Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Lt. Col. Davis’ Afghan report: He talks a good game, but there’s not much to it

By Joseph J. Collins Best Defense department of critiquing critiques I spent yesterday morning with Lt. Colonel Dan Davis’s 84 page report, Dereliction of Duty II. It is a dog’s breakfast, written by someone whom I have met many times in the Army: People who see things as true or false, right or wrong, and ...


By Joseph J. Collins

Best Defense department of critiquing critiques

I spent yesterday morning with Lt. Colonel Dan Davis’s 84 page report, Dereliction of Duty II. It is a dog’s breakfast, written by someone whom I have met many times in the Army: People who see things as true or false, right or wrong, and people are divided into good guy truth tellers or bad guy liars. Davis’s bad guys are generals Petraeus, Allen, and Caldwell, but he likes generals Chiarelli, Thurman, Perkins, (who have not been in the top jobs in Afghanistan) and General Dempsey. Except Davis hasn’t gone over Dempsey’s assessments on Afghanistan which — no surprise — sound much like Allen’s and Petraeus’s.

I was prepared for a real critique and came away profoundly disappointed. Every veteran has an important story, but this work is a mess. It is not a successor piece to HR McMaster’s book on the Joint Chiefs during Vietnam, or Paul Yingling’s critique of U.S. generalship that appeared in Armed Forces Journal a few years back. 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. 

Let’s look at the basics:

The title: Dereliction of Duty II … sorry, this is tantamount to delusions of grandeur. McMaster’s book by the same title was well-researched and well-written. Davis’s work is neither. Davis’s work should be called ‘Dereliction of Civility’ or maybe, ‘Death by Semi-anonymous Anecdote,’ or ‘My Turn for Warhol-hood.’

The work: 84 pages, but 41 pages are NOT about Afghanistan at all. 12 pages are about the politics of army acquisitions programs with material going back to the 1990s. 29 pages are about the Iraq surge, an essay within the essay that asserts that the troop surge was overrated and Iraqi socio-political developments — not U.S. troops — were what turned the tide. My view is that the troop surge was a catalyst; it exploited these developments, but both were necessary for "success," such as it was. Time will tell about the larger piece in Iraq.

The guy who has nailed the Iraq surge stuff is Doug Ollivant, who helped plan the troop surge and later went back to the NSC to push Iraq policy. Whatever points Davis has on Iraq have been made better by other people. In any case, the fact that the surge in Iraq did or did not work was not dispositive in the case of Afghanistan. Many of the same cast of characters were involved in both surges, but a new president called for their participation and worked himself for three months on the issue before he made the surge decision.

The thesis: Give Davis a point for BLUF, bottom line up front. His thesis is in the first sentence of the paper: Senior officers "have so distorted the truth" on Afghanistan "that the truth has become unrecognizable." Exhibit A here is a statement (pg. 6 6) by Petraeus in March 2011. He excoriates Petraeus for claiming that Taliban momentum "has been arrested in much of the country," and "reversed" in places. Petraeus goes on to say in the "damning" quote that progress was still "fragile and reversible," and that "much difficult work lies ahead with our Afghan partners."

On p. 8, we find out the real problem: things in Afghanistan are not as clear as they were during the Battle of the Bulge. No kidding! Davis craves clarity and surety in the case of protracted insurgency in a fractious country that has been at war for 33 years. The generals cannot deliver clarity in this sea of ambiguity, therefore, they must be liars. As for statistics, the U.S. government has never released more.

On p. 9 and on the last page (84), Davis shows that he is stuck on the fact that as we put more assets in, the number of security incidents increased, including those caused by the enemy. He finds these stats to be proof of surge failure, and prima facie evidence that all optimistic statements or projections are lies.

But much of Davis’s stats — which I can’t verify as authentic — have other explanations: 1) The enemy gets a vote and has himself gone all in to stop the surge. (It is clear from nearly all observers, but not Davis,that the Taliban have been soundly defeated — even if fragile-y and reverse-ibly — in much of RC S and RC SW); 2) Adding 40,000 combat troops to the mix has stirred things up, and 3) We still have "much difficult work lies ahead with our Afghan partners," in Petraeus’s phrase.

Davis cherry-picks statistics, but he never picks on any of the voluminous data about night raids that shows the vast numbers of Taliban leaders killed or captured in past two years. He also castigates LTG Caldwell, but fails to walk through his impressive stats on ANSF development. He shames himself by writing that the ANSF are cowards who aren’t fighting hard.

On the ANSF, the facts get in the way of Davis’s argument. Since 2007, Afghan cops and soldiers have died and been wounded in greater numbers than ISAF forces. The Brookings Index, again using USG-released numbers, confirms that. On p. 41, Davis cites redacted material about poor ANSF performance. I was in Afghanistan last spring and heard lots of the opposite story and found many Afghans in uniform who had been in the fight and were spoiling for more, just as the Marines noted in the New York Times Magazine two weeks ago. Every man or woman in uniform has a right to his anecdotes, but no matter how many anecdotes you can string together, they don’t constitute data or sound judgments.

At the end of his text in his epilogue, Davis tries to give the Taliban a writeoff. He says that al Qaeda wouldn’t come back into Afghanistan and that the Taliban have every incentive to disavow the al Qaeda. Except they never have, even when asked by the King of Saudi Arabia to do so (See Dexter Filkins’ 2010 article in the New York Times). I think — but can’t be sure — that Davis is trying to say that the war is not worth it, and only the lying generals want to keep the farce in perpetual reruns. I could be wrong about that … many things in this document are unclear, although obviously the "truth."

Let me summarize: This unclassified report is not worth the reader’s effort. Davis’s Armed Forces Journal article promised much, but this report delivers very little.

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army Colonel, teaches at the National War College. From 2001-2004, he was the Deputy Asst. Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations. He wrote Understanding War in Afghanistan, published by the NDU Press in 2011. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government, nor even, perhaps, those of "Pumpsie" Green. Congratulations for reading this far. Slow day, huh?

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1