Emails sent between high-ranking officials disclose profound concern among top brass, which is revealed in thousands of pages of damning internal correspondence about the US mission in Afghanistan. General David Petraeus, the then-head of Centcom, issued his warning shortly after the September 11, 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya. But it was later overruled, and when the Pentagon later complained about continued service cuts, there was no corresponding outcry from General Martin Dempsey, who was in charge of Central Command, or the vice-president.
I served in the CIA between 1983 and 1993, and I was one of the top officials in the agency’s Directorate of Operations. I worked in Africa, Latin America, and Europe, with my specialty being counter-terrorist and intelligence operations in the Middle East. More than a quarter of a century later, when I learned of the bungled Kabul and Kunduz missions I had the chance to read the thousands of pages of damning internal correspondence regarding the US mission in Afghanistan, and I was compelled to describe my experience from a former military officer’s point of view.
General John Nicholson’s testimony on 18 February 2019 before the Senate Armed Services Committee was troubling.
His performance is even more surprising given his upbringing. I am not surprised. This is, in fact, a familiar trope, one that has been replayed time and again. In his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 18 February 2019, General Nicholson said: “It is time for us to take our eye off the ball”. Then, in a remarkable statement, he told the committee: “If we don’t come up with a strategy that works in Afghanistan over the next two months, I will be responsible for the failure of our mission”.
When asked by Senator Jeanne Shaheen whether he had “any conversations at all with the secretary or with the president about how to transition” from military’s current strategy to their own, Nicholson responded: “I’ve been communicating with the secretary frequently. I’ve been communicating with the president regularly. I think it’s something I would bring up with the president, rather than ‘the president’.”
When confronted on that statement, the general admitted that he had not discussed the topic with his commander-in-chief. This failure to consult his commander-in-chief represents an extremely concerning trend. President Trump, for one, had tweeted that he had directed the end of all US combat operations in Afghanistan, but in fact, Trump’s own personnel suggest a completely different course, and this confusing dynamic has continued with other high-ranking officials.
Inevitably, when his efforts were judged disappointing, General Nicholson mustered his best Churchillian rhetoric, claiming that “we are ready to shift the fight to the enemy”. He really did not have a choice in that regard. His lead Marine officers had ordered him to open fire – during a sustained attack by the Taliban on Kunduz – and Nicholson and his Afghan allies had no other option. But it is so far impossible to judge the success of this counterattack, which has inevitably left thousands of Afghans dead and untold damage to the surrounding region.
If these reports are accurate, and if the extent of their incompetence is as grave as they suggest, their recommendations for how to escalate the war against the Taliban will not satisfy the president, let alone his own generals. With every interview General Nicholson gave before his Senate appearance, it became more apparent that he was attempting to salvage his career by defending his own dubious effectiveness, in the face of serious concerns about the mission in Afghanistan.
It seems outrageous that the generals continue to curry favour with the president and let their political interests override the duty to give the best civilian expertise about the situation in Afghanistan. Although Nicholson was a smart general who rose through the ranks, now he is not just failing the mission in Afghanistan, but his own army.
• John Simpson is a former international envoy in the State Department’s Office of Management and Budget and a former CIA officer