HAVANA TIMES, April 11 — In an extended interview, we speak with Lt. Col. Danny Davis, the most prominent active-duty service member to question the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
In his damning report following his return from his second year-long deployment in Afghanistan, Davis draws on about 250 interviews with U.S. soldiers as well as Afghans across the country to conclude: “Senior ranking U.S. military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the U.S. Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable.”
Davis asks how many more must die in support of a mission that’s not succeeding. “When you’re given a mission that cannot — cannot — succeed militarily, then what is the purpose of the mission?”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Suicide bombers in Afghanistan struck two government offices on Tuesday, killing at least 15 people, as militants step up their attacks with the arrival of warmer weather. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s defense minister has announced plans for a major reduction of Afghan military and police forces after the NATO mission there is set to end in 2014. The plan is based in part on an expected decline in foreign funding for the security forces, from $7 billion a year to about $4 billion. NATO’s foreign forces are already being reduced.
As the war in Afghanistan continues into its 11th year, a damning report from a military insider finds conditions on the ground bear no resemblance to statements made by senior U.S. military officials. Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, who returned in October from his second year-long deployment in Afghanistan, conducted about 250 interviews with U.S. soldiers, as well as with Afghans across the country, traveling over 9,000 miles during his deployment.
Part of thereport was published in the Armed Forces Journal in an article called “Truth, Lies and Afghanistan.” In the opening lines, Davis writes, quote, “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.” Davis argues that local Afghan governments are unable to provide the basic needs of the people and that insurgents control virtually all parts of Afghanistan beyond eyeshot of a U.S. base.
MICHAEL HASTINGS: I think it’s one of the most significant documents that we’ve seen from an active-duty Army officer in terms of how they view the war in Afghanistan, even the war in Iraq. You can look at this as a significant document about the last 10 years of conflict in America. And it’s not so much as what Colonel Davis is saying, though that’s very important, too. It’s the fact that you have a 17-year Army veteran, who’s done four tours—two in Afghanistan and two in Iraq—who has decided to risk his entire career—because he has two-and-a-half more years left before he gets a pension—because he feels that he has a moral obligation to do so.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone magazine, who first published Lieutenant Colonel Davis’s 86-page report.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported Tuesday at least 1,800 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in October 2001.
To talk more about Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis joins us now from Washington, D.C. He’s an active-duty serving Army officer assigned to the Pentagon and a 17-year Army veteran. Davis has been deployed into combat zones four times in his career. He has been a frequent contributor to major publications in the U.S. and around the world. Later this month, Davis will be awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling. The award, sponsored by the Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation, honors whistleblowers and truth-tellers in American life.
Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis , we welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you tell us what were the most startling findings in your report?
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Well, I think it’s pretty clear that when you read, as I did in the months leading up to my deployment, which began in November of 2010, you know, that things are on the improve, things are getting better, the surge was having success, that the Afghan National Security Forces were improving, etc. Then when you arrive on the ground, then you’re very hopeful to see evidence of those things. I was on record in the Armed Forces Journal and several other publications prior to this deployment, where I had acknowledged and warned that things were not going well. I had hoped that the leaders knew things that I didn’t know and that when I got on the ground, I would discover things that I had not seen that would in fact confirm that things were going well. And I was very hopeful of that, because—I’ll be very blunt and tell you—I have no personal interest in, quote, “being right,” as I do to see the United States succeed and to certainly to bring a war to an end to where Americans aren’t getting killed, Afghan people are not getting killed. So nothing would have made me happier than to get there and to find out that things were in fact getting better. Regrettably, however, that is not at all what I saw.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lieutenant Colonel Davis, can you say a little about the scope of your report? You interviewed a large number of U.S. soldiers, 250, as well as Afghans. Can you say a little bit about the Afghans you spoke to and the Americans that you spoke to in Afghanistan?
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Yeah. You know, I will argue that I may have had the single best seat to really get an idea of what’s going on in Afghanistan of anybody. And that may seem a little counterintuitive at first, because I’m a relatively mid-level-ranking soldier, and there’s a lot higher, and there’s a lot of other people that have greater access to certain locations, etc. But owing to the nature of my job and responsibilities there, which was to ensure that units had the kind of equipment that they needed to succeed, if they didn’t have something, how to—that they needed to get it, etc., so my job was to travel around all over the country and talk to leaders at every level, from the division commander or what’s called a regional command, in this case, two-star generals, all the way down to brigade commanders, battalion company platoon leaders, all the way down to the soldiers that are going out on patrol. I’m high enough in rank to where some of the senior officers would—you know, would talk to me and tell me what they really thought about things, because they had an incentive to tell me ground truth, because, you know, the idea was to—what can we do to help your troops out in the field? And obviously, the guys out in the field also had an incentive to tell me exactly what was going on, as well. And I’m not so high in rank that any of them would be intimidated by me, and they had motivation to tell me, you know, ground truth so that I could perhaps help them get some equipment or gear that they needed in order to do their job more effectively and to be able to stay alive, which, incidentally, was one of the bright points, I guess, in this deployment, because I was able to do things that, you know, would actually help keep troops alive. And that was very rewarding to me. Unfortunately, it was almost working at cross-purposes when I saw the things going on.
So, I didn’t want to just go to offices and talk to people. I didn’t want to just go to brigade commands and that kind of thing. But I wanted to—first, to do that, but then also to go out where the things are happening, you know, to go outside the wire, to go on dismounted patrols, to go on mounted patrols, to attend some coalition patrols, to talk to the—what’s called the key leader engagements, where we visited with the Afghan leaders, with the Afghan people. And I was able to do parts of all those in virtually every important part of Afghanistan over the course of 12 months, from the north to the east to the southeast and into the south of the country. So I really had a good view to be able to say what’s going on out there, I believe.
AMY GOODMAN: You issued two reports: a classified report and an unclassified report. Talk about the difference between them.
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Well, the difference between them is more in substance—or rather, more in criteria, I suppose, than in substance, meaning that the end result of both of them and the conclusion that they draw are basically the same. So, if you only have access to the unclassified document, you still get a real good idea of what’s going on. The purpose of putting the classified version together was that the disparity between what is said and what was known at the time things were said is considerably starker than in the unclassified versions, as may be obvious. And so, you know, periodically, you’ve heard some senior leaders say, “Well, if you knew the classified information, then, you know, this would be much more clear, but I can’t talk about that,” you know, kind of hiding behind a curtain so that no one could ask any further questions. And I didn’t want that defense to be able to be leveled, and so that’s why I wanted to make certain that members of Congress had this report, so that they could see for themselves that in fact things are not the way they were portrayed, and what you see in public is actually less stark than what is known in private.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lieutenant Colonel Davis, in your report you give several examples of concrete instances in which what you saw makes it clear that what U.S. military officials have been saying is untrue. So could you give us one or two examples of that?
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Yeah, sure. As a kind of a table setter, any time a counterinsurgency—if you’re going to go into one and to try to win it, there are several things that have to happen, and all of them have to happen to one degree or another. Number one is that the host nation government has to be at least minimally capable, within cultural norms. The local security forces have to be minimally capable to be able to handle the security environment that exists, whatever that happens to be. The people of the country have to be supportive of the host nation military forces and government. And the enemy forces, the insurgent force, has to be at least knocked down enough to where they can eventually be handled by the local forces alone. All of those things have to happen to one degree or another. And as I’ll argue, virtually none of them are the case in Afghanistan.
Now, we’ve certainly read numerous reports and been given press briefings and whatnot by numerous folks that have very high-ranking collars, that that in fact is happening, that things are on track, that we’re, you know, trending in the right direction, that we’re on the right azimuth, is one of the other famous comments and whatnot. So, if that’s true, then you would expect to see evidence of that on the ground. As I’ve—you may have mentioned earlier in this broadcast, I was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, so I had a baseline observation of what things were like in Afghanistan several years ago. And so, when I go into it now in late 2010 and early 2011, then I, first of all, see a dramatic difference between what I saw then and what I saw in the second half.
Thirdly, if what has been said is true, that things are trending better, then you would expect to see, through numerous observations in different parts of the country, looking at the Afghan security forces, that you would be able to see some improvement, that you would be able to see some competency, some going on. Now, nobody expects the Afghan security forces to ever be anything close to resembling what the U.S. armed forces is, so that’s not the standard. As some have claimed, you know, it’s an “Afghan good enough.” And I wouldn’t dispute that. But it has to be an “Afghan good enough.” And I will argue that it’s not an “Afghan good enough” right now.
So, first of all, we’ll take up in the northern part of the country, the northeastern part, in Kunar province. I went up there on a couple of different occasions and, in both cases, went out on dismounted patrols and mounted—and a combination of mounted and dismounted with the U.S. troops. In one particular case, we went to the farthest north checkpoint that the United States Army had at that time. And we had received a report that about two-and-a-half hours before our arrival there, the Afghan police detachment had been attacked by the Taliban. So we went and had a key leader engagement with the company commander of that detachment. And through an interpreter, he was explaining, you know, what had happened, etc. And this is—as you may know, Kunar is a very mountainous, very sharp relief in the mountains in the way they’re steep, etc. And he was explaining where the attack had come from. And so, through the interpreter, I ask him, I said, “Well, where did they come from exactly?” And he pointed to—there’s a series of peaks that you could see going off into the distance. And he said, “Well, they were on that mountain right there.” And I said, “Well, what’s your standard procedure when you—when this happens? I mean, do you form up a patrol, and do you go after them? Do you conduct periodic harassing patrols? I mean, what is your reaction?” And the interpreter started interpreting, and the—as soon as he got to that question, the commander’s head whipped around, looked at him, he looked back at me and, literally, laughed in my face and said, “Well, no, of course we don’t go after them. That would be dangerous.” And, you know, if you see some of the looks of some of the U.S. soldiers around, they’re just kind of rolling their eyes. They’re going—subsequently, they say, “That’s the normal procedure. These guys don’t ever leave the checkpoint.” Well, you can imagine how hard it is for the bad guys if the good guys don’t ever leave the base. I mean, they have virtual free rein of the place. And one of the questions I ask him, I said, “Is this unusual” — of the Americans, “Is this unusual, or is this how it is?” They go, “Oh, no, this is—I mean, this is—basically, what you see is what you get. I mean, this is as good as it gets up here.”
And that’s another important point that I would like to point out, is that, you know, anyone can find a vignette of something to prove a point. “Well, I saw this. It was great. And so, ergo, everybody’s great.” Or, “This one was bad, and everything’s horrible.” What I did, over my course of this 12 months, is that I’ve been in many places, as I said, 9,000 miles total travel throughout there. And when I saw virtually the same kind of thing in every section of the country, it didn’t matter whether it was, you know, all along the Pakistan border, down into the important south, in Kandahar province, in numerous places, and you saw virtually the same capability, the same performance, every time you went out there. And so, it’s no longer just a vignette, but it’s become a clear pattern. And then, when you see that does line up with other reports, then that’s when you start to see, OK, this is indicative of what’s really going on out here.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis. The serving Army officer assigned to the Pentagon has come out with a report accusing top U.S. military officials of misleading the American public about the war in Afghanistan. He’ll be awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling in Washington, D.C., this month. This is Democracy Now! We’ll come back to our discussion with the Lieutenant Colonel in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, active-duty Army officer assigned to the Pentagon, has come out with several reports, a classified and unclassified report, says what the military is telling the American public is not true about the longest war in U.S. history, the war in Afghanistan. He’ll be awarded the Ridenhour Prize in Washington, D.C., this month.
Lieutenant Colonel Danny Davis, you echoed a line of John Kerry, not when he was senator, but when he returned from Vietnam, when you say, “How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding?” Can you please continue with that thought?
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Yeah. You know, it’s, frankly, the most painful thing and was the driver that led me to make these reports, because, I mean, I go out there, and I see these guys, and they do make you as proud as what you see, you know, on television and walking through the airports and all these praises we heap on these guys, and they have earned every one of those, because you see these guys—you know, the privates, the sergeants, lieutenants, the captains, you know, the guys who go outside the wire and do this fighting every day—and they are doing as professional a job and as terrific as you can possibly do under the circumstances. But when you’re given a mission that cannot—cannot—succeed militarily, then what is the purpose of the mission? I mean, why are we even doing this, if the United States is not benefited?
Now, look, I’ll be the first to admit, and let me bluntly tell you, anyone who puts on the uniform in the United States military understands explicitly that you may one day have to put your life down. You may have to sacrifice your life in order to ensure the security and the safety of the United States and its citizens. And the vast majority of everybody who does that does so not simply willingly, but actually with a certain amount of pride, that you’re doing something that matters, that keeps your country safe, and you’re pleased to do that. As an officer and a leader, I know that I may have to give orders someday to accomplish American objectives that will result in the men that I give those orders to dying. And that’s a very heavy thing, but it’s something that I would not hesitate to do, you know, in the execution of my job. But—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Last—sorry.
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: —we have to be incredibly careful about giving those soldiers and those leaders missions to ask them to put people’s lives at risk, to risk their own lives, when the United States is not going to be benefited militarily or any other way. That’s a problem.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Last month, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan predicted the United States needs to prepare for heavy fighting during the upcoming year. General John Allen made the comment under questioning from Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: So, basically, you have no opinion here, at the end of March of 2012, as to what our military presence would be in 2013?
GEN JOHN ALLEN: Well, my opinion at this particular juncture, but it’s not my recommendation.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: What is your opinion at this particular juncture?
GEN JOHN ALLEN: My opinion is that we will need significant combat power in 2013, sir.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Like 68,000?
GEN JOHN ALLEN: Sixty-eight thousand is a good going-in number sir, but I owe the President some analysis on that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lieutenant Colonel Davis, what do you make of General John Allen’s comments?
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Well, I mean, I’m not privy to what he’s—you know, the rationale that he’s using for his comments there, nor the knowledge of what he’s planning to do, so, I mean, I frankly can’t really discuss what he said.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But can you comment on it in a general way vis-à-vis the comments that you make in your report about the efficacy of the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, the effectiveness of the numbers of troops in Afghanistan and what they have succeeded in doing against the insurgency?
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Sure, yeah. A couple of key questions that I would have liked to have heard the senator ask, or any of the other senators, for that matter, is, OK, in order to what? What do we need those troops for? If the President’s stated objectives, as he put forward and repeated on June 22nd of 2011 when he made the decision public that he’s going to withdraw 10,000 in 2011 and another 23,000 this year, with the intent of transitioning to Afghan lead, etc., and then out by 2014—in terms of that, if that’s what the President said we’re going to do, then what is the objective of the military campaign this summer and to go through the, quote, “fighting season” of 2013? What is it that you’re intending to accomplish that you don’t have accomplished right now? In other words, you know, I want to defeat the bad guys in location X, Y and Z and degrade them to some measurable amount in area W, or something to that effect.
But I have—I have been looking, very in detail, for those kinds of answers, you know, just in public statements, and all I keep hearing, especially among a lot of these pundits that seem to really be repeating a lot of these lines, you know, they say, “Oh, you know, we have to go through at least two more fighting seasons before we start drawing down.” But I don’t ever hear them say, in order to what? Why do we need to do that? And is it just some amorphous in order to diminish the Taliban? I mean, what sense does that make, in all honesty? If you’re telling me that with 100,000 U.S. troops and about 50,000 NATO troops throughout the entire amount of time that we had the surge forces in there, if they were unable to materially degrade the Taliban, then what logic are you going to place that, as we’re taking 33,000 out, as we’re drawing down significant amounts of financial inputs, that suddenly the Afghan security forces, who have been unable to, with our help, to knock down the Taliban, are now suddenly going to be able to do it on their own? I don’t see the logic in that, frankly.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Last year, President Obama announced a plan to gradually decrease troops in Afghanistan, implying in fact that the 2009 troop surge had put the U.S. in a position of strength.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thanks to our extraordinary men and women in uniform, our civilian personnel, and our many coalition partners, we are meeting our goals. As a result, starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point. After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security. We’re starting this drawdown from a position of strength.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lieutenant Colonel Davis, why do you think that the 2009 troop surge was not a success in Afghanistan?
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Well, I made this argument in 2009, that I argued against having the surge then, because I said that there’s—it’s not even close to being enough. There was a paper, which is on—still available on the Small Wars Journal, I believe, website and a number of others out there; it was called “Go Big or Go Deep.” And in that, I examined the—what I called the “Go Big” plan, which is what General McChrystal was recommending at that time, which is what they ended up following. I said, if we—if we execute this mission, here are the things we can expect, and here’s the risks that we incur when we do this. And one of the risks that I talked about was the number of troops.
I heard General Jack—retired General Jack Keane the other day—I believe it was on Fox News—arguing that, you know, basically the President hamstrung the operation from the beginning, because he only gave General McChrystal 30,000 instead of the 40,000 we need, which, he says, caused us to not be able to go after the north and the—I’m sorry, the south and the east at the same time, but we had to sequentially do it instead of concurrently executing the plan, and so now, then, you know, we have to pivot from the south over to the east at this point to try to basically knock out the insurgency instead of doing it together.
That was ridiculous, from the beginning, and it’s even more so now. Forty thousand was never enough. Maybe 100,000 additional troops might have given you the ability to militarily pacify the insurgency. Now, of course, if you had that, then you incur all kinds of additional problems with the—you know, the foreigners and going into more places and causing basically the rise of Taliban in areas where they weren’t before even to a larger extent, so that—I’m not advocating that was the answer; in fact, I was advocating the opposite: don’t put those troops in there. But 40,000, if you want to militarily pacify, was never enough. And that was graphically demonstrated to me as I went through the country to see, you know, where the troops or the surge troops were and where they weren’t. And so, you couldn’t do it with 40,000. So, there, again, you ask the question: what was it they were trying to accomplish? Because in my professional and personal opinion, basically what we did was tactical activity. We went on patrols, we went on attack missions, etc., but never enough to actually turn the tide militarily. And we now see graphically that’s exactly what didn’t happen.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the American soldier accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians and his claim of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. According to his lawyer, the alleged shooter, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, doesn’t remember the massacre. This is his lawyer, John Henry Browne, speaking after meeting Bales in their first face-to-face meeting.
JOHN HENRY BROWNE: He doesn’t remember everything in the evening in question. That doesn’t mean he has amnesia.
AMY GOODMAN: You were in, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, Panjwai province, where this took place.
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: I was.
AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on this mass killing?
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Well, I mean, look, let me just flat out and unequivocally say that if this guy did exactly what he’s accused of, then he deserves the harshest punishment he can, just because of the gross violation of just the most basic of human rights to all of those innocent Afghan people and as well as putting his fellow troopers in considerably more danger. So I have no sympathy for him. It doesn’t matter what may have happened to him. He put more people in danger, and he took the lives of children. And, I mean, I’m just going to be blunt: I got no sympathy for that.
AMY GOODMAN: Why have you decided to come forward now, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, coming out with this report, asking why the U.S. isn’t out of Afghanistan now? Why are you speaking out now?
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: I’ll tell you. I can answer that very clearly. And I mentioned this to a number of the folks that I worked with during the time in there, as I continued to see report after report of, you know, success and “we’re winning” and “we’re doing—you know, making remarkable progress,” you know, these incredible superlatives used to describe our mission there, which were so far afield from what was going on, and yet men that I saw and met during my time there were subsequently killed in action, and others that I don’t know but that I would read stories about, and I see that men are now dead, and I don’t know why they’re dead. I don’t know what benefit my country derived from the loss of their life. And, of course, I’m thinking about those, you know, thousands who are—right now, as we’re having this conversation, there are thousands of Americans who are alive, full of body, full of hope, full of dreams, want to accomplish many things, have families, etc., who, known but to God, are marked for either death or wounding or having their limbs blown off or their genitals blown off in between now and this so-called end of fighting season 2013. And if you can’t tell me that they’re going to gain some benefit for my country, I just morally cannot keep quiet.
I mean, the Army is built on what’s called the Army Seven Values, and it’s so important that we constantly reinforce those—you know, honor, integrity, moral courage, you know, those kinds of things that need to animate everything that you do. And one of the things we’re taught is that, you know, if you see something that’s wrong, you’ve got to have the moral courage to do something about it. And in my view, this fell right into that category. So, you know, loyalty is one of those values, and I believe that I—my loyalty to the soldiers in the service who are still alive and who are still not wounded, but will not—will lose their lives or will lose their limbs or be—you know, suffer casualties and wounds in between now and then, I just owed it to them to do whatever I could to try to bring light to this, so that we can avoid that, if at all possible.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: How did your colleagues respond, though, once news of your report came out? And how did senior U.S. military officials respond?
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Well, I’ll tell you. In terms of the communications that I received, whether notes on my website or emails sent directly to me, scores of them—all but two of them were extremely supportive—I mean extremely supportive—which, you know, really encouraged me. And most of those were senior enlisted guys, sergeants, first sergeants, or junior officers, you know, captains, lieutenants, a number of enlisted guys. And I was really, you know, heartened by that, you know, because they said, “Well, at least somebody finally stood up and said what we all see,” kind of thing. I did know that the higher up in rank you went, then the lower the percentage of folks that, you know, said, “Good job.”
And in terms of the senior leaders, look, I’ve got to give some credit where it’s due. Early on, I was told that one of the general officers that was in charge of the area where I worked put out—and my direct O6 colonel—put out that there would be no adverse action taken, that this guy has got a job to do here at the Pentagon, and he’s going to continue doing it, and he’s not going to have any security, you know, issues revoked or anything like that. And they have done—they have kept their word on that, and they deserve some credit for that, because they could have taken a different course of action. They could have tried to shut me up. They could have done a lot of things. And I give credit for that. So, you know, fortunately, all is not bad.
AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, we want to thank you very much for being with us, an active-duty Army officer assigned to the Pentagon. In his recent report, he accuses top U.S. military officials of misleading the American public about the war in Afghanistan. Part of the report was published in the Armed Forces Journal in an article called “Truth, Lies and Afghanistan.” He’ll be awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling in Washington, D.C., this month.
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