May 1, 2012  

Analyzing Afghanistan

The recent article by Lt. Col. Daniel Davis (“Truth, Lies and Afghanistan,” February), as well as Douglas Wissing’s article in Foreign Policy (“The Juice Ain’t Worth the Squeeze,” Feb. 23), provide interesting views on the status of the war in Afghanistan that differ significantly from the views of senior military leaders. Perhaps in an attempt to be provocative, both authors cast these differences in terms of deceit by military leaders, rather than simple differences of opinion. Yet neither article actually provides evidence of such deceit.

Both authors represent views on the entirety of the war based on a limited set of experiences and on data nearly a year old. Davis states he traveled extensively across Afghanistan, “into every significant area where our soldiers engage the enemy.” It appears he failed to include in his analysis any of the districts of Helmand province, which has been a big part of the International Security Assistance Force’s main effort.

Wissing’s article focuses solely on his experiences as “an embedded reporter in eastern Afghanistan.”

Additionally, both authors cite studies in their analysis of the security situation that date to late 2010 or early 2011, as opposed to using more recent data such as the violence statistics that ISAF updates monthly on its website or the recent Asia Foundation survey.

Rather than concluding our senior military leaders in Afghanistan are lying about progress in the war, a simpler explanation might be that the differences in views between Davis and Wissing on one hand and our generals on the other stem from differences in experience and data analyzed.

Additionally, it is worth bearing in mind that we train, select and expect our generals to be overt optimists, and to so inspire confidence in those they are leading. The responsibility that generals have is to tell the unvarnished truth to civilian leaders and decision-makers, but not necessarily to a public audience. No more than Winston Churchill before the Battle of Britain or George Washington at Valley Forge are they expected to share dire details or bemoan the odds of success in public.

My own experience in Afghanistan is that our current military leaders are communicating the status of the war to policy and decision-makers in balanced and honest terms. I just returned from co-leading a complete overhaul in the way ISAF assesses progress in the war. ISAF’s commander, U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, asked for my help, despite the fact that I have publicly criticized ISAF’s assessments in the past.

When we presented the results of the assessment to him and other ISAF leaders, he did nothing to censor it, and indeed the final report, which was delivered to U.S. leaders and those of our NATO partners, bears his signature.

This report, “ISAF Quarterly Strategic Assessment Report: October-December 2011,” may contain differing views than the articles penned by Davis and Wissing, but those differences are due to wider experiences and analysis of a more comprehensive set of data, vice deceit.

Jonathan Schroden

Senior research scientist, CNA

Alexandria, VA