Journalism in the Public Interest

Meet the Think Tankers Advising the U.S. Military in Kabul

The military sponsors trips for think tank experts to consult with commanders in Afghanistan – and shape the debate back home.

In this photo reviewed by the U.S. military, then the top American commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus, center, tours the grounds of the U.S.-run Parwan detention facility near Bagram north of Kabul, Afghanistan on Sept. 27, 2010. (David Guttenfelder/AP Photo)

Amid the media frenzy over former CIA director David Petraeus’ extramarital affair, we were struck by a quick reference in a Washington Post story about Petraeus’ time running the war in Afghanistan:

Prominent members of conservative, Washington-based defense think tanks were given permanent office space at his headquarters and access to military aircraft to tour the battlefield. They provided advice to field commanders that sometimes conflicted with orders the commanders were getting from their immediate bosses.

So who were these think-tankers and what exactly were they doing?

We spoke to some of them.

The most prominent and frequent traveler appears to have been the American Enterprise Institute’s Fred Kagan. Best known as the intellectual author of the Iraq surge strategy, Kagan said he and his wife, Kimberley Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War, spent a total of about 270 days in Afghanistan while Petraeus was in command from summer 2010 to summer 2011, and about 128 days under Gen. John Allen, who took command after Petraeus and remains in the position.

Like others we spoke with, Kagan said Petraeus and other generals have routinely brought think tankers to both Iraq and Afghanistan, both to solicit outside advice and to shape the debate back home.

“General Petraeus liked to talk about ‘directed telescopes’ to describe people who go down to lower echelons and see what’s going on and go back and help the commander get a better sense of that,” says Kagan, who added that he has been going on such trips since 2007. The other aim of the trips was for the military to “help inform people who were going to be writing in the national debate to understand what was going on on the ground.”

Responding to the Post’s characterization about the military resources made available to think tank members during Petraeus’ time in charge in Afghanistan, Kagan said: “Everybody who travels to Afghanistan or any combat zone at the invitation of the military is given access to military aircraft.”

On the issue of providing advice to field commanders that conflicted with advice of their bosses, Kagan said: “We were always very careful to say we are not giving you orders, we’re not passing on orders. We’re not doing anything except giving you our opinion.”

Defense Department spokesman Bill Speaks told ProPublica that the Pentagon often reaches out to such outside experts to advise war commanders.

“We do periodically invite those experts involved in relevant research to receive briefings on the status of the campaign,” Speaks said in an email. He said the military does not have a comprehensive list of think tank members who have visited the U.S. headquarters in Kabul.

Indeed, the trips do not appear to have been part of any formal program, and they often differed in length and purpose.

Other think tankers we spoke with say they spent much less time in Afghanistan than Kagan, usually a few weeks or less. Those who have participated are from both Republican- and Democratic-leaning think tanks and they said they were not compensated.

“We did battlefield circulation, visited units in the field, and met with local political and security leaders,” says John Nagl, a retired Army officer and current fellow at the Center for a New American Security who took one military trip to Iraq and two to Afghanistan.

Nagl — who said attendees were responsible for getting to Kabul on their own and the military then covered transportation, lodging, and food — believed the trips allowed him “to be better informed in my analysis and advocacy.”

Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who has taken the trips several times to both Iraq and Afghanistan, says the practice first became common under Petraeus during the surge in Iraq in 2007.

Kenneth Pollack, also of Brookings, credits a 2007 military trip to Iraq with prompting him and O’Hanlon to write an influential New York Times op-ed supporting Petraeus’ surge strategy in the country.

“I hesitate to say these trips are uniformly good or bad. They can be both, they can be neither,” Pollack told us.  “It so depends on the people you meet and the people you’re taking” on the trip.  At times “there’s no question they’re trying to have you see things the way that they see them. But if you’re smart about it, you can get past that.”

Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has also gone on the trips. He declined to comment.

joel a gordon

Nov. 30, 2012, 2:11 p.m.

Who propagandizes who?
Who has what axe to grind?
As a plain citizen, a veteran, a peace lover, and one whose military experience was obtained more than 50 years ago, the military has a goal to perpetuate itself forever. There is no longer a draft, so there’s no pressure from outsiders (parent-citizens) who can call their local congressman to complain that their child-service member told them about military incompetence that they may have witnessed.Think tankers, also wish to ingratiate or be ingratiated.

jawaralal melvin

Nov. 30, 2012, 2:21 p.m.

As a taxpayer, I object strongly that the military is using our resources to promote supportive points of view (by elaborately and expensively hosting these people),  that will be used with and against other citizens and taxpayers.  Kagan and wife are particularly odious in this regard, but it is the monetary waste, and the needless, if small, putting-in-harms-way of pilots and various support troops to keep these people happy that is totally unacceptable.  I suppose Ms. Broadwell was a think-tanker in waiting.  Petraeus and the other overfed 3 and 4 stars should be docked and punished, even retroactively, for concocting this   scheme.  And add the civilian politicos of Bush and Obama for going along with it.  It stinks.

Why is the Heritage Foundation or the Brookings Institute called a Think Tank but Natural Resources Defense Council NRDC or Natural Wildlife Federation NWF both of whom have considerable expertese in their field of environment rather than defense - they are called lobbyists.

Where are the journalists who should have been reporting on this since 2007?

Thank you for Propublica.

This kind of thinking on the part of the Pentagon began under President Nixon, and continued, as the people and thinking that Nixon had around him stayed, under following administrations. Only Carter and Clinton administrations could have countered that, and anyone who knows career military and navy knows they are already very conservative in outlook. This is still absolutely outrageous!
It lowers my already low opinion of Petraeus.

report this to the Federal Whistleblower’s hotline. The military needs to stop experimenting with captivated groups/soldiers and women and now gays, though they have been in the military a LONG, LONG time.
so, if everyone is irradiated, is the threat lessened? What debate? I’m sick of these LONG wars, talk of wars and other agendas. They make me sick.

Morris Foutch

Nov. 30, 2012, 3:28 p.m.

How interesting! If readers will recall the outrage when NPR interviewed former General officers during the Iraq war what gives Petraeus et al the right to allow these “pundits” to exercise their telescopes on our dime and then return home to shape public opinion. Again, I am outraged at this flagrant disregard for civil control of the military. I have no problem with the news outlets sending a reporter to a campaign but I demand that they pay their own way inbound, in country and outbound. I also believe it is acceptable for them to interview the brass but the interview must be at arms length otherwise they are moving along a British press continuum. Frankly, we need to avoid these really stupid wars.

Richard Schmidt

Nov. 30, 2012, 3:55 p.m.

I love it. The same groups who gave us the Iraq war and the incompetent Defense dept. strategy to manage the war are still peddling their wares both at home and abroad.
It is, of course, an outrage, but what else should we expect from this group? One can only wonder at what the military guys getting shot at or blown up think of these bozos.


Nov. 30, 2012, 4:40 p.m.

Interesting to note that these private citizens felt safe in a war zone while our troops in forward bases and elsewhere lived with what was often fatal risk. It would be interesting to know what military manpower (taxpayer $$) was diverted for the protection of these valuable Washington assets for the duration of even one informational trip.

Non-Bounty Contact

Nov. 30, 2012, 5:04 p.m.

This is a spin operation. All our generals have an appropriate background and training to take well informed, risk managed and supportable action- that is what we pay them to do. I have long advocated for the forced retirement of generals becasue America is overstocked with old, nonfunctioning three and four stars. Many of these flag officers have little oversight and operate in the margins while pulling in six figure salaries and padding their retirement.

What is even more disturbing, than biased civilians seeking to broaden the own financial position at the expense of taxpayers, and to promote their own political views for profit, is that we American’s get very little independent reporting on the war in Afghanistan by real reporters, and I consider reporters for CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, etc. to be entertainers only, hardly in a position to report facts alone, since their motive is always the bottom dollar. Rick Norlund

Think tankers or thick wankers?

Glad to see all the usual suspects represented.  No wonder it’s so tough to be a simple voting citizen back here in the States but outside the Beltway.  We’re just not close enough to the “action.”

Looks like the Very Serious People who populate the Beltway Village have second (third?) homes near Kabul.  No wonder nothing ever changes.  No wonder we are still in America’s longest war, the latest one we will lose. 

The troops who have sacrificed life, health, and family for this war have been given the shaft and will wait far too long for the benefits owed them.  But by all means, let’s overpay the contractors and consultants!


Being served in Kabul military base for a year as helping forces;
I feel, it stinks
I’m sick of this long war.
Iam a pediatrician, have seen more than expected cases of leukemias among Afghan kids
I was there when planes were bombing areas full of civilians, because of possibility of presence of a’ Taliban’ suspect.
I’ve seen psychologically broken American soldiers
Frankly, America needs to avoid this really stupid war
Generals in visiting us were assuring that : this is not to be ended.
The same thinking who gave the Iraq war
Where r the real reporters, to tell about homeless population, without infrastructure, with an American supported government full of corruption
I’ve seen American soldiers carry kids by their bare hands from ice cold homeless villages to sheltered areas by individual work
May be up tp 25% of kids die every year because of weather.

Somebody should ask the Kagans if the delay in the surge in Iraq until 2007 - when it was clearly necessary prior to the 2004 elections - had anything to do with the 2004 and 2006 elections.

That is, were members of the American military sacrificed upon the altar of Republican political goals? Was the Iraq surge delayed because the Republicans knew that people like me would have been grinding their faces in the shunting aside of General Eric Shinseki and Rumsfeld’s lie of “Six days, six weeks..doubt six months.”????

The Republicans are monstrous liars…monstrous murderers…they kill their own….our own.  They need to pray that they don’t see me at St. Peter’s side…or, for that matter, in hell.  lolll…only after Iraq comes their mismanagement of Afghanistan.

In short, I am watching eight years of heinous economic and war crimes being swept under the rug…if Nazi Germany had only had a Fox and the party apparatus that the RNC has, there would never have been a Nuremberg.

H.S. Batman, THE W.P. quoting Kimberly and Frederick Kagan as the Subject Matter Experts for the post 2014 Order of Battle in Afghanistan.  For a second I thought I was reading that other neo-con print, THE WSJ.

That’s what we need, historians who’ve never served in the military, being taken seriously on end state.  Better for Fred to spend more time exercising and to write more NON-PEER reviewed garbage that does not impact the livelihood of the 47% - those of us in the military. 

Recommended innocuous articles: “If Rambo had a third more firepower, he would have won Vietnam”  or “A third more Private Jokers (Kagans) would have won the Tet Offensive.”

Just keep the Thinkless Tank stuff academic and for god’s sake not real world.  You never know when a Commander sleeping around with his biographer is going to actually sell this crap to civilian leaders

Good grief; yet another newspaper I have to abandon…

Carol Achtman

Dec. 2, 2012, 6:48 p.m.

We have come to accept as “research” formulation of concepts designed to promote a particular viewpoint.  Real research follows the facts wherever they may lead.

May sound like lines of unsolisited or less-greedy advisers but *INLANDISH fresh ingredients for truly mankind benefiting newer & contemporary *Thinktank is available in the soil of North-America right now for almost free of cost.
Great folks need to be working and available behind ‘OBAMA-Biden 2013 to 2020 at least’ and beyond.

“Richard Schmidt ” VIETNAM “

Nov. 30, 3:55 p.m.
I love it. The same groups who gave us the Iraq war and the incompetent Defense dept. strategy to manage the war are still peddling their wares both at home and abroad.
It is, of course, an outrage, but what else should we expect from this group? One can only wonder at what the military guys getting shot at or blown up think of these bozos. “Mr Schmidt ever here of Vietnam and those wonderful think tankers, the Bovaine Scat never ends it seems.. SOme dumb arse think tanker knows better than the man on the ground. I say put a rifel in the hands of those wonder thinkers and let them do a tour then think>>////Now that would be real and one could probably get some real advice,,,,,

Keep in mind Hillary Clinton’s recent statement, that the United States needs to start spending more money to get Washington’s “message” out.

There’s a push for a propaganda war.  These guys aren’t a coincidence; they’re the salesmen.

Have these think tankers taken the same oath to support and defend the US Constitution that the military officers have taken?

Notice how they’re all zionist jews? All part of the network which committed mass murder on 911. See

Only in America!

loollllll…@papa charlie:  Well, they’ve all sworn to bill on time, increase their bill whenever they can, and be long, long gone before anybody ever comes across the wire…

Matter of fact, I betcha they’d bump wounded off evac planes bugging out.

I knew there had to be a reason why the Defense Department spends twice as much as the next 15 nations on earth combined.

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