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.

Rahmat Gul/AP/File
In this November 2011 file photo, Afghans watch the scene of a roadside bomb in Laghman, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. The Afghanistan war may not be going as well as Americans think, an army officer and others say.

Are US military leaders being honest about how the war in Afghanistan is going? No – and to a troubling extent, argues an Army lieutenant colonel who served there last year.

In an article that is creating buzz in the halls of the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis argues that not only is the war in Afghanistan not going well, but also that his fellow US military officers – whether due to a misguided “can do” spirit or a fear of repercussions within their chains of command – are misleading the American people.

This apparent lack of candor, in turn, is creating what Davis calls a “credibility gap,” making it impossible to allow US citizens and lawmakers to “decide if the risk to blood and treasure” inherent in America’s wars is “worth it.”

Published Sunday in Armed Forces Journal, produced by Gannett, “Truth, lies and Afghanistan: How military leaders have let us down” begins with Davis emphasizing that, upon his arrival in Afghanistan in late 2010, he was “sincerely hoping" to learn that Pentagon officials' consistent claims – "that conditions in Afghanistan were improving, that the local government and the military were progressing towards self-sufficiency" – were true.

“I did not need to witness dramatic improvements to be reassured,” he writes, “but merely hoped to see evidence of positive trends, to see companies or battalions produce even minimal but sustainable progress.” 

Instead, “I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level.” He cites the inability of Afghan soldiers and police to handle security in many parts of the country, and the continued widespread influence of the Taliban.

“I’m hardly the only one who has noted the discrepancy between official statements and the truth on the ground,” he says, citing a 2011 report by an Afghan organization which noted that US military assessments routinely differ from those of other international military forces in the country and are “solely intended to influence American and European public opinion ahead of the withdrawal.”

Defense analysts outside the Pentagon, for their part, have long grappled with disparities between official intelligence assessments and what they hear behind closed doors, but some argue that the tendency to “spin” is getting worse as US forces prepare to leave. “Since June 2010, the unclassified reporting the US does provide has steadily shrunk in content, effectively ‘spinning’ the road to victory by eliminating content that illustrates the full scale of the challenges ahead,” writes Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a piece cited by Davis. 

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.

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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