They experienced the war in Afghanistan on the ground. Here’s what they had to say.

By Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn, Alex Horton, Meryl Kornfield, Jenn Abelson and Ted Muldoon


News Oversight
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The Washington Post published “The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war,” an exclusive investigation by reporter Craig Whitlock, on Dec. 9, 2019.  The Post also published 2,000 documents related to its findings. Washington Post and IRW intern Meryl Kornfield contributed to the project and worked on reactions to the investigation, including this article on veterans’ perspectives.

The story on the ground

For many who served in the Afghanistan war, The Afghanistan Papers were both revelation and confirmation. The documents revealed years of deception by senior U.S. officials, who assured the public that progress was being made — when it wasn’t.

The Washington Post asked veterans, government workers, military families and others to share their reactions to The Afghanistan Papers. Many shared detailed stories of their experiences. Even while some took pride in their efforts, they still described constant frustration with how the war was being conducted. Here are some of their responses, in their own words. (Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.)

“I was an embedded trainer for the Afghan army. Even then our Defense Department was more interested in the fight in Iraq than in Afghanistan. It was impossible to get pistol ammo for us or the Afghan army.”

—Greg Reedy, 53, Michigan Army National Guard infantryman, Kabul and Parwan province, 2005-2006

David Bentley.

“A lot of our mission prep was not in alignment with what the reality was on the ground. Each member of the team was provided a set of hip waders for walking through marshes. There are no marshes. We brought a chain saw for logging projects, but there were no trees to cut down.”
—David Bentley, 41, Army combat medic, Konar province, 2009-2010

“They were telling us to go into the villages and ask them, where is the Taliban? And the first time we asked the question, they were like, ‘Oh yes, I’m Taliban.’ And we were like, ‘Uh, do we shoot this guy? He just admitted he’s Taliban.’ So we asked the [interpreter], and he said Taliban means student. They’re all students out here! So that was confusing.”
—Jonathan Rosario, 31, Army infantryman, Kandahar province, 2009-2010

“Our on-paper mission was one of those barely literate word jumbles that contained only vague references to what a mission might be. Our practical mission was to attack the Taliban between Highway 1 and the Arghandab River. The 101st took us about halfway to the river, we took it the rest of the way, and then the unit that replaced us gave it all back in under six months.”
—William M. Treadway, 33, Army armor officer, Kandahar province, 2011-2012

William M. Treadway

“For all of us that went over there and worked so hard, and put our families through so much, and there was never a strategy. We were just going through the motions, chasing ghosts through mountains.
— Shane Reynolds, 35, Army combat medic, Badghis province, 2010-2011

The mission unravels

“While we were there, I don’t think a single Marine I served with could have given you a working definition of counterinsurgency. I doubt they could even today. The phrase ‘hearts and minds’ was drilled into our head during training, without us ever really being taught what exactly we were supposed to be doing. The joke ‘yeah, two in the heart, one in the mind’ became a common response to that phrase.”
—John Motter, 32, Marine Corps infantryman, Helmand province, 2010

Soldier in Afghanistan
John Motter.

“We felt that there was no plan, there was no strategy and there was no will to change anything about that. All of our leaders — you saw them on television giving speeches on leadership and publishing their self-help books or their leadership books upon retirement. They had abandoned us, many of us before we even got there. The war to them, it was a box to check, it was something to do in their career. But for us, it wasn’t fake even though our time there ended up being worthless.”
—Shane Reynolds, 35, Army combat medic, Badghis province, 2010-2011

“Everything that we were told was bullshit, from the level of support we had to what we were allowed or expected to do.”
—Jay O’Brien, 41, Army infantryman, Kandahar province, 2013