Afghanistan shows the dangers of relying on the Pentagon to assess war

A U.S. soldier stands guard on a watchtower overlooking villages in the eastern province of Khost in June 2011.  (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)
A U.S. soldier stands guard on a watchtower overlooking villages in the eastern province of Khost in June 2011. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images

The Washington Post’s publication of the Afghanistan Papers in December revealed that the Pentagon, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, misled the public “to make it appear that the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.” Three administrations consistently — and falsely — assured Americans that they were achieving their goals.

While the reporting is painful to read, the bottom line wasn’t surprising. Countless media reports, travelers to Afghanistan and think tank experts almost uniformly named the serious contradictions that made “victory” unlikely all along. Likewise, intelligence analysis consistently depicted the war in all its ugly reality.

And yet, official messaging remained relentlessly positive. One reason is the public’s increasing reliance on our military leaders to provide unbiased appraisals rather than expecting updates from civilian officials. As the public trust in the military has grown, administrations have increasingly ceded messaging to military leaders and often failed to include input from diplomatic and intelligence voices that might add more a more comprehensive and less positive spin.

For decades — and certainly since 9/11 — the size of the Defense Department and the military has come to dwarf our other national security and foreign policy institutions. As a result, official government messaging on the state of our wars has often come via congressional testimony from senior generals. Visits to Washington by generals such as David H. Petraeus and others became media events and key check-in points for public messaging on the state of our wars.

The military undertakes massive responsibility around the world, and our uniformed personnel have won tremendous respect. But they are not particularly good at grading their work for the public. In numerous briefings and testimony over the course of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, general after general assured us that the training of the local forces was a success and on schedule. But when the insurgent Islamic State force raced toward Mosul in Toyota pickups, the Iraqi army fled without putting up a fight. The army and police in Afghanistan are not much better despite years of trainingand millions of dollars in equipment.

A large reason that military officers make bad spokesmen is because they can never publicly admit that they are losing. They have built a can-do culture. Their job is to salute civilian leadership and do their best to make it work. They can’t afford to be pessimists or believe they are sending young people to die in vain. How can a commander testify publicly that we are losing one day, and lead troops into battle the next?

By contrast, intelligence agencies take pride in sharing unvarnished analysis and don’t hesitate to speak truth to power. These two cultures clashed most directly in 2009 when Adm. Dennis Blair, then the director of national intelligence, sought to uproot the practice of CIA station chiefs abroad serving as de facto national intelligence representatives. Blair believed that in certain countries, the senior military commander or a representative from another agency could serve as the senior intelligence representative — the intelligence official responsible for coordinating all U.S. intelligence activities in any country, and representing the intelligence community with local security services. But if Blair had his way, the senior military official in a country such as Iraq or Afghanistan could also serve as the senior intelligence representative. In such cases, the official intelligence representative might be pressured to resist supporting intelligence assessments that undercut Pentagon policy.

But then-CIA Director Leon Panetta argued that one individual should not be responsible for both arguing policy aspirations and providing intelligence analysis. He successfully pushed back against Blair’s efforts to expand his authority and make the CIA and DNI representative one and the same, a bureaucratic clash that ultimately led to Blair’s removal.

The bigger concern in Afghanistan, though, was the consistent failure to articulate a policy that our military and diplomats could understand and execute. Try as they might, no administration adequately explained what it meant to win. Many Americans who spent time in Afghanistan didn’t really know why they were there. For example, President Trump has declared that our goal in Afghanistan is unconditional surrender. He has also tweeted that he seeks a deal with the Taliban. What exactly does a military commander do with that guidance?

President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, also declared a goal of unconditional surrender. However, it was never clear who exactly was supposed to surrender. Our troops were told that al-Qaeda was the enemy, not the Taliban — although they represented the biggest threat to our Afghan allies and killed more Americans than any other group. The problem was that the bulk of al-Qaeda’s leadership and fighters were in Pakistan, and the United States was wary of putting too much pressure on a nuclear power six times the size of Afghanistan. How do you “win” in Afghanistan if the enemy has a safe haven across the border?

But while military leaders are hesitant to publicly admit failure, they are better than most other government institutions at looking inward and acknowledging and addressing problems. Their after-action reviews are brutally honest. Indeed, SIGAR — the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction — was tasked with undertaking an exhaustive lessons-learned effort specifically investigating possible waste, fraud and abuse, which was why the interviews were so candid.

While our military, diplomatic and intelligence professionals have held themselves to account internally, our political leadership failed to face facts and communicate with the American people. Rather than articulate achievable goals and speak honestly about the serious challenges in South Asia, three successive administrations sold lofty expectations. Trump, who criticized the war, also promised that our soldiers “deserve a plan for victory … they deserve the tools they need … to fight and win … these problems will be solved … and, in the end, we will win.” But like presidents Bush and Barack Obama, Trump failed to explain what winning meant. Similarly, Congress has received candid intelligence assessments for the past 18 years, but too often failed to pressure the White House to come clean with the American people.

In some ways, it is not a surprise that political leaders seek to leverage the public’s tremendous respect for the military to sell their policies. But in failing to take ownership of their policies and speak frankly to the American people, subsequent administrations have done a disservice to the military and undercut their own trust with the public in the process. The military should not be put in the position of selling the success or failure of administration policies to the public. Military officers are responsible to the soldiers under their care and should share their candid commentary with their civilian leadership. They are not impartial analysts or public spokesmen.

Administrations since 9/11 have tried to garner public support for the war on terrorism by using lofty terms such as “victory” and “unconditional surrender.” Rather than speak honestly with the American people as troubles developed, they too often have relied on career professionals to speak for them — professionals whose culture is not one to admit failure.

But Americans are not stupid. They’ve long known that the Afghanistan effort has been plagued by confusion, waste and corruption. Maybe it is too late, but our political leaders should be honest with the American people and embrace realistic goals. They should stop using terms like “victory” and admit what has really been the objective in Afghanistan for a long time — keep a friendly government in power in a dangerous part of the world and have resources to respond to terrorist threats. The benefit of a clear and sober policy would be easier to defend over time and less likely to require the type of deception outlined in the Afghanistan Papers.

Afghanistan shows the dangers of relying on the Pentagon to assess war