Jessica Donati was recently a guest on SOFREP Radio where she talked about her recent book and her years of work in Afghanistan.
Ms. Donati wasn’t a journalist looking for a quick story spending a week in-country, getting a juicy tip, and then becoming an instant expert on everything Afghanistan. In fact, she was the exact opposite.
She spent four years there as the former Kabul Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal. She embedded with the Afghan Commandos and was close to the Army Special Forces Green Berets. In her recently released book, she tells their story.
Eagle Down, The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War was a compelling, page-turning if at times very disturbing read. It pulls the veil off of the lie sold to the American public during that time that there “were no more boots on the ground” and that we were “no longer at war” in Afghanistan.
Ms. Donati writes an incredibly detailed and interesting story as she weaves the machinations of the Obama administration, the account of the Special Forces ODAs, or A-Teams as they are more familiarly known, and the experiences of the troops’ families back home. The military sent these SF teams in harm’s way in 2015 and set them up for failure, especially with Washington’s insistence on approving any offensive action from nearly 7,000 miles away in the White House.
After the Obama administration said that it had withdrawn all of the combat troops out of Afghanistan, the no “boots on the ground” mantra was conveniently covered by saying that SF A-Teams were merely advising, assisting, and training the Afghan commandos. The Afghan commandos were the country’s firemen: they were spread far too thin and used to put out every incident that occurred in the country.
It was easy for the U.S. administration to sell this lie due to the SF teams’ nature (after all, they are known as the “Quiet Professionals”). Further, the SF teams, working in their expertise which is in the realm of counter-insurgency and not strictly in direct action mission, were kept out of the public and most journalists’ eyes. Additionally, SF’s counter-insurgency roles get far fewer book deals than their counterparts in the Navy.
But the lie was never one that could be covered up for long, regardless of the Potomac Two-Step conducted by politicians in Washington and generals in the military. If the SF teams didn’t accompany their Afghan commando allies into battle, and in fact in many cases lead the way, all rapport would be lost. The relationship between the two groups was already tenuous at times because of the U.S. withdrawal and increasing green-on-blue attacks.
One of the central episodes in Ms. Donati’s book was when the Taliban attacked and took over the majority of the provincial capital of Kunduz. With the city teetering on the edge of collapse, an SF Major codenamed “Hutch” brought in SF troops to aid their vastly outnumbered Afghan commandos. The American troops were quickly locked in pitched combat, but their supply lines were constrained. Furthermore, their air support, which is very critical when outnumbered, was so severely restricted due to ridiculous rules of engagement that the situation became a deadly farce.
The Kunduz part of the story ends in a horrible mistake. Afghan commandos desperately needed air support or they would be in danger of being overrun. But the target was mixed up in the fog of war, and the dispatched Air Force AC-130 gunship didn’t hit a Taliban strongpoint but a hospital filled with members of Doctors Without Borders.
The airstrike killed dozens of civilians and wounded several more. Rather than wait until all of the facts were in, careerist generals, struggling to keep under the carpet the fact that American troops were in pitched combat, and thus avoid a political fallout, put Major “Hutch” hang out to dry. “Hutch” was told he would be charged as a war criminal before all of the facts were in.
The teams were growing increasingly jaded at their higher-ups and Washington. This was reflected in one of the book’s best quotes as one of the troops commented, “We don’t know what our goals are because they keep changing all the time.”
“You don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing, yet you keep sending us on crazy missions where we could die for no reason.”
As mentioned above, Ms. Donati also tells the tale of the troops’ families at home that watched the news unfold in front of them nearly in real-time. Caleb, one of the troops lost both his legs in an operation. His story and that of his wife, a woman of tremendous strength, is a compelling one. Hutch’s wife has to worry about her husband’s safety while caring for two little girls, and also face the added worry of her husband possibly being charged with a war crime.
Both of the main characters, Hutch and Caleb, are hardly left unscathed by personal travails. Both have survivor’s guilt, while Caleb struggles with PTSD and trying to learn to walk again after the loss of his legs. Hutch has to deal with the guilt over the mistaken air mission that killed so many civilians. His feelings about the Army, which was more than ready to feed him to the wolves, are also called into question.
Eagle Down should be required reading for government leaders and officer cadets as a lesson to what can happen to our Special Operations Forces when we strip them of assets required to conduct their jobs although we continue sending them in harm’s way.
Ms. Donati’s work is an excellent example of why, even after 20 years in Afghanistan, the American public should demand much better from our leaders in Washington. Because as we wrestle with the withdrawal of all of our troops from this “forever war,” there are still Special Forces troops with their boots on the ground in Afghanistan. They deserve a policy and plan that are worthy of the sacrifice and the oath that they took and continue to defend every day.