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A Hawk Reappraises the Afghan War

Bing West, a marine veteran and assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, has written extensively on American soldiers in various wars from the Vietnam War, in which he served, to ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His many books have chronicled the hard work and grim determination of US soldiers and have been typically supportive not only of the troops but also of the wars themselves. As its title more than suggests, this offering is very much a departure on the latter point.

West’s long experience gives him the ability to relate to and learn from the GIs, making his insights more penetrating than those of embedded journalists. He has gone out into foreboding places such as the Korengal Valley in Kunar province in the east, which the US withdrew from last year, and Marja in Helmand to the south, which is one of the three principal areas in the counterinsurgency program.

West presents detailed accounts of day-to-day life on combat bases out in the boonies, the nature of engagements with insurgents, the young men who compose US combat units today, the cohesion soldiers have built among each other, and the problems of distinguishing enemy forces from friendly or neutral farmers.

The first two-thirds of The Wrong War are dedicated to this Ernie Pyle-like exposition and were it not for the title, many readers would assume at that point of the book that they are reading another hortatory tract on the can-do spirit in the US armed forces and the need to get the job done. But West devotes the final third of the book to criticizing the way the war is proceeding and offering an alternative course – a way out.

In a break with the optimistic assessment of the counterinsurgency program he presented in The Wall Street Journal less than two years ago (July 28, 2009), West now concludes that the program is simply not working. The intervening period has given few signs of progress and he has rethought things.

His frame of reference (a highly useful one, in my view) is the Combined Action Platoons that he served in while in Vietnam, which placed a detachment of US soldiers into villages to provide security and help as best they could with day-to-day problems. The marines used these detachments to good effect and locals came forward to offer information and fight against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces.

But the generals disliked and abandoned the Combined Action Platoons. They did not understand counterinsurgency warfare, in large part because it conflicted with or at least did not fit well with doctrines stressing massive firepower and big operations. The generals reallocated the troops to conventional combat operations.

Hearts and minds, West now admits upon lengthy observation, are not being won in Afghanistan. He notes that far more civilian deaths are caused by insurgents than by US/ISAF troops (an evaluation supported by a recent UN study) but adds that locals blame all deaths on the presence of foreign troops. There would be no deaths if the “ferengis” weren’t present and it would be best if they left. This outlook is a serious obstacle to counterinsurgency and changing it is not in the offing.

Locals are not coming forward in appreciable numbers to provide useful intelligence or serve meaningfully in local militias. Councils held with local elders (shuras) are pointless exercises that amount to little more than sullen demands from locals for more money and materiel. Bringing in his social conservatism, West sees an “entitlement society” being built, not viable local networks to fight the insurgents.

Several other oft-noted problems plague the effort. The war is part counterinsurgency and part war of attrition – an excellent point worthy of greater exploration. US political and military leaders – a group with considerable turnover – have no clear idea of the goals. They alternately talk of defeating the Taliban outright or more limitedly, of diminishing them until they come to the bargaining table. Pakistan offers sanctuaries to the insurgents and vigorously opposes cross-border incursions. And Afghan president Ahmed Karzai, to whom the US is seeking to attach local loyalties, is irredeemably corrupt and aberrantly inconsistent.

Problems of the conduct of the war are compounded by the imminent fiscal crisis in the US. The US, he argues, is currently expending too much money and losing too many lives, with no apparent progress: “Being poorer, we have to fight smarter” (p. 252). His alternative is to shift US priorities from counterinsurgency to training the Afghan National Army (ANA) so that it can assume responsibility for fighting the war. This will allow the US to reduce its forces there from 150,000 to about 50,000 and greatly reduce its casualties and expenditures as well.

West’s alternative, which of course sounds much like the “Jaunissement” and “Vietnamization” of the French and Americans in Southeast Asia, respectively, is presented only cursorily and it will strike many as a deus ex machina. He does not address obvious problems attendant to shifting the load onto the ANA.

Afghanistan’s army is almost as corrupt as its governmental machinery and it is rent with ethnic antagonisms between the disproportionately Pashtun officer corps and the disproportionately non-Pashtun rank and file. Mistrust and resentments prevent the coalescence of unit cohesion and tactical ability. The ANA is quite far away from being ready to take up the load.

The significance of The Wrong War is not the viability of the alternative it presents but rather in the frank assessment of a failing strategy by a figure whose work has been generally supportive of US wars and whose influence in conservative America, from veteran societies to the Pentagon, is considerable. West’s book makes it clear that being ever faithful does not mean boundless loyalty to a motto or policy.

Ordinarily we might expect such a book to elicit discussion of the war in the American public. However, the majority of the American public have little interest in a war their sons and daughters take no part in and are content to adhere to desultory aphorisms of supporting the troops or hoping the war would just go away. Indeed, a recent survey found that only four percent of US news was devoted to the war in Afghanistan. Bing West has done his part to bring about debate and reappraisal, though the impact of his book might be felt more in elite circles than in the public at large.