Policy, strategy, and popular opinion have all played a part in U.S. failures.
America is the most powerful country in the history of the world, yet it has not won any of the three major wars it has fought over the past half century. This has not been due to a lack of effort and persistence. Our troops fought in Vietnam for nine years and in Iraq for a dozen. We’re still fighting after 20 years in Afghanistan, where our generals are asking the Taliban to stop attacking. That’s not a sign of success; the victor does not make such requests. The fact is that in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, America has failed in its mission to develop and sustain democracies.
What accounts for this trifecta of failure? Through luck and poor shooting by our enemies, in all three wars I was able to witness both the actual fighting on the ground and the creation of the high-level policies that shaped the wars. In this article, I lay out what I believe were the root causes of the failures. Oscar Wilde once remarked, “Two kinds of people are fascinating: people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.” I’m rendering one man’s opinion, while hoping to fall into neither category.
Broadly speaking, leadership in war comes from three hubs. The first consists of the military commanders who design strategy and decide how our troops will fight. The second hub is the policy-makers, including the president as commander in chief and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs as his military adviser, plus the theater commander, the CIA, the State Department, and the secretary of defense, who all give input. The third hub is the culture and popular mood of our country, as reflected by congressional votes and the slant of the mainstream press. The press does not report “just the facts”; rather, it presents a point of view by selecting which facts to focus upon. The popular mood is the ultimate fulcrum of political power, because the policy hub can’t fight a war without resources from Congress.
I divided the wars into major phases, and for each phase I assigned a percentage of responsibility for failure to each of those three hubs, as shown below. A rating of 0 percent indicates that I do not believe that particular hub contributed to the failure in that phase of the war. A rating of + means that hub contributed to success, not failure. Note that while the locus for failed decision-making shifted from war to war, overall the heaviest responsibility lay with the policy hub in Washington, including the commander in chief.
1. Vietnam, 1965–67. General William Westmoreland in Saigon waged a campaign of thoughtless attrition, trading American for North Vietnamese lives in random forays into the deep jungle. In Northern I Corps, the Marines went in a different direction, patrolling to push the Viet Cong guerrillas out of the villages. Success was stymied, however, when tens of thousands of North Vietnamese regulars poured south. Ordered not to outflank the enemy by forays into Laos or North Vietnam and kept to a narrow front, our troops fought defensive battles that made no strategic sense and were poorly executed.
What was the root cause of this futile warfighting? Both the commander in Saigon (General Westmoreland) and the commander in chief in Washington (President Lyndon Johnson) shared a solipsistic belief that the North Vietnamese would quit once they comprehended that America was physically stronger. The president granted the enemy a ground sanctuary and refused to bomb their economic and industrial infrastructure or mine their harbors to prevent the delivery of war supplies from China and Russia. Yet no senior American flag officer resigned or publicly objected.
During this phase, the press fixated more upon the gore of battle than the lack of strategy. Congress and the public were basically supportive of the war. The senior commanders in Saigon and the policy-makers in Washington bore equal responsibility for a chaotic mess.
2. Vietnam, 1968–75. The enemy threw an all-out assault against the South Vietnamese cities, believing the population would rise up in support. Instead, the exposed insurgent infrastructure was shattered and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars were decimated. American generalship erred from 1965 through early 1968 and then adapted well. Over the next several years, American tactics improved dramatically and the NVA was driven deep into the jungles. When the American military withdrew in 1972, traffic was moving unmolested throughout most of the populated areas.
The policy hub, however, had lost all power. The American press had portrayed the 1968 assault on the cities as definitive proof that the war could not be won and extolled student protests against the war and the draft. After President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974, the executive branch conceded to Congress total control of decision-making about Vietnam. The Democratic Senate and House passed legislation prohibiting U.S. bombing anywhere in Southeast Asia, regardless of provocation. Military aid to South Vietnam was slashed to a pittance, while massive Soviet and Chinese armaments rebuilt the NVA.
In 1975, the NVA seized South Vietnam. It is historically moot whether the South could have survived if we had continued our aid and bombing. The post-war narrative in the American press assigned all blame to South Vietnamese leadership. The policy hub disintegrated with the resignation of President Nixon. In the early 1970s, the popular mood, reflected in the press and Congress, had turned against South Vietnam, assuring its collapse.
3. Iraq, 2003–2006. Iraq had three phases. In 2003, the policy hub, led by President George W. Bush, invaded in order to destroy the Sunni-based Saddam Hussein regime. Our policy leaders then unwisely disbanded the Iraqi army. The American military took its place, declaring that our soldiers and Marines were nation-builders as well as warriors. Our policy-makers then passively abetted the emergence of sly, vengeful Shiite politicians intent upon disenfranchising the Sunni minority. Our top generals in Baghdad bumbled, especially in handing over Fallujah to the al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorist network.
4. Iraq, 2007–2011. But by late 2006, the Sunni tribes in western Iraq had allied with the Marines against the terrorists. General David Petraeus took command and encouraged Sunni neighborhood militias across central and northern Iraq, checking the predatory encroachments of Shiite militias aided by Iran. The policy hub, led by the president, provided firm support and resources. By 2008, Iraq had stabilized militarily. Equally important, the ubiquitous American military presence quashed the threat of a Sunni–Shiite civil war and checked the destabilizing actions of Shiite politicians. After a bad beginning, America had succeeded in constructing a fragile democratic nation. The key to that success was our military units spread across the country, preventing political excesses. Our soldiers were the stabilizing force. The policy hub performed well, except for agreeing to withdraw our troops by 2011.
5. Iraq, 2012–2021. At the end of 2011, the policy hub, led by President Barack Obama, proceeded to pull out all U.S. troops, despite warnings from inside the Pentagon and the State Department. Shiite politicians then oppressed the Sunni tribes, and ISIS surged back, seizing city after city. In 2015, the U.S. had to rush advisers and commandos back in, plus artillery and air support. After ISIS was crushed, in 2020 President Donald Trump, criticizing our military presence in the Middle East, pulled out most of our troops.
American popular opinion played a small role as the Iraq War waxed and waned over the past two decades. With no draft, there was no student protest movement. In huge distinction from Vietnam, the American people and the press supported the troops. The responsibility for first deciding to build a democratic nation (in 2003) and then pulling out all troops (in 2012 and again in 2019) can be found in the policy hub, led by three successive presidents with distinctly opposing points of view. By 2021, only a few U.S. troops remained in Iraq. The Iraqi government was corrupt and ineffectual, and Iran’s influence among the Shiites was stronger than America’s.
6. Afghanistan, 2001–2021. This is a markedly different story. We invaded to destroy al-Qaeda, which, owing to faulty military decisions, escaped into Pakistan. The policy hub, strongly led by the president, then decided America was obliged to transform a confederation of fractious tribes into a self-sustained democracy. Our military agreed it could accomplish that mission.
Pakistan, congenitally duplicitous, was providing the Taliban with a sanctuary and material aid, while in Kabul an erratic, untrustworthy president railed against American bombing and kept quiet about the Taliban. The country lacked a sense of nationalism and there was no draft. Afghan soldiers from Tajik tribes were sent into Pashtun provinces to fight Pashtun Taliban. For ten years, American and allied soldiers patrolled through disputed hamlets, controlling only the ground they stood upon. Beginning in about 2012, the American/allied campaign strategy focused more upon training the Afghan army. But “the right stuff” wasn’t there. Leadership and morale on the government side remained spotty, while tribal allegiances remained higher than the national one. American commanders adhered to “soft power” enticements, such as construction money, to woo over the Pashtuns. It didn’t work. Year after year, the rural areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan fell under the control of the Taliban.
Yet throughout the deteriorating course of the war, the press and Congress remained largely supportive. The popular mood gradually shifted toward war-weariness, not toward political opposition. Defeating the Taliban failed because Pakistan provided a sanctuary, the Kabul governments were feckless, and the Pashtun tribes, profiting from poppy cultivation, never rejected the Taliban in their midst.
In over a decade of reporting, I embedded in Nuristan, the Korengal, Kunar, Nuristan, Marjah, Nad Ali, Sangin, and places in between. In not one locale did our grunts believe the Afghan soldiers would hold the countryside after the Americans left. Nine American generals held the top command in Afghanistan. Yet throughout their combined tenures, the underlying military doctrine — our soldiers as nation-builders — remained unchallenged. This glaring gap separating the assessments of the grunts from those of the generals demands explanation. Losing wars leads to an inclination for the next generation not to volunteer for tough jobs such as the infantry.
Going forward, American and allied special forces and attack aircraft, in small numbers, should remain indefinitely in Afghanistan to avoid a collapse that severely damages our global reputation. A repeat of the 1975 images of Saigon in total panic must be avoided. The die, however, is cast. It’s facts on the ground, not negotiations, that will determine the long-term outcome. American policy-makers were both arrogant and profligate, believing force of arms and a stunning largesse of money could alter a tribal society hurtling headlong into the ninth century. Sooner or later, the country will fracture or the Taliban will control a government that is repressive of human rights and decidedly undemocratic.
In summary, in all three wars, the policy hub was primarily responsible for the failures. In not one case did the president who initiated the hostilities conclude them before he left office. Over the past 70 years, the executive branch has accumulated more power than wisdom. Our Founding Fathers intended to limit the power of the executive branch, with Thomas Jefferson warning about the “idolatry of royalty.”
Of the three wars, only in Vietnam did the popular mood, as reflected in the press and in congressional votes, play the final, pivotal role in the failure.
In Iraq, by 2011 our military had established a solid path forward, as long as our troops remained the stabilizing force. In 2012, however, policy-makers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by peremptorily withdrawing our troops, allowing the terrorists to reconstitute and resulting in a mess by 2021.
In Afghanistan, our security objective post-9/11 was to destroy the terrorist movement. That goal has been largely achieved. But the White House overreached by widening the mission to include nation-building. Our military commanders and the policy hub share equal responsibility for refusing to acknowledge that this was too ambitious. A self-sustaining democratic nation was achievable only if, as in South Korea, we were willing to stay in large numbers for 70 years.
What lies ahead? Clearly we should be pivoting to deter China, and not to engage in another counterinsurgency. In terms of military strategy, the Marine Corps has emerged as innovative in shifting its focus accordingly. The capital investments, however, of the Navy and Air Force do not reflect a pivot to offset China. The Trump administration, while antagonizing our allies, did awaken the public hub to the threat of China’s ambitions. But if failure in our past three small wars tells us anything, it is that the policy hub emanating from the White House has grown too confident of its own quixotic infallibility, unchallenged by a divisive Congress that is supine in matters of war. When America is not determined, we lose. There is no sign that the policy hub has the humility to grasp that existential fact.