A seven-month deployment in Afghanistan shrouded in secrecy is a key piece of Pete Buttigieg’s pitch to voters in the 2020 presidential race, with the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor arguing that his status as a veteran and his time in a war zone give him foreign policy gravitas and first-hand military experience none of his Democratic primary rivals can claim.
That supposed strength, however, ultimately could become a weakness in a potential general election match-up with President Trump and a Republican Party that is already eyeing ways to turn Mr. Buttigieg’s time as a Naval intelligence officer into a liability. Some of those who served alongside Mr. Buttigieg in Afghanistan during his 2014 deployment told The Washington Times that the 38-year-old rising star in the Democratic Party performed admirably in his role and deserves credit for putting on the uniform and for being careful in how he frames his military service, which centered on logistical and intelligence-gathering efforts rather than front-line life-threatening missions in the field.
But there’s a growing belief in some political quarters that Mr. Buttigieg — who has made his time in the military a central selling point to voters ahead of this weekend’s primary contest in South Carolina — may have already gone too far. And it’s not clear whether the Buttigieg campaign is fully prepared for a potential onslaught of political ads that could be reminiscent of the 2004 “Swift Boat” campaign that helped sink Democratic presidential candidate and Vietnam War veteran John Kerry’s ambitions.
This cycle, such an effort would be designed to chip away at the former mayor’s argument that his time in Afghanistan gives him unique intellectual and moral authority on U.S. foreign policy. Political observers and other veterans who served in Afghanistan interviewed by The Times suggest that beneath the surface, Mr. Buttigieg could be walking into a trap.
“It’s a weak story,” said one national GOP political strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns. “If the entire foundation of your foreign policy experience is built around your time as a low-ranking officer staring at a green computer screen, you’re making yourself extremely vulnerable.”
Buttigieg supporters push back hard against those assertions and say they’d look forward to a general election campaign focused on the mayor’s military service.
“God help the person that wants to question a veteran’s military service. Tell that to the families of more than 6,000 Americans who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Maura C. Sullivan, New Hampshire co-chair of the Buttigieg campaign and is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq.
“From Nashua, New Hampshire to South Bend, Indiana, communities across our country are touched by the military service and sacrifice of the young women and men who answer our country’s call to serve,” said Ms. Sullivan, who also served as a senior Pentagon official during the Obama administration. “Every veteran and military family’s service is valued — regardless of branch, where they are from, or how long they served.”
‘Keep it in perspective’
Mr. Buttigieg, who over the past year has gone from an unknown Midwestern mayor to a top-tier contender in a crowded Democratic primary field, joined the Navy reserve in 2009. He entered the military as part of the Navy’s direct commission program, which allows some applicants to become an officer without going through all of the same lengthy training that other officers endure.
The program itself is controversial, with critics arguing that it’s often used as a way for young, politically ambitious men and women to pad their resumes with military service. Former Republican Party Chairman and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus also recently enlisted in the Navy through the direct commission program.
After five years in the Navy reserves, Mr. Buttigieg took a leave of absence from his duties as South Bend mayor to deploy to Afghanistan. While there, he was chosen to join the Afghanistan Threat Finance Cell, a multi-agency task force aimed at identifying and stopping funding sources for extremist insurgent networks inside the country.
The task force itself is somewhat shrouded in mystery and much of its work remains classified, meaning many of the exact details of Mr. Buttigieg’s work in Afghanistan will never be known.
Those who served with Mr. Buttigieg offered glowing reviews of his work, while also going to great lengths to put his service in the proper perspective.
“Did he put himself in harm’s way at times? Yes. Were we looking to break down doors and shoot people in the face? No, that isn’t what we did,” said retired Army Col. Guy Hollingsworth, who in 2014 served as the U.S. military’s lead officer for the Afghanistan Threat Finance Cell and chose Mr. Buttigieg for the mission.
“He came and did exactly what he was asked to do,” Col. Hollingsworth told The Times in a recent interview. “Pete was a reservist. He wasn’t a career soldier. So you’re not going to get war stories that drag you from year to year, 10 different combat tours from this place to another. That isn’t what he did. He was a citizen-soldier who paid his dues at home, wanted to serve, was called up and deployed, and spent six months doing what he was asked to do. … I think people just have to keep it in perspective.”
Col. Hollingsworth defended the direct commission program while also acknowledging its sometime anomalous place in the military hierarchy.
“Sometimes it is a resume-builder and I’m not sure I have a problem with that,” he said.
Other top military officers say Mr. Buttigieg deserves credit for volunteering to serve, and they push back on the argument that his time in Afghanistan was little more than desk duty.
“He was not a guy who sat behind a computer. He was out of the vehicle. He took some pretty interesting lessons from that,” retired Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, former top commander in Afghanistan, told the New York Times last October. “You can say he was not in direct combat, but he was out there where 99% of Americans weren’t.”
Others who met Mr. Buttigieg in Afghanistan recall that he performed well in his role and was enjoyable to be around. Air Force Maj. Andrew Stevens, who served in Afghanistan at the same time, said he met Mr. Buttigieg at a cigar club frequented by men and women in theater. The two men later took part in the same fantasy football league.
“We became friends,” said Maj. Stevens, who was referred to The Times by the Buttigieg campaign. “He’s obviously really smart but really humble at the same time.”
For his part, Mr. Buttigieg is leaning hard into his military background as the crucial South Carolina primary looms this weekend. The Buttigieg campaign also points to data that justify such a strategy: In the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Buttigieg was the clear favorite among voters who say foreign policy is their top concern, according to figures provided by the campaign.
The former mayor’s advertising in South Carolina — home to a large active-duty and veteran population — has zeroed in on his service and has drawn a contrast with Mr. Trump, who did not serve in the military.
Mr. Buttigieg has made similar arguments during TV interviews and on the debate stage.
“The first time I ever set foot in South Carolina, it was stepping off the bus that brought me to combat training near Fort Jackson,” he said during Tuesday night’s Democratic primary debate. “And that was to get ready to go to Afghanistan, where I saw that one of the things that kept me safe, just as sure as my body armor, was the fact that the flag on my shoulder represented a country that was known to keep its word. Our allies and our adversaries knew it.”
“The president has torn that to shreds,” he said.
Mr. Buttigieg has faced questions about whether his personal experience in Afghanistan actually qualifies him to claim an advantage over his Democratic primary rivals. While most of his specific work as an intelligence officer remains classified, much of it seems to have been done within the confines of the so-called “Green Zone” in Kabul, the heavily fortified U.S.-NATO military headquarters in Afghanistan.
Mr. Buttigieg did, however, take dozens of trips outside the Green Zone as part of a military convoy. Col. Hollingsworth said Mr. Buttigieg personally accompanied him on several assignments to other parts of Afghanistan.
“I liked being around him,” Col. Hollingsworth said.
Exactly how Mr. Buttigieg has used those trips in his campaign pitch has been the cause of controversy. He’s faced criticism from other veterans for, among other things, using photos of himself posing with M4 rifle in a way that could suggest he saw regular combat.
He’s disputed that characterization.
“If you’re watching closely, you’ll notice I’m not wearing body armor,” he told The Associated Press last year. “It was manageable risk, but you still wanted to have your weapon.”
When it comes to his presidential ambitions, Mr. Buttigieg has clearly tried to use his experience in Afghanistan to overcome skepticism that a South Bend mayor had the knowledge and understanding of foreign affairs needed in a president. Throughout the contest, Mr. Buttigieg has talked about Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and other international hot spots through the prism of his military service.
But that, too, is a questionable claim, according to some veterans who argue that Mr. Buttigieg does not necessarily have any unique insights to offer.
“The main thing Buttigieg seems to have gained from his service in Afghanistan is the mantle of a veteran’s moral authority on these issues,” said Gil Barndollar, who deployed twice to Afghanistan as a Marine Corps infantry officer between 2009 and 2016. Mr. Barndollar is now a senior fellow at the Defense Priorities think tank, which advocates a more restrained U.S. foreign policy.
“Like the vast majority of us who served there, his deployment only gave him a snapshot of a specific time and place, a small piece of the overall slow-motion disaster that is America’s war in Afghanistan,” Mr. Barndollar said.
Mr. Buttigieg so far has been careful to not cast himself as a combat veteran, perhaps well aware of the problems that could create. But if he becomes the Democratic nominee, political specialists say the risks will increase exponentially.
“John Kerry was a combat vet who got his ass kicked because he overstated” what he did in the military, said the national GOP strategist. “That’s the potential for Pete Buttigieg.”