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Lt. Col. Daniel Davis: Commanders Sending False Impressions of Afghan War

February 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis recently criticized top military brass, including retired Gen. David Petraeus, saying they have misled Congress and the American people about progress in the war in Afghanistan. Margaret Warner speaks with Davis about his whistleblowing, why he went public and what his future may hold in the military.


JEFFREY BROWN: And next to Afghanistan, where an officer serving in the U.S. Army has openly criticized top brass for misleading Congress and the American people about the war.

Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: As the war in Afghanistan continues into its 11th year, top U.S. military officials have repeatedly said that progress has been made in arresting the Taliban’s drive and moving to Afghan self- sufficiency.

But, recently, an Army officer, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, has made waves, charging that is simply not the case. In a classified report to Congress and an 84-page unclassified version, Davis accuses the military’s top brass of misleading the American public about just how badly the war is going.

He draws on 250 interviews he did with U.S. troops and Afghans during a yearlong mission throughout the country last year. Among those in his sights, Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded troops in Afghanistan before becoming CIA director, and statements of his like this testimony last March.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, International Security Assistance Forces: The momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas.

MARGARET WARNER: Lt. Col. Davis has briefed members of Congress and staff, and spoke with us this morning.

Col. Davis, thank you for joining us.

LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS, U.S. Army: My pleasure.

MARGARET WARNER: You charge in this lengthy report and also in your article that not only is the war in Afghanistan failing, but that the senior military leadership has used what you call omission and outright deception in order to prevent the American public from knowing the truth. That’s a very serious charge.

What’s your evidence that it’s actual deception?

LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Well, when you have a certain amount of information that you know things are a certain way, and then you convey them in public in a way that — that contradicts that, that’s hard to get by with, to say that that’s not intentional or knowing that we’re trying to make you think something that’s not so.

Now, as I have pointed out in a lot of these, some of the classified information is very stark, which naturally I can’t convey. But even some of the things that you can convey and you can observe and whatnot, we get pretty clear evidence that things are not at all the remarkable success that has been noted in recent days. We’re not that way at all.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let’s take the main sort of strategic assessment that senior military leaders have been giving for the last couple of years, which is that the momentum of the Taliban and other insurgents, which had been progressing before the surge of troops, has at least been arrested and in some areas reversed in terms of control of territory.

LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: There have in fact been some place where we drove them out of an area, and the violence and stuff went down there, particularly in some areas of northern Kandahar.

But that doesn’t at all intone that we have succeeded in those areas. For example, there was one particular occasion where there was a firefight going on not far from where I was. Went inside to the command center, and we were watching it on a camera where we could physically see it.

Some of the Taliban guys put down their weapons by the haystack. They got on a motorcycle and they started drive off. Well, they were driving in the direction of an Afghan national army checkpoint where there was two Humvees sitting astride a road. The commander of the unit saw that. And so he got on his — turned around to his Afghan LNO, and scream, tell them to stop those guys.

And we could see the men in the Humvee, and these guys drive right past them. No one moves, no one answers the phone until the guy gets out of sight, and then they pick the radio up.

MARGARET WARNER: That is one of the most devastating things in the report, has to do with the performance of the Afghan national army and police, because that — of course, the basis for the surge and then the beginning withdrawal of American forces is that we would stabilize the situation enough that they could take over.

Give us a flavor of what you found about their performance.

LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Well, I will give you a flavor, and I will also tell you, in my view, that is one of the most profound consequences of this propensity we have to not be square with what’s going on.

When you constantly are saying, things are going good, and yet everybody on the ground knows that it’s nothing close to being the truth, then your word loses all credibility.

I saw up in the Kunar area where . . .

MARGARET WARNER: Up in the northeast.

LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Up in the Northeast part of Afghanistan, where we were taking a patrol out there, and there had been reportedly been attacked about two-and-a-half hours prior to my arrival.

And so we asked them, where did the attack come from? He pointed up on the hill. And I said, well, what’s your normal procedures? Do you form up a patrol and go after them? Do you do periodic patrols? What’s your normal procedure?

And as the translator is translating that part about go out on patrol, his head whipped around like this to the translator, looked back at me, laughed in my face, and said, no, we don’t do that. That would be dangerous.

But what I then do is, I turn around to the guys who are there every day and I say, is this typical engagements? Is this how it works all the time? Or is this unusual?

And I will just tell you, in 100 percent of the cases — and there were no exceptions that I personally observed — where they said, oh, this is normal. They don’t ever even leave the confines of the checkpoint. They don’t do anything except sit there and try not to get shot and then get their paycheck.

So what do you have that’s sustainable after we start pulling 20,000 troops out in the next seven months?

MARGARET WARNER: What makes you so sure this is outright deception vs. believing in the mission, believing it can be done, seeing the glass half-full, seeing more progress that is being made?


And part of that is in fact exactly what you described as this can-do attitude, because most guys who wear a uniform, you give me a mission that has no chance of success, I’m going to do everything in my power to accomplish it. And I’m not going to start off by going, well, this is a failure, I’m not going to make this.

So, I will do everything I can, as a — especially on the tactical level. But if this was the third or fourth our fifth year even of the war, then you could say, well, we need to continue being that optimistic and go. But when you see the same comments from 2004, especially about the Afghan national security forces, from 2004 — these guys are increasingly taking the lead, they’re getting out there, they’re gaining the support of their countrymen — only, in the 11th year, you still don’t see physical evidence of that.

And they’re predatory. They are — like I said, they watch while guys drive right by them that they saw were shooting. That’s not very capable to me.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, why did you not just take this up through the chain of command? You have instead gone to the Congress, briefed the Congress. You’re talking to the press.

And you filed an inspector general report. Why go that route, and what are you trying to accomplish?

LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: I have frankly lost my confidence in the ability of some of the senior leadership of the Army to police itself.

And based on what I had seen over an extended period of time, and then what I had definitely seen in Afghanistan, it was clear that just going — quote — “through the chain of command” was going to accomplish nothing. And so I believed the only chance that there was to actually get some kind of — something to fix the situation, to where we’re just being honest about what’s going on, is, it’s going to take some external help. And that’s why I went to Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re not trying to change policy; you just want the statements coming out about the assessment of the current policy to jibe more with what the reality is that you saw on the ground?

LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: That is exactly right.

I’m a staunch proponent of civilian control of the military, and that they set the policy, in conjunction with the military, however they do that. My strong feeling is that whatever they want to decide, that it needs to be based on an accurate and truthful assessment of what’s going on, on the ground.

MARGARET WARNER: You said a minute ago that you have lost confidence in the senior leadership of the military. Why have you remained in the military?

LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: I love the Army. There’s nothing I would rather do. I love serving our country here. And there’s so many fantastic soldiers, men and women that are serving. There are some great leaders out there, too. There’s just a small group of folks, I believe, that are — exert an unusually large percentage of power over this.

And I want to see that get fixed.

MARGARET WARNER: And so are you confident you have a future in the military?

LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: I don’t even — I don’t know. I’m not that confident of it, because I don’t know how it’s going to work out.

But I had — I believe I had a moral obligation to do what I did, and whatever the consequences were is what they are, and that’s yet to be written.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Colonel Danny Davis, thank you.

LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: My pleasure.