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Reports on Afghanistan war too rosy? Army officer, others say yes.

An Army officer sets the Pentagon, Capitol Hill buzzing with a published complaint that US military leaders are not being honest about slow progress in the Afghanistan war. He's not the only doubter.

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Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, noted just such a gap, saying during a hearing that she was “concerned by what appears to be a disparity” in public testimony among Pentagon leaders about progress in Afghanistan and “the bleaker description” in classified intelligence reports.

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Rather than deliberately mislead, military officers tend to emphasize the can-do spirit expected of career soldiers rather than problems that could be jeopardizing the war effort, when they are asked to speak publicly, some analysts note. Others may worry of the career-curbing impact of delivering news that those in power may not want to hear.

In many cases, US military leaders of the current wars have internalized a troubling lesson from Vietnam, argues Army Col. Paul Yingling: “If you can’t speak the truth, speak in truisms.” 

Yingling, who wrote “A Failure in Generalship,” a widely regarded and widely discussed 2007 Armed Forces Journal article, cites his picks for the top truisms of the Afghanistan war:

  • We’re making progress, though it’s uneven and uncertain.
  • There will be setbacks and hard fighting ahead.
  • Our hard-won progress is fragile and reversible.
  • The next six months are critical.

These oft-repeated phrases tend to produce eye-rolling among many who follow the war, because they have come to mean so little. “There are almost no conceivable circumstances in which they would not be true,” notes Yingling, in an e-mail. “No matter what happens, a senior leader can point to one of these truisms and claim, ‘I warned you.’ "

More troubling is that such truisms “justify continued fighting while minimizing the likelihood of anyone being held accountable for the results of such fighting,” Yingling adds.

For his part, Davis concludes in his article that a lack of candor is not patriotic, but rather ultimately does a disservice to the United States. When it comes time to decide whether to go to war – or whether to continue one – “our senior leaders have an obligation to tell Congress and American people the unvarnished truth,” he writes. “That is the very essence of civilian control of the military. The American people deserve better than what they’ve gotten from their senior uniformed leaders over the last number of years.”

The Pentagon has declined to comment on Davis's article. 

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