War in Afghanistan: The Jig Is Up

The last several years of US operations in Afghanistan have been an exercise in mondo message management. If it were a sport, it would be the highlight of the ESPN X Games. Between Afghanistan and the "war of perception" in Iraq, students of so-called "strategic communications" will be studying this stuff (the art of deception, the artful dodge) for years.

Spin Doctor Gen. David Petreaus can't fix this one
Spin Doctor Gen. David Petreaus can’t fix this one

At the top of the syllabus: the far from hidden reality-chasm. That’s the wide, black gulf – what Rod Serling might call the Twilight Zone, a "wondrous dimension of imagination" – between what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan, and the much more "nuanced," if not false picture the military and administration officials have been painting all along.

Of course, that’s all come down in a crashing thud this New Year, as leaks regarding the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) have indicated that the "surge" of troops President Barack Obama authorized in 2009 (more than 50,000 total) has done very little to ensure long-term stability in Afghanistan. In fact, according to this assessment, the country is at risk of devolving into chaos – even if President Hamid Karzai were to sign that pesky pending Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) keeping several thousand US/NATO combat troops inside Afghanistan to assist security.

From The Washington Post:

A new American intelligence assessment on the Afghan war predicts that the gains the United States and its allies have made during the past three years are likely to have been significantly eroded by 2017, even if Washington leaves behind a few thousand troops and continues bankrolling the impoverished nation, according to officials familiar with the report. …

Some officials have taken umbrage at the underlying pessimism in the report, arguing that it does not adequately reflect how strong Afghanistan’s security forces have become. One American official, who described the NIE as "more dark" than past intelligence assessments on the war, said there are too many uncertainties to make an educated prediction on how the conflict will unfold between now and 2017, chief among them the outcome of next year’s presidential election.

We can probably guess who "some officials" are: military officials and/or Pentagon civilians who’ve always been critical of the Afghanistan NIEs, which are cumulative assessments from 16 national intelligence agencies, and are issued periodically, usually for congressional eyes only. In fact, the military has been so frustrated by these reports in the past, that when former Gen. David Petraeus, the Don Draper of military media management, took over the CIA in 2011, he immediately tried to manipulate the assessments from the inside, his way.

From The Associated Press in October 2011:

CIA analysts now will consult with battlefield commanders earlier in the process as they help create elements of a National Intelligence Estimate on the course of the war, to more fully include the military’s take on the conflict, U.S. officials say.

Their input could improve the upcoming report card for the war.

The most recent US intelligence assessment offered a dim view of progress in Afghanistan despite the counterinsurgency campaign Petraeus oversaw there and painted a stark contrast to the generally upbeat predictions of progress from Petraeus and other military leaders. Petraeus has made no secret of his frustration with recent negative assessments coming primarily from the CIA, and said during his confirmation hearing that he planned to change the way the civilian analysts grade wars.

It should be no surprise that the NIE for 2008 was never released to the public, nor the one in 2010, though we know from leaked reports via WikiLeaks and major newspapers at the time, that they were decidedly grim, indicating a "downward spiral," in Afghanistan, "throwing cold water" on the Pentagon’s assessments.

But alas, as Petraeus and his COINdinista warriors have found out the hard way, wars cannot be won behind smoke-n-mirrors alone. While they were doing all they could to dissuade us of the truth, the American people smelled a failing war all along. For years, approval ratings have been tumbling down. In October 2011, one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of Afghanistan were already saying those wars weren’t worth fighting (what kind of message were they possibly getting when Gen. Petraeus, who just six months before was testifying that Afghanistan was finally progressing, ups and leaves his command in the middle of it all to head the CIA?)

Now, today, public approval for the war is the lowest for any conflict in American history.

As one military official told the late Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings while he was penning The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, "if anyone can spin their way out of this war, it’s Petraeus." But while he did a great job spinning his own role in the war, he was never able to convince the rest of us that his Potemkin road to progress was anything but a highway to hell.

"Petraeus keeps claiming progress, despite the fact that violence keeps going up," wrote Hastings, who covered the period in Afghanistan through May 2011. Hastings was able to find people who weren’t exactly on-script, and suggested Petraeus and his officers weren’t always hip to the jive themselves.

"Petraeus hates Afghanistan," an unnamed Afghan official who worked with Petraeus tells Hastings in the book. "Petraeus is already looking for an out," Hastings surmises, noting that the celebrated general had already been in talks with former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates about leaving the Army and becoming CIA director. By August 2011, Hastings writes, "Petraeus has exited gracefully."

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Petraeus’ predecessor in Afghanistan, had a less graceful exit in June 2010, thanks to Hastings’s reporting. But while we remember him for the comments that got him in trouble, the real takeaway from Hastings’ long interviews with McChrystal and his loose-lipped inner circle is they were having real misgivings about the war in 2010 and 2011. They got more isolated from the truth (and from events on the ground), and became cynical about everything. At one point McChrystal tells Hastings that progress is "questionable."

But of course they told congress and the American people the opposite. They enlisted their surrogates in Washington to enjoin full-throttle media blitzes for the so-called "surge" in 2009 and faith in Petraeus’ COIN strategy in 2010. If not for Hastings, much of this disconnect would have been lost to history.

"A succession of American military commanders and their civilian superiors have never told the American public about the true nature of the conflict or the futility of our military effort in Afghanistan," noted (Ret.) Col. Doug Macgregor, author of Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting, in an email to Antiwar.com. He called "the pressure on Karzai to sign the security agreement" now "simply a last ditch effort, like the one in Iraq with (Prime Minister Nouri al) Maliki, to conceal the United States’ immense military failure in Afghanistan."

There’s plenty of evidence of media manipulation, like canceling embeds for specific operations, hiding civilian casualties, or weeding through reporters for compliancy. Downplaying IED violence was one of the most egregious ways they tried to hide the truth.

Consider that at the same time Petraeus and McChrystal were touting progress – cooking up metrics showing a rapid capture/kill rate of top Taliban leaders, and a reversal of the Taliban’s momentum countrywide – the number of IED injuries and deaths among US soldiers were actually spiking, a dark measure most Americans are clueless about to this day.

From an excellent analysis by Gareth Porter in September 2010:

Without putting his statement in quotation marks, (Wall Street) Journal reporters Julian E. Barnes and Matthew Rosenberg reported Petraeus as claiming that the use of IEDs “has generally flattened in the past year”. While crediting US military operations with this alleged improvement, Petraeus said it is too soon to say that they are the sole reason for this alleged flattening of IED incidents. But the data for 2009 and 2010 provide no support for Petraeus’ “flattened” description.

In fact, at the beginning of 2011, doctors and nurses working in Afghanistan reported a new "signature wound" – soldiers stepping on IEDs planted in the ground and suffering so gravely that often both legs had to be amputated up toward their pelvic areas. Antiwar.com did a piece on the new "dismounted complex blast injuries" in March 2012. A year earlier, The Washington Post reported:

Twice as many US soldiers wounded in battle last year required limb amputations than in either of the two previous years. Three times as many lost more than one limb, and nearly three times as many suffered severe wounds to their genitals. In most cases, the limbs are severed in the field when a soldier steps on a buried mine.

Then there were the soldiers themselves, coming forward with real stories about the way things were going. The establishment hive has tried to undermine these and so many other truth-tellers. But as it’s become clear, whether it’s Matthew Hoh, or Lt. Col. Danny Davis, people who’ve been there and did not have a career interest in maintaining the successful war narrative, have seen a very different war unfold.

"Entering this deployment," Davis wrote in the explosive Dereliction of Duty II: Senior Military Leaders’ Loss of Integrity Wounds Afghan War Effort, released in 2012 with an accompanying op-ed in The Armed Forces Journal, "I was sincerely hoping to learn that the claims were true: that conditions in Afghanistan were improving, that the local government and military were progressing toward self-sufficiency … (I) merely hoped to see evidence of positive trends, to see companies or battalions produce even minimal but sustainable progress.

"Instead, I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level."

In the AFJ piece he was just as forthright: "What I saw (in Afghanistan) bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by US military leaders about conditions on the ground."

Which brings us back to today, and the NIE. Despite billions in so-called strategic communications spending (that not only includes public diplomacy abroad but recruitment, advertising and public affairs at home, a grand total of $4.7 billion in 2009 alone), the American people plainly have had enough. Pick your cliché – lipstick on a pig, selling ice to Eskimos – no one is buying it anymore.

The military can’t keep up with the bad news coming out of Afghanistan anyway. This week we heard of the increasing malnutrition rates among children (complete with heartbreaking photos of skeletal children with distended stomachs), and violence against women being more brutal than the year before. Two US soldiers have already been killed in hostile fire in 2014.

The latest NIE is just one more nail in the coffin.

There is no way the ghosts of the Petraeus era still clinging to the meme are going to spin their way out of this one. To put it bluntly, the jig is up.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.