A 3-Star General Explains 'Why We Lost' In Iraq, Afghanistan
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Even as the nation honors veterans past and present for their service, a new group of men and women will be preparing to head to Iraq. On Friday, President Obama authorized the deployment of 1,500 more troops to Iraq to provide advisory support. That will bring the total up to over 3,000, this three years after the military's official withdrawal from that country in 2011. Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger helped lead the strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan up to his retirement last year.
DANIEL BOLGER: I'm a United States Army general and I lost the global war on terrorism.
GRIGSBY BATES: These are the first few words of his new book called "Why We Lost."
BOLGER: It's like Alcoholics Anonymous. Step one's admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem - so do my peers. And thanks to our problem, now all of America has a problem. To wit - two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.
GRIGSBY BATES: I spoke with the retired three-star general earlier this week. He said conflicting agendas in all three countries and the lingering specter of Vietnam would complicate both campaigns. But he told me he had his first inklings of trouble earlier on.
BOLGER: What I saw almost immediately was trouble figuring out who the enemy was. So we knew within a day or two of the 9/11 attacks that it was al-Qaida, a terrorist network that had a headquarters element, if you would call it that, or a chairman of the board in Osama Bin Laden. And they were operating out of Afghanistan.
But that's not who we ended up fighting most of the time. Sure, we went after al-Qaida at times. But we ended up fighting the Taliban, which were Pashtun people in Afghanistan who were trying to run that country. And then we evicted them in 2001.
And we ended up fighting Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq, who again -although they might make common cause with al-Qaida - those weren't the guys who attacked us on 9/11.
GRIGSBY BATES: So we had an enemy - or several enemies - at one point, but we didn't exactly know a whole lot about them. Don't we normally figure this out before we start to send troops over to do fighting?
BOLGER: Well, yes, one of the things that we often say in the military is you have to - you have to fight for information or fight for intelligence. So as we developed this picture and it became obvious that we were fighting an insurgent enemy mixed into a civil population that was suspicious of us anyway as outsiders - and that was true in both Afghanistan and Iraq - it really brought up the second point, which is what is the U.S. Military trained to do? And the U.S. Military is trained to carry out short and decisive conventional operations against a uniformed formed enemy.
So if you want us to go in and do something along the lines of 1991 Desert Storm, where we go against armored divisions and air force squadrons of the Iraqi forces and destroy them and capture the remainder, that's what we're trained to do. It's very, very difficult to take even the great troops that we have and send them into a village to try and sort out which of the males there - the young males - might be insurgents, who might be just people living in the area, who might potentially be government supporters, when you don't speak the language and you really don't understand what's going on in that village very well.
GRIGSBY BATES: Just about two years ago, almost to the day, you announced during a Veteran's Day ceremony that, (quote) "our nations count on us and we'll deliver." Seems like while you were there, you thought this could be successful given those early misgivings. What made you think that maybe this might happen?
BOLGER: Well, I think what made me think it was successful is we really had two ways we could prosecute this war. The first was essentially to do what we did in Desert Storm. And both Afghanistan and Iraq started with a very short, successful, decisive U.S. initial invasion. And at that point, we had the option - we could've backed out and left it to the local people to sort it out. And it might have been sort of ugly and it might have been sort of unsatisfying. But in both cases, we didn't do that. We decided to stay.
The only way you can win that is the local people have to take the lead, and they have to have the sure knowledge that they've got a long-term U.S. commitment to help them in the things they have trouble with.
And when I made that statement at Veteran's Day, I was hopeful that the United States would make a long-term commitment to both countries. It seems like in Iraq, we're going to have a degree of commitment more than we probably thought we would in the fall of 2011, based on their fight against ISIS and what we're trying to do to help them now.
Afghanistan, though, I keep hearing the same noises about we're going to draw down to just an embassy and a few hundred people there within a year or so.
GRIGSBY BATES: When we had chance to make a clean-cut decision about we either turn it over to the people that live there or throw everything into it and make a decision to be there for a long time - I'm wondering what you thought was the best approach, the best decision in terms of how that might go.
BOLGER: Given what I knew then, I would have recommended to do like we did in 1991 and turn it over to the local folks. You know, give them some backing, but not much beyond the embassy or maybe a couple hundred advisers or something - certainly not hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground for ten years.
GRIGSBY BATES: Finally, you're retired now. Your part in this is over. Why write this book? Because I suspect it's going to ruffle some feathers. Why not go play golf or fish or something? This might cost you a little bit.
BOLGER: It might. But whatever cost it costs me would be so minor compared to those who've lost their lives and families that have been disrupted and devastated by the cost of this war. The bravery and sacrifices of the people that I was privileged to serve with should be saluted. And the mistakes, the errors, made by guys like me have to be accounted for and explained so we can learn and do better in the event we have to do something like this again.
GRIGSBY BATES: That's retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger. His new book is called "Why We Lost" and is out on Tuesday. General, thank you so my.
BOLGER: Thank you, Karen.
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