All Americans have the right to hear the truth from our government and military leaders so we can make informed decisions about whether to invest lives and tax dollars in military entanglements. Our soldiers especially deserve this candor, as they are expected to risk their lives in service of a mission they are told is both achievable and necessary. Many of us who have been calling for a new strategy in Afghanistan have noted that the optimistic picture painted by the military does not square with many reports on the ground. Now we have a clear message that the situation in Afghanistan is far worse than military commanders would have us know, courtesy of Lt. Col. Daniel Davis—a whistleblower who, at great risk to his long military career, has exposed how the reality in Afghanistan doesn’t match the military’s trumped up progress reports.
Davis discusses the report he wrote (as of now, Army Public Affairs has not decided whether he can release the unclassified version publicly) in a piece in Armed Forces Journal. He shares incidents he witnessed traveling 9,000 miles around Afghanistan last year:
In August, I went on a dismounted patrol with troops in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province. 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?”
One of the senior enlisted leaders added, “Guys are saying, ‘I hope I live so I can at least get home to R&R leave before I get it,’ or ‘I hope I only lose a foot.’ Sometimes they even say which limb it might be: ‘Maybe it’ll only be my left foot.’ They don’t have a lot of confidence that the leadership two levels up really understands what they’re living here, what the situation really is.”
While he is limited in what he can share with the public, Davis shares some representative experiences that bring him to the conclusion that the mission in Afghanistan is failing [emphasis mine]:
In all of the places I visited, the tactical situation was bad to abysmal. If the events I have described — and many, many more I could mention — had been in the first year of war, or even the third or fourth, one might be willing to believe that Afghanistan was just a hard fight, and we should stick it out. Yet these incidents all happened in the 10th year of war.
Davis ends his piece by condemning military leaders for withholding the truth from the American people:
If Americans were able to compare the public statements many of our leaders have made with classified data, this credibility gulf would be immediately observable. Naturally, I am not authorized to divulge classified material to the public. But I am legally able to share it with members of Congress. 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…
…Likewise when having to decide whether to continue a war, alter its aims or to close off a campaign that cannot be won at an acceptable price, our senior leaders have an obligation to tell Congress and American people the unvarnished truth and let the people decide what course of action to choose. 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. Simply telling the truth would be a good start.
Davis’ report highlights how deference to the military in the public and Congress can be detrimental to US security and our ability to make the right decisions about war, as Martin Cook notes in the New York Times’ coverage of the report:
But Martin L. Cook, who teaches military ethics at the Naval War College, says Colonel Davis has identified a hazard that is intrinsic to military culture, in which a can-do optimism can be at odds with the strictest candor when a mission is failing.
“You’ve trained people to try to be successful even when half their buddies are dead and they’re almost out of ammo,” he said. “It’s very hard for them to say, ‘can’t do.’ ”
Lt. Col. Davis recognizes the potential backlash he faces, telling the Times, “I’m going to get nuked.” Davis briefed several members of Congress, and hopefully they will be able to shield Davis to some extent, and more importantly to ensure that these revelations get the attention they deserve and the leadership is held accountable. Republican Rep. Walter Jones (R-SC), one of the members who was briefed on the report, said “For Colonel Davis to go out on a limb and help us to understand what’s happening on the ground, I have the greatest admiration for him We owe a debt of gratitude to Davis for his brave stand.
The big question now is what the media and our political leaders do with this information. For the good of our nation, they should take Lt. Col. Davis’ message to heart: “How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding?”