2019年12月20日 星期五

At War: The lies the generals told about Afghanistan

The phrase “Afghan-led” is still plastered on Pentagon press statements as an irrevocable fact.
Author Headshot

By Thomas Gibbons-Neff

Domestic Correspondent

Marines fighting to gain control of Marja, Afghaninstan, in 2010. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a former Marine, spoke with “The Daily” about losing friends and colleagues during the surge.Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Dear reader,

Following the release of the Washington Post’s Afghanistan papers, a multipart series highlighting the gross mismanagement of the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan, analysts, former diplomats and others have come forward to criticize The Post’s reporting. Primarily they have challenged the Post’s accusation that American officials, over the course of the conflict, lied to the American public about the state of the war and its progress.

For me, a former enlisted Marine rifleman who served in Afghanistan in 2008, 2009 and 2010, watching the national-security intelligentsia reckon with their careers, and where they contributed to the quagmire in which the United States now finds itself, reminds me of a Pentagon press-conference transcript from March 2010. I don’t remember how I found it or really why I was looking for it at all. The presenter was Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the commander of the Marine Corps’s Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade, then the highest ranking officer in charge of the operation in which I participated in the winter of 2010: the battle to retake the town of Marja in southern Helmand Province from the Taliban. In its briefings, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said that the mission, known as Operation Moshtarak, or ‘together’ in Dari, was “Afghan-led.” This was, and remains, a lie. The military officials knew it wasn’t led by Afghans, but they still emphatically made this false assertion and expected the press to repeat the phrase.


In the briefing after first phase of combat, Nicholson himself did not use the phrase “Afghan-led,” but he opened his presentation with false notes, highlighting the initial stages of the battle before summarizing what he cast as the positive performance of the Afghan National Army, whom we were fighting alongside. It was one of the major operations of President Obama’s new strategy in Afghanistan, one that highlighted the United States’ desire to eventually hand over the war entirely to the Afghan security forces — something that to this day has yet to happen.

Here’s one part of what Nicholson said:

We have some newer Afghan units that we have to partner with very closely. Really they’re just out of recruit training. So I think there’s a wide variety of the Afghan Army experience here in Marja, but I can tell you that I am exceptionally proud of their great service. These guys run to the sound of gunfire. And when I talk to the young Marines, they tell me how very happy they are to have them there. You know, Marines don’t search any of the homes. In an area this large, when you decide you’ve got to search a home, the guys going in are going to be Afghan soldiers. And they’ve done that very well; they’ve earned the trust and confidence of the Marines. And so over all, I think we’re in good shape.

Since these statements were made a decade ago, the Afghan security forces have undoubtedly bore the brunt of the fighting, losing more than 50,000 people after the Pentagon ended “combat operations” in 2014. Different units, especially among the commando forces, are well trained, reliable and somewhat effective on the battlefield. But what Nicholson said on March 4, 2010, to the Pentagon press corps was the perfect example of how the official version of the war in Afghanistan was infected with misinformation (sometimes deliberate, sometimes not) one speech at a time. Here’s how the falsehoods, or half-truths, in Nicholson’s briefing break down line by line.

“These guys run to the sound of gunfire.”

This was an overstatement by our commanding general. On Wednesday I asked one former mortar man from my battalion if he ever saw his Afghan counterparts run toward a firefight. He told me: “Only time I saw them run was when a platoon of them disappeared the night before [the start of the operation] and no one could find them.”


A former senior noncommissioned officer who took part in the battle said that the younger Afghan soldiers were skittish when it came to the fighting unless “the [press] cameras were near them or they wanted to show off.” He added: “However, they had some older guys that were all about the fight. They were old enough to understand why the Taliban were bad and didn’t want them in their country.”

“And when I talk to the young Marines, they tell me how very happy they are to have them there.”

As a young Marine (one of roughly a thousand in my battalion), this was never a sentiment I experienced. We knew little about the Afghan troops, had barely any cultural training and mostly avoided them at all costs, especially with the growing trend of insider attacks. “I’m just glad I’m in weapons company and don’t have to deal with them,” one 19-year-old Marine from my battalion wrote in his journal in January 2010. Another young corporal said, “I always felt a little leery with them around.” Another, a former squad leader in a rifle platoon, said there was “universal distrust and skepticism.” Not exactly a statement of a young Marine happy with his allies.

“You know, Marines don’t search any of the homes. In an area this large, when you decide you’ve got to search a home, the guys going in are going to be Afghan soldiers.”

Afghan troops searched some homes, but Marines searched plenty of houses in Marja themselves. I would know because I was one of them. Searching homes was part of the American grunt routine, no matter what the brass said.

On Wednesday, Nicholson, who is now retired, said: “I stand by my statement at the time. We saw some heroism from some Afghans and there were obviously some Afghans who underperformed. I think it was the right thing to do at the time, and it would be something I’d do again,” referring to integrating Afghan soldiers alongside the Marines and the broader strategy in Marja.

In all, the general’s statements created a false picture, just surely as the lie about this “Afghan-led” operation was circulated by his headquarters. This glossed-over version of reality would then be repurposed in future congressional hearings and interviews, selling new variations of an already-failing military strategy to lawmakers. Now, a decade later, the phrase “Afghan-led” is still plastered on Pentagon press statements as an irrevocable fact, despite that being, in many cases, the opposite of the truth.

— T.M.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a reporter in The New York Times Washington bureau and a former Marine infantryman. He can be reached at thomas.gibbons-neff@nytimes.com.

Behind the Numbers: 207,000

That is the number of housing units on American military bases across the country that are controlled by private corporations. The program has recently come under scrutiny after a report in September found that residents on 48 of the 49 bases inspected by the Army were dissatisfied with on-base housing, reporting problems ranging from mold and asbestos to poor water quality and exposure to sewage. The privatization initiative was at first a response to the armed services’ own inability to maintain adequate housing for service members in the 1990s, but abdicating control of these housing units to for-profit corporations has exacerbated the issue, leading to a breach of contract and negligence suit filed by 10 military families against Corvias Management, the company that has managed private housing at the military base in Fort Meade, Md., since 2002. Last week, the problem was taken up by Congress, where public hearings were held on the subject of tenant complaints and failures of military oversight. Read the full report here. — Jake Nevins, Times editorial fellow

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CORRECTION: Last week’s newsletter misstated that “End Zone” was Don DeLillo’s debut novel. His first novel was “Americana,” published in 1971. The newsletter also misstated the book’s publisher and year published. “End Zone” was published in 1972 by Houghton Mifflin, not in 1986 by Penguin Books.

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