Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

by LTG (R) Daniel P. Bolger

Why We LostLTG Bolger argues we lost in Iraq and Afghanistan because of poor strategic and operational leadership exacerbated by the failure of successive military leaders to truly understand the enemy they faced and the nature of their own forces.  It is unclear if the U.S. has the political will to maintain a permanent presence in either country, and military members, in particular, struggle with the idea of cutting our losses and departing short of victory.

Although this book only covers the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from 2001 – 2011, the lessons within remain applicable to both conflicts today. The military is still searching for a whole-of-government strategy but struggling with a lack of  diplomatic, economic, and information elements. As civilian and military leaders rewrite the national strategy yet again, they should consider the failures LTG Bolger outlines over the first decade of these conflicts.

The first is the failure of successive civilian and military leaders to outline and follow a coherent, long-term strategy. In Afghanistan in 2003, LTG Barno designed a promising campaign based on five pillars: defeat terrorism and deny sanctuary, enable the Afghan security structure, sustain area ownership by U.S. units in place, enable reconstruction and good governance, and engage regional states. Unfortunately, he lacked political support and sufficient troops to execute this strategy, and subsequent commanders emphasized portions while ignoring others. Similarily, in Iraq, following the early misstep of lacking a stabilization phase of the operation, the military developed a strategy focused on enabling Iraqis to secure their country, bolstered by an enduring U.S. relationship. By 2011, the U.S. had left Iraq with an OSC-I lacking a clear mission, organization, authorities, or doctrine. Leaders also expected GEN Petraeus, who developed a workable template for Iraq, to “save” Afghanistan with the same template – but the nature of the people and the conflicts did not allow for the same solution MNSTC-I (the training HQ for Iraq) was not CSTC-A (the training HQ for Afghanistan).

Leaders also failed to reconsider basic assumptions about the enemy and their own troops. Leaders assumed that continual attacks against Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban would ultimately destroy their fighters, but the fighters adhered to the Maoist doctrine of “the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue,” and were adept at conserving a seemingly endless amount of combat power. GEN McChrystal assumed that by greatly reducing civilian casualties and focusing on “courageous restraint”, we could satisfy Hamid Karzai and win over the population. Instead, the Pashtun interpreted ISAF’s willingness to take casualties in order to protect the population as weakness, and we ceded the initiative to the Taliban. Moreover, President Obama’s definitive timelines for troop reductions removed Afghan confidence in the U.S. partnership and encouraged the Taliban to wait out the U.S. troops; green on blue attacks surged as Afghans took advantage of the remaining months to air their frustrations. Military leaders exhibited complete faith in the brilliance of their troops, but falsely believed that with just a little more time or a few more months they could win a war that was militarily unwinnable. “Attrition by itself reflects a lack of strategy. It’s what happens when armies grind against each other because they don’t know what else to do.”

Points to Ponder:

  1. How do we keep political and military leaders on the same strategy with the constant change over?
  2. Pakistan plays a major role in sustaining the conflict; they benefit by exploiting U.S. logistics needs while we stay but must maintain a relationship with the Taliban in case we leave. How do we achieve a positive role for Pakistan?
  3. Should we cut our losses now and leave? What would be the likely outcome?

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