"Why We Lost," a new book that promises to answer the question as it applies to America's newest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is full of contradictions that make it maddeningly hard to follow at times.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, who commanded U.S. troops in both combat theaters, argues that the U.S. lost the wars because it stayed in place after its initial military victories in 2001 and 2003.
"Had that ended our efforts, we would have been fighting well within our means," Bolger writes. "Admiring war colleges would have studied the brilliant opening rounds as models of lightning war. But here success undid us. Rightly impressed by the innovation of the initial attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq and thoroughly convinced of the quality of our volunteer troops, successive generals in command at the four-, three-, and two-star levels signed on for more, a lot more, month by month, then year by year."
The U.S. military is organized for short, decisive campaigns, not broad, prolonged campaigns against insurgents, Bolger argues. That said, he acknowledges that America's enemies learned from the 1991 Persian Gulf War not to fight the types of engagements at which the U.S. excels, so it's questionable whether any adversary would have allowed Uncle Sam to fight another short war again.
"Saddam showed what did not work: tank battles, jet dogfights and the like," Bolger writes. "Bin Laden knew from his time in Afghanistan that pious Muslims, especially Arabs, worked better in small groups, wearing civilian clothes, mixed into the wider populace of believers. The Americans brought impressive weapons and large numbers, but they lacked faith and staying power. That's what Osama bin Laden learned from the 1990-91 Gulf War."
Bolger also criticizes the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy that the U.S. applied first in Iraq and later in Afghanistan. The ideas behind the strategy were articulated in Army Field Manual FM 3-24, which was revised in December 2006 with the Iraq War in mind.
"Had America treated Afghanistan and Iraq from the beginning as the future fifty-first and fifty-second states, FM 3-24 offered a way to pacify them," Bolger writes. "Saddled with incomplete authority over Afghan and Iraqi internal affairs, inept host governments, and ticking clocks, we could not do it. By the time the manual came out, the techniques had already been tried and found wanting."
Yet Bolger singles out for praise the late Army Capt. Travis Patriquin, who helped midwife the U.S. cooperation with Sunnis in western Iraq that became known as the "Awakening" movement, which Bolger describes as a success.
"Combined with the troop surge in Baghdad, the Sunni Awakening effectively ended the sectarian bloodshed by summer of 2007," Bolger writes. "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."
Bolger clearly feels passionately that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars represented a lack of leadership from senior U.S. military commanders. He spends more than 400 pages making his case that generals kept trying the same failed strategy while hoping for different results in both countries.
But he acknowledges that the Awakening movement and surge worked to some degree. Both events marked major departures in how the U.S. prosecuted the Iraq War, which undermines Bolger's own argument that U.S. generals kept trying the same failed solutions. It's one of the many times he contradicts himself, and he has little to say about how the U.S. could have prevailed in the bloody fights in Iraq and Afghanistan once it decided to stay.
"Why We Lost" is more of a polemic than an analysis. A better title would be "What Went Wrong."