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Lessons from a Surge Skeptic

LTC Daniel Davis reflects on the state of the Army as Afghanistan winds down.
LTC Daniel Davis

Being right doesn’t always feel like success, or victory. Sometimes being right means a lot of people are getting hurt, hospitals are swelling with patients, and the caskets keep coming into Dover Air Force base, cloaked in flags and misery.

In 2009, at the risk of his own military career, Army Lt. Col. Daniel “Danny” Davis came forward to oppose the so-called “surge” of tens of thousands of new U.S. troops into Afghanistan. He predicted in a publicly released report that the proposed surge, which Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal were then dead-set on pursuing, “could actually result in a worsening of the situation” in Afghanistan.

Petraeus and McChrystal got their way—30,000 new deployments announced in December 2009. Davis, who enlisted in the army in 1985 and served as a fire support officer in the 2nd Armored Calvary Regiment during the Persian Gulf War, watched from a distance as the counterinsurgency effort (COIN) soon went south—just as he predicted.

Nearly two years later, after traveling extensively across Afghanistan with an Army Ready Equipping Force in 2011, Davis took another chance and publicly blasted senior commanders for not being truthful with the American people about how poorly the war was going overseas.

Making headlines all over the globe, he published “Truth, Lies and Afghanistan: How Our Military Leaders Let us Down,” in the Armed Forces Journal in February 2012. Rolling Stone then published an unclassified version of a report Davis had sent to Congress a month earlier, entitled, “Dereliction of Duty II: Senior Military Leaders’ Loss of Integrity Wounds Afghan War Effort.”  Davis met with members of Congress about his concerns, and sent another report to the Pentagon inspector general. He laid down the gauntlet.

From “Truth, Lies and Afghanistan”:

Senior ranking US military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the US Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable.  …

The single greatest penalty our Nation has suffered, however, has been that we have lost the blood, limbs and lives of tens of thousands of American Service Members with little to no gain to our country as a consequence of this deception.

“Unfortunately, when I got on the ground, everything I saw confirmed my every fear,” he tells TAC about his time in Afghanistan. “In regions that were most important to us in the south and the east of the country, there were vast areas that we didn’t have any influence at all, much less control.”

He was there at the height of the surge he’d opposed. He spoke with commanders, platoon sergeants, and troops who were exchanging fire with the Taliban daily. There was some 150,000 U.S. servicemembers in-country at the time, and there was no fight the Americans did not win. Yet “we were just moving the clock down the road—no success, because there was no unified strategy.”

“I absolutely love the tactical fighting men, they are great Americans,” added Davis, now 50. In Afghanistan, every unit was doing the best with the terrain they’d been given, he recalls.  “The problem is, that only works on a tactical level.” There was no progress, as far as he could see, toward the stated goals of COIN.  But casualties mounted, as did the civilian crises, just the same.

“You’re like, this is a complete waste of American life for no gain in the country.”

Now Davis appears vindicated in both his warnings and observations. He’s called a hero and a whistleblower, and even won the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling in 2012. But it’s a sick feeling, he says, knowing what was lost along the way.

On Wednesday, The Washington Post published a grim front-page feature about the nearly forgotten American casualties—“the last casualties”—of a war that many Americans here at home have already forgotten.

… the war continues to churn out American casualties by the dozen each week. Their injuries rarely make headlines.

…military health-care experts say those wounded in battle are coming home more severely injured than at any time since 2006, a sobering sign of the strength of the insurgency at the twilight of the war.

Back in Washington, there seems to be broad acknowledgement that the U.S. has achieved nothing of major strategic importance since 2009. But it did pour billions into reconstruction projects and Afghan security forces no one is certain can last without constant feeding and tending.

Meanwhile, there’s no more boasting about “rousting” the Taliban from the country. If anything, security is worse now that the U.S. presence is shrinking, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai seems wholly determined to badger the Americans all the way to the door. The stability of the Afghan government is uncertain, and the population is still mired in poverty, corruption, and a growing human rights crisis.

About the time Davis published his surge treatise in 2009, former Foreign Service officer (and Marine) Matthew Hoh became the first administration official to quit in protest to the Afghanistan War. The two became fast friends. “He and I have frequently said there is no good feeling about our being right about these things because of the profound human cost,” says Davis.

At the time, Davis had preferred the “Go Deep” approach (a smaller, focused counterterrorism strategy that concentrated on training Afghan military and police and building up civil institutions) over to the “Go Big” approach Petraeus and McChrystal so clearly saw as an extension of the surge in Iraq. Now, thanks to years of failure, Davis is afraid nothing will work.

“As a result of a series of American leaders saying, year after year, that the mission was succeeding—when clearly it was not—faith in America’s ability to find a solution was irreparably damaged,” he said.

“There is no ‘good’ solution now,” he added.  “The best we can do is manage the situation to prevent things spiraling out of control and getting worse.”

He wrote about this in a new article entitled, “Should the Military Pull All Forces Out of Afghanistan After 2014?” (his answer, unequivocally, is yes), for The Daily Beast. The military has advocated keeping a residual force of 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. and NATO forces in the country to keep it from falling apart.

Davis writes:

When I was serving on the ground in Afghanistan during the summer of 2011, there were nearly 150,000 US and NATO troops. These forces never lost a single tactical fight to the Taliban.

…Yet the cumulative efforts of this massive force had virtually no impact on the course of the war. Today the security situation on the ground is indistinguishable from what it was three years ago.

What is a force of 10,000 going to accomplish that 150,000 did not?

Since the beginning of 2010, 1,857 U.S. and coalition troops have perished in Afghanistan, with thousands more injured, many for life. In addition, 14,064 civilians have been killed just in the last five years, according to new figures. “There is nothing you can do now but get more Americans killed or wounded, and sacrifice more Afghan lives,” Davis tells TAC. “At the end of the day, you achieve nothing, you just spend more lives and limb.”

If Davis angered the brass with his outspoken views and proclivity to voice them publicly (this began way back, during the first Gulf War), it didn’t hurt his career. He’s still working on the Army staff in Washington.

By 2012—when “Dereliction of Duty” was published—he surmises that most people were no longer willing to waste time or their own credibility disputing his charges. “I don’t recall a single exception to this: everyone acknowledged what I acknowledged,” he recalls.

Sure, there were exceptions—with at least some attempts by the insider military blogosphere to cast doubt on the veracity of Davis’s Afghanistan observations.

“I was prepared for a real critique and came away profoundly disappointed. Every veteran has an important story, but this work is a mess,” wrote (Ret.) Col. Joseph Collins, a professor at the National War College, for Tom Ricks’s blog, Best Defense, in Feb. 2012.

“Davis is not a hero, but he will go into the whistleblower hall of fame. If years hence, he doesn’t make full Colonel, it will be construed as punishment, but there is nothing in this report that suggests he has any such potential.”

Davis admits things were awkward at the time.

“People were afraid to talk to me, but it could’ve been a lot worse,” Davis says. “I will tell you, as much as I have some issues with senior military leaders, I have to give credit where it belongs, and they did not take any action against me. I respect that, really I do.”

It hasn’t stopped Davis from going after the brass without pause. In August 2013, he wrote, “Purge the Generals,” highlighting 20 years of war and program failures that have only led to more promotions and more generals. Like others, he laments budget decisions that diminish the fighting force while leaving a top-heavy officer corps in place. Furthermore, he says, the wrong people are being promoted.

“There are some brilliant, wonderful, moral guys with integrity who you would like your son or daughter to be like,” he says. Unfortunately, “as they start moving up [the chain of command], those aren’t the characteristics they’re now looking for in four-stars.”

That certainly goes for our most popular generals of recent history, Petraeus and McChrystal, who, Davis believes, “should be the first ones censured” for the failures of Afghanistan. This isn’t political, he says, this is about learning lessons for the future.

“There is a broad understanding that ‘conservative’ means you are a hawk. I consider myself a conservative and to me, conservative means intelligence and not going off the deep end,” he says.

“The first thought that comes in about me is that I’m an antiwar guy. But I’m just an American guy, who says let’s not throw away our treasure to trash.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.



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