COIN Wars - On Daniel Bolger's "Why We Lost":(Commentary Magazine, April 2015)

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Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars
By Daniel P. Bolger
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pages

The shooting wars may be drawing to a close, but the war about the wars continues to rage. The latest salvo is Why We Lost, a provocative book by Daniel P. Bolger, a U.S. Army lieutenant general who retired in 2013 after 35 years and three major commands in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I am a United States Army General, and I lost the Global War on terrorism,” Bolger writes in the preface. “It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.”

Bolger’s confession may center on an arguably premature assertion of defeat but it certainly promises writing of a directness, self-awareness, and skill seldom encountered in books by former generals. What’s more, it suggests a bracing and much-needed critique. Is it?

Why We Lost turns out to be every bit as gripping as you would hope, thanks to a writing style that is sharp, astringent, and refreshingly jargon-free. (Bolger, who has a Ph.D. from Chicago and taught at West Point, was an accomplished author long before he received his star, having published a thriller as well as several works of military history). But it falls short as both a confession and an indictment. Although the book’s subtitle describes “A General’s Insider Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars,” Bolger’s work is not autobiographical. Neither is it a treatise or policy argument. Instead Bolger offers a fast-moving narrative history of the two major military campaigns of the Global War on Terror, interspersed with vivid stories of “in the weeds” combat taken from various recent memoirs and histories. These tales, which include accounts of exhausted and enraged soldiers breaking the laws of war, seem intended not just to give a flavor of the fighting but to illustrate the agonizing difficulties of battling insurgents and therefore the supposed wrongheadedness of forcing American soldiers do it.

What the stories don’t do, however, is back up Bolger’s central claim: that the campaigns were lost, and that they were lost because of “poor strategic and operational leadership” by himself and his fellow generals. Nor does Bolger go into much detail discussing specific errors of judgment by his fellow generals. After a while, Bolger’s insistence that generals take the blame for political and strategic decisions—which were actually made in Washington by presidents, cabinet officers, or the joint chiefs—feels almost masochistic.

In fact, one of the odd things about Why We Lost is that Bolger’s talk of “losing” and “failure” tends to be undermined by a narrative that demonstrates how impressive the U.S. Army is at adapting and learning from its mistakes, at least compared with other large bureaucratic government organizations. Bolger himself admires how the Army rapidly developed a talent for combining intelligence with special operations in order to capture and kill terrorists.

He also touches on the impressive fact that junior commanders not only quickly realized that fresh approaches were needed in Iraq but also experimented with techniques that were eventually codified in the Counterinsurgency Strategy and Field Manual championed by General David Petraeus—which resulted in the Surge and the Sunni Awakening that turned around America’s fortunes in Iraq in 2007.

Even odder, Bolger’s own account suggests that some of the worst reverses of the Iraq war took place not because of poor strategy, poor structure, or poor decisions made by generals—but thanks to unpredictable mistakes made by less powerful individuals. Prime examples include the worldwide scandal that erupted as a result of a few prison guards and their horrible behavior at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and the recklessness of private military contractors who brought about the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004.

But Bolger’s storytelling is so skillful that it almost doesn’t matter if his arguments contradict one another. The first half of the book, which deals with the war on terror before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is especially entertaining, not least because it is free of political correctness and diplomatic scruple. After describing how General Norman Schwarzkopf, the chief commander of the 1991 Gulf War, acceded to Saudi demands that American troops based in Saudi Arabia abjure not only alcohol but also Christian and Jewish insignia, he explains that “the Saudis did not see themselves as hosts.” He continues:

In their own eyes they were customers, buying Americans and other defenders in much the same way they hired hundreds of thousands of Filipino, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani contract laborers to build their homes, run their oil wells, and clean their streets…Schwarzkopf agreed to the King’s directives, and the Americans accepted substantial Saudi financing and, later, material support…so the transactional relationship looked very clear to the Arab authorities…the House of Saud had rented the best armed forces in the world.

Bolger is also good on the attitudes and actions of Saddam Hussein in the wake of his 1991 defeat. The Iraqi dictator, he says, drew important lessons from the American victory, our rapid departure from the conflict, and Schwarzkopf’s naive decision to let Saddam’s regime continue to use its attack helicopters. Most critically, he understood the “operational importance” of propaganda and the possibilities of 24-hour cable news: It was relentless CNN footage of the “Highway of Death,” along which Iraq’s military retreated from Kuwait, that prompted the eventual cease-fire. As Bolger points out: “Rarely have rapists and pillagers garnered such thoughtful consideration.”

But when Bolger reaches the 9/11 attacks, he turns his sardonic wit on the U.S. government. Something had to be done, of course, but, he says, the question that planners didn’t want to confront was, “Who was the enemy?” While it was al-Qaeda rather than its Taliban hosts who still threatened America, “the quasi-conventional Taliban furnished a much more appropriate target set for U.S. firepower.”

And yet Bolger has little time for those who lambast the Bush administration and the military under Donald Rumsfeld for the fact that Osama bin Laden and his entourage were not killed or captured in the Afghan caves of Tora Bora in the winter of 2001. Given the terrain and the weather, America “could have deployed the entire 10th mountain division” and still been unable to close off every ratline” into Pakistan.

Bolger’s critique intensifies with his account of the first days after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Some of the mistakes he highlights were unquestionably just that. One of the most astonishing was that General Tommy Franks, in charge of the invasion, and his staff failed to set up a clear chain of command in newly conquered Iraq. They envisaged a civilian headquarters called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), to be run by retired general Jay Garner, which would “coordinate” with the Army’s V Corps headquarters during the six months or so it would take Iraqi society to get back on its feet. This meant no one was in charge.

As Bolger relates, this arrangement was soon replaced by an equally hazy one. Paul Bremer, a former ambassador to the Netherlands, took over the newly formed Coalition Provisional Authority. V Corps was replaced by a new military headquarters led by Ricardo Sanchez, a newly promoted lieutenant general who had never commanded a division in combat. According to Bolger, when Bremer issued his controversial orders dissolving the Baath Party and the country’s army, he did so without consulting his military opposite number.

Regardless of who was in charge, Bolger believes the underlying situation was impossible. “Replace Bremer with Henry Kissinger and Sanchez with Dwight Eisenhower, cancel the de-Baathification orders, and the stark facts on the ground still sat there oozing pus and bile,” he writes. “With Saddam gone, any voting would install a Shiite majority. The Sunni wouldn’t run Iraq again. That, at the bottom, caused the insurgency.” (Like many commentators on the war, Bolger often seems blasé about the oppression of Iraq’s Kurds and Shia under the Baathist regime and the dominance of the Sunni minority.)

Bolger has a peculiar soft spot for General John Abizaid, who commanded the U.S. Central Command during that first vital year of the occupation. Given Abizaid’s inability to see that the heavy-handed, crudely “kinetic” approach of the U.S. military was quickly fomenting an insurgency, Bolger’s regard is hard to understand. The reason only becomes apparent in subsequent chapters, when Bolger reveals his loathing for David Petraeus, who took over the American effort in early 2007. It’s a loathing so intense that it targets not only Petraeus’s person but also the counterinsurgency doctrine he championed and everyone associated with it. At the same time, any general, who, like Abizaid, prominently opposed Petraeus and his team of maverick soldier scholars, or who opposed the surge, gets an automatic high rating from Bolger, no matter how unsuccessful his command really was.

Much of this animus seems to be a matter of personality. Petraeus, as Bolger points out, had risen quickly thanks in part to what he sees as shameless networking. “He had more connections than ten of his peers, and he wasn’t shy about using them,” he writes. Petraeus possessed “inordinate” ambition and was a skilled and assiduous “self-promoter.” Indeed, according to Bolger, Petraeus was a member of “the AAA club,” which he defines as “that careerist self promotion society that hung out near the military throne rooms: Aides, Adjutants, and Assholes.” Bolger makes sure to remind the reader of Petraeus’s relative lack of height, as if that might be the key to his character flaws.

This antipathy corrupts Bolger’s analysis of the Iraq war. After he condemns the generals for trying the same failing policies year after year, he pours scorn on those such as Petraeus who not only tried something different but were so successful that the war was virtually won when the Obama administration decided to abandon it.

That said, when Bolger’s perspective is not distorted by this odd animus, he points out problems most civilian authors have failed to notice. These include the fact that the Army underwent a major structural reorganization—becoming a force based on “brigade combat teams” rather than divisions—in the middle of the war, and that its personnel-rotation policies undermined unit cohesion until 2004.

Bolger is particularly perceptive about the way “information warfare” turned out to be a force multiplier for the other side in Iraq. He considers the grotesque photographs from Abu Ghraib the equivalent of a huge battlefield defeat. And he explains how the Marine Corps’ efforts to retake Fallujah in April 2004 were essentially defeated by Al Jazeera news teams. The Qatar-based network’s carefully curated footage of destruction and suffering so rattled both the Tony Blair government and Iraqi politicians that the United States had little choice but to halt the operation.

Unfortunately, insights like these play a smaller role in the book than do attacks on COIN and its champions. Though Bolger himself once advocated for more COIN training, he now insists that the military must pursue only “short, decisive conventional wars, for limited ends.”

It’s a view that mirrors a way of thinking that first became Army orthodoxy in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Apologists for that failure, led by the historian Russell Weigley, maintained that the “American way of war” was “big war” involving the use of overwhelming force and high technology to annihilate the enemy. COIN, they argued, is incompatible with our national character and talents, and should not be studied, lest familiarity lead to use.

This was and is nonsense: The United States has successfully fought many “small wars”—starting with the campaign against the Barbary Pirates.

It is understandable that commanders of Bolger’s vintage would dislike tricky “low-intensity operations” and prefer that the military be used only in Desert Storm–style pitched battles against easily crushable Third World armed forces. Unfortunately, U.S. interests may require riskier forms of military action, especially now that America’s enemies are often too smart to challenge her in conventional army-to-army battles. And the fact is that in Iraq many U.S. commanders—and their troops—turned out to be very adept at using forms of warfare that required cunning, cultural awareness, intellectual flexibility, a willingness to delegate authority, and the skillful application of relatively limited force.

Bolger may have a point, however, when he says that one of the greatest mistakes our generals made was to assume that the politicians at home would go along with a decades-long military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans, he maintains, don’t do long-term active military commitments. Bolger believes the generals should have argued for immediate pullouts after overthrowing the Taliban and Saddam regimes.

Some experienced and thoughtful people in the military share Bolger’s view. It’s an understandable argument given the tremendous difficulty and cost of Afghan nation-building. It seems likely, however, that had the United States and her allies pulled out in 2002 after installing Karzai in Kabul, Afghanistan would have returned quickly to the chaos and civil war that characterized the pre-Taliban era. And Pakistan probably would have ensured that its favorite fundamentalist terror groups and the rump Taliban retained power. This would have cast a pall over America’s swift victory and might have emboldened other regimes giving sanctuary to anti-American terrorists.

It is also far from clear that the campaign in Afghanistan has been lost. America and her coalition allies have achieved much there despite various mistakes. And there are encouraging signs from Afghanistan, despite the opportunities offered to the insurgents by the premature drawdown of coalition forces and President Obama’s insistence on a 2016 withdrawal. We could still lose in Afghanistan. But if the campaign ends in defeat, it is likely to be a self-inflicted and unnecessary one, like the one the Obama administration oversaw in Iraq. Although Bolger’s book was completed before ISIS took Mosul, ISIS’s rise to power surely casts doubt on his belief that an even more premature withdrawal from Iraq by U.S. forces would have had more benign results for the region or American interests.

Despite all these caveats, Why We Lost serves an important purpose as one of the first salvos in the military’s historiographical battle to make sense of the past decade. It also sets a high literary bar for the books that will follow and answer it.

 

https://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/coin-wars/

Defeat in the "Information Battle Space" (National Review May 17, 2007)

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The Western media, wittingly or not, are aiding our enemies

Islamabad — The week I was in Afghanistan this winter, two big stories hit the international press. The first involved the publication of photographs of German NATO troops apparently “desecrating” the remains of dead Afghans. The second was about the accidental killing of up to two hundred Afghan civilians in an allied airstrike. Both stories were sensational, unfairly reported, and illustrative of one of the most intractable difficulties that face the NATO-led ISAF Coalition in Afghanistan — and, indeed, the West generally in the “war on terror.”

The photographs of the Bundeswehr squad posing with shiny, white skulland bones were immediately said to reveal an “atrocity.” More than two years old when they first surfaced in Germany at the end of October, the photos provoked a predictably anguished debate, both there and in other NATO states, about the brutalization of war, the foolishness of the mission in Afghanistan, and so forth.

JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS
The accusation that 21st-century German soldiers were desecrating Muslim graves was a possibility transmuted into fact by a media that all too often — consciously or unconsciously — assumes the worst of Coalition forces and their mission in Afghanistan.

First of all, it was far from clear from the photos and initial reports whether the bones in question had been dug up by the soldiers or merely found on the ground. It is not hard to find skulls littering the rocky earth in the Konduz area where the Germans have their main base. The wrecked vehicles scattered about Konduz bear witness to the many battles fought in this part of Afghanistan over the years. Indeed, though the Northern Alliance battled the Taliban on a number of occasions here, it is most likely that any skulls the Germans found were actually those of Soviet troops — the mujahedeen did not usually trouble themselves to bury the bodies of their slain enemies. In other words, the remains that the Germans posed with were probably neither Muslim nor obtained by grave robbing, but had been bleaching under the sun for up to two decades before they inspired a juvenile digital photo-op.

The damage, however, was done. Though the “atrocity” might one day be refuted — most likely in some little-publicized investigation that takes months to unfold — the news had flashed around the world that German Coalition troops were treating Muslim corpses with contempt. The Western journalists who reported the story with such concerned relish may not have realized that by treating the photographs asprima facie evidence of a genuine scandal they were undermining the Coalition in Afghanistan, supporting the myth of “Islamophobia,” and fomenting anti-Western hatred. They probably thought they were just doing their jobs in the normal, “neutral” fashion. 

SELECTIVE SKEPTICISM 
The second story is even more illustrative of the nearly impossible task faced by the Coalition — and the way the media make it even more difficult. In the last week of October, British and Canadian troops fighting the Taliban in Kandahar province were attacked near the Sperwan Ghar patrol base. As night fell on October 24, the NATO troops called in close air support against Taliban positions. According to local chiefs, a large number of civilians were killed in the bombing. Over the next couple of days the claims of civilian fatalities ranged from 20 to 200 — a telling discrepancy, and one that probably reflects the tendency of predominantly oral cultures like that of rural Afghanistan to foster rumor and exaggeration. ISAF spokesmen admitted that, of an estimated total 70 fatalities, some civilians might have been killed in the strike out (four wounded civilians were taken to Kandahar airbase for treatment). They doubted the “at least 89” number quoted by most media outlets, which was usually followed by the point that this was the largest number of civilian deaths in a single incident since 2002.

As NATO officers privately complained, no one could be sure of the truth in the immediate aftermath of the air strike. Because of the Muslim practice of burying the dead within 24 hours, there are often no bodies to be found in incidents like this. Moreover it is the standard operating procedure of the Taliban to “sanitize” or remove weapons from the corpses of any slain or wounded members they don’t take away — so you can be sure that a civilian fatality really is a civilian only if the corpse is that of a small child or a woman.

A knowledgeable, thoughtful, and clear-eyed reporter might also consider that local civilians in areas dominated by the Taliban almost always claim that there are no Taliban, and have never been any Taliban, in their area. They make this claim out of either fear or loyalty. During fierce fighting in September in the same Panjwayi area, the local elders also claimed, absurdly, that there were no Taliban around, even though more than 500 of them were killed in pitched battles there and the area is at the center of the movement’s heartland.

More important, it is standard operating procedure of the Islamists in Afghanistan — as it is in Lebanon and Gaza and Iraq — to claim that all casualties on their side are civilians. Indeed, the Taliban would be grossly incompetant at asymmetric and information warfare if they didn’t make that claim. (Just as al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers would be foolish if they did not cry “torture” when detained at Gitmo or elsewhere.)

After all, it would be a huge propaganda victory for the Taliban and their allies to create the impression that Coalition troops routinely or increasingly kill large numbers of civilians. Once established as a media “fact,” such an impression would not only undermine the Afghan government and ISAF, but it could also affect the strategic, and very real, battle for hearts and minds in Europe and the United States.

Make no mistake, the Taliban and their allies, like the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, know perfectly well that they don’t have to defeat the Coalition militarily; all they have to do is undermine the political will of the Western electorates.

 

You might expect journalists to take some note of these practices and of the propaganda element of the war, and accordingly to exercise a little caution, if not skepticism, before they unquestioningly parrot an allegation of mass civilian deaths. (Surely they must be aware that reports of an atrocity can have enormous real world effects? Surely they have some sense that various Afghan players might lie in order to advance their cause?) Generally, however, they do not. For the most part, Taliban claims are assumed to be true. Statements by Coalition spokesmen, on the other hand, are a different matter. Such officials are said to make “claims,” and they are essentially assumed to be propagandists, if not flat out liars, by many correspondents (who won’t say as much in print, of course, but ask them about it over a drink).

It is one of the ironies of our time that members of the media are so hypersensitive to being used or manipulated by any official person from their own society — military officials, government spokesmen, etc. — but can be as naïve as children when it comes to voices from other cultures. This would almost be laughable, if it weren’t so pathetic — and so poisonous. For instance, the BBC loves to quote Iraqi doctors about Coalition-inflicted casualties, apparently oblivious of the fact that the Iraqi medical profession was open almost exclusively to Baathists, is predominantly Sunni, and did extremely well under Saddam.

There is sometimes a strange, sentimental, inverted racism at work in this: Surely such simple, ardent, technologically unsophisticated people — like the mullah who speaks for the village, or the weeping mother who swears her slain son was a good boy and would never have shot at the soldiers — wouldn’t tell lies? While there is no justification for reverting to Edwardian-era bigotry and assuming that all Orientals, especially South Asians, are compulsive liars, it would be equally wrong to assume the opposite or to ignore the role of rumor and the likelihood of deceit in a place like Afghanistan.

WHERE’S THE COMPETENCE?
In general the mainstream media have taken even longer to understand asymmetric warfare in the instant-information age than the U.S. military. Their understanding of traditional military concepts is abysmal enough. It is a painful fact that many contemporary war correspondents know virtually nothing of military ranks, weapons, and tactics. Someone who calls the dropping of a single JDAM “carpet bombing” and who doesn’t know if a company is larger or smaller than a battalion is hardly likely to be able to tell the difference between genuine “collateral damage” — the unwitting, and in some cases avoidable, killing of non-combatants — and a deliberate massacre.

Nor do many reporters get that the U.S. and its allies are fighting an enemy that thinks nothing of using ambulances to ferry troops and ammunition (as the Marines discovered to their cost in Fallujah; when they eventually fired on the ambulance/troop carriers, the BBC accused them of war crimes.) It is an enemy that routinely employs hospitals, museums, schools, and mosques as firing positions, and exploits Western sensibilities and legal norms by using women and children as human shields. Such tactics inevitably lead to civilian casualties (which is why they are illegal under the laws of war). But they make total, terrible sense if you are al Qaeda or Hezbollah.

You are more likely to win on the ground if the Americans or Brits or Israelis refrain from firing on your ambulance/mosque/school packed with fighters; and if they do fire on you, you win in the propaganda battle. The pictures on al Jazeera and CNN of a smoking ambulance or corpse of a child are worth the deaths of the fighters and their civilian shields.

Much reporting from the field fails to take into account the fact that the traditional legal distinction between civilian and non-civilian has little bearing on the reality of war in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. A more relevant and sensible distinction might be between combatant and non-combatant. After all, the Taliban, like their insurgent cousins in Iraq, are civilians in arms who don’t wear uniforms — thus putting civilian non-combatants in jeopardy and breaching the Geneva Convention. Moreover, more than a few of the attacks against Coalition and Afghan army forces are carried out by civilian Pashtuns who are not even members of the Taliban, but mere opportunists — indebted farmers, unemployed youths — who have been paid well to take a potshot or two at a passing patrol.

COMMUNICATION FAILURE
The U.S. military information-apparatus has so far failed to make Western publics or the press understand the implications of all this. It is a failure that has strategic implications. Unfortunately it may be impossible for allied spokesmen to overcome the naïveté, faux or otherwise, of the mainstream media. Too many establishment journalists live in a mental world dominated by the reporting tropes of the later Vietnam War: “five o’clock follies,” lame attempts at censorship, demoralized draftees “fragging” officers, exaggerated body counts, Pentagon lies, and virtuous Viet Cong patriots. Too few of them have a genuine understanding of either military culture or the third-world cultures of areas in which our wars are taking place.

At the end of my visit to Afghanistan, I sat in on at a press conference at the huge Bagram airbase where the local representatives of the international media pressed General James L. Jones, then supreme commander of NATO, about the latest news in the war. “Isn’t it true that the civilian casualties and the skulls incident have undermined NATO’s efforts to win hearts and minds,” asked one reporter for a top news agency. The assumption behind his question was that these stories had already reached small, rural villages and that such stories have the power to undermine the building of roads and schools. More tellingly, the question treated the existence of the stories and the impressions they created as something uncontrollable and inevitable, rather than something for which he and his colleagues bore responsibility. The general calmly pointed out that the enemy uses civilians as human shields and likes to spread lies about the Coalition — points that made no impact on the assembled press — then personally apologized for any civilian deaths and, rightly, promised a full investigation.

It may turn out that the reports were accurate, that allied airmen did indeed kill a large number of civilians because of faulty intelligence or some other aspect of the fog of war. But if the 90 to 200 so-called civilian deaths were either mythical or primarily composed of Taliban warriors, the press that was so sure of allied guilt will have acted once again as an unwitting ally of some very nasty people.

– Jonathan Foreman is a reporter who has covered the war from Iraq and Afghanistan.

http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/220979/defeat-information-battle-space/jonathan-foreman