The South Asia Channel
The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan
Not many writers risk their lives for their work.But then again, not many former assistant secretaries of defense andMarine officers spend their retirement years on the battlefield, beinghospitalized with cholera, shaken down by an Afghan soldier, and shot at byTaliban with rocket-propelled grenades. The writer in question, Bing West, theauthor of The Wrong War, isan ...
Not many writers risk their lives for their work.But then again, not many former assistant secretaries of defense andMarine officers spend their retirement years on the battlefield, beinghospitalized with cholera, shaken down by an Afghan soldier, and shot at byTaliban with rocket-propelled grenades. The writer in question, Bing West, theauthor of The Wrong War, isan unusual man.
It seems that some of the soldiers who he spenttime with were confused about his role, unsure whether to regard him as ajournalist or some kind of commanding officer. "Should I shoot him?" Westis asked at one point, as a farmer walks nearby carrying what could beammunition. "I’m just a writer," West replied "It’s your call" (p.160).
But the confusion is understandable. West is not"just" a writer, but a man with prodigious experience; he wrote a seminal bookabout counterinsurgency in the Vietnam War, The Village, and has writtenseveral others since about Iraq,and now Afghanistan.His judgment on the Afghanistan conflict carries significant weight, and it isscathing.
On political and military strategy, see p. 174:"The leaders in Washingtonlet down the generals in the field." The Bush administration, he says onthe same page, "did not have a coherent strategy and was riven by internaldissension." President Barack Obama, meanwhile (p. 192) "while exhorting othersto fight mightily … gave no sense that he believed in the war with all hismight." Scattered through the book are phrases like "grindinginconclusiveness" (p. xxii) and "strategic drift" (p. 46).
On Pakistan, West writes, "Jake [platoon leaderJake Miraldi, one of the dozens of U.S. soldiers quoted in the book] and I werepretty damned mad about the lack of cause.… What were American soldiers doing inunnamed mountains, fighting tribes forgotten by time and history, while thebastards that murdered 3000 Americans on 9/11 were protected in the countrynext door?" (p. 79).
West also gives examples of corrupt judges settinginsurgents free and informants who are murdered by the Taliban with their entirefamilies. The problem is clear: If informing on the Taliban means thatyou get murdered, while the Talib that you inform on will be released anyway,then why would anyone inform? A chilling greeting is given to a newAfghan district governor in the battleground of Marja, as West describes, thatillustrates this perfectly. He quotes an elder telling the governor (p. 216),"We are all Taliban here.… You represent a corrupt and murderousgovernment. I’ll give you a chance. But if you betray me, I’ll killyou and your entire family." How many Afghan officials, hearing this,will feel they can rely on the unctuous reassurances of Kabuli bureaucrats orthe protection of a finite American military presence?
What is West’s solution? He seems to be giving hisdefinitive word at the end of the book. "Our troops are not a Peace Corps; theyare fighters," he says on p. 254. "Let them fight, and let the Talibanfear." This picks up on a theme running through the book — the argumentthat U.S. forces arefighting with one hand behind their back because of the strict rules ofengagement imposed on them by the U.S. military’s counterinsurgencydoctrine.
But West’s concluding sentence, though sonorous,is unsound. West may be right that U.S. forces are disadvantaged bythe rules of engagement enforced by former International Security AssistanceForce (ISAF) commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal and loosened somewhat undercurrent ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus. West brings the message from thefront line, and he knows it better than most of us — certainly better thansomeone like me, who spent time in Afghanistan talking to Afghanpoliticians and not American soldiers.
But this cannot wholly explain the difficultiesnow being faced in Afghanistan.The Soviets operated with almost no restrictions on their anti-insurgenttactics and yet utterly failed to defeat the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s (astory chronicled, incidentally, in another recent book, Afgantsy by RodricBraithwaite).
A far better line of thought, which also runsthroughout this book, is the problem of Afghan dependency. "We’rebreeding an entitlement culture," says one of the U.S. soldiers West interviewed (p.234). West himself makes a very cogent case about halfway through the book(p. 112) that "we can liberate others from tyranny, but they must fight theirown battles to remain free." He adds: "Installing leaders in mansions in Kabul and handing them deeds of freedom and sovereigntywhile Americapaid the mortgage portended trouble. Eventually, both Afghans andAmericans became resentful."
Even when it comes to the performance of theAfghan military in the field, West argues that the entitlement culture may be acentral part of the problem, helping explain why, even now, no single Afghanmilitary unit is fullycombat-capable without U.S.help. "Another adviser pointed out that the units had a perverseincentive not to perform capably," West writes, because the advisors’ presencewould continue only for as long as the units were judged incapable of fightingalone, creating a disincentive to improve beyond a certain point. "They fearedthat [if judged capable] their advisers would then leave," West writes of theAfghan forces, "with inadequacies in fire support, logistics, and pay thencertain to follow." (p. 232.)
This is not to say that the Afghan Army’s problemscan all be explained so easily. Made up for the most part, in the areas thatWest visits, of non-Pashtuns — Tajiks and Uzbeks from the Afghan north, mainly– they sometimes display a powerful ability to lose hearts and minds.Take one Lieutenant Amir, a Tajik, for example: "The battles have made memad," West quotes him saying (p. 237). "When I see Pashtuns, my mind playstricks. I have your PTSD. Perhaps you Americans can give me apension."
As for the central government in Kabul, West notes a lack of seriousness aboutthe campaign against the Taliban. "[Afghan President Hamid] Karzaihas behaved as if the war is between the Americans and the Taliban, with theAfghan government a neutral party seeking a settlement," he observes on p. 251.
There is a connection between the fact that theforces on the front line and those dying in the fight with the Taliban, many of them Afghan, are mostly under American leadership, and the fact that the Afghanpolitical leadership feels no ownership of the fight. West’s solution isa good one, one that could be adopted almost immediately: Decrease U.S. forces to50,000 and then organize them primarily as an advisor task force, helpingAfghan battalions to perform on their own. The U.S. troops "would go into combatwith Afghan forces, provide the link with fire support, and have a voice in whogets promoted" (pp. 252-253).
In addition, West proposes that special operations forces would hunt down militant leaders, while helicopter assaults on militantsby U.S. Army Ranger-type units should continue along the border with Pakistan. Heenvisages, in fact, a scaled-down but much longer-term U.S. presence, arguing that "we must commit to stayin Afghanistanfor as long as it takes" (p. 254).
I agree with much of this; a situation in whichthe Afghan government and people feel that foreigners are waging a war againstthe Taliban on their soil, rather than that they are themselves confronting theTaliban, is a deeply unhealthy one for everyone involved. West’s proposalwould remedy this at least partially.
However, this solution is not perfect. Idoubt that even a scaled-down presence should be maintained for "as long as ittakes," unless "it" is a narrow and clearly defined goal. Obliteratingal Qaeda? Eliminating the Taliban? Can the United States ever be sure that they will not return, andif it cannot be sure then must it stay in Afghanistan forever? What ifother militant groups start up in Afghanistan, born of the tensionsbetween the international presence there and the Afghan government? Thereis clearly a point beyond which even a reduced American presence in Afghanistanbecomes more expensive than the objective can warrant.
I also think West is mistaken to dismiss the ideaof political negotiations as he seems to do in his conclusion and throughoutthe book. This is despite the somewhat odd appearance in the appendix of aletter that he sent in August 2010 to Gen. James Mattis, the head of U.S.Central Command (Centcom), in which West suggests that "negotiations aboutAfghanistan must include powerful members of Congress" (p. 280). Afghanownership, though, a major theme in West’s analysis, will have to mean thatAfghan leaders or commanders call the shots, literally and metaphorically, andif they want a negotiated settlement then they will get one. The United States may aswell get ahead of the game and be involved in that process, or remain involvedif such a process has already begun, as has been reported.
These quibbles aside, this is a really excellentbook, combining a fast-paced narrative with thoughtful and constructive ideas.It has genuine Afghan voices, which is all too rare in Western booksabout Afghanistan.Speaking from the perspective of the infantryman, it reminds us of thepowerful virtues of the military, and I recommend it without hesitation.
Gerard Russell is a research fellow onAfghanistan and Pakistan at the HarvardKennedy Schooland lived in Afghanistanfrom 2007 to 2009.