Retired Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger argues in his book "Why We Lost" that U.S. generals failed to give Presidents Bush and Obama meaningful advice about the best way forward in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Over time, piece by piece, the generals recommended slogging onward, taking on two unlimited irregular conflicts with limited forces," Bolger writes. "Absent a realistic campaign concept in both countries, wars of attrition developed."
In a Nov. 17 interview with Military Times, Bolger explains what he thinks the U.S. should have done after the initial victories that ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq and why he believes the counterinsurgency approach that the U.S. applied to both countries does not work.
Q: You write that the generals often offered advice that was "hardly worth hearing" and you compare U.S. commanders in Iraq to their British counterparts in World War I. How should U.S. generals have advised Presidents Bush and Obama?
The World War I analogy is a good one. When I was younger and I used to study that, I always used to say: "Man, these guys were knuckleheads. Why would they do this? They must have been really stupid."
You go back and really look at what these guys did and what they learned and what their backgrounds were: They always thought one more push was going to crack the Germans. A lot of them even argued when the war ended and there was an armistice and the Germans did quit: "Well see, the Germans finally broke; we finally wore them down."
So there was some of that mentality — "If we just outlast these guys we can do it." What we should have done was sort of talked about and we thought would happen, but we didn't pull the trigger on it and we didn't really recommend strongly. That is: Go in, do the initial reprisal after 9/11 in Afghanistan and then get out — and leave it to them.
Q: If there was a winning formula for Iraq and Afghanistan, what was it?
Do the initial invasion, the initial knockout — which we did accomplish successfully in both countries — draw down to a residual force very quickly and let the locals sort it out, and understand that you have to go back in with reprisals or punitive strikes if you get problems. But it's going to have to be sorted out over there. It cannot be run as a giant American-led counterinsurgency.
That's another thing that I'd point out: It's not that I'm saying counterinsurgency tactics or ideas or the famous manual that was written and all that kind of stuff is wrong, but what I'm saying is they're wrong if it's the U.S. in the lead. That's not going to work. That's where I think we went haywire.
We did know better than that from Vietnam, but we have such great young men and women, we really thought: "OK, our forces are so good and they show such capability and they're so flexible — we saw what they did in the Balkans and elsewhere — we'll give them a shot at this; maybe we'll pull it off this time."
Like the British going over the top of the trenches, after a while they realized, "More of this just isn't going to work."
Q: You criticize President Bush for deciding to stay in Afghanistan. Why do you later you write that if President Obama had made a long-term commitment to leave 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, it could have "cracked the Taliban's will to fight"?
When you're talking 10,000 American troops … that number shows a defined amount of commitment. But the locals must take the lead, because you're going to need hundreds of thousands of troops to chase these bad guys. It can't be us when our number is limited. In that regard, that's the one thing we didn't do in both countries. We tried to do it ourselves, sent in over 100,000 [troops] to both countries, try to clean out their villages for them.
That didn't work. We knew from Vietnam that wouldn't work. An American-led counterinsurgency in a foreign country doesn't work that well. Behind that we built their forces and they're shaky at best in both countries.
What we didn't do was make a long-term commitment to them. That's what we did in Korea. We did not do it in Vietnam. In these countries, they don't need American trigger-pullers on the ground. They'll handle that in their own way — and they'll be screwed up in a lot of cases and their units won't always perform that well. What they do need is American advice and assistance, training, some intel, air support — because that's highly technical and technology is hard for them to build and to maintain.
That's the type of long-term commitment I'm talking about, not persisting in [having] 100,000 troops for 20 or 30 years. That would have been a loser.
Q: If the U.S. had made a long-term commitment to leave a limited number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, would that have been the winning formula for both wars?
You wouldn't have been any worse than you are now, and you wouldn't have had all the casualties.
Look where we are at in Iraq and where we're about to be in Afghanistan: You're basically going to have that scenario, but you spent 10 years doing whatever. And in that, how many of the guys that we killed or captured were actually threats to the U.S. homeland?
From what I can see, our special ops and intel services are [doing] pretty well in countries we don't have any ground troops in: Somalia, Yemen. So they found a way to go after these guys without having 100,000 Americans there.
Q: In retrospect, do you think the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were winnable?
The best they were was containable. In other words, I think the best you were going to get in both countries was some type of central regime — incompetent as it might be — keeping a lid on the insurgents.