The outgoing Pentagon senior enlisted adviser and his incoming replacement weighed in on reporting Monday that military leaders have been misleading the American people about the direction and success of the war in Afghanistan since within months of U.S. troops hitting the ground in October 2001, roundly denying that they ever felt lied to about the mission and touting the progress the country has made in the intervening years.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, the senior enlisted adviser to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, told reporters that while he had not fully read the Washington Posts’s “Afghanistan papers” story, he disagreed with assertions that either the troops or public had been manipulated into believing a certain narrative about the war.
“It has been baby steps as we move forward to assist the Afghan military in securing the Afghan nation,” Troxell said. “And it’s going to be step by step as we get after business.”
The documents, compiled from hundreds of interviews with national security leaders as part of an internal Pentagon review, detail statements by top leadership in the Pentagon and Afghanistan ― including Milley, as a three-star general ― lamenting the lack of clear strategy in the country and the moving goal posts for metrics of success.
“I’ve been to Afghanistan 10 times in the last four years in this job and I feel that we’ve never been lied to and we are continuing to move forward,” he said, adding that he served as the senior enlisted adviser to the International Security Assistance Force in 2011 and, “I firmly thought the strategy we had in place was working.”
Troxell was joined Monday by Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Ramon Colon-Lopez, a career special operations pararescueman, who also weighed in on his experiences deployed to Afghanistan.
“The men and women that have been going back to since 2002 to perform this mission have been pouring their heart and soul into its success,” he said.
And, he added, he never questioned his superior officers’ orders during the many capture-or-kill missions he completed in the country.
“We were there with a purpose," he said. "And up to today, from 2002, I will tell you that there’s a lot more safety and security because of the actions taken ― not only by myself, personally, but by my peers.”
Their comments were in sharp contrast to those of more than 600 national security officials, intelligence experts and top military commanders interviewed during the “Lessons Learned” project, which lasted from 2015 to 2018.
Interviewees said that the strategy ping-ponged from retribution for 9/11 and a take-down of al-Qaida and the Taliban organization that allowed them to train and plan in Afghanistan, to full-blown nation building.
“Our policy was to create a strong central government which was idiotic because Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central government,” a former State Department official said in 2015, according to documents obtained by the Post. “The timeframe for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn’t have.”
The opposite perspectives illustrate the vast difference between the somewhat compartmentalized mission that lower-ranking troops carry out during any given deployment and the larger strategy cobbled together by top officials throughout the Pentagon, White House, State Department and intelligence community.
In a statement Monday, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America responded to the report, urging Americans to recognize the difference between the troops on the ground and the national security establishment that has molded the outcomes in Afghanistan.
“The post-9/11 generation of veterans cannot be subject to the same mistreatment that Vietnam War veterans experienced upon their return from service,” IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler said. “Veterans of the War in Afghanistan have done everything this country asked of them – they put their heads down and worked hard to achieve the missions they were assigned. Public perception of veterans must be kept separate from the political blame game.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.