Americans have a reputation for lacking the stomach for long wars. Whether it is deserved (without meaning to sound Clintonesque) depends on how long “long” is. The Revolution (1775-1783) was 8 years. The Civil War was an especially sanguineous 4. So was the US participation in World War 2. While we did tire of it eventually, we stuck out Vietnam for 10, counting from JFK’s infusion of 16,000 troops in 1963. Afghanistan is 13. Those seem pretty long to me – but perhaps I’m proving the point. It’s not just the length but the nature of the combat that matters. We’re pretty good at taking on conventional forces, but insurgencies that drag on and on wear on our patience. We even lost patience in our own country, ending Reconstruction in 1877 before its objectives were secure.
The difference between conventional and counterinsurgency warfare looms large in Lt. General Daniel P. Bolger’s book, provocatively titled Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The word “lost” also is open to interpretation. Elected governments continue to hold sway in Baghdad and Kabul after all. However, ongoing civil war was never the plan; to the extent this is the unwanted reality, “lost” is a fair enough description. Bolger was a general officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The very first sentence of the book is, “I am a United States Army general and I lost the Global War on Terrorism.” He doesn’t mean all by himself, but he does mean himself personally along with others. He was never in overall command in either conflict: “You’d find me lower down on the food chain, but high enough.” High enough for his own decisions to have wide repercussions.
Bolger notes that US forces were (and fundamentally still are) configured for “short decisive conventional conflicts…Employed thusly, American airpower and SOF [Special Operations Forces] in 2001, and airpower and armor in Iraq in 2003, worked as advertised.” But, he writes, “Counterinsurgency works if the intervening country demonstrates the will to remain forever. Once it becomes clear that the external forces won’t stay past a certain date, the guerrillas simply back off and wait it out.” Yet the US and its allies didn’t pocket the victories in Kabul and Baghdad and then leave, as they could have done. They stayed. In Afghanistan this posed special geographical challenges in a landlocked mountainous country accessible only at the sufferance of frenemies. In Iraq the demographics weighed heavier.
Where was Bolger’s insight in these matters back in 2001 and 2003 when communicating it to the civilian leadership and public might have done some good? Lacking, to hear him tell it. “We faltered due to a distinct lack of humility.” He blames himself and other Pentagon brass for overconfidence after the early successes, and for failing to recognize and warn that “nation-building” was a task outside the expertise and resources of the military.
Yet this assignment of blame lets the civilians too much off the hook: the Bush Administration to be sure, but also key Democrats. Feinstein, Dodd, Biden, Kerry, Reid, Edwards, Schumer, and Clinton, among others, all voted for the Iraq War which passed Congress overwhelmingly in a bipartisan vote. The public, too, was solidly behind it. Opponents were such fringy odd couples as Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. [Also, as it happens, me. I claim no special foresight: it was just consistent with a general instinct to oppose interventions of choice, whether in Panama, 1991 Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo, Libya, or elsewhere. Sometimes I’m probably wrong. Maybe time will prove me wrong in this instance, too.]
Besides, there were warnings from top brass from Colin Powell on down. (Powell was Secretary of State in 2003, but had been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the first Iraq War.) I remember full well US Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki testifying to the Senate early in 2003 that controlling Iraq after the success of an initial invasion would take “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers.” No force of that size was available from the US and its partners for any lengthy presence. The scaled down post Cold War military simply didn’t have the troops and equipment to do this and still meet its other commitments. It was possible to rebuild the troop strength sufficient to do it, but that was an unsavory political choice that no one in Congress or the White House wanted to make. Instead, warnings were dismissed and replaced by wishful thinking that demanded too much of too few. In Bolger’s words, “The key thing was to blow Saddam off the map. The rest might well take care of itself.” In 2004 US troops totaled 138,000 and Coalition forces from 37 countries contributed 23,000, but nothing took care of itself. Bolger adds that wishful thinking didn’t end with the last Administration, but has been a continuing feature of the current one too.
Bolger’s snappily written book is a worthwhile history of the two campaigns. It doesn’t lose sight of individuals, whether in command or carrying rifles on foot. He reports what they did right and isn’t squeamish about reporting who did what wrong. As the evaluation of an insider with views at variance with many other high ranking officers, Bolger’s book is both a complement and a counterbalance to accounts such as Tommy Franks’ American Soldier.
General Shinseki in 2003 Senate hearing