Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, a husband-and-wife team of hawkish military analysts, put their jobs at influential Washington think tanks on hold for almost a year to work for Gen. David Petraeus when he was the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Provided desks, e-mail accounts and top-level security clearances in Kabul, they pored through classified intelligence reports, participated in senior-level strategy sessions and probed the assessments of field officers in order to advise Petraeus about how to fight the war differently.
Their compensation from the U.S. government for their efforts, which often involved 18-hour workdays, seven days a week, and dangerous battlefield visits?
Although Fred Kagan said he and his wife wanted no pay in part to remain "completely independent," the extraordinary arrangement raises new questions about the access and influence Petraeus accorded to civilian friends while he was running the Afghan war.
Petraeus allowed his biographer-turned-paramour, Paula Broadwell, to read sensitive documents and accompany him on trips. But the access granted the Kagans, whose think-tank work has been embraced by Republican politicians, went even further. The four-star general made the Kagans de facto senior advisers, a status that afforded them numerous private meetings in his office, priority travel across the war zone and the ability to read highly secretive transcripts of intercepted Taliban communications, according to the Washington Post, which cites current and former senior U.S. military and civilian officials who served in the headquarters at the time.
The Kagans used those privileges to advocate substantive changes in the U.S. war plan, including a harder-edged approach than some U.S. officers advocated in combating a Taliban faction in eastern Afghanistan, the Post reports.
The pro bono relationship, which is now being scrutinized by military lawyers, yielded valuable benefits for the general and the couple. The Kagans' proximity to Petraeus, the country's most-famous living general, provided an incentive for defense contractors to contribute to Kim Kagan's think tank. For Petraeus, embracing two respected national security analysts in GOP circles helped shore up support for the war among Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.
Fred Kagan, speaking in an interview with his wife, acknowledged that the arrangement was "strange and uncomfortable" at times.
"We were going around speaking our minds, trying to force people to think about things in different ways and not being accountable to the heads" of various departments in the headquarters, he said.
The extent of the couple's involvement in Petraeus' headquarters was not known to senior White House and Pentagon officials involved in war policy, two of those officials said, according to the Post. More than a dozen senior military officers and civilian officials were interviewed for this report, the Post said, adding that most spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters. Petraeus, through a former aide, declined to comment for this article.
• • •
Fred Kagan, who works at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, was one of the intellectual architects of President George W. Bush's troop surge in Iraq and has sided with the Republican Party on many national security issues. Kim Kagan runs the Institute for the Study of War, which favors an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. The Kagans supported President Barack Obama's decision to order a surge in Afghanistan, but they later broke with the White House on the subject of troop reductions. Both argue against any significant drawdown in forces there next year.
Petraeus' successor, Gen. John Allen, allowed the Kagans to stay at the headquarters for his first few months on the job last year and permitted them to return for two additional short visits. After the couple's most recent trip in September, they provided a briefing on the war and other foreign policy matters to the Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
The Kagans said they continued to receive salaries from their think tanks while in Afghanistan. Kim Kagan's institute is funded in part by large defense contractors. During Petraeus' tenure in Kabul, she sent out a letter soliciting contributions so the organization could continue its military work, the Post reports, citing two people who saw the letter.
On Aug. 8, 2011, nearly a month after he relinquished command in Afghanistan to take over at the CIA, Petraeus spoke at the institute's first "President's Circle" dinner, where he accepted an award from Kim Kagan. To join the President's Circle, individuals must contribute at least $10,000 a year. The private event, held at the Newseum in Washington, also drew executives from defense contractors who fund the institute.
"What the Kagans do is they grade my work on a daily basis," Petraeus said, prompting chortles from the audience. "There's some suspicion that there's a hand up my back, and it makes my lips talk, and it's operated by one of the Doctors Kagan."
• • •
When Gen. Stanley McChrystal assumed command of the war in Afghanistan in summer 2009, he invited several national security experts to help draft an assessment of the conflict for Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The 14-member group included experts from several Washington think tanks. Among them were the Kagans, who made several more trips over the years.
The couple returned to Kabul in late June 2010, and they planned to stay for eight days. McChrystal had just been fired by Obama, and Petraeus was heading over to take charge of the war. They expected to meet with Petraeus, who had become a good friend, and then stick to their agenda of touring bases in the south.
The Defense Department permits independent analysts to observe combat operations, but the practice became far more common when Petraeus became the top commander in Iraq. He has said that conversations with outside specialists helped to shape his strategic thinking.
The take-home benefit was equally significant: When the opinion makers returned home, they inevitably wrote op-eds, gave speeches and testified before Congress, generally imparting a favorable message about progress under Petraeus, all of which helped him sell the war effort and expand his popularity.
Other commanders soon caught on. By the time the Kagans arrived in Kabul in June 2010, it was commonplace for think-tankers and big-name columnists to make seven- to 10-day visits once or twice a year. Two analysts from the Council on Foreign Relations, Max Boot and Stephen Biddle, were in Afghanistan at the same time at the invitation of Petraeus.
Petraeus asked the four to remain for a month to six weeks. Boot and Biddle couldn't stay that long, but the Kagans were game, even though they had packed for only a short trip.
Petraeus called them his "directed telescopes" and urged them to focus on the challenge of tackling corruption and building an effective government in Afghanistan, a task they addressed with gusto.
When the Kagans told Petraeus they had planned a vacation in August, he urged them to go ahead. But, Kim Kagan said, "he demanded that we return."
• • •
When they returned in September 2010, the Kagans' writ no longer resembled the traditional think-tank visit or an assessment mission intended to inform an incoming commander.
They were given desks in the office of the Strategic Initiatives Group, the commander's in-house think tank, which typically is staffed with military officers and civilian government employees. The general's staff helped upgrade their security clearances from "Secret" to "Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information," the highest level of U.S. government classification.
The new clearances allowed the Kagans to visit "the pit," the high-security lower level of the Combined Joint Intelligence Operations Center at the headquarters. There, they could read transcripts of Taliban phone and radio conversations monitored by the National Security Agency.
The Post report quoted a former senior civilian official at the headquarters as saying the couple would spend hours there and that they talked about how much they loved reading ''intel.''
Their immersion occurred at an opportune time. Petraeus was fond of speaking about the importance of using troops to protect Afghan communities from insurgents, but he recognized that summer that the Obama White House wanted to narrow the scope of the war. As a consequence, the general decided to emphasize attacking insurgent strongholds — and so did the Kagans.
They focused on the Haqqani network, which U.S. officials believe is supported by Pakistan's intelligence service. Haqqani fighters have conducted numerous high-profile attacks against U.S. and Afghan targets in Kabul and other major cities.
The Kagans believed U.S. commanders needed to shift their focus from protecting key towns and cities to striking Haqqani encampments and smuggling routes, the Post reports, citing several current and former military and civilian officials familiar with the issue.
In the late summer of 2010, they shared their views with field officers during a trip to the east.
"They implied to brigade commanders that Petraeus would prefer them to devote their resources to killing Haqqanis," said Doug Ollivant, a former senior adviser to another general in Afghanistan.
But Petraeus had not yet issued new directives to his subordinates. The Post quoted a senior military officer as saying the situation created confusion and that everyone assumed the Kagans were speaking for Petraeus.
While the Kagans refused to discuss their work in detail — they said it was privileged and confidential — Fred Kagan insisted that they were careful to note before every meeting "that we were not speaking for Petraeus."
"We did have a number of occasions where we sparred with local staffs," Fred Kagan said. He said he and his wife wanted to facilitate conversations about vital tactical issues, exposing field commanders "to different ideas and different ways of looking at the problem."
"Some people agreed with us," he said, "and some people didn't."