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."