done differently, and the lessons we must all learn from this 20-year war.
(On-camera): What does it feel like to you when you hear about the withdrawal of U.S. service members and see what's going on?
MCNEILL: I have a number of feelings and have coursed through those feelings over the last few weeks.
TAPPER (voice-over): Retired four-star general Dan McNeill is a veteran of five foreign conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan where he led both U.S. and collision forces first in 2002.
MCNEILL: First, I am doing soul searching to determine, is it fair to say I did my share of the task, that I come up short in some way? Secondly, what is the duty owed to those who came home not carrying their shields but on their shields, and that's my problem I predict I'll likely have a difficult time the next time I go to Section M in Arlington. And then there is a part of me that says we came up a little short.
BARNO: Us leaving overnight and leaving the Afghans, you know, the keys on the desk, I didn't think any of us quite saw would unfold this way.
TAPPER: Lieutenant General David Barno spent 19 months as a senior American commander in Afghanistan where he established the first U.S. operational headquarters in Kabul.
BARNO: One of the things we do badly is what the military calls war termination. You know, we're very good at, you know, lining the airplanes and the chips and seizing the capital. Then what? I think that's where in a lot of ways Afghanistan has presented us with a really intractable problem.
TAPPER (on-camera): Did you agree with President Biden's decision to withdraw U.S. forces?
LT. GEN. KARL EIKENBERRY (RET), COMMANDER, COMBINED FORCED COMMAND- AFGHANISTAN 2005-2007: Yes, I did, Jake.
TAPPER (voice-over): Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry was at the Pentagon feet away from impact on 9/11. He went on to serve two tours as general in Afghanistan and again no longer in uniform as the U.S. ambassador.
(On-camera): You were involved in training Afghan police, training Afghan troops. Were you surprised at how quickly the Afghan Security Forces folded?
EIKENBERRY: I was. There will be people that are former military, active military people from the intelligence community, pundits who have never been to Afghanistan that will say they saw it all coming, and know very few saw this coming so fast.
GEN. DAVID MCKIERNAN (RET), COMMANDER, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ASSISTANCE FORCE 2008-2009: It's almost like watching a speeding train go by and wondering if it's going to stop or not.
TAPPER (voice-over): General David McKiernan commanded troops from 2008 to 2009 under Presidents Bush and Obama. At that point, the deadliest period for American forces on record.
MCKIERNAN: Jake, I'm emotionally invested in what happens in Afghanistan for a couple of reasons. First, I empathize with the people that live in that country. They have been at war in some form for the last 45 years. There are good people. I want them to have a better future. I'm also invested in the thousands of Americans that have served over there and have done I think an extraordinary job. So I'm very, very worried about what I see.
MCCHRYSTAL: I think we didn't really know what winning was going to be from the start.
TAPPER: Eight years into the war, General Stanley McChrystal took the reins in Afghanistan. His success hunting terrorists in Iraq and transforming JSAP, the military's top-secret special ops force, led newly-elected President Obama to believe that McChrystal would be the general to deliver his campaign promise of righting the ship in Afghanistan. UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: U.S. President Joe Biden will announce a
withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
COOPER: President Biden says that the last U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by September 11th, on the 20th anniversary of the attack in World Trade Center that triggered --
TAPPER (on-camera): How did you first hear of President Biden's plans to withdraw all U.S. service members?
MCCHRYSTAL: I saw it in the news.
TAPPER: You saw it in the news. What was your response?
MCCHRYSTAL: I was not surprised. President Biden was in a very difficult position. Every leader is faced with three options. You either do more, you do less or you do about the same. You muddle along. It was always safest, a little like Vietnam, to do the middle. President Biden's decision to pull everyone out, I didn't agree with it, but there was a courage to it because he knows that he is going to be held responsible by some people, particularly his political opponents.
REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): This is going to be a stain on this president, and I think he's going to have blood on his hands for what they did.
WARD: This is a sight I honestly thought I would never see. Scores of Taliban fighters and just behind us, the U.S. embassy compound.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS (RET), COMMANDER, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ASSISTANCE FORCE 2010-2011: I believe we are going to regret this decision to withdrawal.
TAPPER (voice-over): General David Petraeus, the general behind the surge in Iraq, commanded the war in Afghanistan during the height of its troop surge, peaking at roughly 100,000 American forces in 2011.
PETRAEUS: I remember the day that I heard of the decision to withdraw our forces and in some ways, sort of was in a little bit of disbelief, first of all, I didn't really think that it was not sustainable to have 3500 American troops given that we've not had a battle field casualty in a year and the cost is quite sustainable.
But then of course, it is about the loss, the sacrifice, all that we have done together with coalition partners and together with our Afghan partners, shoulder to shoulder, (speaking foreign language), as it's said.
TAPPER (on-camera): You think we're going to have to go back?
GEN. JOHN ALLEN (RET), COMMANDER, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ASSISTANCE FORCE 2011-2013: I don't know if we'll have to go back or not, but there are plenty of people around Washington who experienced both the withdrawal from Iraq and the requirement to go back so there is plenty of experience in this town when the time comes if we have to.
TAPPER (voice-over): In 2011, General John Allen, the first Marine to command a theater of war, was tasked with drawing down U.S. troop levels while transitioning Afghans into the lead for all combat operations.
(On-camera): We've heard stories about the Taliban telling villagers to marry off their daughters even very young girls.
ALLEN: Yes. We shouldn't be surprised at that. That's not in their DNA to change. And so the way that they inflected what the Afghan women called the darkness upon them back before we were attacked in 2001, we should not expect it will be any different.
TAPPER: We've heard discussed by the Biden administration that there was basically a choice. It was either withdrawal or increase troop levels in Afghanistan.
GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD (RET), COMMANDER, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ASSISTANCE FORCE 2013-2014: I think there was another alternative.
TAPPER (voice-over): General Joseph Dunford, nicknamed Fighting Joe for his leadership in Iraq, took command in Afghanistan in 2013 and went on to serve as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Obama and Trump.
DUNFORD: With a capable counterterrorism force around 4,000 U.S. forces, obviously accompanied by NATO allies as well, that we could for a period of time continue to address our counterterrorism interest.
TAPPER (on-camera): The argument against that is that that's just managing a stalemate in perpetuity. What would you say to that criticism?
DUNFORD: Well, it depends on how you view our presence in Afghanistan. I didn't see a point where we would have sustainable Afghan forces, a thriving democracy and a thriving economy in Afghanistan. I viewed our presence in Afghanistan as a term insurance policy. When you stop paying the premium, you stop mitigating the risk of bad things happening.
TAPPER (voice-over): Beyond the general's worries for the future, came some sobering admissions as to how 20 years of war in the most powerful military in the world could have failed to prevent the Taliban from recapturing Kabul with hardly a shot fired.
MCCHRYSTAL: I have a real sense of tragedy for the Afghan people. I think a Taliban regime would be hard on so many Afghans. So that hurts. The other emotion on our effort is that in my entire experience, I never saw people there trying to screw it up. I saw good people with good intentions working hard but I don't think we did very well.
We made a lot of mistakes that we've made in prior efforts like Vietnam and others and I find that sad, as well. We could have done better.
TAPPER (on-camera): What mistakes did we make that we had previously made?
MCCHRYSTAL: You could start with the idea that we didn't understand the problem. The complexities of the environment I think weren't appreciated.
We went for what we felt would work quickly over what would have likely worked over the longer term.
TAPPER (voice-over): Complexities that cause one top national security official to say privately, quote, "We didn't foggiest notion of what we were undertaking."
(On-camera): Did you ever think that almost 20 years later we would still be there?
MCCHRYSTAL: No. I don't think any of us did. Now that's another place where I think we could have done better. I don't think we sat around a table ever and talked about where is this going to be in 20 years? In fact, early in the time that I was there, we were instructed not to build anything that looked permanent. Keep everything plywood and some cases canvass and all, so that we wouldn't give anyone the impression that we were coming there to stay.
TAPPER (voice-over): But stay we did. For longer than any country before us. And for potentially worse results. And as U.S. troops left, the people that they fought coming in, the Taliban, resumed control of the country. The question we sought to answer is why.
BLITZER: These are shots being fired in Baghdad.
TAPPER: Up next.
MCNEILL: Tell me exactly what you need. You're not going to get it because I got to take care of this the right way.
TAPPER: How the good war became America's forever war.
BRETT SHEATS, FORMER CAPTAIN, U.S. ARMY: Sit. Shake. Good girl.
The best way I can describe my feelings when I heard that we were leaving, I felt this sense of relief but a thin icing of relief on a huge cake of disappointment.
I'm Brett Sheats, I'm originally from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and I served in Afghanistan 2003 to 2004. When we went over to Afghanistan, which was end of the summer in 2003, we were already in Iraq and there was a weird sense of whoa, I thought I was going into the main effort and now it's pretty obvious I'm not.
I think after a couple of months, I realized we don't seem to have a target list. Nation building was the vast majority of what we did in Afghanistan. I realized that unless something major changed, that this was not going to work out.
The amount of troops, the amount of equipment, the amount of money that you would need to be able to stabilize an entire country like Afghanistan is so gargantuan that some people would say there is no way we could do it, period, but I could definitely tell you there's no way that we could do it while fighting a war in Iraq. I knew we were in deep trouble.
CROWD: USA. USA. USA.
TAPPER (voice-over): Atop the rubble in New York City, days after America was attacked, President George W. Bush vowed the United States would avenge the nearly 3,000 killed on 9/11.
BUSH: I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people --
BUSH: And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.
TAPPER: With Ground Zero still smoldering --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Make them pay, sir. Yes, sir.
TAPPER: The commander in chief ordered the United States Military to launch the opening salvo of America's war in Afghanistan.
BUSH: Your objectives are clear. Your goal is just. You have my full confidence and you will have every tool you need to carry out your duty.
BARNO: The Taliban were routed in a matter of really weeks, and so I thought that was an exceptionally well-run campaign. The U.S. was able to play to the advantages and special forces and air power and precision strikes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was units up in the hills, place looking for terrorists.
TAPPER (on-camera): What did you think your mission was?
MCNEILL: Mr. Rumsfeld made it very clear, you are to pursue with the intent to kill or capture terrorists, and then you're to build an Afghan national army.
TAPPER: Do you ever look back and wonder after defeating the Taliban whether it might have made more sense just to declare victory and leave?
MCKIERNAN: No. You can't just go in and leave. Otherwise all you're doing is setting the stage for either going back to as bad as it was before or even worse.
TAPPER: Afghanistan was the war that there was worldwide support for. There was goodwill for it in a way. NATO invoked the article so that all members were behind to help the United States for the first and only time in history.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The council agreed that an armed attack against one or more of the allies in Europe or in North America shall be considered an attack against them all.
TAPPER: What could have been done differently with the benefit of 20 years of experience?
MCCHRYSTAL: Sure. I've thought about it a lot. Right after the 9/11 attacks, I would have made a decision inside the U.S. government to do nothing substantive for a year. What I mean by nothing, no bombing, no strikes, et cetera. I would have gone around the world as the aggrieved party and build up a firm collision for what ought we do about al Qaeda. I would have done a mass effort to train Americans in Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Dari, to get ourselves ready to do something that we knew would be very, very difficult.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Somebody answer him, I'm on camping.
TAPPER: I can't think of any president that would just, OK, let's take a year and wouldn't be impeached. I mean, the blood loss was so strong.
MCCHRYSTAL: I freely admit it. I know it would have been almost impossible case to make but I still think that's what we should have done.
MCKIERNAN: Could it have been done differently and more effectively? Sure. However, I think at that time that was the only decision President Bush could have made. The American people I think expected retaliation. Quickly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go. Let's go.
BARNO: I was at a dinner in Washington here with several senators in about 2007 and senior intelligence analyst was at that dinner and the intelligence analyst said to the senators, senators, you know we've won this war twice already. We won it the first time at the end of the campaign in the fall of 2001. We won it a second time in 2004, happened to be during my era when the Afghans elected their first president.
ASHRAF GHANI, FORMER AFGHAN PRESIDENT: This will be a government based on the constitution of Afghanistan and in respect of the constitution of Afghanistan. TAPPER (voice-over): Outside of the military offensive, there were
some early successes in Afghanistan trying to rebuild a country devastated by decades of war including the first direct democratic election in the country's history.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am very, very happy because now I'm sure we will have a good government and a future and now I can make my future, I can make my life by myself.
TAPPER (on-camera): All those people holding up their finger showing the dye, showing that they had voted, how did that feel?
BARNO: I mean, nobody really knew it was going to happen on that day. I mean, the Taliban had been threatening to blow up polling stations and kill people in voting lines. It was a relatively peaceful day around the country. Eight and a half million people came out and voted. And so it felt good that we were able to, you know, put our weight behind something that was going to be so impactful.
TAPPER: But getting President Bush and Congress to provide the investments needed to build on these early successes in Afghanistan, well, that would prove nearly impossible as attention for the war in Afghanistan had already shifted to a new war, an elective war in Iraq, and this according to many throughout the military redirected critical focus and personnel and equipment away from Afghanistan. Resources that could have saved lives and potentially changed the outcome of the war itself.
MCNEILL: I accepted the fact that I was an economy of force and I just look for ways to use what I had to get to where I thought they wanted us to go.
TAPPER (voice-over): The White House was so focused on Iraq that according to a memo from Secretary Rumsfeld obtained by the National Security Archive, President Bush did not even know who his own commander was. Rumsfeld wrote, quote, "He said, who is General McNeill? I said he is the general in charge of Afghanistan. He said, well, I don't need to meet with him."
Who is General McNeill? He's this man. The man who was fighting to stabilize Afghanistan while his bosses were fixated on overthrowing a different regime in Iraq.
MCNEILL: The essence of your question is, did Iraq consume resources that could have been applied in Afghanistan. The answer to that is just too obvious.
TAPPER (on-camera): You're saying that you didn't have everything you needed.
MCNEILL: That's correct.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't forget us if Iraq happens.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The opening stages of the disarmament of the Iraqi regime have begun.
TAPPER (voice-over): The chain reaction repercussions for not having what was needed in Afghanistan proved at times deadly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Doesn't that look like fun? Go Army.
TAPPER: Since many of the military's helicopters had been sent to the frontlines in Iraq a number of combat outposts in eastern Afghanistan were placed in vulnerable positions at the bottom of mountains for easier resupply by road.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're sitting in a bowl, so we're constantly under observation.
TAPPER: Positions made even more vulnerable by their low troop numbers over matched by the growing number of insurgents.
(On-camera): Do you think that, in retrospect, it was a mistake to go to war in two different places at the same time?
MCKIERNAN: Certainly the war in Iraq took away focus from Afghanistan.
MCNEILL: It was still occurring by the time I went back as an ISAF commander.
TAPPER (voice-over): General McNeill returned to Afghanistan in 2007 to serve as commander of the NATO-led ISAF forces. But this time he finally got that meeting with the president.
MCNEILL: It's just he and I sitting in the Oval Office, and I had not been expecting this. I expected him to say here is what I would like you to be able to do, but he said, what do you think you can do?
And I said, well, I've got the Europeans outside of their wires and they'll get a little more involved in patrolling and being out amongst the Afghan people. That will be good enough. I mean, that's just about the way he responded.
TAPPER (on-camera): What does that mean, good enough?
MCNEILL: I never tried to define that. But after that, he said, and here is another thing, I want you to always tell me exactly what you need. Tell me exactly what you need. You're not going to get it. Because I got to take care of this Iraq thing.
BARNO: I personally resented the war in Iraq.
TAPPER (voice-over): When Lieutenant General Barno arrived in 2003, he had about 57,000 fewer troops in Afghanistan than were in Iraq. 57,000. The following year, that gap doubled to about 115,000.
MCCHRYSTAL: You had a V-8 engine in Iraq tuned up and you had something much less in Afghanistan so everything was harder.
MCKIERNAN: Here is an example. Summer 2009, we have a horrible problem with improvised explosive devices, IEDs and mines. We have a total of three what are called route clearance companies to open up routes. In Iraq at the same time with far less incidents at that point with IEDs and mines there are some 90 route clearance companies.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fire in the hole.
MCKIERNAN: And that didn't change until there was a large surge that was approved by the Obama administration.
TAPPER (on-camera): Right. But that's eight years.
MCKIERNAN: That's eight years. Now what happens in that eight years? You have a Taliban which has generally a safe haven in the frontier provinces and the federally administrative tribal areas in Pakistan. They become resurgent and eight years we don't grow fast enough and well enough capabilities of the government in Afghanistan and the army and there you are. We're continuing a war.
WHITLOCK: They actually came pretty close to targeting Cheney.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A suicide bomber detonated himself.
TAPPER: The Taliban version was the true one and the U.S. Military version was the lie.
WHITLOCK: That's right.
DEMPSEY What we were doing in Afghanistan fundamentally was we were building a military for a nation that did not exist. Let's say the Chinese military has been funded by a billionaire to rebuild Louisville, Kentucky, right? He has all the best intentions in the world, saying, hey, let me take over your police force, let me help you reshape your city in a better image, do you think the citizens of Louisville, Kentucky, aren't going to be, like, huh, one, maybe I don't believe them, and two, how can I rob these dipshits of all their money?
And so you saw a ton of that with what we were doing. The reality was all these folks were working on patronage networks, whether triable, ethnic, familial, that had kept them alive for decades. All of us walk in and start throwing billions of dollars of cash around, and so of course, you're going to start seeing some predatory action. We were feeding into a kleptocracy instead of sitting back and thinking, well, wait a minute, who is this guy's real chain of command? Who does he really listen to?
WHITLOCK: If you fight a war over 20 years, by definition, it's not going in the right direction. TAPPER (voice-over): In 2016 Craig Whitlock, a veteran staff reporter
for "The Washington Post," received a tip about a little known government report into the war in Afghanistan known as the "Lessons Learned Project" led by Special Inspector General John Sopko.
JOHN SOPKO, SPECIAL INSPECTOR GENERAL: It's fact versus fantasy. This is this problem that we identified early on, this odor of mendacity. There was this exaggeration after exaggeration of what we accomplished.
TAPPER: After a court battle to obtain the hundreds of secret interviews conducted by Sopko's team, "The Washington Post" won and Whitlock published his findings in a series of reports known as "The Afghanistan Papers," later expanded into a book.
What these interviews and the Lessons Learned Project revealed he says was a far different history of the war in Afghanistan than the one the American people had been told.
WHITLOCK: The non-watered down version was it was much worse than you thought in Afghanistan.
BUSH: Freedom is taking hold in Afghanistan.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are prevailing
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're winning but the war has not yet been won.
TAPPER (on-camera): Do you think that all the public officials that were saying positive things about the war were lying, were deluded, were hoping that it would get better?
WHITLOCK: Sometimes, sure. I think they were optimistic but as the war went on and it became clear that Bush's strategy wasn't working. These public pronouncements almost became less excusable.
They just couldn't bring themselves to tell the truth. In September 2006, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the commander at the time, General Karl Eikenberry, gave an interview to ABC News and he's immediately asked, how's the war going, and he starts out saying --
EIKENBERRY: We are winning but I'll also say we have not yet won.
WHITLOCK: Two weeks earlier, there was a classified diplomatic cable from the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan back to Washington, that cable started off saying we're not winning, right? And gives a very pessimistic account saying the public needs to brace itself that things are going to get worse.
TAPPER: How do you feel looking back now at those remarks?
EIKENBERRY: So much of it has to do with the context at the time. 2006 tactically you look at the battle field and you see some worrisome signs but you're also seeing progress at that point with the Afghan government, you're seeing more international support coming our way, and so that kind of comment at the time that we are winning yes, you can say at that moment.
Much work still needs to be done here but the enemy in Afghanistan, they will fail.
TAPPER: General, did you ever feel under either the Bush administration or the Obama administration any pressure to publicly convey a rosier state of the war than was the reality on the ground.
EIKENBERRY: No, Jake, I did not. You may unwittingly tend to emphasize short term progress that you're making without giving due diligence to the longer term problems that are on the horizon.
TAPPER (voice-over): The reality was that five years into the war the horizon was not looking good. The Taliban were gaining strength. And in early 2007 carried out a suicide bomb attack at Bagram Air Base killing 23 people and narrowly missing its intended target.
WHITLOCK: So the end of February 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney had made an unannounced trip to the region because things weren't going well in Afghanistan. Late in the morning there is a Taliban suicide attack that drives a Toyota corolla up to the front gate of Bagram Air Base. Sees a convoy of SUVs coming out of the gate and blows himself up and kills 23 people.
The Taliban goes online and makes calls to journalists to claim that this was a suicide attack intended to target Dick Cheney. Immediately, the U.S. Military denies this.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was completely coincidental that he was here at the same time this attack occurred.
WHITLOCK: Word had leaked out about his travel plans in that they actually came pretty close to targeting Cheney when he was planning to leave. They missed him by about 30 minutes.
TAPPER (on-camera): That's remarkable that the Taliban version was the true one and the U.S. version was the lie.
WHITLOCK: That's right.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What does this attack say about the strength of the Taliban in Afghanistan?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not sure it says anything.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Why?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because you've got an isolated attack.
TAPPER (voice-over): The facts boar out just the opposite. And the years preceding the violence at Bagram, roadside bombs had more than doubled. Suicide attacks had risen at least fivefold. Meanwhile, some government officials up and down the ranks were painting a much sunnier picture.
BUSH: Impressed by the progress that your country is making.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We ought to applaud the president. We ought to applaud the secretary of Defense. We have liberated Afghanistan.
TAPPER: Their descriptions of the war seemed to ignore the rising Taliban insurgency and the chronic longer-term problems standing in the way of genuine progress in Afghanistan. Starting with its neighbor to the east.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know this? No.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Between the U.S. and Pakistan?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. But it is -- these are tough issues.
TAPPER: Was Pakistan our enemy?
MCKIERNAN: No, but Pakistan was not our friend.
MCCHRYSTAL: The things they were doing were simultaneously supportive and duplicitous. It made defeating the Taliban when they were actually being supported to a great degree by the Pakistanis, almost impossible.
EIKENBERRY: The fact that ten years into the conflict that we were to finally find bin Laden in Abbottabad which is a big Pakistani military city should tell us something about how good a friend Pakistan was.
WHITLOCK: I think it really comes down to the United States never really fundamentally understood Afghanistan and what made it tick and it didn't understand the motivations of the Taliban, where they were gaining their support from.
TAPPER (voice-over): Support that was not only coming from Pakistan. Many Afghans who may have not liked the Taliban's harsh brand of justice saw them nevertheless as the lesser evil compared to the corrupt Afghan government and its burgeoning military.
MCKIERNAN: There was a continuing problem with corruption in the army and that was discouraging.
BARNO: I'll give you an example. One of the senior leaders, while I was there, made a deal with the Chinese to buy boots for the Afghan forces. That leader was from my understanding given a kick back for buying the boots from the Chinese. He then gave them to his soldiers and those boots fell apart, they didn't take care of his soldiers the way those boots were designed to do. And I think that's really critical because in my view, the confidence of the Afghan people in their government, in their institutions was either a source of strength or a source of weakness. And we've seen it in various times, both.
TAPPER (on-camera): You quite literally wrote the book on counter insurgency nation building. Did that work in Afghanistan?
CAPT. LUIS VEGA, U.S. ARMY RESERVE: This is my Afghan campaign service medal. I was an eager young lieutenant. Newly commissioned. I wanted to do my part so I was ready.
My name is Luis Vega, I'm army captain, and I served in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013. I remember a lot of briefings, like, we need to get to the Afghan people first before the Taliban and we need to win their hearts and minds, and that's how we're going to win this war. And I thought OK, that's a unique strategy. But I was in.
Holding the stars right here is these. The problem is you show up with your team of 18 to 20-year-olds, gung-ho patriots that I have to testosterone coming out their years and are ready to defend their country, and you're saying we're going to drink some chai tea and we're going to talk about how we're going to irrigate this farm, build this well, build this bridge? And all the while you're going to be maybe attacked, ambushed.
And so my soldiers started to grumble and tell me sir, I'm showing up at full battle, a combat load, I got my weapon at the lone already. I'm asking these people to trust me when I don't really trust them because so many times the Taliban uses those guerilla tactics of imbedding and saying, I need you to either take out as many Americans as you can during this meeting and you're going to go meet Allah or I'm going to murder your entire family. And so then it builds distrust between us and the people. And that was something that was very frustrating for me. And it started to wear on my unit and me.
We're losing our nation's blood and treasure. And that was a hard pill to swallow. You train us to be fighters and then asked us to be nation builders and we're forcing it down their throat. They had us doing a job that we were not trained to do. That's where I think it was doomed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
TAPPER (voice-over): April 17th, 2002, before a room filled with cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, President George W. Bush officially announced a new phase in the war in Afghanistan.
BUSH: Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army. And peace will be achieved to an education system for boys and girls which works.
TAPPER (on-camera): It must have been quite a challenge for Americans who knew nothing about Afghanistan, knew nothing about the culture to all of a sudden find themselves serving not just as soldiers but diplomats, nation builders, et cetera. BARNO: The army during this period of time didn't really have any
counterinsurgency doctrine. And I remember going down to one of my battalion commanders, a lieutenant colonel, right on the Pakistani border, and I said Mike, how did you get your unit to move from just counterterror strike operations in your first couple of months to now to doing counterinsurgency across this province, you know, all across this part of Afghanistan? And he looked at me, he laughed, he said, easy, sir, booksamillion.com.
And so he was on the internet in the middle of nowhere ordering books, you know, off of Amazon on counterinsurgency, getting them out to his company commanders and his first sergeant to be looking at and figuring out on the ground while they were actually doing these missions.
TAPPER (voice-over): In 2006, four years after troops began trying to execute counterinsurgency strategy on their own, the U.S. Military would finally issue updated counterinsurgency guidance co-authored by General David Petraeus.
A strategy that focused less on conventional warfare and more on securing the support of the population, ensuring aid and infrastructure, trying to win the trust of the people.
(On-camera): You quite literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency coined what our viewers might understand better is the idea of nation building. Did that work in Afghanistan?
PETRAEUS: I think it actually did work during the period that we had the resources to do that. The problem is that in a situation like Afghanistan, you do have to be prevailing if you will in the security realm because that is the foundation that allows you to do all of these other tasks.
MCCHRYSTAL: People say that counterinsurgency doesn't work or nation building doesn't work. Well, actually I disagree. We did counter insurgency in World War II. We just did it after the Armistice. That's exactly what the Marshall plan was. It was building nations that would be durable and resilient against the threat of communism.
MCKIERNAN: I think in rural Afghanistan, which is most of Afghanistan, it has not worked. And generally speaking, dissatisfaction with the government was a greater factor than fear of the Taliban. They may dispense harsh justice but they dispense justice.
TAPPER (voice-over): The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan failed, according to General McKiernan. And we now know there were many saw it failing as a strategy in real time. As one member of General Stanley McChrystal's Afghanistan assessment team told government investigators, implementing an effective counter insurgency campaign requires, quote, "the level of local knowledge that I don't have about my own hometown."
Not about his own hometown, let alone about Afghan villages nestled in the Hindu Kush.
MCCHRYSTAL: We would breach compound and somebody would run out with an AK-47 and we would, as our rules of engagement allowed, we'd shoot and kill. And over time what we learned is, almost every compound in Afghanistan had an AK-47. And if somebody came in your living room right now and you had an AK-47, you might go to defend your family. And so I think we killed a lot of people who were defending heart and home. I think we created a tremendous amount of ill-will and fear in the Afghan people.
ALLEN: Most of the time we got the individual that we were conducting the raid without firing a shot most of the time. But when you run that many raids, eventually some of them are going to go bad. And there were some pretty horrible mistakes.
TAPPER: Mistakes meaning innocent civilians, wounded or killed. Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs estimates that more than 47,000 Afghan civilians lost their lives during America's war in Afghanistan. 47,000, and no matter what stories we told ourselves about why those mistakes happen, it is that number, not the battles the U.S. won or even schools that the U.S. built. That number that may have ultimately mattered.
MCKIERNAN: I will never forget this one incident the rest of my life. The United States had bombed a wedding party, and I said OK, I am going to personally go down and offer my condolences to the families, to the tribal elders of this tribe, and I went down there and spent three or four hours talking, yelling, listening, drinking tea, and at the end of it, I mean, we had killed 20 members at this wedding party.
At the end of it, one of the elders who lost four or five family members shook my hand. I said, do you think that would ever happen in the United States of America? I don't think so.
TAPPER (on-camera): How did it come to happen that we bombed a wedding party? I mean, what happened?
MCKIERNAN: Because we lost positive identification of the target and the weather and the altitude and mistook them for a group of fighters.
We really made an effort that year and I think succeeding commanders carried it on as, number one, any allegation we investigated. Secondly, we open up our investigation results to the United Nations, to the Red Cross, to anybody who wanted to come look at.
TAPPER (voice-over): Later reports found that 47 people were killed at that wedding party. And year after year innocent civilians continue to lose their lives.