My main Christmas reading this year was Why We Lost, published in late 2014 by retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger. Examining the ROI of US government spending has become a weird passion project of mine. What better place to start than the Afghan/Iraq campaigns, which have cost the US somewhere between $2.5 trillion (Pentagon) and $6.5 trillion (dedicated antiwar interest groups) over the past 17 years, all to turn Iraq into a restive Iranian satrapy?

I picked this book for several very specific reasons. One, Bolger is a prolific author with no apparent career agenda (he retired in 2013), political ambitions, or axes to grind–a combination that's unheard of within this subgenre. Two, it would've been written for publication before ISIS had really put itself on the map (late 2014/early 2015), which recast the Iraq debate into a finger-pointing exercise at the expense of dispassionate analysis. And three, the book's mere title takes the intra-military debate over What Went Wrong to a place most men in uniform won't go.

The book is very readable, and gives the feel of being the middle of dozens of episodic life-or-death firefights, each of which illustrated a larger success or shortcoming of the American strategy. For me, this vivid episodic detail bolstered the author's authority, but grew repetitive after a while.

In his strategic analysis, Bolger is much more nuanced than the title suggests, comes to some interesting conclusions, and, along the way, highlights some very surprising facts. I was astounded to learn, for example, that "the US military did not torture anyone" at Abu Ghraib. (Bolger doesn't hesitate to highlight other episodes of US torture, intentional killing of civilians, etc.) US troops did photograph some prisoners in compromising positions, strip some of them naked, have some dogs bark at them, and intimidate them. In the most infamous case, a prisoner was put on a box with fake electrodes attached to his fingers, and was told they were real and he'd be electrocuted if he stepped off the box, but the electrodes were fake and nothing actually happened to that prisoner. All of these things would fit semiawkwardly into the US military's prescribed environmental manipulation for interrogating suspects without physically harming them or placing them under such duress that they'd say anything escape the situation. According to Bolger, the worst that could be said about what actually happened at Abu Ghraib was that some of these intimidation/degradation incidents weren't related to any specific interrogation.

Bolger also refuses to point fingers at the easy scapegoats. President Bush gets measured credit until the 2006 Iraq Surge, when every general who'd fought in the Iraq theater had told Bush to a) cut American losses and get out, or b) even if the US was to stay, in many respects the larger US footprint was becoming as much of a long term liability as much as it may be a short term asset. Bolger was ahead of his time in assessing the Surge to be both an impressive tactical success and a major strategic blunder. He's more critical still of Obama's subsequent "Afghanistan surge," which recycled the same mediocre Iraqi formula into a theater where it was even less effective, had no justifiable long-term value once bin Laden had been killed (May 2011), and was badly hamstrung by idiotically restrictive revisions to rules of engagement which, up to that point, had been generally OK.

Stan McChrystal's handling of the Afghan theater gets particularly terrible reviews: ridiculously restrictive rules of engagement; McChrystal holding himself/the Coalition hostage to a treacherously ungrateful Afghan president (Karzai) who never would've existed without American backup; and a blatant protection racket in which the US was getting extorted by every side of the Afghan conflict, worst of all by Karzai.

On the issue of Iraqi war rationales (terrorists vs. WMD), Bolger writes as if the military never took WMD seriously: everyone knew that Saddam had no real, functioning nuclear program, and while chem/bio weapons play well in Hollywood doomsday scenarios, in reality, they require circumstances far too specific and consistent (in terms of humidity, wind direction, extremely stable delivery or storage en route, etc.) to be really effective outside of massive artillery barrages of chemical weapons. In terms of capable terrorist organizations, on the other hand, Bolger repeatedly notes that Iraq hosted a genuine vipers' nest of capable, well-equipped Sunni terrorist groups which the Americans had largely liquidated by 2005.

With the benefit of hindsight, Bolger writes, the US had completed 99 percent of its job in the war on terror, at a fraction of the original cost, by 2004 (or even 2003, after the Taliban had been kicked out of major Afghan population centers). Al-Qaeda itself had been completely destroyed aside from bin Laden himself and a few couriers. Many separate groups did claim allegiance to al-Qaeda and attempt to imitate it, but they weren't operationally coordinated. Over time, the Coalition footprint became its own casus belli against the US. The Americans were always occupiers, regardless of how much money they threw around for victim compensation or reconstruction. This was compounded, in Bolger's view, by chronic Sunni Arab double-dealing (always shaking America's hand while stabbing it in the back) and Afghan cultural treachery, in the sense that honesty basically has no place in Afghan culture.

It's difficult for me to take some of this criticism seriously. Was the US supposed to call it quits in Afghanistan in 2003 without killing bin Laden or al-Zawahiri? Would al-Qaeda proper have remained infirm had the US stopped hunting him down? No way. At the same time, if not surging in Iraq in 2006, and getting out of Afghanistan in 2011, were strategically such obvious calls, where was the military criticism of Obama's Afghanistan strategy? Enlisted personnel couldn't make the criticism, but retired personnel could (and in the case of the Iraq surge, loudly did).

Anyway, I'd strongly recommend the book for students of contemporary US military history.

Stefan Jovanovich writes: 

If one looks at American deployments for what they are - largely bloodless training exercises, then Winning and Losing has to be evaluated by what the wargaming produced. In the first Gulf War, the U.S. military capabilities were larger in scale but no greater in technology or ability to engage at the sharp end than the French or British. The victory in Kuwait was greeted almost with relief - see, the Americans can actually win something. Now? The distance between the actual warfighting abilities of the U.S. and the rest of the world is now a chasm. The only comparison that fits is Nelson's Navy. The French, Spanish and Danish navies were still capable of challenging the British in the Caribbean and Baltic in 1780 and even 1790. By 1810 the British Navy was the largest physical and financial enterprise on the planet by a factor of 10.

I am not saying this is a good thing; I am saying this is what happened. The U.S. can win the war in Afghanistan tomorrow, as the President has said; we would just have to turn the place into Carthage. That we don't says nothing more about "victory" than the fact that the British Navy chose not to destroy every American ship on the Atlantic in 1813 because there was still the little matter of Napoleon's continental empire to deal with. Britain spent the next half century enjoying the financial dominance that its Navy had won. The dollar is the world currency now in large part because the Americans have that same military monopoly that Nelson and the Admiralty had created. 


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