When Afghanistan became the first U.S. target in the war on terror in the fall of 2001, there wasn’t much of a war plan. With winter approaching and Afghanistan’s well-known history as “the graveyard of empires,” President George W. Bush was averse to committing large numbers of ground troops. He opted instead for a strategy that minimized the number of U.S. troops deployed, relying primarily on the CIA and small teams of U.S. Special Forces who advised and funded anti-Taliban militias such as the Northern Alliance.
“The view prevailing among senior American military leaders was that overwhelming air power, suitcases full of cash and surrogate militias could win the war,” wrote Mary Anne Weaver in The New York Times Magazine in 2005.
In the first phase of the war in Afghanistan, winning meant capturing or killing Osama bin Laden and destroying al-Qaida and its surrogates. With the added capability of precision airstrikes directed by the Special Forces, the militias drove the Taliban from their Kandahar stronghold by December 2001. Bin Laden and his followers were on the run and holed up in the mountain stronghold of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan.
Originally built for the mujahideen’s war against the Soviets with support from the CIA in the 1980s, Tora Bora was a complex network of fortified caves amid unforgiving terrain more than 13,000 feet up. Weaver described it as “miles of tunnels, bunkers and base camps, dug deeply into the steep rock walls.” To meet the force of at least 1,500 well-trained and equipped fighters at Tora Bora, the Pentagon dispatched nothing more than a few dozen Special Forces troops aligned with several militias from competing warlords.
By Dec. 5, 2001, then-Brig. Gen. Jim Mattis commanded 4,000 Marines in the Afghan theater. He argued strongly that his Marines should surround and seal off bin Laden’s lair, but U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) turned down his requests. “The Bush administration later concluded,” Weaver wrote, “that the refusal of CENTCOM to dispatch the Marines – along with their failure to commit U.S. ground forces to Afghanistan generally – was the gravest error of the war.”
If Gen. Tommy Franks had let “Mad Dog” Mattis and his Marines off their leash in early December 2001, bin Laden likely would have been killed or captured and al-Qaida routed within months of the 9/11 attacks. Instead, about 800 al-Qaida fighters escaped Tora Bora, and bin Laden left around Dec. 16, making his way over the border to Pakistan, where he stayed until he was killed by members of SEAL Team Six almost a decade later.
For those who revere Mattis with cult-like fealty, an obvious takeaway from Tora Bora is that if “Mad Dog” says do it, you do it. While I count myself among the Marines who would endorse that maxim, he is not the linchpin of U.S. foreign policy. If Tora Bora should have taught us anything, it is that our strategic objectives must always be married to the force levels necessary to achieve them. This is one of the main pillars of the Powell Doctrine. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in the George H.W. Bush administration, Gen. Colin Powell expanded on principles first articulated in 1984 by former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, prescribing several criteria the United States should meet before committing the nation to war. Among them was the need for a clear, attainable objective with a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement.
Pointing to a series of successful military operations under his tenure as JCS chairman, Powell wrote in 1992, “The reason for our success is that in every instance we have carefully matched the use of military force to our political objectives. We owe it to the men and women who go in harm’s way to make sure that this is always the case and that their lives are not squandered for unclear purposes.” Powell conceived his doctrine based on lessons learned from Vietnam and his experiences spanning 30 years in uniform.
When Donald Rumsfeld, Powell’s ideological rival, took control of the Pentagon as George W. Bush’s first defense secretary, most of the lessons learned in Korea and Vietnam were effectively thrown out the window. Rumsfeld’s vision called for something like a “War-Light” doctrine. This is my name for those conflicts characterized by poorly conceived strategic objectives sold to the American public based on gross underestimations of the number of conventional forces and the length of commitment required to achieve them. War-Light is antithetical to the conventional assumptions upon which the Powell Doctrine was based. Its tragic legacy is a generation of Americans for whom a clear victory in prolonged conflict has proven as elusive as the moral authority with which the war was waged.
WHILE MAKING his case for military action against Iraq to members of the House International Relations Committee in October 2002, Bush said, “People out there say you cannot fight in Afghanistan and win in Iraq. Defeating two enemies is very difficult, but we will do it.”
According to Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack,” Bush instructed Rumsfeld in November 2001 to discreetly begin reviewing the Pentagon’s war plan for Iraq. In the following months, Rumsfeld met several times with Franks, commander of CENTCOM, pressuring him to revise the Pentagon’s plan and substantially reduce the number of boots on the ground. The plan Rumsfeld inherited – basically, the plan with which the United States had defeated Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War – called for at least 400,000 troops. When he concluded his back-to-the-drawing-board dance with Franks, Rumsfeld had settled on an invasion force of around 150,000.
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, who served as JCS director of operations in 2002, resigned in protest of Rumsfeld’s plans for the invasion. In an April 2006 essay for Time, Newbold wrote that U.S. forces were sent to Iraq “with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions – or bury the results.”
When then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2003, he offered this assessment for an Iraq invasion: “Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required. We’re talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that’s fairly significant with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems.” Two days later, Rumsfeld and then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz dismissed Shinseki’s assessment in the media. Rumsfeld said Shinseki’s numbers were “far from the mark,” and Wolfowitz used the words “wildly off the mark.”
In his memoir, former JCS chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton said this of Rumsfeld’s tenure at the Pentagon: “It was the worst style of leadership I witnessed in 38 years of service or have witnessed at the highest levels of the corporate world since then.” Rumsfeld has been publicly rebuked by several other generals who worked for him in Iraq and at the Pentagon, including retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, retired Maj. Gen. John Riggs, retired Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr., retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper and retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton.
Eaton, who in June 2003 was given the task of building a new Iraqi army, is one of several high-ranking officials in Iraq who were flabbergasted when L. Paul Bremer, as the newly appointed head of the Coalition Provincial Authority (CPA), implemented CPA Orders 1 and 2. With the stroke of his pen, he implemented a policy of de-Ba’athification, dictating that all public employees affiliated with Hussein’s Ba’ath Party be fired and prohibited from future employment in the public sector. The move effectively barred huge numbers of Iraq’s educated class from working to build a new government and relegated them to the ranks of the unemployed.
Then Bremer dissolved the Iraqi army, a decision that went against the advice of virtually every military officer and diplomat assigned to the Organization of Recovery and Humanitarian Assistance, which served as Iraq’s transitional government until the CPA took over. And after sending tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers into the ranks of the unemployed, Bremer, who answered to Rumsfeld, made no effort to secure the vast supply of military arms and equipment that lay in depots all over the country. The Oscar-nominated 2007 documentary “No End in Sight” is a maddeningly detailed account of the general incoherence of the Pentagon’s decisions in those vital early months.
“(Bremer’s) exclusion of the Iraqis early on from major participation in the decision-making process was a grievous error,” Lawrence Wilkerson says in the film. A retired Army colonel, Wilkerson was Powell’s chief of staff during his tenure as secretary of state. He endorsed Powell’s philosophy of “you break it, you own it,” meaning simply that “when you take out a regime and you bring down a government, you become the government.”
In a 2007 interview in The Atlantic, Powell discussed the Pentagon’s failure to own Iraq. “In the second phase of this conflict, which was beginning after the statue fell, we made serious mistakes in not acting like a government,” he said. “One, maintaining order. Two, keeping people from destroying their own property. Three, not having in place security forces – either ours or theirs or a combination of the two to keep order. And in the absence of order, chaos ensues.”
U.S. TROOP LEVELS in Iraq peaked at 166,300 during Bush’s now-famous surge of forces in 2007. Army Gen. David Petraeus devised and oversaw the implementation of the strategy, which relied on troop increases coupled with a policy of paying millions each month to the “Sons of Iraq” – many of whom were Sunni insurgents who had been killing Americans – to turn against al-Qaida and support the United States and its efforts. The Anbar (Sunni) Awakening succeeded in bringing greater stability to Iraq, but the gains ultimately proved temporary as a war-weary United States elected Barack Obama, who ran on a promise to draw down forces in Iraq and shift attention back to Afghanistan. When Obama announced his own surge of forces in Afghanistan in 2009, he also opted for War-Light, deploying 30,000 troops there despite the fact that his generals had asked for far more. In 2011, Obama delivered on his promise and withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq.
As the 2016 presidential election approaches, Middle Eastern policy and the military are political wedge issues once again. For most of the Republican candidates, the genesis of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) can be easily pinpointed at the moment U.S. troops left Iraq, or when Obama failed to arm and train certain factions of Syrian rebels. For liberals, the rise of ISIS can be clearly traced to Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. This pattern of partisan finger-pointing saddles U.S. political discourse with oversimplifications of the Middle East’s infinitely complex cultural and political landscape.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq and other military operations in the Middle East are at least partly responsible for the massive destabilization that has occurred there in the past 14 years. Deposing Hussein led to the political ascendance of Iraq’s Shia majority, which upended a long-standing policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s resistance to the political power-sharing Bush’s surge was supposed to facilitate opened the door for ISIS to exploit the disenfranchised Sunnis. The centuries-old rift between Sunnis and Shias throughout the Middle East, and the consequences of the Arab Spring uprisings, should not be discounted.
In an interview with Politico magazine in July, John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA, said, “Remember that in 2011, we had the Arab Awakening, and remember that Syria went drastically bad, largely because of (Syrian President Bashar) Assad’s reaction to what were legitimate protests in the area. Syria is about 70 percent Sunni, and that is the real engine that is drawing in fighters ... at something like 1,000 a month.”
Would leaving 10,000 or 20,000 U.S. troops have prevented the rise of ISIS? It’s possible, but the answer is inconsequential to the foreign policy problems the United States faces going forward. According to a Harvard University study published in 2013, “The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, taken together, will be the most expensive wars in U.S. history – totaling somewhere between $4 trillion to $6 trillion. This includes long-term medical care and disability compensation for servicemembers, veterans and families, military replenishment, and social and economic costs. The largest portion of that bill is yet to be paid.”
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee Jan. 27, Mattis said, “The foundation of military strength is our economic strength … If we refuse to reduce our debt/pay down our deficit, what is the impact on national security for future generations who will inherit this irresponsible debt and the taxes to service it? No nation in history has maintained its military power if it failed to keep its fiscal house in order.”
In 2004, bin Laden put out a video recording in which he lauded al-Qaida’s “bleed-until-bankruptcy plan” and gleefully pointed to America’s ballooning deficits as evidence that the terrorists were on a path to victory.
War-Light has long been an intoxicating theory that U.S. leaders have embraced for its populist appeal, but the historical record exposes it as an elaborate lie we like to tell ourselves: that war can be cheap and easy and our power to shape the world with military might is limitless.
Writing for The Atlantic in July 2013, Dartmouth College President Emeritus James Wright offered a sober accounting of the U.S. military scorecard since 1950: “Korea established a pattern that has been unfortunately followed in American wars in Vietnam, Iraq (II) and Afghanistan. These are wars without declaration and without the political consensus and the resolve to meet specific and changing goals. They are improvisational wars. They are dangerous.”
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in March, Mattis endorsed Wright’s essay, saying, “If you don’t get the political end-state right up front, you’re going to be engaged in a war you don’t know how to end in favorable terms.”
Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We have been repeating our mistakes since 1950, and the cultural hubris that fuels the pattern is resurgent yet again. A cycle of national amnesia and partisan gamesmanship binds our collective imagination, and as the hard-fought gains we made in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to dwindle, the psychological toll exacted on America’s collective conscience grows. We are a nation that has forgotten how to win, and if we do not change our calculus when it comes to waging war, we will not disrupt the pattern.
In an April 17 commentary for The Wall Street Journal, Mattis eloquently expressed the pride and reverence I have for the men and women who serve in uniform today: “No granite monuments, regardless of how grandly built, can take the place of your raw example of courage, when in your youth you answered your country’s call. When you looked past the hot political rhetoric. When you voluntarily left behind life’s well-lit avenues. When you signed that blank check to the American people, payable with your lives. And, most important, when you made a full personal commitment even while, for over a dozen years, the country’s political leadership had difficulty defining our national level of commitment.”
Those politicians seeking to command the most powerful military the world has ever seen owe the nation and its military members and veterans a clear-eyed assessment of the legacy and lessons of the war on terror. The United States cannot afford to buy another war based on false promises of swift victory with minimal commitments.
Ethan Rocke is an award-winning writer, photographer and filmmaker in Portland, Ore. He served as an infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division from 1998 to 2001 and as a Marine Corps combat correspondent from 2001 to 2011. www.ethanrocke.com