Iraq and Afghan Wars: Requiem for America’s Ineffectual War State


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
, 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
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

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
– 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

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,
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

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
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
. 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
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
and the Libertarian

Author: Ronald Enzweiler

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 and the Libertarian Institute.
View all posts by Ronald Enzweiler


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