Our country’s fruitless multi-trillion-dollar Wars of Choice in Iraq and Afghanistan are finally coming to an end after 20 years. This historic moment is a fitting occasion to review and constructively critique the performance of our country’s foreign policy and military establishments – the key cogs in Washington’s $1.3-trilllion/year War State – in these two inglorious endeavors.
Other writers and commentators have documented and opined on the intelligence failures, deceitful progress reports, the futility of nation building, and other self-righteous and self-serving decisions that a succession of elected and career government officials made that got our country into these wars and then prolonged them long after it was obvious each was an unwinnable money pit.
But what exactly did the policymakers and generals in charge of conducting the Iran and Afghan wars get wrong – and then lie and mislead us about – at the strategic and tactical level and what does their incompetence and deceit tell us about the efficacy and rationale for Congress’s unchallenged funding of Washington’s $1.3-trillion/year War State?
War State dogma decrees that our military must have the capability to conduct large-scale preemptive or retaliatory air-and-ground combat operations on short notice anywhere in the Middle East and Asia. Given the outcomes of the Iraq and Afghan wars, does anyone (other than those profiting from Congress’s profligate spending on our imperial War State) really believe a future 5th major war in the Middle East or Asia (counting Vietnam and Korea) would be a rational pursuit – much less winnable?
I experienced our last two wars up close and personal having lived for eight years (2007-14) in combat zones as a field-level civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this role, I witnessed on a daily basis the futility of these enterprises as military campaigns; the senseless loss of life and maiming of combatants and civilians; and the heavy toll our "do good" foreign policy had on the local populations we presumably were there to help. I wrote a book (When Will We Ever Learn?) to document what our War State crusaders got wrong (over and over again!) in their execution of these senseless wars and to suggest changes in US foreign and military policy to prevent a reoccurrence of these fiascoes.
As a prelude to my lessons learned and the foreign and military policy implications I gleaned from these wars, l will first cover how the US Army assessed its performance in the Iraq war. (Spoiler alert: We must have been in two different wars!)
To his credit, General Ray Odierno – the last US four-star commander in Iraq who served 55 months in Operation Iraqi Freedom – commissioned an after-action study of the US Army’s performance in the Iraq war as Army Chief of Staff in 2013. General Odierno wanted this report to be an objective forthright assessment so mistakes the Army made in Iraq would not be repeated in future conflicts as had been the case from Vietnam to Iraq. However, his successor as Army Chief of Staff in 2015, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, took a different tact. He delayed and assuaged this report, releasing it in December 2018 only after Congress intervened.
This quote from the Wall Street Journal in January 2019 provides insight on the three year delay under General Milley: "The Army was concerned that publication of the history [of the Iraq War] had been stymied, as senior officials worried about the study’s impact on the reputation of prominent officers and Congressional support for the service" Rather than being a definitive self-critical assessment as General Odierno wanted, General Milley’s forward calls the report an interim "waypoint" for an ongoing analysis of the conflict. Congratulations General Milley on your promotion.
Not surprisingly, the main themes of the official U.S. Army in Iraq report are denial and blame shifting. This historical account of the war relies on the neocons’ tiresome counterfactual talking points. Its most egregious claim is that President Obama – not the Army – lost the war. I cover five of the Army’s self-serving disavowals and glaring omissions in this report in my book. Here is my rebuttal to the Army’s official "we didn’t lose the war" yarn:
"The study asserts that the ‘surge’ of reinforcements that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq in 2007 succeeded in reducing the level of violence in the country. " But the study adds, "the failure by the Obama administration and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to come to terms on an agreement to extend the US military presence undermined the prospect of stabilizing the country politically."
The implication here is that the (1) surge really worked but the country devolved in chaos with ISIS taking over the Sunni regions of the country in 2013-14 because (2) President Obama could have, but elected not to, extend the December 2011 troop withdrawal in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) the Bush Administration had concluded with the Iraq government in 2008.
On the first point, the 40,000 surge troops sent to Iraq in 2007 did temporarily decrease violence by putting additional troops on the streets in restive areas. However in announcing the surge in his "New Way Forward" speech in January 2007, President Bush declared the objective of the surge was to quell the insurgency so "Iraq could govern itself, defend itself, and sustain itself." In setting this objective, he stated "America’s commitment (of troops) is not open ended." US troops stayed for four years. Thus, the surged failed by not transforming Iraq into a stable country within this time frame as evidenced by the emergence of ISIS in 2013.
On the second point, the Army moves the goal posts by citing the neocons’ claim from early 2011 that "major political blocks" in the Iraq parliament were amenable to extending the December 2011 withdrawal date for US troops. Thus, if he had only tried, President Obama could have extended this date and our War State – despite its eight years of futility in Iraq – would have defeated the insurgency and gotten its coveted permanent military bases in Mesopotamia. (And if pig had wings …) The Washington Post fact-checker – pushing the War State’s talking points as usual – went along with this baloney. What the neocons, the Army, and WaPo either did not know (quite possible since the entire war was based on faulty intel) or conveniently ignored is that on the Iraq side, the SOFA negotiated in 2008 was done in close consultation with and subject to the approval of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – the beloved Shi’a cleric who is the most revered and respected person in Iraq.
After harshly objecting in May 2008 to any SOFA with a country Sistani deemed to be an apostate foreign occupier, he relented in July after Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s representative meet with him in his hometown of Najaf. Sistani agreed to a SOFA subject to the conditions that it respected Iraqi sovereign and set a specific date for the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops. This date was established as December 31, 2011, by the Bush Administration. Thus, changing this date post-facto would have required Sistani’s consent – not just what a couple Iraqi politicians (habitual grafters off US war spending) allegedly said in private to pro-war US senators. Moreover, in this December 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Maliki – an Iranian backed hardliner – makes it adamantly clear he opposed extending the SOFA and declares, "I do not care what’s being said (by others)." If you have any doubts on this matter, read the entire interview. WaPo should revisit its fact-check.
When I was in Iraq, I found the most credible and insightful source of information on the Iraqi polity and zeitgeist of the people to be Arabist Dr. Juan Cole. His blog was a daily must-read. In this December 2008 article in The Nation, Dr. Cole explicitly warns President-elect Obama not to extend the 2011 withdrawal date post-facto, saying: "Sistani is increasingly impatient with the foreign occupation, and an explicit fatwa, or legal ruling, from him forbidding the continued presence of US soldiers could set 15 million Iraqi Shiites virulently against those remaining."
As Dr. Cole forewarns, if US troops had stayed in Iraq beyond the 2011 departure date Sistani had set, the Shi’a majority in Iraq (60% of the population) joined by theocratic Shi’a Iran would have staged a Holy War to drive out the infidels from Dar al-Islam. This bloodbath would have been many times worse than the havoc later wrecked by the minority Sunni extremists who formed ISIS. With Saddam gone, one side of this religious feud dating to the early days of Islam was going to lose and fight back. The only question was which one. Obama made the right choice by abiding by the Sistani approved SOFA.
The Army’s attempt at blame shifting is a ruse to avoid acknowledging the overarching strategic mistake our nearsighted War State made in Iraq war: removing Saddam Hussein as the strongman who held the fractious country together. The televised "shock and awe" bombing campaign got good ratings and exhibited America’s military power. But the reality is that this unprovoked and illegal use of the US military under the international rules-based system that the US hypocritically admonishes other countries for violating was an unrecoverable blunder that unleashed sectarian violence that continues to this day across the Middle East. Millions have been killed, displaced, or had their lives destroyed.
The War State’s Real Problems in Iraq & Afghanistan
I introduce this section in my book by recounting an earlier story when I was at Harvard Business School in 1977: "Remember, I wanted to get a job with McKinsey – the big-time management consulting firm most MBAs wanted to work for in my day – but I got kicked out of the interview because I told the interviewer I agreed with President Carter and said the B-1 bomber was not needed and would be a waste of taxpayer’s money." Rockwell –then trying to get the B-1 contract – was McKinsey’s biggest client. My B-52 pilot buds from my service in the Air Force during the Vietnam War afterwards told me over beers at the Ellsworth Officers Club that their trusty B-52s had many more years of service and the B-1 was not needed. President Reagan overturned Carter’s cancellation of the B-1 program his first year in office as a sop to California-based Rockwell. Turns out, the peanut farmer and my combat-veteran B-52 pilot buds at Ellsworth were prescient: the Air Force has more B-52s in service today than B-1s (4:45 in this video) with the B-1s being phase out and our vintage B-52s being upgrade to last another 30 years!
So I am really not a management consultant. But if I were playing one while I was living on US military bases around Iraq and Afghanistan and observing how the warfighting was going, this is what I would tell the Army and Air Force Brass and the Washington foreign policy establishment:
Here is the BLUF (for those who have not had to sit through countless hours of tedious Army and Marine Corps power-point presentations, this acronym means: Bottom Line Up Front):
For Army Brass: Those ten combat divisions you have (each ±15,000 combat soldiers plus ±5,000 support units) are not worth a bucket of warm spit in asymmetrical warfare like the civil war insurgencies fought over centuries old ethnic and religious tensions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. You need to deactivate five of your World War II relic infantry and armor divisions and close their bases. They serve no purpose in modern warfare. America will never again fight another large-scale land war, occupy another country, or engage in national building.
For Air Force Brass: At the strategic level, the modern intertwined global economy makes bombing and incapacitating the economy of any country a lose/lose proposition. At the tactical level, the bombings of civilian areas in the counterinsurgency warfare as occurred throughout Iraq and Afghanistan wars turned the local population against the pro-government forces (i.e., US and NATO troops) and contributed to the inability of pro-government forces (the self-declared good guys) to quell the indigenous insurrections – despite the good guys having overwhelming military superiority. You do not need new generation fighters and bombers. The legacy planes you have are still the best in the world and have years more service.
For Foreign Policy Establishment: America’s military interventions in the Islamic World starting in the 1990s have created more anti-American Islamic extremists (including Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and ISIS) than US combat operations have eliminated over our War State’s 20-year War on Terror. The necons and war-hawks in Congress need to acknowledge and accept responsibly for their failed foreign policy and support adoption of a noninterventionist and less militaristic foreign policy.
Key Supporting Facts: Unorganized bands of mostly local national anti-government insurgents along with third-country jihadists with no formal military training, no heavy weapons, no armor or artillery, no helicopters, no intel, no air cover, scant logistical support, little command-and-control, and limited financial resources fought our Army’s vaunted combat brigades with their high-tech gear and unlimited air support (including the tragic misuse of B-1s on bombing runs from the US) to what at best was an unwinnable stalemate in both conflicts – despite the patriotism, professionalism, and valor exhibited by individual soldiers and field-level commanders. Street violence, suicide bombings, crime, and no-go territory persisted in both wars. The US mission to train, equip, and standup local armies in both countries were total failures and wasted taxpayer money.
Lesson Learned: Local nationals will not fight and kill their Islamic co-countrymen to support and keep in power a regime-change government installed by occupying infidels (i.e., the U.S. military and the NATO tagalongs). Domestic resistance and retaliation against US foreign interventions will organically emerge any place in the Islamic World where US troops are deployed or the US Air Force conducts bombing operations.
Here were your top-line problems as I saw them over my eight years down range:
- Heavy footprint: 2:1 ratio of contractors/soldiers required big bases, massive logistical and security support, and need to employ ±5,000 third-country Asians per big base as slave laborers living in disgraceful on-base shantytowns. DoD contractors made out like bandits as usual.
- Equipment too high tech for environment: lots of downtime, maintenance, and tech support. Most electronics in the Humvees and MRAPs did not work. The Ospreys were so unreliable I was always glad when my ride back to Baghdad or Kandahar was a Blackhawk or Vietnam-era Huey.
- Low ratio of trigger-pullers to force level: only ±20% of deployed soldiers ran combat missions.
- Inability to know who/where the bad guys were: mistakenly killing innocents and conducting door-bashing raids on families were antithetical to winning hearts and minds of locals. Lack of understanding the language, culture, and societal norms were insurmountable problems.
- Insurgents had home field advantage: the bad guys knew the neighborhood, blended in, and could seek refuge and be resupplied by their co-religionists in Iran or Pakistan. This inevitability should have been foreseen by war planners – not used afterwards as an excuse for losing both wars.
- Short rotations (typically only 9 months in-country): continuity of military operations disrupted by short tours – battle space commanders and troops never acquired situational awareness and typically left just as the anti-government combatants were identified and progress was made .
- Out of control sending: $1 million/year to deploy a solider. At peak, the burn rate in Afghanistan was $100 billion/year for troops plus equipment costs and $50 billion/year in foreign aid and nation building. Iraq had higher burn rate at peak but its government was funded with oil revenue. Long term costs for US taxpayers for both wars projected at $6.4 trillion by Brown University study.
Advice to Army Brass: Get out of the counterinsurgency and host-country army training businesses. Both missions were abysmal failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Installing US-backed "democratic" leaders and advancing sweeping societal changes as an occupying army was counterproductive for quelling violence and achieving stability. In ancient civilizations, change needs to evolve internally over decades to be sustainable. I was told many times, "You Americans are trying to do too much too fast."
Advice to Air Force Brass: Get out of the bombing business. The anti-American sentiment your bombings in populated areas generated – and the all-to-frequent "mistaken target" incidents – caused the locals to turn against the US-backed governments in Baghdad and Kabul. The bombings undercut any idea Americans were there to help local population have better lives. This was my job – including rebuilding at US taxpayers’ expense infrastructure our Air Force had bombed out. The bombings showed the locals that the US military was in their country to advance US geopolitical interests – not their welfare. Imagine the outrage if a foreign country routinely flew armed fighter-bombers over American cities and towns and bombed homes, public gatherings, and even a hospital.
Advice to Foreign Policy Establishment: Get out of the nation building business. Efforts in both counties did not achieve sustainable improvements and wasted $150 billion that could have been better spent improving the quality of life in US cities. House and Senate Foreign Affairs/Relations committees should commission the Quincy Institute to formulate noninterventionist foreign policy.
My big picture takeaway is that US national security and our country’s financial solvency would be best served if American voters protested and demanded that Congress deconstruct and defund large components of our ineffectual $1.3 trillion/year War State. I am good at math and also served on an ICBM base and in NATO, so I provide specific suggestions and numbers in my book.
Most alarming is that the same mindset and vested interests that prevented a reassessment and curtailment of America’s worldwide War State at the end of the Cold War still hold influence and power in Washington. Congress’s failure to initiate a noninterventionist and less militaristic foreign policy in the 1990s gave us the Iraq (#3) and Afghanistan (#4) wars. No one in Washington has accepted responsibility nor been held accountable for these $6.4 trillion fiascoes. The Army denies it lost the Iraq war and maintains a 10-combat-division war footing for fighting #5. Congress is spending trillions on new generation fighters, bombers, and nuclear weapons to wipe out whatever country is #5
If changes are not made, the same Washington group-think that gave us wars #3 and #4 in the last two decades will give us #5 as an even more devastating conflagration in the Middle East or Asia in the decade ahead. A chilling thought when our country already is nearly $30 trillion in debt and our ineffectual War State is 0-for-3 in major wars in the post-World War II era with the stalemate in Korea remaining a dangerous 70-year flashpoint.
Mr. Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA , MIT graduate, and US Air Force veteran who has lived, worked, and traveled extensively in the Greater Middle East, including working as an USAID contractor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico with his wife Elena. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?, and has written other articles for Antiwar.com and the Libertarian Institute.