A Conversation with Bing West, Author of The Wrong War What is this book about?
I bring the reader onto the toughest battlefields in order to show what the war really is – a series of short, sharp clashes between our soldiers and the Taliban. This is hard stuff, and our rules of engagement are too strict. It’s nonsense to say wars aren’t won by killing and bloodshed. That’s how the terrorists seized power, and they have to be destroyed. Our troops understand this; our leaders do not. What is our goal in Afghanistan? Are we fighting to win?
In 2009, President Obama said the goal was to “defeat the Taliban.” In 2011, he downgraded the goal to “preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people.” He no longer intends to win by defeating our enemy. Whether we settle for a tie by negotiations remains to be seen. What does your title, The Wrong War, mean?
Afghanistan was the wrong war for our strategy of benevolent counterinsurgency. Our strategy has been to give money and some protection to the Pashtun tribes in order to win over their hearts and minds. In return, the Pashtuns were expected to stand against the Taliban who were, in fact, their stronger relatives.
This strategy has failed. The Pashtuns have not rejected the Taliban. I bring the reader onto the battlefields in the mountains of the north and the poppy fields of the south to show why. Do our troops care about politics, or do they fight for one another?
They fight for one another. But -- they volunteered to be grunts before they ever met one another. They wanted the adventure - the chance to prove themselves in battle- and to serve their country.
But our generals have to set achievable goals. Otherwise grunts become cynical. Few of our grunts now believe we are winning hearts and minds, as our generals claim. Does Pakistan control the outcome in Afghanistan?
Pakistan provides a vast sanctuary, and refuses to arrest the top Taliban leaders. Pakistan lacks the resources and determination to move against the sanctuaries. Afghanistan can remain intact only by developing a strong army to fight along the Pak border. What has been the main mistake in the war?
We’re paying the bills, taking casualties and doing the fighting. Yet we ceded total sovereign control to an untrustworthy Karzai,. Our greatest mistake was not keeping some control over the finances and the promotions of the Afghan security forces. Six US generals have failed in Afghanistan. Why?
Either we had six incompetents, or we have to acknowledge that very, very few men speak truth to power. On the one hand, our military was too strong to lose. On the other hand, Afghanistan was so vast and so chaotic that our mission of nation-building required three times the number of troops we committed. Our generals knew this. Yet Presidents Bush and Obama did not know. What is the book’s basic message?
Our troops are trying to protect and provide projects to Pashtun tribes that are hurtling headlong into the 10th Century. Our strategy is kind and liberal, but it will take another ten years and one trillion dollars to nudge Afghanistan into a progressive, democratic, economically viable state.
We don’t have that time. Our vital interest is to prevent a takeover of Kabul by the Taliban radicals. We can prevent this by reducing our troop levels and placing the Afghan soldiers in the lead, with American advisers. That is why my book brings the readers into combat with both British and American adviser teams. We must change what we are doing.
Starred Review. West (The Strongest Tribe), a former Marine combat veteran and assistant secretary of defense under Reagan, boldly assesses the prospects for U.S. success in Afghanistan in this provocative analysis. The author made eight trips to Afghanistan to witness the Obama administration's counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes "winning over the population" ("Thus our military became a gigantic Peace Corps... drinking billions of cups of tea, and handing out billions of dollars"). Embedded with frontline troops in Afghanistan's most violent provinces, West eloquently captures their tireless efforts to carry out an "amorphous" mission. The lack of "understandable policy" confused the soldiers, encouraged risk avoidance among commanders, and "created a culture of entitlement" instead of cooperation among the Afghans who are content to accept aid and remain neutral as they wait to see whether the Americans or the insurgents will take ultimate control. Concluding that we can't win with this strategy but that withdrawal would be "disastrous," the author proposes that the U.S. immediately "transition to an adviser corps" whose primary task would be to continue training Afghan forces to defeat the Taliban. West's vivid reporting and incisive analysis provides a sober assessment of the present situation and prescribes a way for the Afghans to "win their own war." (Feb.)
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