The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan
Bing West, February 2012, 978-0812980905
“Americans are not very good at nation-building and not very good colonialists,” bestselling author Francis Fukuyama commented to Guardian reporter Stephen Moss in 2011. George W. Bush shared the sentiment: “I’m worried about an opponent who uses nation-building and the military in the same sentence,” he famously repeated in campaign speeches in 2000. Bush had accused the Clinton Administration of overextending the U.S. military and neglecting to prioritize strategic interests by getting mired in places like Haiti, Somalia, and Kosovo.
Apparently Bush—and after him, Barack Obama—changed their minds about nation-building when they became presidents. Thirteen years later, the U.S. economy has sunk deep into unpayable debt after the U.S. military’s expensive nation-building operations in Afghanistan (2001-2013) and Iraq (2003-2011). Since 2001, Washington has spent about $721 billion, or approximately $1 million per soldier per year. Total U.S. national debt grew from $5.8 trillion in 2001 to $17 trillion in October 2013. During Obama’s first term, in 2009, the Pentagon launched a surge of 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, making the total U.S. troop level to 101,000 at its peak, and bringing total NATO coalition forces to about 140,000 in 2011.
These costs and mixed results have again soured American views of nation-building. In his book The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, Bing West provides a granular, anecdotal view of the shortcomings of U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. West, who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, is the author of several books, including The Village (2003), No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah (2006), and The Strongest Tribe (2009). He was embedded from 2008 to 2010 with military units in Afghan districts such as Garmsir, Marja, and Nawa in Helmand Province, Barge Matal in Nuristan, and the Korengal Valley in Kunar.
His basic argument is fairly typical of military personnel: the military took on too many roles and dissipated its energies. It had technologies at its disposal that the Soviets never had— cell phones, the internet, drones, digital transceivers and cameras, and global positioning systems—but at times failed to take full advantage of them. Numerous rules of engagement hampered military maneuvers, such as the ban on entering mosques, even during firefights. West believes the military should do what it is traditionally trained to do; it should not be used like the U.S. Peace Corps. U.S. COIN strategy, as articulated in the 2006 US Army and Marine Corps manual, was “to secure and serve the population,” (e.g. training the army, building roads, bridges, and schools) in the hope that the population would reject the insurgents in return (p. 249). However, this strategy is inconsistent with Islamic values, West argues. Derived from Rousseau’s social contract, COIN strategy assumes rationality and material desires. As West points out, Afghan villages have in fact shunned partnering with Americans in order to avoid the violent skirmishes with the Taliban that inevitably follow (p. 248).
Moreover, West argues that COIN strategy does not consider what to do when the population remains neutral, despite the good will and works of the foreign occupier. If devout Muslims see Westerners basically as infidels and occupiers, then no material largesse will alter their opinion. Instead, nation-building projects have bred a “culture of entitlement,” West argues (p. 234). This author recounts one incident in which Marines offered to pay each Afghan villager $9 a day to clean a canal that was choked with weeds, thus drying up their fields. The villagers refused, insisting instead that the Marines give them ten men to do the work (p. 234).
Several other ironies emerge. Aside from materialism, COIN strategy is predicated on close contact with the people. Infantry (“grunts”) have the closest contact with the people, yet comprise less than ten percent of the U.S. Army and Marines (p. 169). Moreover, in the face of increased attacks by cheap “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs), the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars on armored vehicles that have further limited interaction with the people. “It’s hard to talk through twelve inches of bulletproof glass,” observes West (175). He also notes the irony that, while U.S. Democrats oppose the war in Afghanistan because it diverts funds from domestic entitlement programs, Republicans generally support this war, though it is based on the same types of entitlements that they oppose in their own country (p. 250). Not only has the COIN strategy implemented in Afghanistan over the past twelve years drained the treasury with little or no payoff, it has also obscured and shifted overall war objectives, resulting in “mission creep.”
West also illustrates in his book that, while it is true that Americans in the twenty-first century had more advanced technologies than the Soviets did in the 1980s, U.S. military personnel did not always exploit them fully, relying instead on outdated standard operating procedures. For example, according to West, local Afghan interpreters with rudimentary English skills and questionable loyalty were hired, when patrol leaders—via Skype on their mobile phones—could have hired U.S.-based American-Afghan citizens who were fluent in the tribal dialects and had access to real-time satellite intelligence. “Every Afghan farmer could have been greeted by a friendly Pashto voice over a headset, while the patrol leader on another headset asked questions,” writes West (p. 176).
Moreover, the battalions neglected to use handheld devices that could store data on each military-aged male (MAM). If a major obstacle in fighting counterinsurgency wars is the difficulty in distinguishing insurgents from the civilian population, census-taking would have overcome it. It would be tantamount to “putting a uniform on every insurgent” (171). During the Algerian War (1954-1962), every house was numbered, and every household was given a family census booklet. West, who fought in Vietnam, recalls that “census grievance teams” were sent to every hamlet, and that the effort took two years (175). The U.S.-led coalition has been in Afghanistan for twelve years now, but no systematic biometric and census data has been collected. Apparently it takes too much time: fifteen minutes to enter the data for one person in these “clunky” devices. Also, the acronym MAM was considered too demeaning to the male population (171). Hence, while advanced technologies are an advantage, they have not enabled the U.S.-led coalition to subdue Afghan fighters any more quickly than the Soviets did.
Every book has its flaws. West provides useful details as a boots-on-the-ground eyewitness, but his book is weak in overall strategic analysis. He writes at the tactical level, criticizing higher-level civilian and military leaders, based on interviews only with the “grunts” in the field. Interviews with people from the high command would have bolstered his study. Nevertheless, West’s book would enhance syllabi for courses in international security studies and Central Asian politics. Books that cover other political aspects of the war should also be consulted, such as those written by Peter Dale Scott, Drugs, Oil, and War: The United States in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Indochina (2003), by Ahmed Rashid (e.g. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, 2000; Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, 2008), and by Steve Coll (Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, 2004; and The Bin Ladens: Oil, Money, Terrorism and the Secret Saudi World, 2009). Sooner or later, circumstances will force a bankrupt nation to cease costly nation-building far from its own borders.