'The Juice Ain’t Worth the Squeeze'

Lies, damn lies, and the war in Afghanistan.

If observers had any doubts about the failure of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the past several days should have put them to rest. Since Feb. 21, anti-U.S. protests have erupted in virtually every major Afghan city over the revelation that American personnel had burned Qurans at Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. installation in the country. The demonstrations have at times turned violent, claiming the lives of at least seven Afghans. This wave of protest is just the latest example of how the United States has botched its attempt to win "hearts and minds" in Afghanistan, and another indicator that its war effort is heading toward failure.

But that's not the message you would hear from U.S. officials. To hear them tell it, the United States has already taken action to prevent such shocking displays of cultural insensitivity from happening again. "When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them," U.S. General John R. Allen, the commander of the international force in Afghanistan, said in his apology.  "We are thoroughly investigating the incident and we are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again."

If this episode sounds familiar, it should.

Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis has traveled over 9,000 miles across Afghanistan to learn a simple lesson: public statements made from podiums in Washington and Kabul bear little resemblance to the reality of the Afghan war. The 17-year U.S. Army veteran spent most of his time in the insurgency-enflamed provinces in the east and south, and was shaken to discover the U.S. military leadership's glowing descriptions of progress against the Taliban insurgency did not jibe with the accounts of American soldiers on the front lines of the war.

Davis then did a remarkable thing for a U.S. Army officer: He went public. In January 2012, he began a singular campaign to bring his findings to the attention of the American people. Davis wrote two reports, classified and unclassified, that aimed to expose the failures of the Afghan war while not endangering lives in the process. "I am no WikiLeaks guy Part II," he wrote.

Davis's reports have become one of the most damning insider accounts of the U.S. military's handling of Afghanistan. In his unclassified report, he wrote that U.S. officials have so thoroughly misinformed the American public "that the truth has become unrecognizable" and that, during his recent year-long deployment, he saw "deception reach an intolerable low." In his view, the divergence between the upbeat accounts offered by the top military leadership and the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan has undermined U.S. credibility with both allies and enemies, cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, and inflicted death, disfigurement, and suffering on tens of thousands of soldiers with "little or no gain to our country."

Davis briefed members of Congress and journalists on his conclusions, and also took his case to the media. In his article, "Truth, Lies and Afghanistan: How Military Leaders Have Let Us Down," published in the venerable Armed Forces Journal, Davis candidly summarized his charge that military leaders are misleading Congress and the public. He asked: "How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding?"

As an embedded reporter in eastern Afghanistan, I have spoken with hundreds of U.S. soldiers and civilians in forward operating bases, combat outposts, MRAPs, dining halls, hooches, tents, helipad terminals, and the U.S. embassy. And after years of interviewing both military and civilian personnel who had been, or were currently, deployed in Afghanistan, I have come to share his conclusion that top U.S. officials aren't leveling with the American people.

In Kabul, U.S. officials work to spin a failing war as a success story. The military called their Kabul press briefings "feeding the chickens," gatherings where press officers handed out releases and briefers fed upbeat reports to hungry journalists.

The situation sometimes isn't much better out of the Kabul bubble: In Khost Province's Forward Operating Base Salerno, a determined press officer briefed me -- in the bunker-like brigade headquarters -- on what he contended were declining numbers of attacks and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The headquarters was designed to withstand a direct hit by a Taliban rocket -- the insurgents attacked the base so many times that its nickname was Rocket City. You could buy baseball caps on the base embroidered with that name, and a descending rocket.

Unfortunately, the reports were often at variance with what was happening out in the provinces. As I made my way around eastern Afghanistan, soldiers and officials told me a story at odds with the official narrative -- one of rising levels of support for the Taliban, rapidly deteriorating security, a corrupt and incompetent Afghan government, scandalously wasteful U.S. programs, and a failed "whole-of-government" campaign to coordinate U.S. military and civilian efforts.

American soldiers and the civilians did manage to work successfully together in one area, however -- to scrub the news sent back to Washington. Phyllis Cox, who served as the Kabul embassy's chief of party working on governance and rule-of-law issues from 2004 to 2006, blasted the Kabul embassy's dysfunction and duplicity. "[T]he conclusions are spun for domestic consumption," she told me. Meanwhile, staffers were required to toe the party line. "They are punished for getting out of line -- made persona non grata, whatever. It's easier for them to just put in their time."

Jim Moseley, who worked on Afghan agricultural development as the deputy secretary of agriculture from 2001 to 2005, agreed. "The point is they knew what headquarters wanted to hear. Things got sanitized," he told me. "They knew what Washington wanted to hear."

But Davis contends America's top soldiers, not its diplomats, bear much of the blame for painting an unrealistic portrait of the Afghan war. As Davis wrote, Gen. David Petraeus's testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee on March 15, 2011, is a textbook example of how the military misled the U.S. public. In his upbeat briefing, General Petraeus indicated that the U.S.-led coalition had arrested the Taliban's "momentum" -- a vague descriptor that, Davis noted, "you can neither prove nor disprove."

Petraeus also artfully provided himself with a handy escape clause for a future collapse in stability. "[W]hile the security progress achieved over the last year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible," he told the senators. But as Davis rightly points out, the data that indicates the insurgency had grown dramatically in recent years. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office security report that was published in late 2010, the total volume of insurgent attacks increased by 64 percent over the year -- "the highest annual growth rate we have recorded."

On the front lines, American soldiers were similarly convinced that the insurgency was growing. At one point, a U.S. officer quoted me the Special Forces dictum: If an insurgency isn't shrinking, it's winning.

Scarcely a half-mile from the giant U.S. base at Bagram Air Field, I stood in the dry, brown landscape with Maj. Eddie Simpson. Soldiers under the command of the lanky officer were guarding development specialists as they conferred with village leaders from the town of Usbashi beside a small river. One of the Afghans said Usbashi was pro-government, a peaceful place. "You can take off body armor here," he said.

Simpson snorted. "Those rockets came from this village a few nights ago," he said, referring to a recent attack on Bagram.

A white Toyota Corolla and two motorcycles suddenly charged down the dirt track toward us, then abruptly plunged into the shallow stream and roared up to an overlooking bluff. The soldiers watched as the cyclists dismounted and a pack of men erupted from the car. The Afghans stood on the bluff like imperious Sioux warriors scouting the cavalry. "Taliban, checking us out," Simpson snarled. He had earlier spoken about the Soviet Union's ill-fated experience in Afghanistan: "It didn't work out so good for the Russians here," he told me. "It ain't working out so good for us. These people don't like anyone."

Touted as an essential element of counterinsurgency, the ballyhooed Afghanistan aid and development projects have had no measurable impact on the insurgents. For example, lobbyists in Washington promoted a wildly expensive project, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, to finance roads through Afghanistan with the perky slogan: "The insurgency begins where the road ends."

However, these corridors were soon strewn with Taliban IEDs. One major paved route in the eastern province of Khost became so heavily mined with roadside bombs that the U.S. commanders closed it to military traffic.

American troops are also increasingly cynical about the mission to prop up the profoundly corrupt Afghan government. Working day in and day out with Afghan officials whom they knew often funneled American taxpayer dollars to the Taliban, U.S. soldiers and civilian officials were guaranteed to experience cognitive dissonance. "We are funding our own enemy," soldiers in eastern Afghanistan sardonically told me.

Multiple government reports buttressed the stories that soldiers told me: the insurgents were benefiting from payoffs from U.S. development and logistics contracts. "It's like we're financing the Taliban," an angry soldier told me as we rode through Taliban-controlled Ghazni City in a mine-resistant vehicle with a detachment of Texan troops "We had a veterinarian truck hijacked. Had to pay $6,000 to ransom the workers. We think the contractor was working with the Taliban."

Captain Arie Kinra, an Indian-American with a big dip of snuff contorting his lower lip, chimed in that the Afghan power elite "just want to keep things the way they are." He took a dip and said, "They're just like mafioso, getting their cut."

Military leaders have long emphasized the importance of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to the U.S. exit strategy. Since 2002, the United States has spent $20 billion training, equipping and sustaining the Afghan army. An April 2011 Pentagon report claimed that the ANSF "continued to increase in quantity, quality, and capability." Given the army's abysmal baseline, Petraeus's statement was not exactly untrue -- but it did wildly overstate the ANSF's ability to ensure Afghan security.

The overwhelmingly illiterate Afghan army simply doesn't fight very well. In Khost Province, it was common knowledge that Afghan army forces seldom ventured from its base at Camp Clark. In the eastern province of Laghman, I watched disheveled Afghan recruits reluctantly shamble toward the base's gate as their frustrated U.S. Army trainer barked orders. Later that day, at a pre-mission meeting with American soldiers, the team leader played a popular YouTube video of uncoordinated ANA soldiers unable to do jumping jacks. The tough U.S. soldiers cracked up: "These guys are going to beat the Taliban?" one hooted.

In Afghanistan, I learned to distinguish between outright lies and officers spinning a bad situation by cherry-picking positive data. Counterinsurgency stalwart Col. Mike Howard, a brigade commander with responsibility for eastern Afghanistan, was a scrupulously honest guy -- but he sure didn't say everything he knew. Colonel Howard accordingly echoed the military's "victory narrative," in his case, by focusing on the incremental improvements in Afghanistan over his four deployments.

Many officers out in the field also repeated the party line: Security was improving, the Afghans were embracing their government, the Afghan National Army was getting better, whatever. But the on-the-ground reality prevented them from staying with the story very long. In Laghman Province, officer after officer would tell me, "Oh, it is secure here," before diverting into vivid descriptions of ubiquitous IEDs, blown-up MRAPs, ambushes, attacks.

Many American soldiers in Afghanistan are coming around to Davis's views. As happy news about successful counterinsurgency efforts continued to pour out of the Washington and Kabul press offices, frustration and anger are rife on the ground in Afghanistan.

"On an operational level, the soldiers are saying, ‘I'm going to go over there and try to not get my legs blown off. My nation will shut this bullshit down,'" a Marine officer in southern Afghanistan told me last year. It wasn't just that his soldiers had lost confidence in their Afghan partners, they had long since lost faith in counterinsurgency's focus on hearts-and-minds development work.

"Marines say, ‘fuck this,'" the officer remarked. "The juice ain't worth the squeeze."  



Remembering Anthony Shadid

On Feb. 16, 2012, journalism -- and the Middle East -- lost one of its most eloquent voices.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran:

In the summer of 2003, when the rest of the press corps in Baghdad fixated upon the lives of American soldiers in the desert and the nascent efforts to rebuild Iraq's government, Anthony Shadid jumped in a white Chevy Caprice and headed south, to the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

He spent days on end in Najaf's labyrinthine alleys, gazing into seminaries and seeking out the most influential religious leaders of Iraq's newly empowered majority sect. He grasped long before any other journalist, and well before the American officials cloistered in the Green Zone, that the new center of power in Iraq rested with the grand ayatollahs of Shiite Islam. He called them the men with "ten-gallon turbans," and he wrote the most vivid, insightful pieces about them, usually composed on deadline -- on a Saturday afternoon for the Sunday Washington Post -- fueled by two packs of Marlboro lights.

He banged out lines like this: "Ahead of him was the future of a country where Sadr's followers are seeking to turn his legacy into power and, en route, discover the elusive intersection of religion and politics that has bedeviled the Muslim world for a generation."

It was vintage Shadid. Eloquent and prescient. Graceful and gripping. His death on Thursday, from an apparent asthma attack while on a reporting trip in Syria, has deprived American journalism of its most gifted foreign correspondent in a generation. His coverage of the Middle East -- from Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and beyond -- was, simply, the best. He set the standard. If you cared about the region, if you really wanted to understand what was going on, you read Anthony.

His colleagues got it. He won two Pulitzers in a six-year span. His first, in 2004, was a result, according to the Pulitzer board, of "his extraordinary ability to capture, at personal peril, the voices and emotions of Iraqis as their country was invaded, their leader toppled and their way of life upended."

He found humanity amid the rubble, compassion in the tableau of violence. He wrote about war by focusing on people, with intimate detail, revealing their lives in elegiac prose.

Anthony never let the plaudits get to his head. He could have had his choice of cushy assignments in Europe or the United States. He could have become a successful commentator or analyst. But his heart was in the Middle East -- and in the story. He kept going out to report -- to talk to people, to observe, to understand. Sometimes it indeed involved great personal peril -- he stayed in Baghdad through the shock-and-awe bombing campaign, he traveled through southern Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli invasion, and he was kidnapped in Libya with three other New York Times journalists -- but he was no adrenaline junkie. He did it because he wanted to know what was really happening. And that couldn't be gleaned from a distance. During the U.S. invasion of Baghdad, when other journalists tried to figure out what was going on from their hotel rooms, Anthony sneaked onto the streets and talked to Iraqis. His dispatches were an order of magnitude more illuminating.

His knowledge of Arabic also put him ahead of the pack. Everyone assumed he picked it up as a child, as the son of second-generation Lebanese-Americans. But English was the language of his home in Oklahoma. He learned Arabic the hard way: in an immersion program in Cairo, after he had graduated from college.

His fluency meant he could converse with the Iraqis who worked for the Post in ways that no other American staffer could. He befriended them and their families -- and they loved him back. When they needed money -- for a sick relative, to replace a broken car -- Anthony never hesitated. He opened his wallet and fished out a handful of bills. And he never sent an Iraqi colleague to places he wouldn't travel himself.

He displayed the same open heart with his fellow Americans. He shared his sources and his knowledge. When it was his turn to write the news-of-the-day story -- we rotated that thankless assignment in the Baghdad bureau -- he launched into it with zeal. Instead of swallowing spoon-fed information from military spokesmen, he summoned Karim, his trusty chauffeur, and they headed off in the Caprice in search of eyewitnesses. If that meant a dicey drive into Fallujah, so be it. He wanted the ground truth.

When he returned to the house we shared with a rotating cast of Post correspondents -- we called it "Real World Baghdad," after the MTV show that was popular at the time -- we usually sat together for a family dinner where we swapped stories of the day's reporting exploits. Anthony listened thoughtfully to what the rest of us had to say. But the truth was that we were skating along the surface of Iraq. Anthony had burrowed deep underground. When he offered up his observations, they were trenchant and thoughtful. He didn't keep the good stuff to himself -- he shared. And it made all of our stories better.

Once, on a trip to Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, he purchased a video disc from a tea shop. Unlike Starbucks, which once sold music intended to relax the listener, the offering in Tikrit was titled "Anger." It was a compilation of bloody images of U.S. and insurgent attacks that was sickening to watch. Anthony bought it not because of its shock value, but because he knew he needed to see it to understand how Iraqi public opinion was being shaped.

What made him so unique was his gift with both languages. He could speak to the Iraqis like a native, and he could pen his stories like few others in American journalism. I'll never forget the May 2003 story where he introduced us to Karima, a mother in Baghdad struggling to survive.

"Along Karrada Street, which runs through a spit of land along a bend in the Tigris River, Panasonic televisions, Samsung washing machines, Toshiba refrigerators and a gaggle of air conditioners, ovens and satellite dishes spill into the streets -- courtesy of an Iraqi dinar buoyed by a deluge of U.S. dollars and the overnight disappearance of once-steep customs duties and taxes," Shadid wrote in a front-page Post story. "Overlooking the display is a three-room apartment, where Karima and her family of eight live in envy. 'From the war until now, I've earned nothing,' she said dolefully, a black veil framing a wizened face that belies her 36 years."

Then there was the piece he co-wrote with Tom Ricks. It was, I am certain, one of the single best stories that ever was filed from Iraq. Tom accompanied a U.S. Army patrol in Baghdad that believed it was befriending the locals. A soldier Ricks quoted deemed the neighborhood "95 percent friendly." Anthony followed along and talked to the same Iraqis who had spoken to the troops. He heard deep suspicion and anger. "We refuse the occupation -- not 100 percent, but 1,000 percent," one man told Shadid. Once again, Anthony was ahead of the pack.

It would be wrong to say that he made it look effortless. His success was the result of grueling work. He spent his days reporting, and his evenings writing. While I threw dinner parties, he'd be up in his room, typing away. His downtime would usually come around 3 a.m., after both of us had filed our stories. We'd pour healthy tumblers of single-malt scotch, light up Marlboros, and watch television. DVDs of Sex and the City were our favorite. The girls transported us to a world without car bombs and kidnappings. A colleague once brought a season of The Sopranos. We watched with morbid fascination for a while before concluding that it was simply too dark for our grim life in Baghdad.

The nocturnal television and the scotch were his only vices. He eschewed the parties by the Hamra Hotel pool and other forms of indolence. There always was more reporting to do. Although he had been raised a Lebanese Christian, he told me -- only half-joking -- that he wanted to spend a year in a Shiite seminary to better understand the religious transformation sweeping across Iraq. He collected the embossed clay discs upon which Shiite men press their foreheads while praying. One day, he said, he hoped to have an indentation on his forehead from repeated prayer. Once his head "looked like a raisin," he said, he'd know he had done enough research.

His cultivation of the Shiite clergy yielded not just long, lyrical tales on the front page. He also nabbed scoops, the greatest of which occurred in November 2003. Ambassador Paul Bremer had proposed that a transitional Iraqi government be selected through caucuses instead of direct elections, which the Americans deemed to be to difficult and risky to hold. Although a group of Iraqi politicians who had been hand-picked by Bremer had approved the plan, Anthony knew that the ultimate arbiter of whether most Shiites would go along with the caucuses was not Bremer's council but Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential and revered Shiite leader. Anthony had painstakingly cultivated sources in Sistani's office and managed to get a letter with a few questions into the grand ayatollah's hands.

A few days later, Sistani issued his response. He rejected Bremer's plan out of hand. But what was most remarkable was how Sistani conveyed it: scrawled on a large banner that was hung in central Najaf. It began with the words, "In response to the questions of Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post."

As we gabbed over a Glenlivet late one night in 2003, Anthony dismissed the claims of the U.S. occupation spokesman that Iraq was on the path to peace and stability.

"We're only in the first chapter," he insisted.

The Arab Spring was the second or third chapter. Anthony, also an accomplished author, knew the transformation of the modern Middle East would have many more pages. I only wish he could have written them.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a senior correspondent and associate editor, was the Washington Post's Baghdad bureau chief in 2003 and 2004.

David Hoffman:

For many readers and listeners of the news, foreign correspondents are taken for granted, standing in the dust of the latest bomb blast on a nameless urban street or dodging bullets in an orchard or navigating natural disaster. But the truth is that coming face-to-face with these upheavals is far more than just bearing witness, it also tests the very fabric of human emotion and endurance. The correspondent's great gift and essential skill is to set aside his or her own feelings and tell the story, often agonizing and disruptive, of those who are nearby and can't pack up and leave when it is over. This is why Anthony Shadid's life and work stands as such a beacon to those of us who were fortunate enough to share it with him. He understood how essential it was to bring to life those forgotten stories of the victims of war and oppression. He made it his mission, and he succeeded with a startling clarity and depth, drawing from his relentless reporting and bottomless empathy to build unforgettable portraits of humanity.

One evening in 2006, we went for a long walk around downtown Washington to think out loud about where his journalism would go in the coming year. It was cold and I remember holding a coffee for warmth and listening intently to what Anthony had to say. He was certain that the old order in the Arab world was crumbling. He could see it everywhere on his travels: frustration among the young and ambitious, stagnation and repression by those in power, and an inchoate search for some kind of new identity. He loved the idea of examining how people saw themselves; he had an unquenchable curiosity about identity. But on this night he was also uncertain. He saw that many people were reaching for ancient identities, ethnic and sectarian, in the absence of anything modern to satisfy them. He knew that it would not be enough. We talked that night about how to capture this crumbling of the old regime and the rise of something new we couldn't yet grasp. As always, we talked not so much of actual newspaper stories but of something more akin to literature -- narratives and landscapes, chapters and characters. I remember being so entranced with his vision and so drawn into his quest that I lost track of everything around me. Suddenly, I tripped on an unseen curbstone and started to fall toward the street. Anthony caught me just in time, and we laughed. What Anthony had sensed that evening was the coming of the Arab Spring, and when it happened, it was his life's work unfolding before his eyes.

Only one who has been hit in the shoulder with a bullet could have carried Anthony's sensitivity to violence and danger. He was never the archetype of a war correspondent -- he could not be hardened or swashbuckling or unfeeling. He was at heart a genuinely modest person who hated the bombs as much as those who were caught under them and told him of their fears. He had a deep attachment to his colleagues, friends and family, often unsettled by the pain and worry they had endured because of his work. When he returned to the Post newsroom in 2003, his colleagues stood and applauded him for his courage and skill. But he was not one to bask in adulation. He had offered his own ovation in his Page One stories for those unfortunate Iraqis caught in the terrifying grip of war.

I have always remembered the time in Iraq that he took a driver and car down an uncertain road and made it through a very tense checkpoint in pursuit of a story. As his car pulled away, he saw, through the rear view mirror, that one behind his had not been so lucky and had been hit, exploding in a firebomb. He called me later on a satellite telephone. His voice trembled. He had a passion for life, and he was shaken. He had experienced more misery and violence than many correspondents see in a lifetime, but not for his own glory. He did it to remind us of those whose agony and struggle would otherwise be left unseen.

David E. Hoffman is contributing editor to Foreign Policy and former assistant managing editor/foreign at the Washington Post.

Tom Ricks:

This is a sad day for me. I’ve lost friends in the post-9/11 wars, but the death of Anthony Shadid in Syria yesterday hits particularly hard. He was a terrific reporter. He also was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. He was one of my heroes.

Back in 2003, even into early 2004, Anthony used to take taxis all over Baghdad. For fun he would drive down for lunch in Karbala, a town he enjoyed. When I was embedding with American troops, he would kind of embed with Sadr’s people, going over to the eastern part of the city on Fridays to listen to the sermons. We’d sit at night and compare notes over Turkish beers. My favorite article that I ever did in Iraq was co-written with him, on June 2, 2003. It was the simplest of concepts: I walked with an American foot patrol in west Baghdad, and he (with the knowledge of the patrol) trailed us, talking to Iraqis about the American presence.

Unlike many reporters, Anthony also had humility. In 2004 I asked him a question about Iraqi politics. Anthony spoke Arabic fluently, and had knocked around Iraq before the invasion as well as after it. (His book Night Draws Near is for my money the best study of what the American occupation felt like to Iraqis.) He looked at me and said, “Actually, the more I know about Iraq, the less I understand it.” Wise words. Wise man. A big loss for us all.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He blogs at The Best Defense for Foreign Policy.