Retired U.S. Army General Daniel Bolger On Losing In Iraq

Retired U.S. Army General Daniel Bolger On Losing In Iraq

Thursday, November 20, 2014 | Categories: Day 6 Blog 57 2014/11/20/daniel-bolger-why- we-lost/


Canada is in the midst of a six month mission in Iraq, fighting Islamic State militants. The U.S. is leading the mission there, coordinating and commanding airstrikes being carried out by countries including Canada. But Americans have a contentious past in Iraq, one retired U.S. Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger says has contributed to the rise of ISIS we’re seeing today. He spoke with Day 6 about his new book, called Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.

Brent Bambury: A lot of Americans, including senior army officers, shy away from using the word “lose” when they talk about these two conflicts, but you use it in the title of your book. Why is that so important to you?

Daniel Bolger: I think one of the things that soldiers know around the world, in Canada, the United States and elsewhere, is you’ve got to call them as you see them. The soldiers on the ground are well aware of what happened in these wars and we should not sugar coat it. We owe that to the memory of the brave men and women who gave their lives, 168 Canadians, by my count, fighting in Afghanistan. We owe it to them, their families and their memory. They did great work and the failure is not theirs. The failure actually rests on folks like me who were in the senior command.

Do all of those families and the veterans of those wars agree with you on that? Are they all okay with you saying they’re losses?

I don’t think they are and, in a way, that does credit to them. It’s a very frustrating, long war. It’s unclear to a lot of folks what has happened but I think most would agree that we haven’t won. And then, it just becomes a degree of figuring out what happened, why it happened and most important of all, how to make sure that, if it happens again, we do a lot better.


Looking back on your experience now, what was your greatest challenge in trying to train the Iraqi and Afghan military forces?

We did the easy thing: we produced numbers of riflemen and police people who you could put on the beat. You can crank people out pretty quickly, even in modern warfare: teach them how to load and fire a rifle, how to move around the countryside or through villages, how to do basic soldiering and police tasks. It’s much tougher to train good sergeants, good warrant officers and good officers. That takes decades, and we didn’t have decades in Iraq. Eight years seems like a long time but what you produce at the end of that is a bunch of riflemen. Unfortunately, in many cases they’re led by the same guys that collapsed in ’91 in front of the forces and then again in 2003 when western forces came in. We thought we, the Americans and other coalition members, were going to be there at some level for decades to come, much like we were with the South Korean armed forces. When the Canadians, Americans and everyone went into South Korea in 1950, South Korean armed forces were not very good and, even by 1953 at the armistice, still not very good. But after a couple decades they got very good and now they’re an excellent armed force. In fact, they’ve sent people to fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan and done superbly.

But were you surprised at the speed with which the Iraqi military collapsed in the face of the advance of ISIS?

I was not, because I know the speed at which they collapsed at the advance of us. You can’t change the character of a military that quickly. Saddam and the Ba’athist regime did tremendous damage to the military ethos that the Iraqi army inherited from Great Britain during the mandate after World War I. The British had actually trained a decent army; they had a Sandhurst-like military academy, they had done a lot and the Iraqis were on a pretty good path when the Baathists took over in the ’50s and then for sure in the late ’60s and early ’70s. They purged all that and created a cult of loyalty to Saddam. Well a cult of loyalty kept Saddam in power but did nothing for their military capability. We could only remedy so much of that in eight years.

So what should be done in Afghanistan to prevent an ISIS-like force from rising up and taking control or a resurgence of the Taliban?

Painful as it is, I think all of our countries have to look at a long-term commitment in Afghanistan. The United States withdrew [from Iraq] all but a couple hundred advisers at the embassy and about 4,000 contractor trainers, but we left no forces at all and no real field advisers, which the Iraqis depended on because they had such an immature core of leaders – of sergeants and officers. Afghanistan is in much the same status and what that means is NATO forces in their home countries have got to have that debate. Are they willing to stay for 10, 15, 20 years and help this Afghan force in the Taliban resurgence that will surely follow the pull out of NATO combat forces in about a month.


You make the case that the loss of these wars comes down to a failure to properly identify the enemy. In Afghanistan, the enemy was the Taliban. In Iraq, it was Saddam. In Iraq, when did that change? When did the enemy become something that wasn’t as clear to us, that wasn’t as clear to the American people, and wasn’t as clear to the military force that was there fighting?

It was not clear the military fighting until the summer of 2003 that Saddam and the Ba’athists and their army and police were gone, but yet there were still insurgents in the field. Primarily, Sunni-Arab insurgent groups banded together for a variety of reasons and loosely led by a group called Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is the core of the modern ISIS movement. In Afghanistan, it was a similar thing. It’s interesting, the attacks of 9/11 were not perpetrated by the Taliban. The Taliban were the hosts of the Al Qaeda international terrorist network. Osama bin Laden was not an Afghan, he came from a Yemeni family that moved into Saudi Arabia. When you look at the people who took the airliners in the United States and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and one that went into the field in Pennsylvania, they were not Afghans, either. The majority of them, by count, were from Saudi Arabia. Right from the start, we expanded our aperture as far as who the enemy was. The Taliban were reprehensible guys, what they did to the people of Afghanistan was anything but pleasant and they weren’t all that popular. But, they also had not attacked the United States or any other NATO members and, yet, we took them on as an enemy. The majority of casualties inflicted on the Americans, Canadians and all the others who fought in Afghanistan had been inflicted by mainly Pashtun Taliban who had never attacked any of our countries.


We’d all studied Vietnam in our war colleges and we didn’t think through the effects of putting those western troops into the villages and cities of Iraq. How would the people react to that? And because we didn’t think that through, when the insurgency arose, initially, we were caught a little bit on our back foot. But the reality is, the Iraqis, with all their troubles, failings and foibles, it’s their country. They were going to have to take the lead and they were going to do it much more slowly. The mistake we made was applying too much of our own energy and forces. Putting a surge of U.S. troops in there was a temporary fix.

Canadian forces were applied in a big way in a dangerous part of Afghanistan: the violent counter-insurgency in Kandahar. Do you consider the Canadian mission a success in Kandahar?

I had the privilege of serving with Canadian forces in Afghanistan. There are no braver or finer troops in the world than the Canadian armed forces. That said, they failed in Kandahar just like the Americans and everybody else because, again, we tried to make it our counter-insurgency. It was mission impossible.


How much personal responsibility do you bear for the loss of these wars?

My personal responsibility is absolute. The tradition of the United States armed forces and our regulations state that the commander is responsible for everything his unit does or fails to do. In my commands, which included advisory commands in both countries and a field command in Baghdad, I was not able to accomplish that mission. That is my responsibility as that commander.

How do you feel about that?

I’m sick about it. It’s something I have to live with every day and night. I have 76 men and four women that will be on my soul for the rest of my life. And I know they were brave and did everything they could, I just don’t think I told them the right things to do.

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