‘I demand accountability’: Marine battalion commander calls out senior leaders for Afghanistan failures
Stars and Stripes August 27, 2021
A Marine officer who filmed a viral video says that he’s risking his career of nearly two decades to call out senior military and civilian leaders for failures in Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. Stu Scheller posted the video on social media hours after a blast in Kabul killed 13 U.S. troops. He appears in uniform and responds directly to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger's letter to troops and veterans asking whether the nearly 20-year-long war in Afghanistan was worth it.
“The reason people are so upset on social media right now is not because the Marine on the battlefield let someone down,” Scheller says. “People are upset because their senior leaders let them down. And none of them are raising their hands and accepting accountability or saying, ‘We messed this up.’ ”
The video garnered more than 70,000 views and 6,000 shares in its first 10 hours on Facebook and LinkedIn, spurring both praise and criticism in the more than 1,000 comments.
It's the latest in a spate of calls from veterans and others demanding that senior officials answer for mistakes over the course of the war, especially in its final months. Some have blamed the precipitous U.S. withdrawal for undermining the Afghan government and allowing the Taliban to seize the country.
Critics have also likened the Afghanistan failure to the Islamic State group's sweep through Syria and Iraq in 2014, during President Joe Biden's term as vice president and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's leadership of U.S. Central Command.
An officer who commands the Advanced Infantry Training Battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Scheller is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to a biography posted on his command’s website. It states that he started his career in 2005 with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, which is one of the units deployed to Kabul’s airport to support the U.S. airlift.
At least 10 Marines and a Navy corpsman were among the U.S. troops killed in the attack Thursday that was claimed by the Islamic State group. About 169 Afghans were killed, two officials told The Associated Press on Friday, though a final count is expected to take more time. Scores of others were wounded, along with at least 18 U.S. troops.
Scheller says he knows one the people killed in the blast, but he declines to name the person until the family had been notified.
“Not making this video because it’s potentially an emotional time,” he says. “Making it because I have a growing discontent and contempt for … perceived ineptitude at the foreign policy level.”
Scheller cites remarks Austin gave earlier this year suggesting that the Afghan security forces could withstand a Taliban advance. He also notes that two Marine generals are supposed to be advising the president: Berger, in his position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and CENTCOM boss Gen. Frank McKenzie, though he does not name McKenzie.
“I’m not saying we’ve got to be ... in Afghanistan forever,” Scheller says. “But I am saying, ‘Did any of you throw your rank on the table and say, hey, it’s a bad idea to evacuate Bagram Airfield, a strategic air base, before we evacuate everyone? Did anyone do that?’”
A Marine of his rank and position would be fired immediately over “the simplest live-fire incident” or equal opportunity complaint, he says. He then suggests that the lives lost over the past 20 years could all be for naught if high-level political and military leaders don't take responsibility for their actions.
“Potentially all those people did die in vain if we don’t have senior leaders that own up and raise their hand and say, ‘We did not do this well in the end,’ ” he says. “Without that, we just keep repeating the same mistakes.”
Scheller participated in the noncombatant evacuation of American citizens from Beirut in 2006 and deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, the following year.
Beginning in 2010, he spent a year in Afghanistan, where he led a team in Paktika and Ghazni provinces that destroyed explosives caches and sought to prevent attacks with improvised explosive devices.
“Obviously new generation Marine Corps,” LinkedIn user Erik Watson, whose profile lists five years as a Marine officer, wrote in response to Scheller. “There are proper channels [to voice concerns] and if it is not addressed to your satisfaction, so sorry so sad, keep it moving. Submit resignation ASAP.”
But others defended Scheller. Facebook user Craig Lowell called his video “probably the most incredible act of leadership I’ve ever seen.”
It's definitely out of the ordinary but almost certainly violates military rules, said Jim Golby, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a 20-year Army veteran.
“I’m not sure the last time I’ve seen an active-duty battalion commander openly and directly challenge senior military officers, including the Commandant of the Marine Corps, in this way,” he said.
Scheller echoes what many are feeling, but the video could be used to sow division in the ranks, Golby said, and in the end likely does more harm than good.
Scheller has no plans to resign, he said in a comment, though in the video he says his critique could cut his career short, “if I have the courage to post it.”
“I think what you believe can only be defined by what you’re willing to risk,” he says. “I think it gives me some moral high ground to demand the same honesty, integrity, accountability from my senior leaders.”
“I’ve been fighting for 17 years,” he continues. “I’m willing to throw it all away to say to my senior leaders, ‘I demand accountability.’”
Scheller isn't the only Marine having serious misgivings about the way the U.S. military has handled its pullout from Afghanistan.
On Friday, Retired Marine Corps 1st Sgt. John Bennett released a video in which he first offered his condolences to the families and loved ones of the U.S. service members who died in Thursday's suicide bombing. He then added that the loss of life was unnecessary, and Bennett laid the blame “squarely on Joe Biden and his failing administration.”
Bennett offered up plenty more strongly-worded sentiments in his six minute video.