The Wrong War:
Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan
By Bing West
Random House, $28.00, 307pp.
Review by David Forsmark
When Bing West talks about war, wise people listen. When Bing West says an American war effort isn’t working, we better listen.
West is no reflexive anti-war critic. If anything, this Marine’s reflexes go the other way. This grandfather (and father of a Force Recon Marine), still can’t stay away from the action, spending more time within the sound of the guns than few others not still wearing the uniform.
There is possibly no one in the world more qualified than Bing West to write a sobering account of the failure of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. First, he was a legendary Marine in his own right in Vietnam. Second, he wrote what many consider THE book on counter-insurgency in Vietnam, The Village. Third, he has served his country at the strategic level besides being on the front lines (look up Operation Stingray sometime).
And fourth, and most importantly, West has consistently provided an objective look at military operations since 9/11, through books and articles that are neither blind cheerleading, nor fatalistic anti-war agitprop—and his reporting an analysis have proved spot on.
In The Way Up, West lauded the successful invasion of Iraq, but in No True Glory, he showed both the valor of the troops and the folly of much of the command structure in the battles for Fallujah. In The Strongest Tribe, West showed the value of counter-insurgency in Iraq, while hammering Donald Rumsfeld for a lack of leadership, Bush for siding too long with Bremer, but finally detailing Petraeus’s eventual success.
But when the author of The Village says that counter-insurgency is less successful in Afghanistan than Vietnam, that there is even less connection in remote Afghan villages to any central government or notion of one than there was in the darkest jungle in Indo-China, he speaks with authority.
“In Vietnam in the 1960s the set, the central government had well-established links connecting to the province and district levels. In Iraq after 2003, although the US military had to prop up district and provincial appointees for several years, thousands of educated and qualified Iraqis competed for the posts. Such pre-existing conditions for central governance were absent in Afghanistan.”
It’s not that West thinks we should abandon Afghanistan or should not have gone in the first place. The title The Wrong War refers to the kind of war we have chosen to fight in Afghanistan.
West chronicles how we have treated Afghanistan like welfare clients before welfare reform and given Afghans little incentive to do anything but hold their hands out. He gives credit where it’s due, pointing out there has been some success with training Afghan forces, but that the basic COIN doctrine of hearts and minds has utterly failed with idiotic incentives– and might not have worked even if perfectly executed.
“For years, soldiers like Cahir, had projected goodwill and brought resources. In return, the villagers were expected to reject the insurgents, or to risk death by informing against them. Instead, people like the mullah accepted the aid and remained neutral, waiting to see who would win on the field of battle. By giving away billions, we created a culture of entitlement rather than a rebellion against the radicals.
Preventing a terrorist takeover in Afghanistan is a sound goal. It would severely damage America’s credibility if the Taliban reseized Kabul. If chaos spread into Pakistan, terrorists might seize one of Pakistan’s nuclear bombs. Although the chances of that were slight, one bomb would incinerate tens of thousands of American civilians.
… Mistakenly, the generals agreed that defeating insurgency required our soldiers to be nation builders as well as war fighters.
Thus, our military became a gigantic Peace Corps, holding millions of shuras, drinking billions of cups of tea, and handing out billions of dollars for projects. Risk in battle was avoided because generals proclaimed that killing the enemy could not win the war. Senior officials fantasized that the war would be won by protecting and winning over the population. The tribes however, were determined to remain neutral, while the Afghan president tolerated corruption and ineffectiveness. The futile effort to build a democracy diverted the energies of our soldiers and weakened their martial spirit.”
But even nation building does not require the ridiculous extremes the generals have gone to with Rules of Engagement that make war fighting next to impossible. In story after story, West chronicles how soldiers and Marines are required to put themselves at a tactical disadvantage, or allow the enemy to escape, rather than risk—not guarantee, but risk—civilian casualties. In fact, the rules create an incentive to use human shields—and for the populace to cooperate with the enemy as it’s the only risk free strategy for them
“Under the rules of engagement, the insurgents were free to commute to work safely, often bringing women and children in the van. Some fighters, while talking on Icoms, stood in the open surrounded by women, knowing the Americans wouldn’t shoot. To attack a vehicle required two independent sources — say, a visual sighting of a weapon and a voice intercept from inside the van. This was practically impossible.”
“Afghanistan was singularly different from any prior insurgency. Far from employing sticks of coercion of any sort, the Western coalition offered only aid in sympathy to hostile villagers. The United States possessed precision firepower, with sensors that tracked any individual out-of-doors. Yet in 2010, less than 5% of aircraft sorties dropped a single bomb, despite over 100 reports of troops in contact daily. This forbearance was without historical precedent. The coalition imposed upon itself the strictest rules in the history of insurgent warfare.”
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