The US military has a “can do” culture. When assigned a mission, the question is not whether it is a good idea, or whether it is even achievable, but how to get the mission done, preferably with minimum casualties to own forces. That’s the way you fight and win, from the squad level up to corps. Failure is not an option, not for the men in the field, not for those who command them.
In between the grunts with muddy boots and the generals in their hooches, there are countless layers of intermediaries. A platoon leader may tell his company commander that his troops are being wasted, the company commander in turn will tell his battalion commander that he needs more resources, the battalion commander will report to his brigade commander that the troops are struggling manfully with the resources at hand, and the brigade commander will report to the division staff that the fight is being manfully taken to the enemy. Division tells corps that things are looking up, and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Which, in the case of Afghanistan, is somewhere between the summer of 2013 and the end of 2014. This is by no means a uniquely military facet of organizational culture.
Not everyone decides to play the game, including one Lieutenant Colonel Danny L. Davis, a veteran of four combat deployments and two to Afghanistan:
I spent last year in Afghanistan, visiting and talking with U.S. troops and their Afghan partners. My duties with the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force took me into every significant area where our soldiers engage the enemy. Over the course of 12 months, I covered more than 9,000 miles and talked, traveled and patrolled with troops in Kandahar, Kunar, Ghazni, Khost, Paktika, Kunduz, Balkh, Nangarhar and other provinces.
What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground.
Entering this deployment, I was sincerely hoping to learn that the claims were true: that conditions in Afghanistan were improving, that the local government and military were progressing toward self-sufficiency. I did not need to witness dramatic improvements to be reassured, 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.
Lt. Col. Davis took the unusual step of publishing his critique of the Afghan campaign outside normal Army communications channels:
He wrote two reports, one unclassified and the other classified, summarizing his observations on the candor gap with respect to Afghanistan. He briefed four members of Congress and a dozen staff members, spoke with a reporter for The New York Times, sent his reports to the Defense Department’s inspector general — and only then informed his chain of command that he had done so…
“No one expects our leaders to always have a successful plan,” he says in the article. “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…”
Last March, for example, Mr. Petraeus, then an Army general, testified before the Senate that the Taliban’s momentum had been “arrested in much of the country” and that progress was “significant,” though fragile, and “on the right azimuth” to allow Afghan forces to take the lead in combat by the end of 2014.
Colonel Davis fiercely disputes such assertions and says few of the troops believe them. At the same time, he is acutely aware of the chasm in stature that separates him from those he is criticizing, and he has no illusions about the impact his public stance may have on his career.
“I’m going to get nuked,” he said in an interview last month.
He may well too, although for now official Army responses have been muted. Time will tell, both for Lt. Col Davis, and for our efforts in Afghanistan.