Carter Malkasian is the author of “War Comes to Garmser” and spent several years in Iraq and Afghanistan, often as an advisor to U.S. generals. He works at the CNA Corporation.
By Daniel P. Bolger
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
502 pp. $28
No U.S. general has criticized the Iraq and Afghanistan wars more sharply than retired Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger. “Why We Lost” is neither a memoir nor a window into private meetings and secret discussions. It is a 500-page history (including prologue and endnotes) filled with heartfelt stories of soldiers and Marines in firefights and close combat. It weighs in mightily to the ongoing debate over how the United States should wage war.
Bolger served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 as the officer in charge of training the Iraqi army, and then from 2009 to 2010 as commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division. After that, from 2011 to 2013, he led the U.S.-NATO mission training the Afghan army and police. He holds a doctorate in history and has written several military histories. His prose flows. He speaks his mind, comparing himself to Gen. Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell of World War II fame, who was known for his coarse personality.
“Why We Lost” is timely, coming out as the U.S. military reconfigures itself to fight future wars and faces the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The latter conflict has forced the United States to reconsider military intervention, though there is debate over how best to do so. Opinions on the merits of airstrikes vs. Special Operations forces vs. tanks and infantry appear daily in the media. In the background stand the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the bitter experience of tens of thousands of boots on the ground.
Bolger’s case is that the United States should have gotten out of Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible, and never started down the road of nation-building and counterinsurgency. We lost because our generals never argued vigorously for this course of action: “Over time, piece by piece, the generals recommended slogging onward, taking on two unlimited irregular conflicts.” He contends that the U.S. military is suited for rapid and conventional wars of the Desert Storm variety, not for long wars of insurgency. The best strategy is to attack with our technology and firepower, smash the enemy, then get out. “American airpower and SOF [Special Operations Forces] in Afghanistan in 2001, and airpower and armor in Iraq in 2003,” Bolger writes, “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.”
What the United States has gotten out of 13 years of war is a question I have asked myself, whether in Washington or Kabul, over and over again for the past two years. Generals and policymakers should use Bolger’s strategy as an option. There are times when it is best to hit hard and get out quick.
That said, Bolger’s is one of a range of options. In Afghanistan, hitting hard and getting out was not the only alternative to nation-building. Another would have been to solidify the peace that followed the early win. Obvious and preventable mistakes between 2001 and 2004 probably reopened the Afghan war. The United States shunned talks with the Taliban, forgetting Churchill’s advice to show “magnanimity in victory.” We neglected to build a strong Afghan army — only 36,000 soldiers were trained by 2006, five years after we arrived. And, of course, we turned our attention to Iraq. Avoiding these mistakes could have prevented the Taliban from returning in 2006 and circumvented the past eight years of war. In short, there are times when the American people should expect their generals and politicians to intervene in a conflict and leave behind some kind of stability.
On Iraq, although Bolger admits that the invasion might have been unnecessary, he still finds it would have been acceptable to invade, knock over Saddam Hussein and then leave — rather than just stay out in the first place. I was left wondering if it is okay to invade a country and leave chaos behind for the sake of a brilliant mark in the annals of the war colleges.
This brings us to a darker theme. Bolger writes off the unfortunate killings and possible atrocities — from Abu Ghraib in Iraq to Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who left his base in Afghanistan on his own in the middle of the night and murdered 15 innocent men, women and children — as natural side effects of fighting an insurgency. Bolger rarely speaks of responsibility. Those who tried to protect innocents are criticized. Afghan objections to civilian casualties, night raids, entry into mosques and Koran burnings are portrayed as questionable. In the context of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s controversial tactical directive restraining the use of airstrikes, Bolger writes: “McChrystal mistook Karzai’s daily bleatings for the views of Afghan villagers. Many of the average Pashtuns . . . accepted that in a war, innocent people sometimes get killed. Afghans would never love ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force, the U.S.-led military command in Afghanistan], but they might well fear and respect the occupiers.”
Here Bolger is on thin ice. I spent nearly two years in the Afghan countryside, seeing Afghan villagers daily. Civilian casualties, entry into homes and Koran burnings upset average Afghans. The most hardened Afghan commanders, who hate the Taliban remorselessly, have lectured me on how civilian casualties and entering homes at night cause innocent Afghans to turn to the Taliban. I have seen scores of villages empty out to riot over Koran desecration. And Afghans are tough. If anything, what is questionable is the idea that Americans would want to kill on the scale necessary to garner Afghan “fear and respect.”
I wish Bolger had spent less time dismissing these sad events and more time extolling the discipline of the units that avoided them. Most soldiers and Marines, in my experience, tried very hard to treat Afghans and Iraqis with respect and dignity. Rather than write off atrocities as inevitable, Americans should remember and emulate the moral discipline of these soldiers and Marines who upheld our highest standards.
As the book goes on, the “Vinegar Joe” tone wears on the reader. Red Cross workers are “international do-gooders.” Any journalist who agreed with Gen. David Petraeus is a “docile carrier pigeon.” On President Obama, Bolger is unfair: “The thoughtful, deliberate U.S. president thoughtfully and deliberately condemned Americans in uniform to years of deadly, pointless counterinsurgency patrols.” On former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, he is simply offensive: “Karzai’s writ ran to the outskirts of Kabul. . . . At least his obnoxious half brother Ahmed Wali Karzai was no more, having been assassinated.” The dead deserve more respect from a retired U.S. general officer. So does our president.