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The ‘Stan: An officer's unvarnished view

There's an ‘absence of success on ... every level,' lieutenant colonel writes

Feb. 6, 2012 - 10:13AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 6, 2012 - 10:13AM  |  
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An Army officer is fed up with "rosy official statements" that paint Afghanistan as a picture of progress, and he is demanding military leaders come clean about the "absence of success on virtually every level."

"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?" Lt. Col. Daniel Davis asked in a four-page essay titled "Truth, Lies & Afghanistan: How military leaders have let us down."

"No one expects our leaders to always have a successful plan. But we do expect and the men who do the living, fighting and dying deserve to have our leaders tell us the truth about what's going on," Davis wrote.

Davis' essay, based on an 82-page report he wrote, will appear in the January/February issue of Armed Forces Journal, a sister publication of Army Times. The http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/2012/02/8904030">essay can be found on AFJ's website, www.armedforcesjournal.com.

The full report received security clearance from the Army, Davis said, but he was ordered by public affairs to hold its publication until an internal review could be conducted. Public affairs officials said that would not be completed until the end of February, Davis said.

Davis, who has been an outspoken critic of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, provided the essay to Armed Forces Journal. He said he could not comment further because of a deal made with a New York Times reporter.

This latest report follows a yearlong tour with the Rapid Equipping Force in which Davis covered more than 9,000 miles. In the essay, the armor officer said he interviewed or had conversations with more than 250 soldiers ranging from privates to division commanders, and spoke at length with Afghan security officials, Afghan civilians and village elders.

"What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground," Davis wrote in the essay. He goes on to say conditions are not improving, local government and military are not progressing toward self-sufficiency, insurgents control virtually every piece of land beyond eyesight of allied bases, and local governments are unable to provide basic needs.

Davis said soldiers lack confidence that leadership "two levels up" understands the situation they face daily and described the tactical situation as "bad to abysmal."

"In August, I went on a dismounted patrol with troops in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province," Davis wrote. "Several troops from the unit had recently been killed in action, one of whom was a very popular and experienced soldier. One of the unit's senior officers rhetorically asked me, ‘How do I look these men in the eye and ask them to go out day after day on these missions? What's harder: How do I look [my soldier's] wife in the eye when I get back and tell her that her husband died for something meaningful? How do I do that?'"

Davis' article said much of the supporting evidence from this, his fourth combat tour, is classified. Though unable to publicly distribute such material, he is legally able to share it with members of Congress and said he has done so.

"I have accordingly provided a much fuller accounting in a classified report to several members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, senators and House members," he wrote.

Sanitized stories

Davis' essay does convey sanitized stories "to illuminate the gulf between conditions on the ground and official statements of progress." And the picture is not pretty. It describes an increase in Taliban attacks, especially against nationals, that has gone largely unreported. The Afghan National Police force is afraid to leave the cover of checkpoints or pursue Taliban attackers, he said, adding that one local official in Kunar province said Afghan National Security Forces are "definitely not capable" of holding out against the Taliban when U.S. troops leave the area. Many of these forces are beaten and even killed for helping the Americans, and expect to lose their jobs when the coalition leaves, the report said.

The essay works to show that Davis is not alone in his observations. It cites a January 2011 report by the Afghan Nongovernmental Organization Security Office that described public statements made by coalition leaders as "solely intended to influence American and European public opinion ahead of the withdrawal, and are not intended to offer an accurate portrayal of the situation for those who live and work here."

It also quotes Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who in February 2011 said coalition leadership failed to accurately report the reality of the situation in Afghanistan.

"Since June 2010, the unclassified reporting the U.S. 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," Cordesman wrote in the article "Afghanistan and the Uncertain Metrics of Progress."

"They also, however, were driven by political decisions to ignore or understate Taliban and insurgent gains from 2002 to 2009, to ignore the problems caused by weak and corrupt Afghan governance, to understate the risks posed by sanctuaries in Pakistan, and to ‘spin' the value of tactical [International Security Assistance Force] victories while ignoring the steady growth of Taliban influence and control."

Davis said the situation has deteriorated to the point that he observed Afghan security forces collude with the Taliban.

Loyalty among Afghan security contractors was a point of contention in a Feb. 1 House Armed Services Committee hearing. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., committee chairman, said the "screening and vetting has been tragically weak" and failed to identify 42 attackers who struck U.S. and coalition forces from 2007 through 2011.

Six percent of overall NATO deaths in Afghanistan have been attributed to attacks by Afghan security forces, according to a confidential alliance report leaked to the media last month. The killing of four French unarmed soldiers at the hands of an Afghan they were training last month prompted French President Nicolas Sarkozy to end his country's combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2013.

‘Nothing but contempt'

In his report, Davis said that "to a man, the U.S. officers in that unit told me they had nothing but contempt for the Afghan troops in their area."

Critical comments such as these have had career-ending consequences in recent months. Most notable is Maj. Gen. Peter Fuller, who was fired Nov. 4 for saying Afghan leaders, to include President Hamid Karzai, were "isolated from reality."

Fuller was deputy commander of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan and responsible for training Afghan security forces. He slammed Karzai in a Politico interview after the Afghan president said his nation would side with Pakistan in a war against the U.S.

"Why don't you just poke me in the eye with a needle!" Politico quoted Fuller as saying. "You've got to be kidding me. I'm sorry, we just gave you $11.6 billion and now you're telling me, ‘I don't really care'? ... They don't understand the sacrifices that America is making to provide for their security. And I think that's part of my job to educate ‘em."

Fuller repeatedly said the Afghan leaders don't appreciate the sacrifice that the U.S. was making in "blood and treasure" for the sake of their country.

Marine Gen. John R. Allen, commander of ISAF, immediately fired Fuller.

"These unfortunate comments are neither indicative of our current solid relationship with the government of Afghanistan, its leadership, or our joint commitment to prevail here in Afghanistan," Allen said in a statement. "The Afghan people are an honorable people, and comments such as these will not keep us from accomplishing our most critical and shared mission bringing about a stable, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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