Pretty much every day since 9/11, the U.S. military has disciplined soldiers who failed to do their jobs properly. They have been punished for minor offenses, like being late for duty, and for serious crimes, such as murder or assault. Since 2001, there have been more than 1.3 million cases of discipline in the armed forces, according to the Pentagon’s annual reports on military justice.
But the generals who misled Congress and the American public about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not needed to worry about negative consequences for their careers. After 20 years of conducting a disinformation campaign about what was really happening on the ground, not a single U.S. general has faced any punishment. The reverse happened — they were praised for their deceptively upbeat assessments and given more stars, and when they retired with generous military pensions, they landed high-paying jobs on corporate boards, further profiting from their disingenuousness.
This disconnect is getting new scrutiny after the collapse of the American campaign in Afghanistan. Last month, a Marine officer posted a video in which he scorched the country’s generals for the chaos of the evacuations from Kabul. His video went viral, especially on right-wing platforms that prefer to focus only on the war’s final act under President Joe Biden. But Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller’s video — which elicited a rapid reaction from the military’s machinery of discipline, with Scheller being relieved of his command in hours — has stirred up a deeper critique of America’s generals.
“Four-star general officers are treated with great respect in the U.S. military — akin to modern day viceroys,” wrote Andrew Milburn, a retired colonel, in an article in Marine Corps Times last week. “Their exalted position shouldn’t permit them to execute without question an interminable and costly war to no end. Or, worse, to offer continuous assurance that the war was going well when it wasn’t. … Despite two wars that have seen their shares of disasters — not a single general officer has been relieved of his duties for incompetence.”
In Afghanistan and Iraq, several hundred thousand civilians and combatants have perished (including more than 7,000 American soldiers), millions of people have become refugees, and trillions of dollars have been wasted. Politicians were responsible for this, pundits were responsible, and so-called experts from think tanks were responsible too. But the generals were closest to these wars and most aware, or should have been, of what was happening. Few were closer or profited more than two in particular: Gen. Lloyd Austin, who is now secretary of defense, and Gen. David Petraeus, one of the most lauded military figures of the past 20 years.
A Meeting in Baghdad
Back in 2003, Austin strode into a meeting at Baghdad’s oil refinery and demonstrated how the U.S. military was well on its way to catastrophe in the forever wars.
At the time, Austin was the assistant commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, the backbone of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A month earlier, U.S. forces had seized the Iraqi capital, which quickly descended into chaos. Austin was meeting on May 12 with the director of the Daura refinery, which was the target of nightly waves of looters trying to steal whatever they could — gasoline, cars, cash, office furniture.
Dathar Khashab, the refinery director, had one item on his agenda.
“The problem is security,” he told Austin. “The most irrational things are happening in Baghdad. Yesterday I lost one of my pickups.”
Austin did not want to hear that the occupation was wobbling. He blamed looting on criminals released from prison by ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, even though the looting was being done by pretty much anyone with a wheelbarrow or AK-47. He said things were improving every day, which they were not.
“We never promised to get rid of all crime in a city of 6 million, but we’re getting our hands around it,” he said. “We’re setting up new police, and we’re doing it quickly.”
Khashab, dressed in work overalls, was having none of it.
“Things are getting worse, not better,” he replied. “Continuous theft is still here.”
Since 9/11, U.S. generals have consistently failed to see what was happening before their eyes, or they knew what was happening and lied about it. The conversation at the Daura refinery was an early look at this syndrome. There was little doubt to anyone with a clear mind that Baghdad, at that moment, was getting more dangerous. Austin insisted on his own reality.
“You compare the crime statistics today, after a war, to any major city in the world — the crime you have here is less,” Austin said. “There is a perception that crime is rampant. It is not.”
Khashab, whom I had been shadowing for a magazine article, was about to explode.
“But the Iraqi people in Baghdad are comparing the crime now to what they had two months ago!”
Austin was now visibly irritated.
“What you had two months ago was a brutal dictator who killed thousands of people,” he shot back.
“Yes,” Khashab replied, “but we did not have people stealing cars and robbing houses.”
The meeting came to a cold end. After Austin left, Khashab started talking about setting up booby traps to ward off the looters.
A few years after the invasion, Austin returned to Iraq as the commander of U.S. forces there, and later he took charge of Central Command, the headquarters for military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. His charmed path became even more charmed after he retired from the military. In addition to drawing a monthly pension of about $15,000, Austin joined several corporate boards, including the board of directors of United Technologies Corporation, the military contractor that merged with Raytheon in 2020, from which he has received more than $1.5 million, and advisory boards at Booz Allen Hamilton and a private equity firm called Pine Island Capital Partners. Biden’s secretary of defense owns a $2.6 million mansion in the Washington, D.C., area with seven bedrooms, a five-car garage, two kitchens, and a pool house.
In congressional testimony, in media interviews, and in speeches to their troops, Austin and the other generals who oversaw the 9/11 wars did the opposite of telling the truth.
“The Afghan forces are better than we thought they were,” Marine Gen. John Allen told Congress in 2012, when he was commanding U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. “This has been dramatic progress.”
Allen’s successor, Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., was just as bullish.
“I talk a lot about winning these days, and I firmly believe that we’re on a path to win,” he said in Kabul in 2013.
In the same ceremony, Dunford’s deputy voiced similar optimism.
“You will win this war, and we will be there with you every step of the way,” said Gen. Mark Milley, who is now the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Austin, when he took his turn atop Central Command, parroted the happy talk of his predecessors. In Senate testimony in 2016, he said the Afghan military was fending off the Taliban and getting “stronger and more capable.” He added, “Afghanistan remains a worthwhile and strategically necessary investment.”
It’s crucial to understand what the generals were not saying. Austin, for instance, congratulated the Afghan military for having “retaken and reestablished security in key areas, such as Kunduz.” He did not mention that the battle for Kunduz involved a U.S. aircraft attacking a hospital and killing 42 civilians — doctors, nurses, patients. It was the kind of civilian slaughter that typified U.S. and Afghan military operations, and that doomed the war. Austin and an entire generation of generals did their best to avoid mentioning these inconvenient details, denying them unless they were confronted with irrefutable evidence, and then doing little in the aftermath to prevent these atrocities from reoccurring.
It would be dismal enough if the generals believed their own optimism, but they didn’t, as journalist Craig Whitlock’s new book, “The Afghanistan Papers,” explains. Based on secret interviews the government conducted with officers and civilians who served in Afghanistan, Whitlock’s book offers overwhelming evidence that military leaders knew the war was failing and lied about it. The book cites an Army colonel, Bob Crowley, as saying that “every data point was altered to present the best picture possible.” Whitlock described the military’s upbeat assessments as “unwarranted and baseless,” adding that they “amounted to a disinformation campaign.”
Failures and Lies
Unlike their counterparts in the worlds of politics or journalism, members of the armed forces belong to an institution that claims to aggressively regulate itself with an internal justice system that punishes troops who violate its code of conduct. Thousands of officers and enlisted troops are court-martialed every year; some are incarcerated in military prisons, and tens of thousands face lesser punishments, such as reductions in rank and other-than-honorable discharges. A review by The Intercept of the Pentagon’s annual reports on military justice, going back to 2001, shows more than 1.3 million cases of nonjudicial punishment and courts martial. While a handful of top military officers have been punished for bribe-taking and other offenses in recent years, there has not been a whisper of the possibility of holding combat generals to account for the carnage they perpetuated.
“An officer who misrepresented, misled, and lied to Congress, under the standards of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, has committed a crime,” noted Paul Yingling, a retired Army officer and author of a widely read article on generals evading responsibility. “Captains and sergeants face consequences all the time if they lie or otherwise engage in dishonorable conduct. All I would ask is that we apply the same standards to the conduct of war that we apply to falsifying travel documents.”
Yingling’s 2007 article was titled “A Failure of Generalship” and included a now-famous line: “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” A few years later, a similar critique came from Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, whose article in Armed Forces Journal, headlined “Purge the Generals,” suggested that “a substantial chunk” of military leaders should be fired. In 2012, the journalist Thomas Ricks, who had spent much of his life covering and studying the U.S. military, wrote a slashing article that described the history of American generals after 9/11 as “a tale of ineptitude exacerbated by a wholesale lack of accountability.” Ricks went on: “Ironically, our generals have grown worse as they have been lionized more and more by a society now reflexively deferential to the military.”
Whitlock’s book pointed to one reason the generals failed: cowardice. In one of the secret military interviews, a British general, Peter Gilchrist, who served as deputy commander of U.S. and NATO forces in the early years of the Afghanistan War, described his American counterparts cowering during meetings with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “This was a real cultural shock for me,” Gilchrist said. “You should see these guys — and they’re great men, grown up, intelligent, sensible, but like the jellies when it came to going in front of the SecDef.”
A Narrative of Success
It was 2005, still early in the disaster in Iraq, and the most famous general of the 9/11 era, David Petraeus, was telling me how wonderfully things were going.
At the time, Petraeus was charged with creating new Iraqi security forces after the original Iraqi army was disbanded at the start of the U.S. occupation. The bureaucracy he presided over went by the acronym MNSTC-I — Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq — and was headquartered in Baghdad’s Green Zone, which was ringed by miles of blast walls, razor wire, and stop-or-die checkpoints. Petraeus had four computers on his desk, giving it the look of a currency trader’s workstation, and there was a fruit bowl atop a mahogany table. He wielded a laser pointer to highlight statistics on a PowerPoint that was titled “Commanders Brief” and projected onto a flat-screen TV for his audience of two — me and another U.S. reporter.
The U.S. had distributed 98,000 sets of body armor to the new Iraqi forces, Petraeus said with enthusiasm, or what he wanted to be understood as enthusiasm. These Iraqi fighters had also been provided with 230 million rounds of ammunition, 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, and 5,400 heavy machine guns. Four bases the size of Fort Drum had been established across the country, he added, with a total of 92 operational battalions of more than 40,000 troops. “People keep asking when will the Iraqis take over,” Petraeus said. “They have taken over in certain areas.”
This was largely a fiction. The security forces in question were embryonic, generally ineffectual, and entirely dependent on not just American supplies but on American soldiers leading the fight. Petraeus was doing what pretty much every general who served in Iraq and Afghanistan would do, stringing together any data he could find that would masquerade as a narrative of success. The statistics on his PowerPoint were vintage Vietnam — find big numbers and call them victory.
I was in Petraeus’s office to get his support for an embed with one of the handful of Iraqi forces that seemed willing to fight. They were called the Special Police Commandos, and Petraeus had dispatched one of his top advisers, Jim Steele, to work with them. I got a green light for the embed and caught rides on Blackhawks to Tikrit and then Samarra, north of Baghdad, where the Iraqi commandos were engaged in an offensive alongside U.S. forces.
The tactics employed by these U.S.-trained commandos were violently illegal. I saw detainees beaten up, I heard a prisoner scream from torture, and I witnessed a mock execution. After it became clear that I was seeing a lot of war crimes, I was abruptly told that my embed was over — grab my backpack and get on the next chopper to anywhere. I quickly made satphone calls to as many officials as I could reach in the few minutes available before being driven off the small U.S. base where I was staying; at the last moment, I was told I could continue for a few more days.
The cynicism of America’s most famous general emerged after the publication of my story, which had the cover headline “The Salvadorization of Iraq?” — referring to the dirty war in El Salvador in the 1980s. I expected that Petraeus would be upset, because the tactics of his Iraqi pupils were clear violations of the Geneva Conventions. Instead, a few hours after my story was posted online, Petraeus emailed me to request a correction that would state he was responsible for standing up the Special Police Commandos. He was upset that I hadn’t given him sufficient credit for creating these thugs in combat fatigues.
In 2007, Petraeus was named the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and became famous for implementing a strategy of counterinsurgency that he portrayed as focusing on protecting civilians and winning their hearts and minds. It was the opposite of what he was hoping to get credit for with his brutish commandos two years earlier; the contrast showed the lack of sincerity in either strategy. Yet those strategies had one thing in common: They provided a justification for keeping the war going, offering an illusion of victory on the horizon.
“The casualty figures showed that Afghanistan was growing more unstable and insecure — the exact opposite of what the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy was supposed to accomplish.”
Petraeus, hailed as a savior in Iraq, went on to command U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. While there, he painted a deceptively rosy picture of what was happening. As Whitlock notes in “The Afghanistan Papers,” Petraeus told Congress in 2011 that U.S. and Afghan soldiers were engaged in “precise, intelligence-driven operations” that killed or captured “some 360 targeted insurgent leaders” in a typical 90-day period and that the number of surveillance blimps and towers had increased from 114 to 184. “The past eight months have seen important but hard-fought progress,” he told the House Armed Services Committee. “Key insurgent safe havens have been taken away from the Taliban. Numerous insurgent leaders have been killed or captured.”
But as Whitlock’s book notes, “military officers in the field knew the blizzard of numbers meant nothing.” The more important truth was that civilian casualties were rising. “The casualty figures showed that Afghanistan was growing more unstable and insecure — the exact opposite of what the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy was supposed to accomplish. U.S. intelligence assessments also cast doubt on the war’s progress. Intelligence analysts in the CIA and the military prepared reports that were far more pessimistic than the pronouncements from commanding generals in the field. But intelligence officials rarely spoke in public and their reports remained classified.”
Public assessments from the generals were akin to a grift. In a scathing article last week, one of Petraeus’s advisers in Afghanistan, Sarah Chayes, recalled how she made a flurry of proposals for stemming corruption in the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. “None of those plans was ever implemented,” Chayes wrote. “I responded to request after request from Petraeus until I realized that he had no intention of acting on my recommendations; it was just make-work.”
Petraeus continued to float upward. In late 2011 he was tapped by President Barack Obama to head the CIA, but in 2012 he was caught sharing highly classified information with his girlfriend and biographer. He resigned from the CIA but avoided the felony charges and lengthy prison sentences that ruined the lives of other people who leaked classified information. Instead, Petraeus landed a lucrative partnership at the private equity giant KKR. He often gives speeches to friendly audiences, and he frequently appears on cable television, where in recent days he has sharply criticized the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
For military critics like Yingling, Petraeus should be answering hard questions from Congress, not getting softballs from TV hosts.
“Congress has the power to subpoena witnesses and compel testimony,” Yingling told The Intercept. “They can subpoena Gen. Petraeus, compel him to testify. They can put documents before him to ask him what he knew, when he knew it. And if they don’t, that failure itself is complicity.”
Yingling knows that his desire for an honest congressional investigation is likely a fantasy, because America’s political leaders have been co-conspirators with the generals in sustaining the bloodshed overseas. As the dust settles on 20 years of American warfare in Afghanistan, Congress is on track to approve a military budget that will be larger than before.