The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, And the Way Out of Afghanistan
Reviewed by Geoffrey Sherwood
When a United States president's wartime strategy comes under fire, his supporters often deflect critics by asserting that the president is prudently following the advice of his generals. But as Bing West shows in his latest book, The Wrong War: Grit and Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, it was president
George W Bush who embarked on a nation-building effort in Afghanistan, and Barack Obama who has followed suit.
The generals meekly went along for the ride. They gamely authored, or resuscitated, a series of ever-changing, failed strategies to achieve "victory" on the military and nation-building fronts. Since 2006, these strategies have been variations on a counter-insurgency doctrine to protect populations and provide services first, while focusing only secondarily on the enemy.
Nothing, according to West, has worked. Afghanistan has diminished the military careers and grandiose strategies of American generals even more efficiently than it has bogged down the American military machine.
West, a US Marine Corps combat veteran, and former assistant secretary of defense, has written a fascinating, disturbing account of the ill-conceived American war-making and nation-building effort in Afghanistan. He severely takes to task the US military leadership for not resisting the Bush administration when it added nation-building to the mandate of US soldiers, in a futile attempt to build democracy in the backward, tribal society that is Afghanistan.
This double-duty strained the military's resources, forced soldiers into responsibilities beyond their expertise, and damaged their fighting spirit. After seven years of floundering nation-building, Bush left office with the Taliban reinvigorated and spreading over vast areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama has done no better. In December 2009 he announced that he would send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. To West, Obama was sending hopelessly mixed messages: the surge went hand-in-hand with a commitment to begin reducing troop levels in 18 months.
Although West's primary objective is to describe why US strategies in Afghanistan have failed, and to prescribe a remedy, the brunt of the book focuses on how the various strategies have played out at the tactical level. This is where West shows his strength as a boots-on-the-ground chronicler of the daily grind, and occasional mayhem, of life at the company and platoon level.
His disdain for some military leaders, like former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen (he characterizes Mullen's quote "we can't kill our way to victory" as "political drivel", and calls him "the master of incomprehensible syntax"), is matched by a personal fondness and admiration for the combat soldiers, whose professionalism and resilience are the "Grit" in the book's title.
West's vivid account of the futile, years-long American effort to secure the Korengal and Waigal valleys in northeastern Afghanistan's Kunar province, and to win over the support of the locals, is a microcosm of much that has gone wrong in Afghanistan.
The valleys are close to the border with Pakistan, the critical safe haven for the Taliban, who can sneak into Afghanistan, take potshots at US military outposts from the high ground, then skedaddle back over the border, knowing that US soldiers are forbidden from pursuing them into Pakistan.
West quotes Lieutenant Eric Malmstrom, a platoon leader: "I patrolled there [Waigal Valley] constantly. It was like watching a Greek tragedy play out. We went into the Waigal to help where there was no government. But our presence drew in outside fighters and the local people got hurt. When I left the Waigal after a year, the people had turned cold. They wanted us out of their lives."
The lukewarm, sometimes outright hostile, attitude of the Afghan people and their government toward the American war in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other insurgents, has been one of the primary reasons for the failure of US strategy, by West's reckoning.
The Korengal and Waigal valleys are capillaries of the Pech River Valley, where the Afghanistan government prevented the Americans from organizing local militias to defend themselves against insurgents and Pakistanis infiltrating Afghanistan.
The lack of a central government presence in much of rural Afghanistan has made it very difficult for the Americans to convince locals to throw in their lot with them. The locals see no evidence that either the Americans, or the Afghanistan government, will maintain a long-term presence that can protect them from the insurgents.
They know the price to be paid for cooperating with the US military can be steep. West recounts an incident where an 11-year-old boy showed US Marines a path that was occasionally used by the Taliban. A few weeks later, the Taliban executed the boy and his entire family.
Throughout the war, the majority of civilian casualties have been caused by the insurgents, which is remarkable considering how few insurgents there are relative to American and allied forces. It is a testament to their brutality. Every Afghan understands how the Taliban can easily terrorize a local population, which helps explain why there is no groundswell of support for them, even among Pashtuns, which comprise the vast majority of the Taliban.
West shows a good understanding of the complexity of the insurgency. He warns that one should not equate the insurgency only with the "Taliban". While Taliban advocates are the core of the rebellion, anti-infidel and anti-foreigner sentiment motivates the groups run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Sirajuddin Haqqani in the northern provinces.
West refers to the Taliban as an "evil" enemy, but also gives them grudging respect for their dedication and fighting ability, both of which are far superior to that of the "askars", the Afghan soldiers who fight under the tutelage of the US military.
The American combat soldiers in Afghanistan, according to West, are exemplary, highly skilled and disciplined. There are exceptions, but they are weeded out quickly by their peers, who don't want their backs protected by incompetent or whining soldiers. One of the bitterest complaints of the soldiers is that their hands have been tied by risk-averse Washington politicians and generals.
Most are forced to wear body armor and lug around so much gear that it is nearly impossible to engage in hot pursuit of a far nimbler enemy. And strict rules of engagement prohibit US soldiers from opening fire on structures when it is known that civilians are inside.
Firing on mosques is also forbidden. The Taliban know all of these rules from experience, and make good use of them. Hiding behind women and children is a cowardly way to fight, but it is also a pragmatic way to offset superior American fighting skill and firepower.
In addition to strategic and tactical problems of the US's own making, West describes a number of seemingly insurmountable problems that come with the Afghanistan-Pakistan territory: The cronyism and corruption of the Hamid Karzai government; Pakistan as a permanent safe haven for the insurgents; the Afghan military's inability to recruit a meaningful number of Pashtuns; and the perception in many parts of Afghanistan that the Americans and the Kabul government are invaders.
West does not shy from describing all these daunting problems in stark terms. Which leads to the only puzzling part of his book - his prescription for victory.
West devotes nearly the entire book to describing the many reasons for the failure of America's military and nation-building strategies in Afghanistan, and then in a mere three pages he describes his strategy for achieving victory. It's brevity alone betrays its fundamental flaw - it doesn't address the majority of the daunting problems that he has painstakingly described, not the least of which are Pakistan as a safe haven (earlier in the book he says that the war cannot be won as long as the Taliban can use Pakistan as a redoubt), and the endemic corruption and unpopularity of the Kabul government.
West's strategy is simply to continue building up the Afghan military in the hope that they can one day take responsibility for the brunt of the counter-insurgency. This, it seems obvious, will not result in any "victory", no matter how loosely defined. It is a prescription for interminably extending a war that was doomed at the outset by hopelessly ambitious, elusive objectives.
Although West's idea for a "way out of Afghanistan" is very disappointing, the rest of the book is informative and superbly written. West does a marvelous job of giving voice to the combat soldiers, some of whom are always among the first to sense the tragic nature of the wars they fight, whether in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.
It brings to mind the well-known quote from British statesman Winston Churchill (though he had no premonition of America's growing obsession with military force): "We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities." Sadly, America has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of military possibilities.
The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan by Bing West. New York: Random House, 2011. ISBN-10: 1400068738. Price US$28, 336 pages.
Geoffrey Sherwood is a veteran of the US Air Force, a Chinese-Mandarin linguist and a Vice President in the New York branch of The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ.
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