Since 9/11, why have we won smashing battlefield victories only to botch nearly everything that comes next? In the opening phases of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, we mopped the floor with our enemies. But in short order, things went horribly wrong. We soon discovered we had no coherent plan to manage the “day after.” This helped set the stage for an
extraordinary historical moment in which America’s role in the world, along with our commitment to democracy at home and abroad, have become subject to growing doubt. With the benefit of hindsight, can we discern what went wrong? Why have we had such great difficulty planning for the aftermath of war?
In The Day After, Brendan Gallagher—an Army lieutenant colonel with multiple combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, and a Princeton PhD—seeks to tackle this vital question. Gallagher argues there is a tension between our desire to create a new democracy and our competing desire to pull out as soon as possible. Our leaders often strive to accomplish both to keep everyone happy. But by avoiding the tough underlying decisions, it fosters an incoherent strategy. This makes chaos more likely.
The Day After draws on new interviews with dozens of civilian and military officials, ranging from US cabinet secretaries to four-star generals. Striking at the heart of what went wrong in our recent wars, and what we should do about it, Gallagher asks whether we will learn from our mistakes, or provoke even more disasters? Human lives, money, elections, and America’s place in the world hinge on the answer.
We had the opportunity to interview Brendan on his book and his time in the army. The views expressed are the solely those of the author, and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
What experience caused you to see a need for your book “The Day after”?
It wasn’t so much a single experience as it was my cumulative time overseas that inspired me to write the book. I’ve had the privilege to serve as an Army infantry officer since 2001, and completed several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. As I mention in the book, during these deployments sometimes there’d be a moment to step back and reflect on things in between patrols and operations, and occasionally I’d think about questions like: what did we think would happen after we toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan? Or after we toppled Saddam? How did we prepare for what would unfold next? And more broadly, what should we learn from these conflicts and everything that has transpired since? I felt motivated to try to unpack what happened and why, because the lasting consequences of these wars have been pretty significant and far-reaching. The Day After represents my attempt to come to terms with our nation’s last 20 years of war, and some of these fundamental issues that have had major impacts on our country and other countries around the globe.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
The book has many vignettes and anecdotes of planning efforts that went off the rails due to bureaucratic infighting, personality conflicts, and other factors. But of all the vignettes and quotations used throughout the book, I think the one that sticks with me the most was when a senior military official told me in an interview: “Postwar planning is annex Z in the war plan. And there’s nothing in it.” That particular quote really stuck with me, and I put it in the book’s introduction. It seemed to capture the essence of how the most important part of war – the political endgame – seemed almost like an afterthought for many of those in charge. And it sheds light on why we seem to handle the day after so poorly. We routinely don’t invest the time and energy needed, and to the extent we have thought about it, we’ve often been pulled in opposing directions and don’t firmly choose which direction to go. That schizophrenic approach has contributed to deeply disappointing outcomes.
While this book is focused on senior strategic level thinkers, what can junior field grade leaders take from this material?
I think one implicit takeaway is: Don’t assume that those at the top have all the answers figured out, and all we need to do is follow the master plan and it will invariably lead to success. A few months (or years) later we may discover there was no master plan at all. We will need junior leaders taking the initiative to help our country sort through these kinds of challenges. Leaders at all levels will be vital in providing sound advice and recommendations, which often begins by asking uncomfortable questions. One of the fundamental tensions in my book involves whether, after toppling a regime, we intend to promote democracy, or just quickly pack up and go home. Often, we wear rose-tinted glasses and imagine we can fully accomplish both at the same time. So junior leaders can and should seek to probe assumptions and expose such magical thinking for what it is. We need to have people who aren’t afraid to point out when the emperor has no clothes – and hopefully are willing to say so before we are already far down a road that is costing thousands of lives. During my research, I sometimes found that the civilian and military officials at the middle echelons seemed to have a better grasp of what was achievable than some of those at the very top.
Your book takes us through Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria and paints a pretty dismal pattern of tactical military victories degrading into strategic failures. Besides the work that you are doing, do you see the military trending in a positive direction?
Well, one of the themes in the book is that the postwar arena is not exclusively a military challenge. It is a national challenge. So I don’t want to frame this as if the entire weight hangs on the military’s shoulders. If we come to believe that postwar challenges are something for our military to figure out on its own, the odds rise substantially that we will fail. Postwar
issues usually involve major decisions with significant political trade offs that involve the Pentagon, to be sure, but also other key departments and agencies too. It requires our national leaders to make tough choices and get the entire ship moving in a single direction. So even if the military were in fact moving in a positive direction, and starting to “get” it, that might not
be enough to foster a decent outcome. I hope this book might begin to help us understand the scope of the challenge, how it cuts across the entire national security establishment, and what lessons we might collectively learn as we forge our way ahead.
Writing such a well researched academic must have been tough; were there any surprises as you set out on that journey?
Yes, there were definitely a few surprises. One surprise was just how candid some of the interviewees were. To help me understand how we mishandled recent postwar efforts, I interviewed dozens of officials, including some cabinet secretaries and four-star generals who were in charge during these conflicts. And I was repeatedly surprised at how candid and blunt some of them were when speaking with me. Some officials still had pretty raw emotions, and remained quite upset by how our government performed. Many of their blunt, candid statements are included in the book (with their permission). So that degree of bluntness and candor surprised me a bit, and I think it adds to the richness of the book, and gives it a more personal feel.
Another thing that surprised me during my research is that there actually were some postwar plans developed. In the case of Iraq or Libya, for example, a casual observer might assume that we simply forgot to do the postwar planning. But I discovered that was not the case. There were detailed plans that people spent quite a lot of time working on – and I discuss those specific plans in the book. But often these plans were developed at mid-levels of government, and never “broke out” to help form a coherent strategy at the highest levels. So there were plans assembled, but they didn’t get implemented the way the planners intended. And the resulting incoherence helped give rise to the chaos we’re still dealing with today.
What is next for you and your writing projects?
Currently I’m in a leadership position that keeps me busy, so there’s not much free time for writing at the moment. With that said, sometimes when I’m reading or following current events, a light bulb goes off regarding a new potential research idea (and hopefully I get the chance to quickly jot it down before I forget it!). Perhaps at some point I’ll be able to dive one or two newer ideas I’ve been kicking around. Until then, I’m doing the best I can in my current duty assignment, and I’m content to see The Day After hit the shelves after years of research and writing.
Brendan R. Gallagher is a US Army lieutenant colonel in the infantry who has completed seven tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, including multiple deployments with the 75th Ranger Regiment. He received the General George C. Marshall award as the top US graduate at the Army Command and General Staff College, and is currently a battalion commander. He holds a PhD in public and international affairs from Princeton.
Brendan can be reached via Twitter