Small Wars Journal

Truth, lies and Afghanistan

In the latest edition of Armed Forces Journal, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, US Army, asks how many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding and behind an array of more than seven years of optimistic statements by U.S. senior leaders in Afghanistan?

Also see "In Afghan War, Officer Becomes a Whistle-Blower" by Scott Shane, New York Times.


Yes, saw the same thing in Iraq by multiple Army and Marine Corps units. I've never seen a deployed unit have an 'unsuccessful' tour ... if the objectives were not met the objectives were simply changed. This in combination with an extreme ignorance of insurgencies and a misunderstanding of equating CT as COIN and not as simply one aspect of COIN.

Jack Gander

Tue, 02/07/2012 - 8:26am

Not sure how LTC Davis's comments sync up with the Chairman's new emphasis on "Strengthening our Relationship of Trust with the Nation".

"The American people have bestowed upon us a sacred trust. Ours is a noble and mighty calling for service and of sacrifice. These past ten years have proven that we are worthy of their trust. The next ten will demand more of the same."…

I think there is room for improvement over the next ten years and not "more of the same" - this includes fiscal responsibility...


Tue, 02/07/2012 - 5:39pm

In reply to by TM

I think the LTC is capable of making a fair assessment without having been on site for an extended period; he may not have been at one place long but he obviously heard enough US servicemen singing the same tune about their Afghan partners to be able to connect the dots. My own personal experiences through tours of RC-E and RC-S mirror his own, and no amount of time nor attempts at understanding the finer points of pashtunwali and Afghan culture can reverse the sentiments of many on the line that most rank-and-file ANP or ANSF are at best unreliable and at worst a severe liability. If different people from different places keep telling you the same thing, it lends credence to the belief that youre getting closer to the "complete picture", and i think that goes towards the issue of criticizing senior leaders as well. if you have been around enough commands and hear and see the same type of pie-in-the-sky yes-men spreading what are at best half-truths about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan then its hard not to argue that the assessments given to the public and the press is not at least deceptive.

This is not limited to just the press: On my most recent deployment I watched first-hand as intel officers ordered various presentations to be altered to either fit the "we-are-winning" narrative or to pander to the personal tastes of the commander. we have reached a point where we are not even capable of telling our senior leaders on the battlefield the honest truth because people are career-oriented and refuse to bear the responsibility of bringing bad (yet truthful) news to our commanders.

Move Forward

Wed, 02/08/2012 - 8:34am

In reply to by TM

I wondered if anyone would note that about the source of data. It's a fair counterpoint. The question would then be what is the source of LTC Davis unseen data? Should we trust data from the UN and other civil agencies held up in Kabul?

However, if you read other articles by military historians such as Dr. Mark Moyar's analysis of Marine action around Sangin published in July 2011, you note clear differences in achievements of the Brits vs. the Marines...due to greater resources and a different approach that additional troops enabled. Other news reports and new occupations of RC-S and SW areas since the surge are prima facie evidence.

CSIS has been tracking data for years which provides a year-to-year comparison not available to Soldiers/Marines serving a single one-year tour. It is also clear that the Taliban moved other activity to new areas in response to pressure in traditional strongholds and to attack the new northern supply route. ISAF also made a documented effort to pull out of some areas of RC-East (Pech river valley) that were difficult to defend due to valley COPs. Obviously, these areas were retaken, but considering that the Nuristanis are separate from other Afghan ethnicities, they may not apply to threats of civil war in out years.


Wed, 02/08/2012 - 8:41am

In reply to by Move Forward

I'd forgotten completely about that one. I hope we will avoid similar attempts but I am certain we will do now what we did then. After our departure look for phrases like "The war must come to end." and "We must end the violence." to be used when discussing whether to continue support for the anti-Taliban Afghans. That will the key signal that all aid is about to be cut off.

Move Forward

Wed, 02/08/2012 - 8:17am

In reply to by carl

Also consider the Case Church Amendment that prohibited use of airstrikes against the North Vietnamese in 1975. Hopefully, we will avoid any similar Congressional attempts to block attempts to retain gains made in Afghanistan.


Wed, 02/08/2012 - 1:05am

In reply to by carl

Move Forward: If you are going to refer to US airplanes backing up South Vietnamese ground troops and doing well in 1972, you should probably also refer to the South Vietnamese forces collapsing in 1975, a prime cause of which was our cutting them off almost completely from money and supplies.

We will do the same thing to the anti-Taliban Afghans after we leave and unfortunately, no matter how high their motivation, they won't be able to do much without money and supplies.


Tue, 02/07/2012 - 11:54pm

In reply to by TM

To add to what TM said, the CSIS report also includes findings from the UN, the Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) and the US National Counter Terrorism Center (US NCTC). The findings of those organizations all indicate that violence in Afghanistan is getting worse, contradicting the ISAF and American military. That is because the ANSO, the UN and the US NCTC also attempt to track violence directed against Afghans, not just coalition forces. However even ISAF & US military data included in the CSIS report show that Afghan civilian casualties are increasing, not decreasing.

One of the prime stated purposes of the ISAF and American forces in Afghanistan is to protect the Afghan people from the murderous attentions of the Taliban. They are not doing a very good job. That they are doing a better job at reducing Taliban attacks on themselves is irrelavant (sic). The CSIS report, to its credit makes this clear by retelling the famous reply of the North Vietnamese officer to Harry Summer's question.

Move Forward, your reply is exactly the kind of thing LTC Davis is complaining about, official US reporting being directly at odds with what people who aren't so directly connected with the military are saying.


Tue, 02/07/2012 - 11:17pm

In reply to by Move Forward

While I am largely content to consume input, as I have little first hand or even second hand information to share, I must chime in again to point out that this comment was too much.

I think that is the first time that I have ever read an argument framed as, "well perhaps those troops spent extended periods of time in various locales all over Afghanistan, but here's what some think tank in DC says."

The underlying data for that report from "unbiased, non-military" CSIS is almost entirely sourced from ISAF and from the 1230/1231 report that DoD submits to Congress semi-annually. Even a quick skim of the footnotes makes this abundantly obvious. The areas where the report includes other sources is largely provided as a counterpoint to the data offered by ISAF and DoD, showing how difficult it is to draw conclusions with any degree of confidence.

To recap:
- LTC Davis says that his observations, as well as the input that he got from numerous troops who have a substantial amount of time on the ground in numerous locations, deviate markedly from ISAF and DoD.
- That deviation is made clear by reading Davis' AFJ article and then skimming the ISAF and DoD information, which has been conveniently compiled in the CSIS report.
- You acknowledge the disparity between Davis and ISAF/DoD.
- You then switch from arguing Davis vs ISAF to arguing Davis vs CSIS - essentially the same thing, since CSIS merely recycles ISAF and DoD information.
- Your rebuttal, in essence, is that the think tank is more credible, despite the fact that Davis did the field investigation and CSIS did not. Why are they more credible? Apparently, because they have all that data... from ISAF and DoD.
- Rather than recognizing that this brings us full circle to the original issue of Davis and ISAF disagreeing, we are instead to conclude that this is an entirely different issue because we swapped out the ISAF nametag for a CSIS nametag.


Move Forward

Tue, 02/07/2012 - 9:30pm

In reply to by carl

Carl said: <i>The LTCs assessments are fair because they are consistent with what people who are not associated with the military say."</i>

Move along, nothing new to see here.

Davis' assessments may be a fair snapshot in time of opinions of those seeing an isolated valley sector during an isolated one year tour. But the Center for Strategic and International Studies is an unbiased, non-military analysis center that has much more detailed proof of successes over a longer period of time. They also admit it may not matter due to lack of time and resources following the surge's completion.

From its detailed 182 page Jan 3, 2012 document, "Afghanistan at the End of 2011, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), JAN 3, 2012:

<b>Current Claims of Tactical Success</b>

- "The security gains highlighted in the previous edition of this report – enabled by the surge in ISAF and Afghan force throughout 2010 have been sustained and expanded during the reporting period. ANSF-ISAF success in consolidating security gains in previously-cleared areas confirms that the civil-military counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy has significantly degraded the insurgency’s capability, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar."
- "Continued, partnered COIN operations by ANSF and ISAF forces, complemented by partnered Special Forces targeting of insurgent leaders, have reduced enemy attacks and violence in Regional Commands Southwest, West, and North."
- "ANSF-ISAF operations continue to reduce the influence and operational capacity of the insurgency."
- "These gains are summarized in graphic form in in this brief, and enough supporting data and analysis exist to indicate that they are very real.""

<b>"Why Such Successes may not matter"</b>
- Coming troop cuts
- Sanctuary in Pakistan
- Sustain victory in the South and Winning in the East
- The ANA and ANP development effort is being rushed, funding is being cut, there are trainer and partner shortfalls…
- The ANSF will not be ready until 2016
- "Future year cuts in funding, equipment, trainers, and aid in sustainability could easily repeat the problems that occurred in Vietnam. Until mid-2011, plans called for levels of aid through 2024 that now may not be provided through 2015."

So LTC Davis may be correct in his local evaluation, but anyone paying attention to nothing more than news reports and other's studies about Sangin, Arghandab, and other RC-S and SW events would need to admit undeniable progress.

The main effort during LTC Davis tour was RC-S and SW. The Brits/Canadians fought well when they controlled those areas but lacked the resources the US Marines and Army brought during their surge. The Brits never seized the area around Kajaki dam, or Marjah and Now Zad. Even last night on National Geographic, British Soldiers commented on the lack of IED clearing assets available to them. Michael Yon previously commented on how British Soldiers were trapped in their multiple COPs with IEDs all around them. Similar decreases in security existed when the short-handed Canadians were a primary force in Kandahar driving around in G-wagons!

It is irrational to believe a country the size of Texas with nearly 30 million inhabitants living mainly in rural areas can be secured with limited numbers of nothing but special ops forces. That has nothing to do with COIN arguments. It has everything to do with METT-TC and PMESII-PT variables that would exist regardless of what you call the stability operations that invariably follow major combat operations.

When you have Uzbek and Tajik troops in Pashtun areas, of course there will be transition, language, and motivation problems. When you have a President who cannot equally represent all ethnicities and feather his relatives/friends nest, of course you have government legitimacy problems. That is not a function of US failures to clear and hold. It may be a problem with the costly "build" aspect that encourages greed and kleptocracy.

Who knows what will happen in the next two years. It probably will not be pretty due to decreasing resources as CSIS and common sense point out. However, should Pakistan feel they can assist the Taliban in retaking Afghanistan in 2015, I suspect a trained ANA with US airpower backing it up will be up to task ala the Easter Offensive of 1972 Vietnam. If the Taliban do retake Pashtun areas and attempt to move into areas controlled by the Northern Alliance, I suspect you will find a more motivated ANSF.


Mon, 02/06/2012 - 3:21pm

In reply to by TM

The LTCs assessments are fair because they are consistent with what people who are not associated with the military say. As you say gov pronouncements are not because they don't jibe with the realities you listed and with what people whose paychecks aren't issued by the US gov say. Essentially LTC Davis is just confirming what hundreds of other people who have been in hundreds of places in Afghanistan for years have been saying for years. The difference with him is he has enough pull to get it into a widely read professional publication.

The high generals and GSs have been saying for years that the Pak Army/ISI is a critical ally that gives us valuable help and we must continue to work with them. For years it has been apparent to anybody who cares to look and say what they see that the Pak Army/ISI is the critical factor underpinning Taliban & Co and they kill our men using our money. Those two things can't be reconciled by any thing other than a malign explanation. The generals aren't stupid so they see what the others see and they know what it means. The only way they can continue to say what they say is if they are lying, and they know they are lying.

I hope readers of SWJ will weigh in on this, if not in a stand-alone essay, than at least in comments. I am no longer in uniform, nor do I have nearly as much contact with service members as I used to, so I am curious to hear what people think about this.

Some questions that come to my mind:
- What civil-military issues are raised and how do current members of the profession view those issues?
- Did the LTC's travels really give him a chance to make a fair assessment of the situation?
- At what point does one become confident enough that he has a sufficiently complete picture to very publicly accuse senior leaders of not just error or omission, but deception, negligence, or even recklessness?

The latter two questions come to mind because I would be very hesitant to visit any location for a few days and think that I understand the situation there. Likewise, if I were to visit a hundred locations for a few days each, I would be hesitant to believe that I understand the larger picture. On my deployments (to Iraq), I never felt that I had a solid grasp of the situation in one locale until I had been there for at least a few weeks. Additionally, situations change over periods of weeks. So, even if I had understood an area well, that understanding would be quite dated within weeks of moving to another location.

On the other hand, much of what ISAF, the Pentagon, and our administration have said about operations in Afghanistan have simply not passed a basic smell test. We are unwilling or unable to define momentum, but we are told that we have reversed the Taliban momentum. One is left to wonder what on Earth momentum is, given that:
- the Taliban is becoming more entrenched
- the GIRoA is mired deeper in corruption and demonstrates no significant progress in developing governance capacity
- the Afghan people are increasingly dissatisfied by the GIRoA, and thus driven into the arms of the Taliban or other warlords
- Pakistan seems less cooperative than ever
- Taliban safe havens along the Af-Pak border seem to be too numerous to count
- Our most potent warfighting skill seems to be conducting targeted killings of the Taliban leaders whom we need to be co-opting or engaging through non-lethal means, thus ensuring that the mid-level leaders remain largely composed of younger and more extreme individuals who are more difficult for ISAF or the GIRoA to deal with.