Are We Losing the War in Afghanistan?

An Army lieutenant colonel named Daniel L. Davis is attracting a lot of attention for this essay he has just published in Armed Forces Journal suggesting that, contrary to what he views as the official line, our forces are losing the war in Afghanistan. Davis traveled extensively around Afghanistan last year on behalf of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force–designed to get troops the equipment they need–and came back dismayed by what he found. He claims he saw “the absence of success on virtually every level”:

I heard many stories of how insurgents controlled virtually every piece of land beyond eyeshot of a U.S. or International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base.

He concludes with a not-so-veiled accusation that officers such as David Petraeus and his replacement, Gen. John Allen, who say we are making progress are not just misinformed but mendacious: “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.”

Whoa. It’s one thing to claim senior officers are wrong–but calling them liars is something else, especially given how strongly all military personnel feel about their personal sense of honor and duty to the country. Is Davis suggesting that only he has the guts to tell it like it is while everyone else is blind or dishonest? That’s quite a stretch.

In point of fact, the armed forces are a big, diverse organization, and it is to be expected there will be differences of opinion. The fact that Davis is pessimistic doesn’t surprise me. I have heard many pessimistic assessments over the years from military personnel who were serving in Afghanistan–just as I did in Iraq. In fact, I vividly recall visiting Iraq in early 2007 and finding many officers even in Gen. Petraeus’s own headquarters convinced the surge was hopeless and that it was too late to contain the bloodbath engulfing Iraq. Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, the two senior officers in command, obviously disagreed. Did that make them con artists who were deceiving the American people and leading their troops to slaughter for no good reason (as intimated)? Hardly. Turns out they actually had greater insight into the situation than did the naysayers.

It is too soon to say whether the naysayers will be vindicated in Afghanistan, but it is worth noting that Davis’s pessimistic views are hardly universally held among troops with combat experience on the ground. For a counterpoint see this New York Times op-ed entitled, “This War Can Still Be Won,” by Fernando Lujan, an Army Special Forces major who spent 14 months traveling all over Afghanistan. Unlike Davis, Lujan speaks Dari and spent considerable time actually embedded with Afghan military units. He saw many of the problems that Davis alludes to but came back convinced the Taliban are losing, U.S. troops are making real gains, and the Afghan armed forces are developing into a credible fighting force.

Is Lujan lying too? Is Davis the only honest man in the entire army?

In reality, there is a healthy difference of opinion in the armed forces, and those who are tempted to take either the pessimistic or the optimistic view at face value need to contemplate all the evidence on both sides. Having done so, and having visited Afghanistan repeatedly, I have come to the conclusion that Petraeus and Allen are right–there is real progress, but it is fragile and reversible. If we pull out too quickly, the gains that have been made will be for naught. And that points to the greatest cause for pessimism about the war’s course: not the lack of progress on the ground, as Davis claims, but the lack of resolution displayed by a White House that seems determined to withdraw our forces as quickly as possible.