TIME Foreign Policy

A General Writes the First After-Action Report on the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: Why We Lost

Enduring Freedom
Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, left, briefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on progress in Afghanistan in 2012. D. Myles Cullen

After 35 years in uniform, retired three-star says he will explain where U.S. war strategy failed

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ book sparked a firestorm upon its release in January, although you would never have predicted it by its humdrum title: Duty. But recently retired Army lieutenant general Daniel Bolger, who played key roles in Afghanistan and Iraq in his 35-year career, wasn’t coy when it came time to titling his upcoming book Why We Lost.

It’s a jaw-dropping phrase in a political-military world given to mealy-mouthed assessments of military progress in the two wars the U.S. has fought since 9/11. Its assertion calls into question the wars’ costs — 6,800 U.S. troops, untold enemy and civilian dead, and a $2 trillion, and rising, bill for U.S. taxpayers. Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is publishing the book Nov. 11. Its publication date is exactly two years after Bolger declared, during a Veterans Day ceremony in Afghanistan, that “our nations count on us, and we’ll deliver.”

Apparently not.

“By next Memorial Day, who’s going to say that we won these two wars?” Bolger said in an interview Thursday. “We committed ourselves to counterinsurgency without having a real discussion between the military and civilian leadership, and the American population —’Hey, are you good with this? Do you want to stay here for 30 or 40 years like the Korean peninsula, or are you going to run out of energy?’ It’s obvious: we ran out of energy.”

The military fumbled the ball by not making clear how long it would take to prevail in both nations. “Once you get past that initial knockout shot, and decide you’re going to stay awhile, you’d better define ‘a while,’ because in counter-insurgency you’re talking decades,” Bolger says. “Neither [the Bush nor the Obama] Administration was going to do that, yet I was in a military that was planning for deployments forever, basically. An all-volunteer force made it easy to commit the military to a long-term operation because they were volunteers.”

Bolger_WHYWELOST_cvr_lo-resThe nation and its military would have been far smarter to invade, topple the governments they didn’t like, and get out. “Both wars were won, and we didn’t know enough to go home” after about six months, Bolger argues. “It would have been messy and unpleasant, and our allies would have pissed and moaned, because limited wars by their nature have limited, unpalatable results. But what result would have been better — that, or this?”

The mindset persists. “The senior guys say, ‘Well, it’s not lost yet — we may still pull it out’,” Bolger said, as Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, returned from a NATO session in Brussels where Afghanistan was a topic. “I don’t give military advice to the Taliban,” Dempsey told Jim Garamone of the Pentagon’s American Forces Press Service. “But if I were giving them advice, I’d tell them their negotiating position is not going to improve, it’s going to erode.”

There was a belief in some quarters of the U.S. government that Washington and its allies were going to remake that troubled part of the world. “Don’t be so arrogant and think you’re going to reshape the Middle East,” Bolger says. “We’ve basically installed authoritarian dictators.” The U.S. wanted to keep about 10,000 troops in Iraq post-2011 (the two sides couldn’t agree on legal protections for U.S. troops, so none remain) and a similar sized force is being debated for Afghanistan once the U.S. combat role formally ends at the end of 2014. “You could have gone to that plan in 2002 in Afghanistan, and 2003 or ’04 in Iraq, and you wouldn’t have had an outcome much worse than what we’ve had,” Bolger says.

“They should have been limited incursions and [then] pull out — basically like Desert Storm,” he adds, referring to the 1991 Gulf War that forced Saddam Hussein’s forces out of neighboring Kuwait after an air campaign and 100-hour ground war. The U.S. wasn’t up to perpetual war, even post-9/11. “This enemy wasn’t amenable to the type of war we’re good at fighting, which is a Desert Storm or a Kosovo.”

Bolger — “rhymes with soldier,” he likes to say — is no disgruntled grunt. He retired from the Army last year after commanding the training of Iraqi forces in 2005-06, running the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad in 2009-10, and leading the training of Afghan forces in 2011-13. A graduate of the Citadel, he has a master’s and doctorate in history from the University of Chicago, and wrote frequently on military history while in uniform. He helped develop strategy in both campaigns and took time to pick up a rifle to accompany his troops in the field. “I am glad to see someone of his caliber tackling this subject,” military author Tom Ricks posted on his blog. In 2012, Defense News pegged Bolger at #40 in the list of the nation’s 100 most influential people in defense, two steps higher than “Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, Atlantic Council chairman.”

Bolger said his views on the wars grew more sour during his three tours. “My guilt is not having earlier figured out what was going wrong, and making a more forceful case and working with my peer generals to make a better military recommendation,” he says. “What eats at me the most is the 80 dead people I had in my command over my three tours, that eats at me a hell of a lot.”

What would he tell the families of the fallen? “I’d tell the families we need to unscrew ourselves and make sure we don’t do this again,” Bolger says. “What we didn’t do was use their precious service in the best way.” Their bravery and pluck won key victories, and he hopes his book will “make this sacrifice worth it.” Bolger also has a personal reason for writing: his son has served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It is his own decision; he’s an adult,” his father says. The retired general is now teaching military history at North Carolina State University.

Bolger recently wondered when the U.S. military was going to conduct a formal and traditional After-Action Report (AAR) on its performance in the two wars. “Some say the Iraq surge of 2007 proved counterinsurgency tactics worked. Others point out that today’s Iraq is a sectarian mess, undermining that belief. As for the Afghan surge of 2010-11, well, who knows? We cannot even say, or will not even say, who won these campaigns. It sure does not seem to be us,” Bolger wrote in the February issue in Signals, the journal of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.

Such studies, long a part of military learning, have lessons for both the past and the future. “You might think such an assessment might be rather useful as we prepare to carve up and rearrange our armed forces to face today’s uncertain world. Facts offer a better starting point than hunches, emotions and ‘the way we’ve always done it.’ What did we learn from the current war? We owe it to the citizens we serve, and we certainly owe it to the men and women we have lost. We are past due for a long, hard look.”

Bolger repeated the question Thursday. “Where is the AAR?” he asked. Apparently, he got tired of waiting. “My book,” he says wistfully, “is going to be the first one.”

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