General Daniel BolgerWhy We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

by Christian Peterson on December 12, 2014

General Daniel Bolger

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[Cross-posted from New Books in World Affairs] During the past several years, numerous books and articles have appeared that grapple with the legacy and lessons of the recent U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This development should surprise few. The emergence of the jihadist group ISIS in Iraq and Syria raises profound questions about what the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 accomplished. It also raises important questions about the manner in which the United States left Iraq, including the decision to evacuate all American troops from the country in 2011. As the U.S. continues to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, commentators continue to debate the future of this country in light of the Taliban’s enduring strength and doubts about the effectiveness of the Afghan government.

In his new book Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), the retired General Daniel Bolger analyzes the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the perspective of a retired general who commanded troops during these conflicts. Written in a clear, easy-to-follow style, Bolger explains how a mixture of flawed assumptions, arrogance, and poor strategic decisions doomed the United States to “lose” these wars. Instead of blaming civilian leaders for botching the execution, he explains how the military leadership failed to develop a long-term strategy well suited to winning these wars as they turned into counterinsurgency conflicts. He even criticizes U.S. military leaders, including himself, for not driving home the point that building stable, prosperous countries in Iraq and Afghanistan would probably require a permanent commitment of U.S. troops (i.e., like Korea) and the expenditure of American resources well into the future.

Along with taking military leaders to task, Bolger also addresses a number of misconceptions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  For example, he shows the limitations of suggesting that the United States “missed” an opportunity to capture Osama bin Laden before he escaped to Pakistan near the end of 2001. He also helps clear up misapprehensions about the U.S. failure to find WMDs in Iraq after the invasion took place and the successes of the Iraqi “surge.” In sharp contrast to accounts that focus on destructive impact of U.S. military might, Bolger provides an excellent account of how fears of civilian casualties in Afghanistan limited the use of firepower in ways that increased the casualty rates of American troops.

However readers evaluate Bolger’s arguments and insights, they will benefit from reading his book. With humility and candor, he makes the important point that there is no time like the present to begin analyzing the lessons of the past so American military leaders and politicians will not repeat the mistakes that they made in Iraq and Afghanistan. Drawing on the lessons of history and limitations of human nature, he also reminds Americans that the do not have it within their grasp to transform “foreign” societies into liberal-democratic states in the near future and rid the world of terrorism once and for all. Recognizing the limits of their power, Americans can best serve the world by conducting “limited” military operations designed to “contain” threats, thereby buying time for groups of people like the Iraqis and Afghans to build their own brighter futures.

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