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.