Col. Davis Goes to Washington: A One-Man Battle for Truth-Telling About Afghanistan

When separate classified reports casting doubt on the military’s claims of progress in the Afghanistan war were discussed in the New York Times on January 20 and then by BBC (and Times of London) on February 1, my response to both incidents was to blame upper-level military figures for releasing the damaging information in order to reach the higher goal (for them) of maintaining the war effort in Afghanistan beyond the planned hand-off to Afghan forces. The timing seemed to fit well with a hope on their part that Republican presidential candidates would grab onto a campaign promise not to end the US war effort. However, after the second leak, I did receive one third- or fourth-hand report suggesting that it had been leaked by senior military officer upset by the lack of progress in Afghanistan who most definitely did not aim to prolong the war effort there.

With the publication of a story about him in today’s New York Times and publication yesterday of his own statement in the Armed Forces Journal, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis becomes the first mid-level officer willing to speak out about the lack of progress in Afghanistan and the military’s insistence on painting a false picture of success. [It should be noted up front that it seems quite unlikely Davis is behind either of the earlier leaks, as evidenced by the steps he has taken to separate public from classified information in the actions he has taken.] The Times article, titled “In Afghan War, Officer Becomes a Whistle-Blower”, describes the actions Davis has taken:

Since enlisting in the Army in 1985, he said, he had repeatedly seen top commanders falsely dress up a dismal situation. But this time, he would not let it rest. So he consulted with his pastor at McLean Bible Church in Virginia, where he sings in the choir. He watched his favorite movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” one more time, drawing inspiration from Jimmy Stewart’s role as the extraordinary ordinary man who takes on a corrupt establishment.

And then, late last month, Colonel Davis, 48, began an unusual one-man campaign of military truth-telling. 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.

The statement in the Armed Forces Journal opens in this way:

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.

The entire statement is compelling reading, and he provides ample evidence from his own direct experience of Afghan security forces openly cooperating with the Taliban rather than fighting them. These observations lend significant credence to the conclusion in the NATO report leaked to the BBC stating that the Taliban is poised to rapidly re-take control of Afghanistan once NATO troops withdraw.

Davis provides an equally compelling closing of his statement:

When it comes to deciding what matters are worth plunging our nation into war and which are not, our senior leaders owe it to the nation and to the uniformed members to be candid — graphically, if necessary — in telling them what’s at stake and how expensive potential success is likely to be. U.S. citizens and their elected representatives can decide if the risk to blood and treasure is worth it.

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.

It should be noted that Davis titled his statement “Truth, lies and Afghanistan”. Davis holds no illusions about what these actions will mean for his military career. Although the Times article notes that the officers to whom he reports have told him that right now he will not face “adverse actions”, he told the Times “I’m going to get nuked.”

It now appears that at least a few military officers have decided that they no longer can take part in painting a falsely optimistic picture of a war effort that is over ten years old and showing no path to anything close to “victory”. And although it now looks less likely that top military leaders were responsible for leaking the damaging information that is coming out, I still look for them to present the argument that the “best” strategy is to continue fighting and that “victory” still can be achieved. As the Times article notes, that attitude is simply ingrained in military leadership:

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.’ ”

Davis’ approach has been a very interesting one in the way he has briefed both members of the House of Representatives and Senators before taking his story public. By paying careful attention to what is classified and to whom he can speak on classified issues, Davis may have managed to avoid the whistle-blower persecution that characterizes the Obama administration. Will his actions prompt others to speak up along with him? Will he be able to change the official military narrative to one that is more realistic? Or will there be backlash of “patriotism” and militarism that relegates him to the dustbin of history as the “forever war” contingent wins yet again?

13 replies
  1. eCAHNomics says:

    Davis is a goner. No matter how careful he was, that will probably enrage the PTB even more.

    Besides he didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, and therein lies (heh) the problem. Everyone knows what’s really going on, but no one is allowed to say it. Emperor’s new clothes classic.

    Did make me wonder how hollowed out U.S. military is by empire. We have a lot of evidence about how hollowed out (to be polite) U.S. pols are, but military is better able to keep theirs secret.

  2. emptywheel says:

    Speaking of Davis’ success at negotiating whistleblower rules, I thought this quote from a Senior Admin Official on it was appalling.

    There are people at every piece of this — the Taliban, Islamabad, Kabul and Washington” — who object to or are trying to influence elements of the emerging strategy, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more candidly. “They use leaking as a tool.”

  3. host says:

    Undisclosed conflict of interests?
    Sunday, Feb 27, 2011 04:28 ET
    The military/media attacks on the Hastings article
    By Glenn Greenwald

    …and an obviously angry Lara Logan of CBS News strongly insinuated (with no evidence) that Hastings had lied about whether the comments were on-the-record and then infamously sneered: “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.”

    2002 Joint realty purchase:

    Lara Logan’s producer, Max McClellan, is on record saying he began working for her in March, 2006.
    The Public Eye Chat With … Max McClellan
    September 27, 2007
    …Matthew Felling: How long have you been producing Lara Logan’s work?

    Max McClellan: I’ve been working with Lara since March 2006. So, about a year and a half. In fact, she works with many producers, particularly when she’s in Iraq for long stretches, but my current assignment is to work exclusively with her…
    Atlantic Page, M. C. McClellan
    Published: November 07, 1999

    Atlantic French Page, the daughter of Garril Goss Page of San Anselmo, Calif., and Charles Hall Page of San Francisco, was married yesterday to Maxwell Couper McClellan, a son of Elizabeth B. Powers of Weston, Vt., and James O. McClellan of Hilton Head, S.C. ….

    ….Mr. McClellan, 34, is the White House producer for ”The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather.” He graduated from Haverford College….

    McClellan’s mother-in-law, in March, 2006 when he first began producing Lara Logan, was the sister of the then DCI, Porter Goss.
    Paid Notice: Deaths GOSS, VIRGINIA JOHNSTON – New York Times – Sep 25, 1997
    GOSS-Virginia Johnston, at Sanibel, FL., on September 23, 1997. … by two sons, Richard W. and Porter J., 2 daughters, Wayne G. Douglas & Garril G. Page, .

  4. Bob Schacht says:

    Well then, no wonder that Obama selected a politician to head DOD: managing the withdrawal from Afghanistan will require superb political skills. Ican also understand why Obama decided to take Petraus out of that environment.

    I think Davis might well survive any backlash from the Pentagon. But what Obama really has to fear is Republicans who will portray the withdrawal as weakness. They will try to tag him as the person who “lost” Afghanistan. Therefore, Obama needs voices like Davis’s to become an important part of the narrative.

    Bob in AZ

  5. joanneleon says:

    I’m floored. But I am so glad that someone had the courage and integrity to come out and do this. I imagine his life will not be easy from this point forward. He was very careful though.

    I was impressed by the way he talked about the American people’s consent to wage this war.

    The biggest political problem here, IMHO, is that Obama made this his war by escalating it and Davis says that the surge was a complete failure.

  6. Jim White says:

    @joanneleon: Yes, his actions were just so impressive on many levels. I also was thrilled that in the discussion of the people’s consent, he put in context of civilian control of the military. It’s clear from reading Michael Hastings’ “The Operators” that McChrystal and his entourage had zero respect for Obama or civilians in general. They are not alone in the military with that attitude, but at least Davis shows us it doesn’t have to be that way.

  7. PeasantParty says:

    The man is yet another one that takes his Military Oath serious. He has just done more than the entire DOD, Pentagon, and all branches of the Civil services to protect his comrades from blood, injury, and defeat. He has done more to save this country from complete financial ruin than any single one of those buzzard brains in Washington.

    Add him to the hero list. Protecting this country from Foreign and Domestic threat!

  8. rugger9 says:

    @Jim White: #6
    Most of us who serve(d) don’t want dictatorship, as we are citizens first. Those of us in the front lines also know we’ll pay first for stupidity. COL Davis is in for a lot of hassles, but I’m pretty sure he thought this through and documented his tracks well. That being said, since the last two WHs have been prone to insta-classify and insta-declassify Davis may find himself being hammered for release of classified information.

    Anyone want to help him pro bono? He might need it. Military optimism has an old history, it was one of the tragedies involved in Gallipoli, for example, and tends to permit the PTBs to waste lives and treasure on lost causes. Of course Exxon, Chevron, Shell, Halliburton still want their pipeline protected in Afghanistan, but maybe they need to hire their own army.

  9. David Milton Lynn says:

    It it just me or do the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan seem to be following the same failed strageties. Just what were our goals in Afghanistan to begin with? Both with weak and ineffective governments. Both Afgan and South Viet soldiers, police, and government officials filled with corruption. Both with countries close by that are “off limits” to go into to root out the enemy (Cambodia and Laos in Vietnam, Pakistan and Iran in Afghanistan). Didn’t we learn from the Vietnam War that we cannot win with such failed policies?

  10. Bob Schacht says:

    @David Milton Lynn:

    …Just what were our goals in Afghanistan to begin with?…

    The original goals were to defeat Al Qaeda and its allies who had participated in the attach on the WTC. But of course, once there, new justifications were invented. Just like the rationale for invading Iraq kept changing every few weeks.

    Bob in AZ

  11. shekissesfrogs says:

    @David Milton Lynn:

    …Just what were our goals in Afghanistan to begin with?…

    Shock and Awl.

    Oil barons court Taliban in Texas 12/14/1997

    THE Taliban, Afghanistan’s Islamic fundamentalist army, is about to sign a £2 billion contract with an American oil company to build a pipeline across the war-torn country.
    The Islamic warriors appear to have been persuaded to close the deal, not through delicate negotiation but by old-fashioned Texan hospitality. Last week Unocal, the Houston-based company bidding to build the 876-mile pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, invited the Taliban to visit them in Texas…

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