Last year General Daniel P. Bolger published an interesting, wide-ranging analysis of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq entitled Why We Lost. The history deals with military events from before September 11, 2001 up through 2013. It is part strategic overview but most of its pages are devoted to what I would term an "episodic" approach to the wars. That is, much of the writing is about specific tactical events which serve to represent many such engagements that comprised the operational and strategic planning with respect to our enemies in these two countries. You get a little bit of the grand perspective mixed in with Tom Clancy-style reporting on how the grunts actually carried out policy set by politicians and generals.
The bottom line is that General Bolger believes the two wars represent a failure of leadership, partly due to politicians, but primarily he places fault on the military strategy employed to fight the wars, sometimes forced by the constraints of political realities. The book is filled with nuggets and insights that guide the reader toward an clearer understanding of the military perspective on these wars and what we can learn from what Bolger clearly identifies as two American defeats.
Bolger begins with an overview of how and why Osama bin Laden attempted to lure America into Afghanistan where he confidently thought he could defeat the U.S. military and damage American credibility globally. The organization of al-Qaeda, the twin bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the attack on the USS Cole, are all discussed. Bin Laden considered himself a Muslim scholar and Bolger praises his logistical and strategic planning capabilities. But nothing bin Laden tried in the 1990's coaxed the U.S. military into putting troops on the ground.
Then came what bin Laden referred to as "the plane operation." The successful attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon got the response bin Laden had hoped for all along. The Americans were coming to a country where no invader had ever won a campaign for long. Bolger points out that "the plane operation" was only one phase of a multi-faceted al-Qaeda strategy. The Northern Alliance was a loosely stitched association of various factions within Afghanistan who were allied against the Taliban, who took over the country and harbored al-Qaeda. The Northern Alliance was a contentious group and the efforts of one man, Ahmad Shah Massoud, held the alliance together. This leader died in a suicide bombing ordered by bin Laden. This disorganized the weak and fragile alliance, rendering it more difficult to work with the Afghan opposition movement against the Taliban later on when the Americans finally arrived.
According to Bolger, the Taliban chieftains that taunted America and openly proclaimed their protection of al-Qaeda followed, among other influences, followed the four basic military dictums of Mao Zedong: Enemy advances, we retreat; Enemy halts, we harass; Enemy tires, we attack; Enemy retreats, we pursue. The conduct of the entire war in Afghanistan, an American incursion, can be summarized in these four points and Bolger uses the four throughout the remainder of his discourse on the war, pointing out specific instances where one of Mao's tenets came into play.
Bolger depicts the early victory over the Taliban in a couple of grunt-level operation narratives. These are the Clancy-like parts of the book, where American infantry with Afghan accompaniment and massive air power killed hundreds of Taliban fighters and took control of their positions. Then the general quickly places Afghanistan on pause and discusses how Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were pushing George W. Bush to go after Saddam Hussein while the president could get the political support for it. We think about Afghanistan as a low-intensity conflict but in the early days it was a classic military operation against irregular troops backed with the support of the local population. Hills had to be taken, valleys secured, towns pacified, and areas attacked and cleared - all tactical situations that could have been out of World War Two or Vietnam.
"So far, the Afghan campaign had featured local militias and some U.S. army rifle companies stomping here and there to kill the Taliban and any al-Qaeda they could find in the bargain. The areal attacks slaughtered a lot of bad guys. But it all amounted to a better-executed version of the old Soviet tactics: round them up, kill a lot, and let God sort them out. To continue like this was - well, you pick your cliche, they all got used. It was like Whac-A-Mole, or chasing smoke, or picking pepper out of fly excrement, or hunting for a needle in a haystack - it all amounted to just operating and hoping something turned up." (pp. 91-92)
Anyway, in 2003 we thought the war was won in Afghanistan and we invaded Iraq to take out Saddam Hussein. Hussein was an gruesome dictator who admired Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers in the 20th century. As Bolger explains, Saddam was a public bad ass in many ways, including the exploration of chemical and biological weapons. Long story short, there was international tolerance for the Second Iraq War, though support was not as strong as the First Iraq War. Bush ordered US troops back to Iraq, largely to finish his father's work.
Once again, Bolger details the successful American drive toward Baghdad in the tactical situations faced by American grunts on the ground. It wasn't always easy and death was always around. But the Americans spectacularly prevailed in what can be considered the first major blitzkrieg campaign of the 21st century. Bush piloted himself to an aircraft carrier landing and spoke of victory under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished." It is interesting to note that this banner was not placed there for the president. It was there because this aircraft carrier had been out at sea for many months and happened to be safely en route to home port when Bush needed a big PR moment.
Then Bolger shifts focus to the strategic level. "...in the summer of 2003, the U.S. Army had four divisions in Iraq: the 101st Airborne Division up north, the Fourth Infantry Division in the center, the Eighty-Second Airborne Division out west, and the First Armored Division in Baghdad. The Tenth Mountain Division was in Afghanistan, and the Second Infantry Division in Korea. That used six of ten regular Army divisions, an unsustainable number. Come the spring of 2004, the Army planned to swap out three divisions in Iraq. The Marines would handle the fourth, heading into Anbar Province to supplant the Eighty-Second Airborne. Another Army division would go to Afghanistan, and the Second Infantry Division had to stay in Korea to deter threats from the Communist north. So four Army divisions a year had to rotate for a decade. This arithmetic argued strongly for bringing in the US reserves and drumming up more allies. Both efforts bore fruit." (pp. 165-166)
So, both wars continued, fueled periodically by fresh troops. Things turned for the worst with growing insurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan and unstable political and cultural situations in these two tribal countries. Bolger points out that there was rarely an effective strategy for dealing with the insurgencies and what sometimes worked had a price to pay in both American and civilian causalities. Examples abound with more grunt level reporting on a major operation in Fallujah in late 2004. Many felt the American Marines were too heavy-handed in that offensive, which broke the back of the organized opposition in the region but failed to break the resolve for the insurgency itself. It would slowly come back.
Bolger: "It is not often that you can pinpoint exactly when a massive undertaking fails. For the U.S. in Iraq, though, the moment was obvious. At 6:44 a.m. on Wednesday, February 22, 2006, two bombs detonated inside the al-Askari mosque in the city of Samarra....The Shiite shrine had stood since 944, it's shining golden dome a bright spot in the tawdry old Sunni city." (page 214)
"The Samarra mosque implosion found the Iraqi government in transition. Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish parties met and argued, endeavoring to split up the key ministerial posts after the December 2005 election. Here was the old Iraq, the age-old Sunni-Shia divide scored in blood. The mosque bombing was just the latest pretext. It was always something, and it always ended the same way: beheadings, shootings, stabbings, bombings, death retail and wholesale, violence as language. Death came pretty easily in Iraq. Most Americans in uniform once more asked that perennially urgent question: Who was the enemy? In February of 2006 in Iraq, the answer came back real ugly: Everyone. And they all had guns." (page 215-216)
The insurgency grew in 2006 and 2007. Control of much of Anbar Province and other areas was lost to various militias and (arriving after the fact) al-Qaeda in Iraq. Into this situation came General David Petraeus, who Bolger praises without pause throughout this section of his history. Petraeus understood things, he had the confidence of his troops, and he could maneuver the politics very well. Shortly after that came the surge of US troops into Iraq in order to attack and take back control of these areas, particularly where al-Qaeda was present. It would all be guided by a new field manual widely issued to the troops for the first time. Bolger on Army Field Manual 3-24, authored by David Petraeus:
"Most Army manuals read like telephone books, only less interesting. But this one...prominently included nine, Zen-like counterinsurgency axioms.
"Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be. Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is. The more successful the counterinsurgency, the less force can be used and the more risk must be accepted. Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction. Some of the best weapons for counterinsurgency don't shoot. The host nation doing something tolerably is normally better than us doing it well. If a tactic works this week, it might not work next week. If it works in this province, it might not work in the next. Tactical success guarantees nothing. Many important decisions are not made by generals.
"Clever, thought-provoking, and paradoxical, they played very well in the halls of academia and among the informed public. The prestigious University of Chicago Press issued the manual as a book, complete with an introduction by Sarah Sewall, a Harvard professor who played a major role in helping Petraeus complete the effort. Compared to the standard, terse military jargon and acronyms, this stuff sang a pleasant intellectual tune." (page 238)
And the leadership of Petraeus, according to Bolger, turned the Iraq war around.
"By 2009, when you rolled with the Iraqis, you could find fights if you wanted them. But you had to look harder than you did in the old days. They didn't come to you as often as at the height of the war in 2006 and 2007. In all of 2009 in Baghdad, attacks averaged fewer than ten a day; there had been nearly sixty every twenty-four hours in the bad old days. The First Cavalry Division suffered thirty-eight dead, and they killed or captured 1,602 insurgents. Each of those American deaths hurt badly, but by comparison with nearly five hundred lost in and around the Iraqi capital in 2006 and 2007, it showed just how much the violence had tapered off." (page 268)
Petraeus moved on and the American public moved on too. Everyone was tired of Iraq. The U.S. turned the reins of power over to the Iraqis and got the hell out of there. Or tried to. As we all know, it didn't quite work out that way. Al-Qaeda had been defeated but the intrinsically fractured Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish society soon went back to killing and imprisoning each other. President Barack Obama ignored the vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal. He had only enough political willpower to fully concentrate on Afghanistan, which he felt was a more justified war. Bolger shifts gears in the book and we pick up where things stood there back in 2003 before we began the Iraq misadventure.
By comparison with Iraq, the war in Afghanistan was smaller. Instead of thousands of insurgents killed and hundreds of US dead in a a given year, the Afghan experience was less intense by about a factor of ten. But that did not mean the war was going any better. The Taliban, decimated in 2002, came back strong in the southern and mountainous parts of the country. By 2006, the Taliban were roaming at will in some places and this pretty much continued under Bush. So the Obama administration wanted a new approach under new leadership. The president's choice was General Stanley McChrystal.
Bolger finds McChrystal very capable but he faults him on two specific accounts. According to the author, the general overestimated the indigenous importance of Afghan president Hamid Karzai and as a result he restricted the use of US artillery in combat support. The reason was that McChrystal's strategy centered upon nurturing the support of the civilian population. So, he attempted to minimize civilian casualties often at the expense of effectively supporting the lives of US soldiers.
The second major area where McChrystal misunderstood the situation was in dealing with the press. This would lead ultimately to his undoing. But in the meantime, the general was everywhere. In strategic meetings, political gatherings, and in the field with the grunts. To his credit, according to Bolger, McChrystal did not hesitate to wade into combat and patrol situations in order to gain first-hand knowledge of the fighting conditions and he had open communication with everyone under his command. Perhaps he was too open.
At any rate, McChrystal also worked the politics of Afghanistan and eventually got the Obama administration to commit to a limited surge in troops similar to what Petraeus got in Iraq. He did not get everything he asked for but he did receive 33,000 addition American troops and about 10,000 supporting Coalition troops. His strategy of controlling population centers especially those in strong Taliban regions was showing some success. A key city of Marjah was secured, the Taliban destroyed, survivors vanishing into the mountains. McChrystal felt his strategy was working.
Then came the Rolling Stone article. Bolger explains that in allowing reporter Michael Hastings to embed with his intimate staff command over a period of weeks McChrystal lost track of what was on the record and off the record. Casual off-duty opinions were reported as official comments. McChrystal was dismissed without having a chance to see his strategic vision fully implemented.
"In retrospect, Stan McChrystal faltered because he tried to be something he wasn't. The success of David Petraeus inspired many, including McChrystal, to try it themselves. Yet the Petraeus touch with the press reflected a lifetime of calculated preparation. You couldn't just show up after decades in the company of rough-hewn riflemen, let alone years in the shadows, and ride the tiger that was the contemporary American news media, not without a hell of a lot of homework, a generous scoop of good luck, and a nose for the media near ambush. Brains, bravery, devotion to duty, and love of soldiers weren't enough." (pp. 341 - 342)
So, Obama turned (once again) to Petraeus to win the peace and get us out of Afghanistan. The general loosened the artillery restrictions and went after the Taliban. "Petraeus told a journalist that he estimated that his SOF and conventional battalions had together killed of captured more than 350 enemy leaders and about 2,400 lower-ranking insurgents over the summer. ISAF casualties peaked in 2010, with 499 Americans killed and 212 other ISAF soldiers dead, reflective of the scale of surge operations. Intelligence began to circulate suggesting that the Taliban wanted to back off, to wait out the Americans." (page 371)
As it turned out the Taliban did anything but wait. Unlike the Iraq surge, the escalation in Afghanistan only amplified the war. But like Iraq, strategically the situation remained tenuous due to cultural and geopolitical realities. The willpower of America was sapped, as the Taliban knew it would eventually. Petraeus left to eventually take charge of the CIA. The war continued.
"Enemy action rose in the summer and fell in the winter. You could bank on that, especially in the colder, snowy east and north. Additionally, the overall number of attacks stayed about the same, with a slight decrease as ISAF forces began to reduce in 2011 and 2012. If you thought you saw anything other than a stalemate, you were kidding yourself.
"The ISAF bar charts stayed stubbornly consistent. Attacks peaked during the 2010 surge (4,500 per month in the favored Taliban fighting season of June, July, and August) and fell off consistent with the US and NATO troop drawdown in 2011 (4,100 per summer month) and 2012 (down to 4,000). But they never dropped back to the summer 2009 levels (2,600 per summer month), a period when Stan McChrystal assessed the campaign as failing." (page 391)
The killing of the Taliban became ever-more irrelevant. The American draw-down after the surge was unwavering and the Taliban knew it. In July 2013, the defense of the country was turned over to the American-trained Afghan army. We know today that that our military efforts in both countries failed to achieve the lofty objectives of a workable democracy thriving in peace. Much of it has to do with the chemistry of the two countries. But Bolger finds other reasons for critique - looking at the two wars as one major endeavor.
"The war required a way to use a tactically superb force to contain and attrit terrorist adversaries. In this, America's generals failed. We found ourselves impaled and bogged down in not one, but two Middle Eastern countries, and this on the best military men and women who had all studied Vietnam in their service schools. Over time, piece by piece, the generals recommended slogging onward, taking on two unlimited irregular conflicts with limited forces. Absent a realistic campaign in both countries, wars of attrition developed." (page 428)
"A sensible look at American military strengths in 2001 showed a clear alternative to grinding counterinsurgency campaigns. As a joint force and as individual services, the US military recognized the value of short, decisive conventional conflicts waged for limited ends: Panama in 1989, Iraq in 1991, Bosnia in 1995, and Kosovo in 1999. Force composition and training reflected this short-war bias. Employed thusly, American airpower and SOF in Afghanistan in 2001, and airpower and armor in Iraq in 2003, worked as advertised.
"Had that ended our efforts, we would have been fighting well within our means. Admiring war colleges would have studied the brilliant opening rounds as models of lightning war. But here success undid us. Rightly impressed by the innovation and speed of the initial attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq and thoroughly convinced of the quality of our volunteer troops, successive generals in command at the four-, three-, and two-star levels signed on for more, a lot more, month by month, then year by year. In doing so, we did not heed Sun Tzu's caution. We did not understand our enemies." (page 429)
So, after decades of attempting to culturally redeem ourselves from our loss in Vietnam, with some limited success in the 1990's, we find ourselves today reflecting with General Bolger on two lost wars and two fragile societies on the verge of either deteriorating into the control of our sworn enemies or, having fought the good fight to excess, new enemies have emerged partly created by our own efforts. Why We Lost is a fascinating read. Bolger is an articulate, blunt, military mind, his opinions are solidly grounded in facts.
The most troubling fact of all is that we fought these wars and attempted to end both of them but American forces remain committed to both countries. Like a quagmire, we are bogged down in situations that have lost context with our original intent and Bolger demonstrates why this is so. I feel after reading his book that it is unfinished, just as our involvement is unfinished. Bolger offers a fine perspective on how we got into this shoddy fix. He offers no suggestion as to where we go from here. From a strictly military perspective, we have gone too far already.