It’s one hell of an inversion. The colonels and generals who commanded at high levels during my 2011-12 Afghan surge tour may have lost the war, but they sure won the personal prosperity battle. The military campaign – strategically, at least – wasn’t even close this time around. Whereas the first surge I had the distinct displeasure to join, in Iraq, produced – or at least coincided – with enough short-term security “progress” to feed a success mythology, the Afghan reprise never really caught on. For the most part, that bloody jaunt passed with barely a whimper – as if we were all supposed to forget the grandiose overpromises on what surge snake oil could produce in this “graveyard of empires.”
Thus, once the “quantum shift” President Obama’s first hired (then fired) theater commander, General Stanley McChrystal had pledged didn’t pan out, the American people were treated to some collective gaslighting by the top brass and their think-tanking cheerleaders. Just over two years later, in March 2012, the third surge commander, General John Allen, had changed the martial tune – telling House Armed Services Committee members “There have been setbacks, to be sure, we’re experiencing them now, and there will be more setbacks ahead.”
In other words, the people’s representatives should temper their expectations, because, “I wish I could tell you that this war was simple, and that progress could be easily measured. But that’s not the way of counterinsurgencies.” Still, cutting the nation’s losses shouldn’t so much as cross their minds, since, Allen assured them, “progress is real, and, importantly, it’s sustainable.”
The utter lack of responsibility-taking or consequences-accrual by U.S. generals has been off-putting in the extreme.
We all know how that turned out. Still, in the end it was no skin off Allen’s or any of the other senior generals’ backs that America’s mighty military machine failed so mightily. It seems that the one “here” where “buck never stops” are flag officer’s desks. Not to say the fault was all theirs – not even Alexander the Great could’ve cut the “Gordian knot” of an impossible Afghan mission. Nevertheless, the utter lack of responsibility-taking or consequences-accrual by U.S. generals has been off-putting in the extreme.
Then again, maybe failing upward makes perfect sense for a tribe that selects its own members – “ducks pick ducks” according to a recent Rand report. Furthermore, the fail-up principle applies even after the generals age-out. It seems the real rewards accrue after retirement, when – contra General Douglas MacArthur’s famed farewell address – these old soldiers neither die nor fade away.
Perhaps feeling a mix of melancholy and nostalgia this past week, as an election campaign that barely broached America’s longest-ever war (hopefully) climaxed – I got to reminiscing about the colonels and generals who commanded at the battalion-level and above during my 2011-12 Afghan adventure. I found myself wondering – like a jilted lover with a locked&loaded Facebook account – what they’re doing now?
The answers were predictable, if a bit more drastic than expected. To summarize and generalize, the generals (no pun intended) are mostly working in the corporate defense industry, strategic and security consulting, and/or at a trans-partisan array of hawkish think tanks that provide “scholarly” justification for their own windfalls. These organizations hardly hire the retired generals as a thanks for their service – nor for any specific technical knowledge per se – but rather for their relationships Rolodex, insider knowledge, and influence with former subordinates now headed to the helm.
That’s where most of the colonels from my – and let’s be honest, everyone’s – Afghan tour come in. They’ve either risen to key command and decisional positions or themselves retired, and followed their former masters into parallel subordinate roles at the very same defense contractors, consultancies, or think tanks.
These are money-making enterprises, after all, and spinning senior military leaders through the “revolving door” has proved a sure-thing payoff time and again. The proof is in the pudding – a warfare tapioca now aged 20 years.
Consider some general officer highlights from what now seems the Afghan ancient history of the surge’s mid-point:
David’s done just fine and has been accepted right back into the business and policy elite fold. On the former count, he’s a partner and chairman of the KKR Global Institute, which he established in 2013 to assist the parent global investment firm by “integrating expertise and analysis about emerging developments and long-term trends in geopolitics, macroeconomics, demographics, energy and natural resource markets.” Since 2017, he’s also been on the board of Optiv Security, “a market-leading provider of end-to-end cyber security solutions.”
On the policy-influencing side, Petraeus is on the board of the Atlantic Council, NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, Institute for the Study of War, as well as a member of the US Global Leadership Coalition’s National Security Advisory Council.
Rodriguez is also a senior adviser at the [Stanley] McChrystal Group: you guessed it, a consulting, and leadership development firm. Now here’s a professionally incestuous lot: 12 of the group’s 17 partners are military or CIA veterans, including five retired generals – proof that hitching themselves to stars (in this case McChrystal’s) persists long after camo fatigues are traded for tailored suits.
Group partner meetings must also have something of an Afghan surge reunion party feel – at least six were along on my 2011-12 tour. Suffice it to say, though both are ironically West Chester, Pennsylvania natives – a Smedley Butler, Rodriguez is not. In fact, he’s almost an inversion of the old Marine general turned antiwar stalwart.
Scaparrotti also serves (with Petraeus) on the Atlantic Council Board of Directors. From 2014-19, this group received the third-most ($8,697,000) US Government and defense contractor cash of any major American think tank. Top donations included $1.25 million from Airbus, $800,000 from Raytheon, and $750,000 from Lockheed Martin – less of a surprise when one learns there are two Airbus CEOs, a Raytheon CEO, a senior Raytheon lobbyist, and Lockheed Martin CEO sitting with Scaparrotti on the Atlantic’s board. Joining these MIC-masters are at least 11 three- and four-star generals, three CIA directors or deputies, and two secretaries of homeland security.
Campbell also somehow finds the time to serve on board of IAP Worldwide Services, Inc. – “a leading provider of global-scale logistics, management and technical services…providing solutions to US and multi-national government agencies and organizations.” Plus, in July 2018 he was named Systematic Inc.’s Chairman of the Board: where he “will deliver strategic guidance” to help make Systematic “the leading provider of [command&control, intelligence&surveillance] “solutions in the defense industry.” The company’s president, Rafael Torres, was blunt: “General Campbell’s… ability to predict and address the needs of our warfighter, makes him the ideal person to take on this pivotal role.”
He’s also on the board of directors of Rolls Royce North America, and the advisory boards of AM General, SAP NS2, Castellum, Inc., and MITRE – which manages federally funded research and development centers supporting several US government agencies.
Allyn couldn’t stay away, however, and in May 2019 he delivered “his thoughts on leadership” during an Army Leader Exchange presentation at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. ALx, per its new age acronym-moniker, is apparently “a community of practice” – whatever that means – “enabling professional conversation on all things leadership and leader development.” In practice, this community of practice regularly “hosts guest speakers from industry, government, education and the military to offer unique insights on leadership.” It’s probably a safe bet that maintaining such professional ties with former subordinates running Fort Leavenworth – the “army’s schoolhouse” – and molding the minds of “more than 1,000 Command and General Staff College students [read: majors] and faculty [read colonels],” delivers no ancillary benefits to Allyn or EY…right?
Instead, he stuck to business suits and business as usual. Ten months after retiring, Terry became senior vice president, in the “contractor’s global defense business segment” at Cubic Global Defense. As if co-leading contracting for a defense contractor doesn’t sound a blatant enough interest-conflict, his new boss – himself a retired navy vice admiral – explained that Terry would “oversee efforts to pursue business opportunities in ground training systems and services for the Army, Marine Corps, Special Operations Forces and the Middle East region,” and would “be a great asset to Cubic’s NextTraining growth strategy.” Oh, and just before jumping on the contractor gravy train, Terry graduated a class behind his RC-South successor, General Huggins, in the very same NACD “From Battlefield to Boardroom” program.
Well, the CIA provided early seed money for this 2004 startup after all – “through In-Q-Tel, the agency’s venture capital branch.” Wait, the CIA has a venture capital branch? Active in more than 150 countries, Palantir’s clients include defense corporations like AirBus, plus plenty of government agencies, like (for starters) the CIA, FBI, NSA, Homeland Security, West Point, the Army, Air force, and – you guessed it – the US Marine Corps.
Why Palantir would be so interested in this particular marine three-star, though? Well, could be related to a certain Major General Toolan’s 2012 letter sent from Helmand Province and praising the company: “Palantir reduced the time required for countless analytical functions and streamlined other, once cumbersome, processes . . . . The innovative and collaborate capabilities of Palantir have proven their mettle and effectiveness for conventional and special operations forces in combat.” This gushing note to the Pentagon’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office – which had already provided Toolan with funds to buy three Palantir servers – offered crystal clear recommendations: “I hope the Marine Corps will further its relationship with [the combating terrorism office] providing this capability to USMC forces engaged in the current fight and that the Marine Corps will eventually integrate Palantir into its program of record.”
Toolan also self-describes as a self-employed “consultant and advisor” focused on “wargaming on Indo-Pacific security” – “issues” he boasts he’s “current on.” Given the New Cold War brewing in both America’s red- and blue-team political pots these days, I’m sure that will end just dandy – at least for Big Data and other war-profiteers in the MIC.
So, how’s an Afghan War now in its 20th year going, exactly? Well, according to many generals – contra all critical metrics and the opinions of most combat vets (73 percent support withdrawal) – not so bad. David Petraeus, himself, wrote as recently as April 2020 that America’s strategy had been “reasonably successful” – at least until Trump signed onto the February U.S.-Taliban agreement, which “now proposes to jettison this approach.”
Well sure, whether it’s “King David” or any other senior military entrant through the revolving door, the old maxim must apply: “It Is Difficult to Get a Man to Understand Something When His Salary Depends Upon His Not Understanding It.”
Most of the battalion and brigade commanders from my Afghan tour have yet to take Darth Vader’s Star Wars boast to fruition – “I’ve been waiting for you, Obi-Wan…The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner, now I am the master.” But have already reached senior roles where they can be of use to their old bosses-cum-consultants, contractors, and hawkish think tankers. Soon enough, they’ll take spins through the revolving door themselves. Others already have – off-ramping early from uniformed military to military-industrial-complex. Some, it seems, are indeed always bridesmaids…
First, to the climbers.
Colonel Robin Fontes, Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTA), Regional Security Command-North: On this tour she was responsible for train Afghan security forces in the country’s north. Years later, she was nominated by Trump’s first looney bird of a national security adviser, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, to be senior director for India, Pakistan and Central Asian Affairs at the NSC – but the gig fell through when her patron hastily resigned amidst a brewing scandal. Nevertheless, Fontes still landed the job of senior defense attaché in New Delhi – reassuring local hawks with her utterly pro-India (read: anti-China/Pakistan) proclivities. These days she’s the deputy commander of the Army Cyber Command – a heck of a perch to pitch herself to Palantir Technologies (and vice versa) before packing it in with the military.
A year later, as the 25th Infantry Division’s chief of staff, he was accused of toxic leadership by a subordinate major who blew the whistle on fraud-waste-and-abuse. Specifically, the targeted human resources officer wrote: “Despite requesting support against reprisal…Colonel David Womack started a pattern of reprisal and retaliation against me,” reassigning the whistleblower even though “Army Human Resources Command and Criminal Investigation Division confirmed many of [his] data points; [that] there is and/or was fraud, waste, and abuse within [the brigade].”
No matter, soon Womack ascended to division deputy commander, pinned a general’s star, and is now off to be deputy chief of staff of operations, at NATO’s Multinational Corps Northeast, in Poland – that way he can apply some international-level toxicity and help provoke unnecessary conflict with the globe’s other nuclear superpower, Russia.
Next, to those in the MIC-express-lane.
PS: per their own disclaimer PASS LLC is registered as an agent of the Kurdistan Regional Government – Ministry of Interior under 22 U.S.C. § 611. One wonders if Creighton will remain affiliated with the consultancy firm, since he was just elected as a Republican member of New Hampshire’s State Legislature.
All in all, President Barack Obama’s surge was a diversionary fiasco – fraud, waste, and abuse taking on strategic form. The should’ve been scandalous “inside-baseball” revelations in the Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” bore this out. The top generals knew we were failing, and that – per onetime “Afghan War czar” Lieutenant General Doug Lute – “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” And, it was a bloody fog indeed for America’s adulated warriors.
From Obama’s first infusion of 17,000 extra troops in the spring of 2009 until his official surge technically “ended” in September 2012, 2,036 coalition soldiers – mostly American – died and some 14,000 were wounded in Afghanistan. And for what? Year after year, and by every major metric, the US strategic and security situation has deteriorated. By the time The Donald became the third bewildered president to helm a hopeless war, matters were worse than they’d ever been.
Now, as President-elect Biden prepares steer this sinking ship, let me save you the suspense – the fourth time ain’t the charm. Whether status quo-Joe proves more susceptible to the tired forever war justifications of another veteran of my Afghan tour, General turned Trumpian National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, remains an open question. The arguments of this fellow West Point History faculty alum – dealing with the Taliban amounts “Munich”-level “appeasement” – are more absurd than most, but madman McMaster is hardly alone. Stay a bit longer, until things are a bit better – “beyond May 2021,” but “not forever” naturally – this per the polite imperialists over at the Brookings Institution.
Uncle Joe, frankly, remains a wildcard. Always more a student of his gut than of history, Biden’s positions on Afghanistan – like much else – aren’t as consistent as both his vehement detractors and defenders imply. As a senator and presidential candidate, in 2008, he supported increased funding and troop levels for what his future boss called “the good war.” Not so, reportedly, as vice president – when he loudly opposed the surge inside the White House.
One hopes against hope (and perhaps reason) Biden’s potential instinct to undo all things Trump is upstaged by sentiments from a far finer, and contentious, exchange with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (recorded in the latter’s diary). “I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights!” the vice president shouted at Holbrooke: “It just won’t work, that’s not what they’re there for.”
It’s hard to say, though, given the consistent pressure on – and temptation of – even centrist liberals to tack “right” on foreign policy once in the Oval Office. It’s is an old story, indeed – that classic Democrat’s dilemma of perceived necessity to parry towards hawkishness and burnish toughness credentials. A lot of young men and women have lost lives and limbs behind such partisan nonsense.
Yes, there’s something exceedingly grotesque about the consequences gap between the Afghan surge’s grunts and their senior commanders. The generals who often graced my humble, besieged Kandahar outpost with their intrusive and distracting visits, have more than landed on their feet. Most rake in six- and seven-figure largesse atop “specially boosted” pensions ranging from $169,000-$237,144 annually. By the way, not a single flag officer was killed on my 12-month tour, and whereas the baseline salaries of the generals ranged from $155,820-$189,600, the specialist (E-4) in my troops who bled to death waiting for a medevac helicopter earned around $27,684 to lose both legs, half an arm, and his ultimately…his life.
Husband, stepfather, son, and Michigan native Chazray Clark never had an opportunity to glide through the revolving door to defense industry riches. But make no mistake, those doors are closed to his kind anyway – America’s limb-losers haven’t much capital as lobbyists.