- Michael Hastingscontributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. His latest article is “The Afghanistan Report the Pentagon Doesn’t Want You to Read.” His new book is called The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan.
“Senior ranking U.S. military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the U.S. Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable.” That’s the assessment of a damning new report by Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who returned in October from his second year-long deployment in Afghanistan and says military officials have misled the American public about how poorly the decade-long war is going. He argues that local Afghan governments are unable to provide the basic needs of the people and that insurgents control virtually all parts of Afghanistan beyond eyeshot of a U.S. base. We speak with Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone, who obtained a copy of the full report and published it last week. “Lieutenant Colonel Davis is on the right side of history, and the fact [is] that he believes in this and is willing to risk [his career],” Hastings says. [includes rush transcript]
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to what Rolling Stone magazine calls “The Afghanistan Report the Pentagon Doesn’t Want You to Read.” It’s called “The “Dereliction of Duty II: Senior Military Leaders’ Loss of Integrity Wounds Afghan War Effort,” and it was written by Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, who returned in October from his second year-long deployment in Afghanistan.
In the report’s opening lines, Davis writes, quote, “Senior ranking U.S. military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the U.S. Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable.”
Part of the report was published in The Armed Forces Journal in an article called “Truth, Lies and Afghanistan.” In an interview on The Alyona Show, Davis explained what motivated him.
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: The job that I had there was—required me to travel all over the country and to talk to soldiers at every level, from the highest commander to the lowest 19-year-old private. And what I saw out there, over time, especially was—began to be clear was so different than what the public assertions are, that I started to have, you know, some moral problems with it. But that turned into something more when I started seeing the results of men dying as a result of this, in missions that made no sense and were then later characterized as big successes, when in fact they were not. In later in the summer, a couple of guys, in particular, that I had met were killed in action a couple of weeks later. And that—that drives it home pretty strong to you, toward the end of the summer.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis. Rolling Stone magazine published his full 84-page analysis this weekend, which was not approved for release by the military. In it, Davis says local Afghan governments are unable to provide the basic needs of the people and that insurgents control virtually all parts of Afghanistan beyond eyeshot of a U.S. base.
The Army responded to his piece by saying Davis was entitled to his opinion, adding that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has, quote, “very strong confidence in his commanders in Afghanistan, as they provide assessments of what’s happening on the ground in the war.”
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the implications of the report, we’re going to Washington, D.C., to speak with Michael Hastings, contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine who obtained a copy of the full report and published it Friday. Hastings’s new book is The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan.
Michael, it’s great to have you back on Democracy Now! Talk about how you got a hold of the report. And what do you think are the most significant observations of Davis?
MICHAEL HASTINGS: Well, thanks for having me back. Really appreciate it.
In terms of how I got a hold of the report, Scott Shane at the New York Times had done this original story, a really excellent job of laying out Lieutenant Colonel Davis’s story in the New York Times last week, at the beginning of last week. And in the story, it mentioned that there were two reports. There was this 84-page unclassified report that Davis had submitted to the Pentagon and other places, as well as a classified report that he had also submitted, that no one has seen yet. And so, when I learned of this, I was interested to try to get a copy of it, and so I decided—I just, you know, poked around to see what would happen, and I ended up obtaining a copy of the report.
Now, why is this report significant? I think it’s one of the most significant documents that we’ve seen from an active-duty Army officer in terms of how they view the war in Afghanistan, even the war in Iraq. You can look at this as a significant document about the last 10 years of conflict in America. And it’s not so much as what Colonel Davis is saying, though that’s very important, too. It’s the fact that you have a 17-year Army veteran, who’s done four tours—two in Afghanistan and two in Iraq—who has decided to risk his entire career—because he has two-and-a-half more years left before he gets a pension—because he feels that he has a moral obligation to do so. And that, to me—what he says is very, very important, and I recommend anyone who’s interested to take a look and really dive deep into this report. But as important is the fact that who’s saying it—he just came back from Afghanistan—is as important as what he’s saying.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the things he says, Michael Hastings, he talks about the fact that military leaders have consistently said that the surge, Obama’s surge, reduced the number of attacks on U.S. soldiers and significantly weakened the insurgency. Can you talk a little bit about some of the things that he mentions, some of the figures in the report that he mentions, that belie that claim?
MICHAEL HASTINGS: Right. I mean, one of the interesting things—one of the correlations we’ve seen in what happens in Afghanistan is that the more NATO and Western and American troops that get put in, the higher the violence rate is, right? And once we start taking troops out, the violence goes down. And you see this as a direct kind of correlation. So what does that tell you? On the one hand, it says that much of the fighting is not in fact related to this sort of global war on terror—that’s the framework we’re still sort of looking in—but it’s related to the fact that there is a foreign army in another country and the people there are resisting it. So that’s one of the sort of basic takeaways.
The other sort of strange, you know, Orwellian paradox of all of this is that the senior military leadership—General David Petraeus, General McChrystal, General John Allen—what they always say is, “Look, if the violence is going up, that means it’s working, because we’re getting in and fighting in places that we haven’t been before,” right? And when the violence goes down, they say, “Oh, that means we’re working, too.” So, no matter what the outcome is, all we’ve heard is the same message of “We’re winning. We’re winning. We’re winning.” You know, a couple months ago, I called it the Charlie Sheen strategy. You know, it’s—of winning. You just keep saying it, and you hope someone believes it. But that’s what Colonel Davis lays out. And he takes, in fact, quotes from commanders over a significant amount of time, and he compares that to what’s actually happening. And what he demonstrates, very ably, is that the message that we’re winning, they’ve been saying this now for six years, eight years, 10 years, when in fact things have gotten progressively worse.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, the latest news we have, Michael Hastings, top of our newscast today: U.S.-led NATO force in Afghanistan apologizing for an air strike last week that killed eight young Afghan children. Local residents blamed NATO, but it took days for NATO to admit fault. Put this together with the latest kerfuffle over the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saying when the U.S. would leave and then that being taken back by other administration officials.
MICHAEL HASTINGS: Well, OK, in terms of the withdrawal date, right? This is key. 2014—and there’s been, I think, I believe, a significant shift on this policy. So, the idea is that American forces are supposed to sort of—combat forces are supposed to get out by 2014, and there would be about six to eight thousand Western troops left, right? Now, the Pentagon and NATO had been pushing very, very hard to extend us past 2014. And it seemed that the Obama’s administration was going along with that. But what we’ve seen over the past nine, 10, 11 months is this kind of pulling back from that and saying, no, 2014 is when we’re really going to wrap it up.
But yeah, I mean, again, you know, another NATO air strike that kills another bunch of civilians, and, you know, they apologize. I mean, it’s this vicious cycle. We know exactly—whether it’s the Marine video that we saw recently of, you know, marines urinating on the Taliban or the other video of marines posing in front of the Nazi SS symbol or this other air strike, look, you know, even if it’s just one or two air strikes, those have a profound impact on the local public opinion, right? So, NATO and ISAF says, “Look, we don’t do this all the time. Mistakes happen.” But that’s—you can say that, but then, in fact, if you actually have to deal with that in your own community, it’s a much more difficult thing to stomach. And the longer we’re there, you know, the more things like that are going to happen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michael Hastings, one of the things that Lieutenant Colonel Davis also is very critical of is the likelihood that the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police can take over security once the U.S. has withdrawn. Can you say a little about that?
MICHAEL HASTINGS: Sure. We’re spending $11.6 billion a year to train the Afghan National Army and Afghan police, or ANSF, for Afghan National Security Forces. We’ve been doing this now for a number of years. And the idea is that we will—as we draw down, the Afghans will stand up. They don’t use that phrase—that’s what they use in Iraq—but essentially that’s the idea.
Now, what Colonel Davis is reporting and what we’ve seen from every other report is that, in fact, all this money we’re spending is—much of it’s going to waste. There’s pervasive drug problems, Taliban infiltration—you know, you go down the list—discipline problems, people not showing up. So, in fact, there’s an amazing moment in Colonel Davis’s report where he says that almost all the Afghan forces that he visited have different pacts themselves with the Taliban about—so they don’t actually want to fight each other. So, what does that tell you, right? And I witnessed that firsthand in Afghanistan, where I was with an Afghan unit, and they knew the Taliban would attack, because one of their friends in the Taliban would call and be like, “Hey guys, we’re attacking tonight.”
So, what does it say that we’re spending $11.6 billion to build a proxy army in Afghanistan, essentially, that’s going to be barely functional without our support? I mean, I think people can draw their own conclusions. On the other hand, you know, you can make the argument that, well, you need to do something, and, you know, you need to stand up some sort of security force. But the question is, you know, is it effective? Is it a good use of our resources? And how the heck is that going to prevent another September 11th?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the things that Lieutenant Davis has called for, at the end of his report, is a congressional investigation into how the war is being conducted. What do you think the likelihood is that either the House or the Senate Armed Services Committee will conduct such an investigation?
MICHAEL HASTINGS: I would put the likelihood at about 1 percent, probably. I mean, to be honest, I mean, I think hearings are necessary. I think we have to come to terms with both where our Afghan strategy is going and where it—and how we got there. I mean, we could do for a sort of other Pentagon Papers-type examination of our policy. Now, what could happen—and I think this is more likely—is that over the next few months you see sort of an Afghan study group form with high levels—members of Congress sort of getting together and figuring out a better way to get out of Afghanistan, perhaps an accelerated withdrawal.
It’s going to be very difficult for any progressives or Democrats or antiwar folks in Congress to get any traction to kind of have these hearings. And the reason is because the progressives and the Democrats have been told—this is according to my sources—have been told by the White House, “Look, you know, we get it. You know, we are leaving. But, you know, it’s an election year. You know, keep quiet about this.” And Colonel Davis hears that argument. And from my understanding, he says, you know, “OK, that’s all well and good, but, you know, that means three more years of fighting and hundreds, if not thousands, of more deaths.”
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think will happen to Colonel Davis? You said that he is 17-and-a-half years into his 20-year service. This is incredibly brave. He’s coming to the end, and he has released this. And how does this compare to another whistleblower, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Holmes?
MICHAEL HASTINGS: Well, OK, this is the key point, and this is where the bravery and courage and absolute, you know, moral—Lieutenant Colonel Davis is on the right side of history, and the fact that he believes in this and is willing to risk all that.
So, but here’s what usually happens, in my experience with dealing with writing critical things about the Pentagon and dealing with whistleblowers in this case. Usually, you know, the whistleblower comes out, says something, you know, that the Pentagon doesn’t want to hear, and then you’ll have—the Pentagon’s response is twofold. First they’ll give a kind of on-the-record comment, as Nermeen read at the beginning of the segment, saying, “Oh, it’s just his opinion.” And then you’ll have the much more insidious smear campaign, where unnamed Pentagon officials will go to enabling journalists, and basically they make stuff up, right? They say, “Oh, we heard this about Davis, this and that.” And it’s a total lie. So they try to undermine his credibility. That’s the first step.
The second step is some sort of official retaliation. And we don’t know if that is actually happening or not. We’ve seen there’s been a report that the Pentagon is officially investigating Colonel Davis for, you know, security violations, which is completely bogus. But that sort of report is out there that no one has been able to confirm whether it’s true. And so, the next step is to see what sort of retaliation the Pentagon is going to take. They could take it six months from now, they could take it a year from now and do it when no one’s sort of paying attention. So, that is the real risk that he faces, is that once the media spotlight moves on, the Pentagon could retaliate.
In his favor, I would say, clearly, politically, it’s not—the Pentagon does not—I mean, the White House doesn’t want to have this argument, you know, and if the Pentagon was smart, they wouldn’t want to have this argument, either. If they were savvy and actually—if they were sort of as savvy as, you know, they often pretend they are, they would, you know, say, “Colonel, got it. You know, we see your point. We appreciate your commentary. Let’s move on.” But unfortunately, they have a track record of kind of really petty retaliation over these sorts of issues.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Hastings, we want to thank you for being with us, contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. His book is called The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan. Thanks so much for being with us.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, New York state gives more than a billion dollars to New York’s hospitals for uncompensated care. What happens to that money, and to people in need who are going to hospitals? Are they being told that they can come to the hospital even if they don’t have money? This is Democracy Now! We’ll answer that question in a moment.