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A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.

The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.

More stories



Part 1: At war with the truth


At war with the truth

U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it.


Stranded without a strategy

Bush and Obama had polar-opposite plans to win the war. Both were destined to fail.


Built to fail

Despite vows the U.S. wouldn’t get mired in “nation-building,” it has wasted billions doing just that


Consumed by corruption

The U.S. flooded the country with money — then turned a blind eye to the graft it fueled


Unguarded nation

Afghan security forces, despite years of training, were dogged by incompetence and corruption


Overwhelmed by opium

The U.S. war on drugs in Afghanistan has imploded at nearly every turn


Explore the documents

Key insiders speak bluntly about the failures of the longest conflict in U.S. history


‘We didn’t know what the task was’

Hear candid interviews with former ambassador Ryan Crocker and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn


About the investigation

It took three years and two federal lawsuits for The Post to pry loose 2,000 pages of interview records


‘We were right’: Veterans react to revelations in The Afghanistan Papers 


A visual timeline of the war 


Interviewees respond

In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare. 

With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting. 

Click any underlined text in the story to see the statement in the original document

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”

Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures. 

The interviews, through an extensive array of voices, bring into sharp relief the core failings of the war that persist to this day. They underscore how three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders have been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan. 


See the documents More than 2,000 pages of interviews and memos reveal a secret history of the war.

Part 2: Stranded without a strategy Conflicting objectives dogged the war from the start.

Responses to The Post from people named in The Afghanistan Papers

With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation. 

The interviews also highlight the U.S. government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade. 

The U.S. government has not carried out a comprehensive accounting of how much it has spent on the war in Afghanistan, but the costs are staggering. 

Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University. 

Those figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for medical care for wounded veterans. 

“What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?”Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. He added, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”

The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting.


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"The World Wars" redirects here. For the 2014 miniseries, see The World Wars (miniseries).

For the conflict that was referred to as the World War before the start of the second war, see World War I.

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A world war is a large-scale war which affects the whole world directly or indirectly. World wars span multiple countries on multiple continents or just two countries, with battles fought in many theaters. While a variety of global conflicts have been subjectively deemed "world wars", such as the Cold War and the War on Terror, the term is widely and usually accepted only as it is retrospectively applied to two major international conflicts that occurred during the 20th century: World War I (1914–18) and World War II (1939–45).



The Oxford English Dictionary cited the first known usage in the English language to a Scottish newspaper, The People's Journal, in 1848: "A war among the great powers is now necessarily a world-war." The term "world war" is used by Karl Marxand his associate, Friedrich Engels,[1] in a series of articles published around 1850 called The Class Struggles in France. Rasmus B. Anderson in 1889 described an episode in Teutonic mythology as a "world war" (Swedish: världskrig), justifying this description by a line in an Old Norse epic poem, "Völuspá: folcvig fyrst i heimi" ("The first great war in the world".)[2] German writer August Wilhelm Otto Niemann had used the term "world war" in the title of his anti-British novel, Der Weltkrieg: Deutsche Träume (The World War: German Dreams) in 1904, published in English as The Coming Conquest of England.

In English, the term "First World War" had been used by Charles à Court Repington, as a title for his memoirs (published in 1920); he had noted his discussion on the matter with a Major Johnstone of Harvard University in his diary entry of September 10, 1918.[3]

The term "World War I" was coined by Time magazine on page 28b of its June 12, 1939 issue. In the same article, on page 32, the term "World War II" was first used speculatively to describe the upcoming war. The first use for the actual war came in its issue of September 11, 1939.[4] One week earlier, on September 4, the day after France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad used the term on its front page, saying "The Second World War broke out yesterday at 11 a.m."[5]

Speculative fiction authors had been noting the concept of a Second World War in 1919 and 1920, when Milo Hastings wrote his dystopian novel, City of Endless Night. Other languages have also adopted the "world war" terminology, for example; in French: "world war" is translated as guerre mondiale, in German: Weltkrieg (which, prior to the war, had been used in the more abstract meaning of a global conflict), in Italian: guerra mondiale, in Spanish and Portuguese: guerra mundial, in Danish and Norwegian: verdenskrig, and in Russian: мировая война (mirovaya voyna.)


Main article: World War I

World War I occurred from 1914 to 1918. In terms of human technological history, the scale of World War I was enabled by the technological advances of the second industrial revolution and the resulting globalization that allowed global power projection and mass production of military hardware. Wars on such a scale have not been repeated since the onset of the Atomic Age and the resulting danger of mutually-assured destruction. It had been recognized that the complex system of opposing alliances (the GermanAustro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires against the BritishRussian, and French Empires) was likely to lead to a worldwide conflict if a war broke out. Due to this fact, a very minute conflict between two countries had the potential to set off a domino effect of alliances, triggering a world war. The fact that the powers involved had large overseas empires virtually guaranteed that such a war would be worldwide, as the colonies' resources would be a crucial strategic factor. The same strategic considerations also ensured that the combatants would strike at each other's colonies, thus spreading the wars far more widely than those of pre-Columbian times.

War crimes were perpetrated in World War I. Chemical weapons were used in the First World War despite the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 having outlawed the use of such weapons in warfare. The Ottoman Empire was responsible for the Armenian genocide, the death of over one million Armenians during the First World War.


Main article: World War II


This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.
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The Second World War occurred from 1939 to 1945 and is the only conflict in which atomic bombs have been used. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Japan, were devastated by atomic bombs dropped by the United States. Nazi Germany was responsible for genocides, most notably the Holocaust, the killing of six million Jews. The United States, the Soviet Union, and Canada deported and interned minority groups within their own borders, and largely because of the conflict, many ethnic Germans were later expelled from Eastern Europe. Japan was responsible for attacking neutral nations without a declaration of war, such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is also known for its brutal treatment and killing of Allied prisoners of war and the inhabitants of Asia. It also used Asians as forced laborers and was responsible for the Nanking massacre where 250,000 civilians in the city were brutally murdered by Japanese troops. Non-combatants suffered at least as badly as or worse than combatants, and the distinction between combatants and non-combatants was often blurred by belligerents of total war in both conflicts.[citation needed]

The outcome of World War II had a profound effect on the course of world history. The old European empires either collapsed or were dismantled as a direct result of the wars' crushing costs and, in some cases, their fall was due to the defeat of imperial powers. The United States became firmly established as the dominant global superpower, along with its ideological foe, the Soviet Union, in close competition. The two superpowers exerted political influence over most of the world's nation-states for decades after the end of the Second World War. The modern international security, economic, and diplomatic system was created in the aftermath of the wars.[citation needed]

Institutions such as the United Nations were established to collectivize international affairs, with the explicit goal of preventing another outbreak of general war. The wars had also greatly changed the course of daily life. Technologies developed during wartime had a profound effect on peacetime life as well, such as by advances in jet aircraftpenicillinnuclear energy, and electronic computers.[citation needed]


Main article: World War III

Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War, there has been a widespread and prolonged fear of a potential Third World War between nuclear-armed powers. The Third World War is generally considered a successor to the Second World War and is often suggested to become a nuclear war, devastating in nature and likely much more violent than both the First and Second World Wars; in 1947, Albert Einstein commented that "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."[6][7] It has been anticipated and planned for by military and civil authorities and has been explored in fiction in many countries. Concepts have ranged from purely-conventional scenarios, to limited use of nuclear weapons, to the complete destruction of the planet's surface.


See also: American Revolutionary WarCold WarWar on TerrorSecond Congo WarSyrian Civil WarIraqi Civil War (2014–2017), and Cold War II

Various former government officials, politicians, authors, and military leaders (including the following people: James Woolsey,[8] Alexandre de Marenches,[9] Eliot Cohen,[10] and Subcomandante Marcos[11]) have attempted to apply the labels of the "Third World War" and "Fourth World War" to various past and present global wars since the closing of the Second World War, for example, the Cold War and the War on Terror, respectively. Among these are former American, French, and Mexican government officials, military leaders, politicians, and authors. Despite their efforts, none of these wars are commonly deemed world wars.

Wars described by some historians as "World War Zero" include the Seven Years' War[12] and the onset of the Late Bronze Age collapse.[13]

The Second Congo War (1998–2003) involved nine nations and led to ongoing low-level warfare despite an official peace and the first democratic elections in 2006. It has often been referred to as "Africa's World War".[14] During the early-21st century the Syrian Civil War and the Iraqi Civil Warand their worldwide spillovers are sometimes described as proxy wars waged between the United States and Russia,[15][16][17][18] which led some commentators to characterize the situation as a "proto-world war" with nearly a dozen countries embroiled in two overlapping conflicts.[19]

See also: List of wars by death toll and World War I casualties

The two world wars of the 20th century had caused unprecedented casualties and destruction across the theaters of conflict.[20] There have been several wars that occurred with as many or more deaths than in the First World War (16,563,868–40,000,000), including:

Estimated death tolls. Log. mean calculated using simple power law.

estimateLocationFromToDuration (years)

Three Kingdoms36,000,000[21]40,000,000[22]China18428096

An Lushan Rebellion13,000,000[23]36,000,000[24]China7557639

Mongol conquests30,000,000[25]40,000,000[23]Eurasia12061324118

Conquests of Timur15,000,000[26]20,000,000[26]Asia1369140537

Qing dynasty conquest of the Ming dynasty25,000,000[27]25,000,000China1616166247

Taiping Rebellion20,000,000[28]100,000,000[29][30][31]China1851186414

World War II40,000,000[32]85,000,000[33]Global193919456

Cold War22,345,162+94,000,000Global1947199144

'World War 0' redirects here.

There have been numerous wars spanning two or more continents throughout history, including:

Estimated death tolls. Log. mean calculated using simple power law.

estimateLocationFromToDuration (years)

Late Bronze Age collapseEgyptAnatoliaSyriaCanaanCyprusGreeceMesopotamia1200s BCE1150s BCE40–50

Greco-Persian WarsGreeceThraceAegean IslandsAsia MinorCyprusEgypt499 BCE449 BCE50

Peloponnesian WarGreeceAsia MinorSicily431 BCE404 BCE27

Wars of Alexander the GreatThraceIllyriaGreeceAsia MinorSyriaBabyloniaPersiaAfghanistanSogdianaIndia335 BCE323 BCE12

Wars of the DiadochiMacedonGreeceThraceAnatoliaLevantEgyptBabyloniaPersia322 BCE275 BCE47

First Punic War285,000
[citation needed]400,000[23]Mediterranean SeaSicilySardiniaNorth Africa264 BCE241 BCE23

Second Punic War616,000
[citation needed]770,000[23]ItalySicilyHispaniaCisalpine GaulTransalpine GaulNorth AfricaGreece218 BCE201 BCE17

Roman–Seleucid WarGreeceAsia Minor192 BCE188 BCE4

Roman–Persian WarsMesopotamiaSyriaLevantEgyptTranscaucasusAtropateneAsia MinorBalkans92 BCE629 CE721

First Mithridatic WarAsia MinorAchaeaAegean Sea89 BCE85 BCE4

Great Roman Civil WarHispaniaItalyGreeceIllyriaEgyptAfrica49 BCE45 BCE4

Byzantine–Sassanid warsCaucasusAsia MinorEgyptLevantMesopotamia502 CE628 CE126

Muslim conquestsMesopotamiaCaucasusPersiaLevantThe MaghrebAnatoliaIberiaGaulKhorasanSindhTransoxania6221258636

Arab–Byzantine warsLevantSyriaEgyptNorth AfricaAnatoliaCreteSicilyItaly6291050421

Crusades1,000,000[34]3,000,000[35]Iberian peninsulaNear EastAnatolia, the LevantEgypt.10951291197

Mongol conquests30,000,000[25]40,000,000[23]Eurasia12061324118

Byzantine–Ottoman WarsAsia MinorBalkans12651479214

European colonization of the Americas2,000,000[36]100,000,000[37]Americas14921900408

Ottoman–Habsburg warsHungaryMediterraneanBalkansNorth AfricaMalta15261791265

First Anglo-Spanish WarAtlantic OceanEnglish ChannelLow CountriesSpainSpanish MainPortugalCornwallIrelandAmericasAzoresCanary islands1585160419

Dutch–Portuguese WarAtlantic OceanBrazilWest AfricaSouthern AfricaIndian OceanIndiaEast IndiesIndochinaChina1602166361

Thirty Years' War3,000,00011,500,000Europe, mainly present-day Germany1618164830

Second Anglo-Spanish WarCaribbeanSpainCanary IslandsSpanish Netherlands165416606

Nine Years' WarEuropeIrelandScotlandNorth AmericaSouth AmericaAsia168816979


War of the Spanish SuccessionEuropeNorth AmericaSouth America1701171413

War of the Quadruple AllianceSicilySardiniaSpainNorth America171817202

Third Anglo-Spanish WarSpainPanama172717292


War of the Austrian SuccessionEuropeNorth AmericaIndia174017488


Seven Years' War1,500,000[23]EuropeNorth AmericaSouth AmericaAfricaAsia175417639

American Revolutionary WarNorth AmericaGibraltarBalearic IslandsIndiaAfricaCaribbean SeaAtlantic OceanIndian Ocean177517848


French Revolutionary WarsEuropeEgyptMiddle EastAtlantic OceanCaribbeanIndian Ocean179218029


Napoleonic Wars3,500,000
[citation needed]7,000,000[38]EuropeAtlantic OceanMediterranean SeaNorth SeaRío de la PlataFrench GuianaWest IndiesIndian OceanNorth AmericaSouth Caucasus1803181513

Crimean War255,000[39]1,000,000[40]SicilySardiniaSpainNorth AmericaSoutheastern EuropeBlack Sea185318563


World War I15,000,000[41]65,000,000[42]Global191419184


World War II40,000,000[32]85,000,000[33]Global193919456


Cold War22,345,162 (casualties by all wars started in the Cold War with Gulf WarVietnam WarKorean WarAlgerian WarIran–Iraq War,  Nigerian Civil War or Soviet–Afghan Warincluded)[43][circular reference]+94,000,000 ( 22 millions of people killed by all civil wars started in Asia, South America and Africa + number of people killed in Asia and Europe by the Communist governments, with casualties of Soviet famine of 1946–47Cambodian genocideCultural Revolution, and Great Leap Forwardincluded)[44][circular reference]Global1947199144


War on Terror272,000[45]1,260,000

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