Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, by Daniel P Bolger
«I am a United States Army general, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism,» Lieutenant-General Daniel Bolger begins his history of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. «It's like Alcoholics Anonymous; step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers. And thanks to our problem, now all of America has a problem, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.»
By this, Bolger means that United States generals, notably David Petraeus, sold short-term fixes to baffled political leaders and hatched even worse problems for the future.
Bolger's point was lost on most reviewers, for example Andrew Bacevich in the New York Times and Mark Moyar in The Wall Street Journal. They protested that civilian leaders deserve at least some of, and perhaps the lion's share, of the blame.
Bacevich and Moyar have no sense of humor, let alone an ear for irony. By placing the blame on the military, Bolger portrays presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama as woefully misguided. The mission was impossible from the outset. Announcing the 2007 «surge» in response to a Sunni insurgency, president Bush said that the US wanted to turn Iraq into «a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people.»
The trouble, Bolger explains, is that majority rule in Iraq meant permanent war: «The stark facts on the ground still sat there, oozing pus and bile. With Saddam gone, any voting would install a Shiite majority. The Sunni wouldn't run Iraq again. That, at the bottom, caused the insurgency. Absent the genocide of Sunni Arabs, it would keep it going.»
Bolger's book should be rushed into Russian and Chinese editions. A substantial current of opinion in those countries, supported by some respected foreign-policy specialists, holds that the US has chosen to destabilize the region intentionally. Now that America is nearly self-sufficient in oil, it wants to interrupt oil supplies to China and others in order to assert global hegemony.
That is paranoid nonsense, but it reflects the incredulity of Russian and Chinese observers at the seeming self-destruction of America's world role. How could the Americans be so stupid? We could, and were. Bolger's insider explanation of the chain of blunders that led to the present situation in the region is convincing and should be circulated as an antidote to the paranoia.
Proof that America has set out to destabilize the Persian Gulf region, a well-regarded Chinese specialist argued recently before a Beijing foreign-policy seminar, is that the Islamic State is led by Sunni officers armed and funded by General David Petraeus, the US commander during the 2007—2008 «surge». The observation is correct, to be sure: ISIS shows impressive leadership capacity and mastery of large-unit tactics involving sophisticated equipment, and it learned much of this from the Americans. But the Americans acted out of short-term political expediency rather than medium-term malevolence.
America did not have to choose the wrong mission, Bolger argues:
Bush's war began narrowly, knocking out al-Qaeda and its Taliban backers in Afghanistan. Within weeks of 9/11, the basic goals were fulfilled, not perfectly, not completely, but probably close enough. Had we stopped there and reverted to the long, slow Clinton-era squeeze of terror cells and Islamist supporters , it might have done the job. ... Again, as after the fall of Kabul, the swift seizure of Baghdad offered another opportunity to close out the conventional military phase and go back to the slow, steady, daily pressures of global containment of Islamist threats. That moment passed. Instead ... with minimal domestic debate — and, notably, no known military objection — the administration backed into two lengthy, indecisive counterinsurgency campaigns.
Careful what you wish for: by 2006, the US had sponsored national elections in Iraq and brought to power the Shi'ite leader Nouri al-Maliki, who promptly purged Iraqi's security forces of Sunnis. Fearful of Shi'ite vengeance, Iraq's Sunnis revolted and Iraq dissolved into violence. In response, junior officers operating in Sunni-dominated Anbar province devised the stratagem that lay at the heart of the «surge». The commitment of 20,000 additional combat troops helped suppress the Sunni insurgency, but paying the Sunnis not to fight for the time being was more effective. As Bolger reports,
The Anbar tribes had always helped AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq]. ... When individual tribal sheikhs objected, the elders lost their heads. Families were attacked. Houses were demolished and cars burned. The AQI men began to impose Wahhabi discipline — no gambling on horses, no drinking alcohol, and no smoking. The AQI leaders had crossed the line at last. The Persian-influenced sheruggis in Baghdad were far away from Anbar Province. The Americans were right there, and they had little interest in what sheikhs did with their tribes. Forced to choose between the AQI boot on their necks and the US military, [tribal leaders] decided to try the Americans.
That did the trick. Petraeus, lobbying for the Iraq command from his post at the staff college in Leavenworth, Kansas, took careful note of the junior officers' proposals. Bolger has no patience for Petraeus' politicking. «Junior soldiers wondered about his real motivations. Service or self? With Petraeus, you never knew for sure, but you often suspected the latter, and it meant trouble.»
With the whole of the senior Army staff opposing the surge, president Bush looked for an officer who would improve the optics in Iraq, and Petraeus was his man. Bolger adds:
Combined with the troop surge in Baghdad, the Sunni Awakening effectively ended the sectarian bloodshed by the summer of 2007. It split the Sunni resistance, and they stayed fragmented during the remainder of the U.S. campaign. It was not a victory, not by any of the criteria the optimistic Americans set for themselves back in 2003, seemingly in another lifetime. But it was something like progress.
... The Sunni Awakening expanded rapidly ... Ever conscious of marketing, [Iraq commander Gen David] Petraeus and his inner circle settled on a more inspirational name. With the approval of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Sunni became the Sons of Iraq.
Although the troop surge made the news in America, in country, the Sunni Awakening delivered the real and lasting difference in the rate of attrition. ... The Sons of Iraq proved overwhelmingly loyal. Nearly a hundred thousand strong, half of that number in and near Baghdad, the Sahwa movement allowed the Sunni to carry weapons lawfully and get paid, effectively removing much of the incentive for the «honorable resistance.» It was by far the most successful and widespread jobs program in Iraq ... The Sahwa, however, paid tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs to kill each other, not Americans. Cynical it might seem, but you couldn't argue with the results. The Sons of Iraq fielded some six times as many Sunni with firearms as the highest estimate of enemy strength. It showed the potential depth and resiliency of the Sunni insurgency.
One might put the matter even more forcefully: by funding and training the «Sons of Iraq», Petraeus and his team assembled the elements of the new Sunni insurgency now using the name of Islamic State (also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Andrew McGully's 2007 report in Agence France-Presse describes the first meeting of Sunni tribes near Baghdad with Petraeus and his team.
«Tell me how I can help you,» asks Major-General Rick Lynch, commander of US-led forces in central Iraq ... One [tribal leader] mentions weapons, but the general insists: «I can give you money to work in terms of improving the area. What I cannot do — this is very important — is give you weapons.»
The gravity of the war council in a tent at the US forward operating base at Camp Assassin is suspended for a few moments as one of the local Iraqi leaders says jokingly but knowingly: «Don't worry! Weapons are cheap in Iraq.»
«That's right, that's exactly right,» laughs Lynch in reply.
«Having armed all sides of the conflict and kept them apart by the threat of arms,» I wrote in a 2010 essay on Asia Times Online, titled «Gen Petraeus' Thirty Years' War», «the United States now expects to depart leaving in place governments of national reconciliation that will persuade well-armed and well-organized militias to play by the rules. It is perhaps the silliest thing an imperial power ever has done. The British played at divide and conquer, whereas the Americans propose to divide and disappear. At some point the whole sorry structure will collapse, and no-one knows it better than Petraeus.»
In 2010, General Stanley McChrystal commanded US forces in Afghanistan with the same nation-building objective. Bolger has a particular dislike for McChrystal's insistence on «courageous restraint», that is, accepting a higher level of US casualties to reduce Afghan civilian casualties that might cause a «loss of popular support».
To tough Pashtun tribesmen, that smacked not of discipline or kindness, but weakness. It wasn't clear that any significant portion of the Afghan population would ever embrace thousands of infidel foreigners. The locals often hated the Taliban, but those insurgents were natives, and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] troops were not. As for «strategic defeats,» McChrystal mistook [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai's daily bleatings for the views of Afghan villagers. Many of the average Pashtuns proved to be made of sterner stuff and accepted that in a war, innocent people sometimes got killed. Afghans would never love ISAF, but they might well fear and respect the occupiers. Now, with this kind of guidance, even that was unlikely.
Counterinsurgency only works, Bolger observes, when the occupying power is ready to stay in place indefinitely, as the US did on the Korean peninsula. Otherwise, the guerrillas will bide their time. America had no stomach for another dozen years of war. The Maliki government, which owed its existence to American string-pulling, wanted no American presence, and marked the Americans' final departure with a national holiday.
Unexceptionably sensible and cleverly written, Bolger's book deserves attention as the considered view of a soldier-historian who also was a participant in the story. It is likely to figure in the wider political debate as to what went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Too many Republican reputations are at risk for the mainstream of the party to admit to the errors that Bolger documents. Nonetheless, a steady stream of defectors is abandoning the mainstream position. The most recent is the conservative columnist George F Will, who wrote on November 13 that the reappearance of «heterodoxy» in Republican foreign policy discussions is welcome:
Americans generally, but Republicans especially, are thinking afresh about the world. Henry Kissinger's new book, World Order, deftly diagnoses America's bipolar mental condition regarding foreign policy, a condition that is perennial because it is congenital. «The conviction that American principles are universal,» Kissinger says, «has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate.» This «suggests that a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed; in the meantime, their relations with the world's strongest power must have some latent adversarial element to them.»
The utopianism that Kissinger decries is falling out of favor, Wills argues:
The last 11 years have been filled with hard learning. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy decision in U.S. history, coincided with mission creep («nation building») in Afghanistan. Both strengthened what can be called the Republicans' John Quincy Adams faction: America «goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.»
Wills' mention of John Quincy Adams, the nation's fifth president, refers to the foreign policy sage Angelo Codevilla, whose new book To Make and Keep Peace I reviewed earlier this year in the Claremont Review of Books. A new generation of Republicans is contending for party leadership — Ted Cruz and Scott Walker come to mind — who do not bear the burden of complicity in the foreign policy blunders of the Bush era.
The Republican Party has for the past decade dragged the sins of the Bush administration like the chain borne by Marley's Ghost in Dickens' Christmas Carol. George Wills writes of a «potential fresh start for US foreign policy». Bolger has made an important contribution to that debate, and it bears careful reading by anyone who wants to understand how America got into its present mess.
As for Bolger's critics: They might better understand sort of irony Bolger applies by reading Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's picaresque novel of the Thirty Years War, The Adventurous Simplicissimus.