Chat Transcript: How the Afghanistan Papers came together

Dec 12, 2019

The Washington Post recently published more than 2,000 pages of internal government documents about the Afghanistan war. The documents contain candid interviews with officials who criticized the government for its mishandling of the 18-year-conflict.

Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock, deputy investigative editor David Fallis, and graphics editor Danielle Rindler answered reader questions about the story on Thursday, Dec. 12 at 12:30 p.m.

Read the stories:
The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war
Explore the full database of documents
How The Post unearthed the documents

Hi there folks,

My name is David Fallis and I was the lead news editor on the project. I've been at the Post for 20 years, both as an investigative reporter, and since 2014, as an investigative editor.

The project was one of the longer ones that I have ever worked on, involving a prolonged fight to pry loose the interview records. 

Happy to answer any questions!


My name is Craig Whitlock and I obtained the documents and wrote the stories.

Hi! I’m Danielle, a graphics editor at The Post. I was part of the team of graphics reporters and designers who developed the documents database page and interactive features in the story. Something we spent a lot of time thinking about was to make the 2,000+ pages of documents approachable and not too daunting.

I’m happy to answer any questions about the presentation, features and how the project came together. 

Hi there, I'm Kanyakrit, the community editor here at The Post. I'll be producing this chat and occasionally posing questions to Craig, Danielle, and David. Thanks to everyone who's joining us!

Thank you for your excellent work and tireless fight to obtain these documents. My question: What comes next? What is the best path forward to end this endless war?

Thanks for reading. We're still fighting in court to obtain more documents and to force the government to identify everyone they interviewed for the Afghanistan Papers.

As for the war, that's a tougher question to answer. Right now, the Trump administration is holding direct peace talks with the Taliban. Most people agree the only way to end the war is to cut a deal -- we won't militarily defeat the Taliban.

How many people read all of the papers and how long did that take each of you?

I read them all - at least twice. Some of the interviews were really boring and full of jargon. Others were electrifying. I wouldn't recommend reading them all in one sitting :) but our database page makes it easy to search by name and topic.

Craig was definitely the person who spent the most time poring through these documents, but after he had done his magic, there were several others of us who checked and re-read the significant passages, particularly those quoted in the stories.

One of our graphics reporters, Armand Emamdjomeh, had the thankless task of reading every document that appeared in a story, highlighting the quoted excerpts and linking those quotes to the document on the database page

My kid is in the military, scheduled to deploy to Kabul in February. Before your articles came out my family was already bracing. Now I am just angry beyond words. Our children are willing to put their lives at risk for our country, but our government has to be serious about those sacrifices. Their lives aren't abstractions, these are real people. How can elected officers be so careless? We need a better strategy going forward, and that is what I would like to hear about. How are we going to fix this? How are we going to look those young soldiers in the eye and tell them that their efforts are worthwhile?

This is the toughest question to deal with. We're still sending troops to Afghanistan -- and will be for the foreseeable future. What are we asking them to do? To what end? I have special admiration for our troops who are in Afghanistan now and those who will be deploying over the next year. They are going and putting their lives on the line even though our own government leaders have expressed so many doubts about the war.

How did you handle potential topics or issues that could endanger people's lives that were revealed in the papers?

We didn't come across situations like that. We reached out to everyone who gave an interview and those concerns were not raised. Also, the material in the interviews was not of that nature.

There has been significant improvement for women. What will happen if we abandon them?

Good question. A lot of women in Afghanistan are worried about this, obviously. Interestingly, the Taliban negotiators have met with a delegation of Afghan women, who gave them an earful on this subject. That said, I'm not sure our soldiers' primary job is to enlighten Afghan society about women's rights.

If there were indeed systematic failures in strategy, goals, reporting and truth-telling, there must also be a very powerful reason for all of these to continue unabated. At bottom, what was the single most important driver for all of this?

People didn't want to admit they were wrong. Also, if you're a military commander, it's unlikely to help your career if you openly question the mission.

Hi, With the amount of funding that is discussed in the article, do you foresee any Department of Justice activity to charge officials, military members or US contractors with fraud?

The Justice Department has charged many defense contractors with fraud over the years for their operations in Afghanistan. I think the problem was worse from 2009-2012 when the Obama administration flooded the country with troops and reconstruction programs.

Not a question, but a compliment: I heard the audio of you, Craig, interviewing the IG about why they didn't include any of these high-level concerns in their report. You were pointed, clear and forceful. A model journalist. Good job! And good job everyone who worked on this!

Thanks Mom!

Greatly appreciate the Post’s dedication to getting the documents to report this story. What I wish is you also looked at the costs — to soldiers, contractor employees and their families — from this war, and the lack of costs — financial or reputational — to those whose lies and failures to do due diligence perpetuated this war. Call this a suggestion for additional reporting, since it obviously is not a question. Thank you. Alex MacLeod, Shaw Island, WA.

Thanks for the suggestion. We have covered those topics in many news stories over the years and will continue to do so. Important never to lose sight of those issues.

The WP did a fabulous job showing all the longstanding problems in Afghanistan. Where's the section for solutions. Almost nothing has gone right except for the overthrow of the Taliban and the tracking and killing of Osama bin Laden. Where are the solutions? After WWII we were able to rebuild Western Europe and Japan. Where is the Marshall Plan for the 21st century? Where is the Powell Doctrine for either nation building or asymmetric warfare or both?

Good question. Journalists are generally better at pointing out problems and holding officials accountable than we are at suggesting solutions. As for the war in Afghanistan, I know most U.S. military commanders have come around to the view that the only way to end the conflict -- or at least U.S. involvement -- is to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban.

Why was this dropped on the public at this moment? This particular day? Seems like it has been easy for other outlets to minimize this chimerically awful 'adventure' thanks to the impeachment announcements, mass killings, etc. This story has been years in the making. It might have waited for a slow-news day. In the world where owners, consultants, advertisers all making helpful suggestions to editors, it is difficult to hear the landing 'thud' of this SSDD story and say it was accidental.

The bottom line is that we publish when the material is ready, which is what happened in this project. I've been in this business for three decades and slow news days are pretty much a thing of the distant past, and we have long since lost the ability to predict when they might fall.  For those of us who do investigative or enterprise, that means that we are always facing the reality that when the project publishes we could be up against the crush of breaking news (shootings, natural disasters, political matters, etc.).  Ours is a most competitive news environment, so waiting for a perfect window also leaves open the possibility of getting scooped, which is never a good thing. 

Danielle, when you and your team were designing the database, what were some of your considerations? How do you work on making 611 documents, with more than 2,000 pages, accessible? And what are some features people should use when exploring the database?

We wanted to create a page that was usable for "power-users" who were intimately familiar with the war as well as readers who maybe didn't know all the names and jargon. That's why we made the choice to have both specific filters around topics and names as well as broader ones about story themes.

If sorting through 2,000 pages of government documents isn't your thing, we also highlighted 3-6 "key documents" for each story, which Craig annotated with important context.

Finally, one of the most unique features about this package is that every quote mentioned in a story links back to the exact page of the original document in which it appears. 

You frame many of the excerpts as "quotes" except they're not - many are taken from notes rather than direct quotes that can be attributed to any individual - notes individuals didn't have the opportunity to review and correct. Why is that? (That you call them quotes).

Indeed, you are right - some of them are notes and some of them are quotes. We make that clear in our reporting that the interview documents we obtained took both forms. By linking to the underlying documents, and also providing audio when we had it, I think the underlying form of the documents is pretty clear.

The Post also contacted everyone we were able to identify in the Papers to ask for a response and gave them the opportunity to clarify. Some expanded on what they said. You can read those statements here. 

Whose real-time reporting do these documents vindicate? And whose reporting is revealed as credulous?

I'm an investigative reporter, not a press critic, so I'll leave that question to the people who are in that line of work. 

That said, I'm a huge admirer of many of my Post colleagues who served in our Kabul and Islamabad bureaus over the years, often at considerable risk; Pam Constable, Griff Witte, Josh Partlow, Tim Craig, Karin Bruillard, April Witt and now Susannah George. They're all first-class reporters and real pros (apologies in advance for those I'm inadvertently leaving out).

Will the reporting be released in book form?

A lot of people have asked this. At the moment, no plans for a book. But we're still trying to get our hands on more documents, so maybe that's an idea to pursue. Thanks.

I have heard that the value of remaining in Afghanistan is in the minerals used in the tech industry. Is the potential economics really the reason for staying?

No. Afghanistan has a lot of minerals and there have been attempts over the years to encourage mining. But the security risks and infrastructure problems make it really tough to envision anyone making much money off that anytime soon. Certainly not a credible reason to keep U.S. troops there.

No real question, but just wanted to say thank you for your service. Anyone who says that the military is "protecting our freedoms" without saying the same of journalists is a hypocrite.

Thanks. Most journalists I know agree that our profession is also a form of public service.

Did you receive any reaction from other countries on your story?

Yes. In fact, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai gave an interview to the Associated Press the other day. He said the Afghanistan Papers prove the United States was at fault for his country's corruption problems. Certainly the U.S. was at fault, but the Afghan government didn't prosecute many people for corruption or fraud, that's for sure.

What prompted this investigation by The Washington Post?

Good question. It began when Craig got a tip that retired general Mike Flynn had been interviewed by SIGAR. When Craig filed a FOIA for the interview, SIGAR denied the request. That piqued our interest further. Craig learned there were hundreds of other interviews and we began pushing to get them all.  The more interviews we were able to obtain, the more significant we felt it was to gather them and make them public.

From the investigation did at any point a feasible plan to exit Afghanistan come even close to being executed?

Yes. There are several interviews in which senior U.S. officials said there was a realistic opportunity to cut a peace deal with the Taliban in 2002 or 2003, when they were at their weakest. Among those who said this was Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Ironically, he is now the Trump administration's lead negotiator with the Taliban.

Hi and thanks for the excellent and very revealing reporting. I confess I have not read all 2000 pages but I wondered whether other US allies and the UN are tainted by this? Afghanistan has been very much a US project but plenty of others have bought into it and invested heavily. Should they feel their contributions were wasted as well?

Thanks. Yes, there is certainly a lot of criticism aimed at other NATO countries. One example: the British were in charge of doing something about Afghanistan's thriving opium industry during the first several years of the war. The Brits failed miserably on that count and there are several British officials who admit this in the Afghanistan Papers. 

You can search on 'opium' here:

All of these quotes and statements, who were they originally given to? SIGAR?

Yes, they were all gathered by SIGAR for its Lessons Learned project. The Post had to sue SIGAR twice to compel the disclosure of the interview records.

I'm curious to know how you thought about structuring this report. Craig, did you think about this as a digital first project or something you were preparing for print? How did that impact your writing?

We knew pretty early-on that we wanted to release all of the documents and that doing so online was the way that made the most sense. That was a major consideration in the decision to publish all six stories at once as a digital package. 

We had many discussions about how to structure the actual stories. There is no one way to tell a story, so it's often a process of refining and talking it through. The stories that we finally published really developed out organically of themes that Craig identified from his synthesis of the records.  Given the volume of material, we wanted to make the stories as reader friendly as possible. 

I would be interested to hear what the journalists think are the similarities and differences between our tragic experiences in Vietnam and Afghanistan? Did any military strategists who were involved in Vietnam voice objections to the mission creep in Afghanistan?

There are many similarities. We got stuck in a long, stalemated war in an Asian country we didn't understand very well, fighting an amorphous enemy. 

One guy who kept bringing up the lessons of Vietnam was Richard Holbrooke, who served as Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But most other Obama administration officials got tired of hearing the comparisons, according to George Packer's terrific biography of Holbrooke.

My son texted me yesterday about a digital subscription to the Post saying he almost felt obligated to subscribe due to your legal and journalistic efforts to create this report!

What can we do to persuade your son to actually subscribe? Maybe some parental guilt will help?

What would happen if the US removed all military from Afghanistan?

That's the question of the moment. Is the Afghan military capable of holding off the Taliban by itself (many U.S. officials are dubious). Will the Afghan government collapse? After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, their puppet government actually held on for a while -- and then the country plunged into an awful civil war that further devastated the country.

Do you believe there was a concerted bad faith effort to conceal the truth from the public? Or a more institutionalized failure and tendency for government officials to spin things politically, that led to where we are now?

If you read the underlying interviews and notes of the interviews, one conclusion is that all of the above is true. In some cases people intentionally misled the public about the state of play in Afghanistan. In other cases, people left out important facts. In some cases, it was the act of an individual. In others, it was institutional. Either way, it continued for 18 years. 

What were some of the quotes or stories that stuck out the most to you in the documents? 

Rumsfeld saying that he had "no visibility into who the bad guys are"  is pretty telling to me. Beyond that, I find the handwritten notes scrawled on top of the Rumsfeld snowflakes fascinating.

How has Congress responded - is there any investigations being launched or added to as a result of the papers released?

Notably, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), both of Senate Armed Services Committee, called for hearings based on our reporting.

Here's the story about that.

How does the Post think about the balance between making sure there is accountability for those officials who misled the public versus jeopardizing the ability of inspectors general to get this information in the future if they cannot protect the anonymity of their sources and whistleblowers, as Post reporters certainly care about when it's their source?

That's a good question. But frankly it's not my problem to worry about whether the inspector general can do his job or not. These documents are public records and the public interest in the contents is overwhelming. It's ridiculous that the inspector general tried so hard to suppress the interviews.

Thank you for your great investigative work. Craig deserves a Congressional award for his work. You all do. I've spent much time reading about both wars. Dexter Filkins' "The Forever War," and George Packer's "The Assassins' Gate: The War in Iraq" are excellent works. Filkins pretty much tells us in 2008 that the war in Afghanistan is lost. No one cares. Here we are eleven years later, and not much has changed. Sure,we all stand and salute the soldiers, but no one really seems to care. The major networks are to caught up in impeachment to even cover this. Will there be any accountability for the lies and deceit? 2,300 dead U.S. soldiers and over 20,000 injured. Not to mention the countless innocent Afghans that died and were injured. It's disheartening to think that many, many, many lives were lost in vain.

Thank you for the kudos and thanks for taking an interest in our work.

Have you seen much response from regular military folk? have you seen anger based on this?

Yes, when we published the story, we also included a call out asking to hear from those involved in the war. We heard from many people on the ground who have expressed a range of emotions. Some felt angry, but others also felt like they had known there was no clear strategy all along.  

How were you able to get the FOIA denials reversed? What arguments or lawsuits made a difference, and how were you able to keep them a secret from other news outlets?

Well, we are still fighing in court for records from SIGAR. While SIGAR eventually disclosed interviews, they redacted hundreds of names, making various arguments as to why they should not be disclosed. That is what we still seek, so the case is not over.

As is often true with investigative work, we don't advertise broadly what we are doing. It's a hugely competitive environment. And, the longer you work on a project, the longer you run the risk that someone else will find out and do the story first. We were fortunate in this case to be the ones to break the story. 


Do you know how did SIGAR select the people for interviews AND it would be very helpful to post an index of all of the acronyms used in all the interviews.

First question: We don't know. SIGAR wouldn't talk about it. Yes, the acronyms make my head hurt too -- good idea to post an index. We'll put that on the list. Thanks

We talked a lot about including a glossary, but struggled with how to make it useful and accessible while reading the docs. Like Craig said, there are so many!

Craig did go through and identify several important acronyms in the annotations he did for the key documents, which you can see here.

An index is a great suggestion though -- thank you for the feedback!

Thank you for your work on the scrupulous details. By now you must have gotten feedbacks, response from military personnel, family members, government officials who were involved in the war (that weren't interviewed before), how'd you describe their overall response on this? Acknowledgement or criticism? Thank you.

We've gotten a lot of feedback from readers. It has been largely supportive of our fight to obtain and publish these interview records, making them available for people to read. 

I keep asking this question, but you seem disinclined to answer it. Not all of the individuals were senior officials. Many of us never spoke to the public - certainly never misled the public. I, for one, never once lied, misled or omitted facts in any public or private engagement. But when we gave these interviews, we were promised confidentiality. We weren't given the opportunity to review the notes to determine if they were accurate. You represented notes from an interview I gave as a quote, for example, in one of your articles. You drew conclusions from it that I didn't make. And now you're seeking my identity, along with others. I think journalistic integrity requires you do worry about these things and consider the potential impact to individuals, at the very least.

It's a fair question. Before publication, we made a point of reaching out for comment to every single individual whom we were able to identify as having given an interview to SIGAR. If we were going to quote them in our stories, we showed them the quotes and asked them to respond. For those who did want to comment, we posted their responses here.

While it is important to shed light on longest American war so that the public gain a better understanding. But I don't understand why this revelation is being viewed as such a massive shock? SIGAR is a congressional mandated organizations. SIGAR has been providing quarterly reports to members of congress ever since its inception. Most of SIGAR's reports highlighted the negative aspects of war, including highlighting how the war was not going the right direction. So folks either didn't read SIGAR's reports or simply ignored its contents. Now that WP has published (in all fairness the revelation is more detailed and negative than what has been previously reported), everyone is banging their heads against the wall. I just don't get why?

Good question. It's true that SIGAR has published many audits and reports pointing out fraud and waste. And Lord knows the news media have reported zillions of stories about problems with the war in Afghanistan. 

I think what makes the Afghanistan Papers different is that you have people who were directly involved in the war talking honestly, bluntly and unsparingly about the war's failures -- in direct contrast to what our leaders were saying in public. Believe me, you won't find any of that in a SIGAR report.

Amazing reporting, thank you. Yesterday's package discussed how badly the US misread Pakistan all these years, while they were playing both sides. Do you think that will change? So many billions poured down the drain there. Congrats also to Danielle and her people for such a fantastic presentation.

Thank you for reading. It's impossible to know what will happen in the coming weeks and months. I agree - Danielle's team is fantastic. The final presentation is a testament to their amazing talent.

You continue to pursue identities of all the individuals - have you thought about the repercussions for those who were told their information was confidential; who were not senior officials, not in decision-making position - and whose comments may have been inaccurately represented in these notes (as a person for whom that is the case)?

Sorry you feel you were misrepresented by SIGAR in the notes of your interview. We reached out to everyone before publication whom we could identify as having given an interview. We are also posting all their responses here.


Hi, I wanted to say thank you for all your hard work and for standing up to the Powers no matter who they are or what they've done! I delivered the Washington Post as a teenager, as did all four of my siblings, one by one! It was a coming of age rite. The route was handed down through our family and we each got up at 4:30 a.m., rain, snow or shine, to walk the route and get the the news to Post readers! It was all of our first job at 13 or 14. We grew up in Bowie, MD and even though I've moved I am a proud hometown reader and always will be! I have a paid online subscription and it's the only one I have. It's a luxury and times are tight but you all are worth it! I majored in English at UMD and have worked as a writer/editor ever since. The Post helped pay for our college and showed us the best of writing. Thank you for being tough, compassionate, and tenacious during hard times.

That's incredible. Thanks so much for subscribing. 

Thanks everyone for the fantastic questions. We're very grateful for all the reader interest in the Afghanistan Papers.

Thank you everyone for reading and the great questions. If you appreciated the work, please subscribe - it pays the freight for this journalism.



Yes, thanks for reading! And thank you for supporting such important journalism.

Thank you everyone for your fantastic questions and joining us. 

In This Chat
Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn
Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn is the Washington Post's community editor.
Craig Whitlock
Craig Whitlock is an investigative reporter who specializes in national security issues. He has covered the Pentagon, served as the Berlin bureau chief and reported from more than 60 countries. He joined The Washington Post in 1998.
Danielle Rindler
Danielle Rindler is a graphics editor at The Washington Post, where she creates award-winning visual journalism. Before joining the Post in 2014, she was a print designer at the Arizona Republic. At The Post, she has played a crucial role in coordinating, developing, designing and publishing some of the newsroom’s most influential stories across multiple platforms.
David S. Fallis
David S. Fallis is the deputy editor for The Washington Post’s Investigations Unit. In 2015, he helped lead and edit a team of Post journalists that identified and analyzed nearly 1,000 fatal shootings by police nationwide. For that year-long work, The Post was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, a Polk Award for National Reporting and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service.
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