He joined the agency during the early days of America’s war on terror, one of the darkest periods in its history, and spent almost a decade running assets in Afghanistan, Jordan, and Iraq. But over the years he came to believe that counterterrorism was creating more problems than it solved, fuelling illiberalism and hysteria, destroying communities overseas, and diverting attention and resources from essential problems in the United States.Of his time in Afghanistan he says,
Meanwhile, American police forces were adopting some of the militarized tactics that Skinner had seen give rise to insurgencies abroad. “We have to stop treating people like we’re in Fallujah,” he told me. “It doesn’t work. Just look what happened in Fallujah.” In time, he came to believe that the most meaningful application of his training and expertise—the only way to exemplify his beliefs about American security, at home and abroad—was to become a community police officer in Savannah, where he grew up.
“We write these strategic white papers, saying things like ‘Get the local Sunni population on our side,’ ” Skinner said. “Cool. Got it. But, then, if I say, ‘Get the people who live at Thirty-eighth and Bulloch on our side,’ you realize, man, that’s fucking hard—and it’s just a city block. It sounds so stupid when you apply the rhetoric over here. Who’s the leader of the white community in Live Oak neighborhood? Or the poor community?” Skinner shook his head. “ ‘Leader of the Iraqi community.’ What the fuck does that mean?”
Tactical successes are meaningless without a strategy, and it wore on Skinner and other C.I.A. personnel that they could rarely explain how storming Afghan villages made American civilians safer.
They also never understood why the United States leadership apparently believed that the American presence would fix Afghanistan. “We were trying to do nation-building with less information than I get now at police roll call,” Skinner said. Two months into the U.S. invasion, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary, revealed in a memo that he didn’t know what languages were spoken in Afghanistan. Each raid broke the country a little more than the previous one. “So we would try harder, which would make it worse,” Skinner said. “And so we’d try even harder, which would make it even worse.”
The assessments of field operatives carried little weight with officials in Washington. “They were telling us, ‘Too many people have died here for us just to leave,’ ” Skinner recalled. “ ‘But we don’t want to give the Taliban a timeline.’ So, forever? Is that what you’re going for? They fucking live there, dude.”
Skinner spent a year in Afghanistan, often under fire from Taliban positions, and returned several times in the next decade. He kept a note pinned to his ballistic vest that read “Tell my wife it was pointless.”