The Way Out
A Review of The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan by Bing West
By Nikolaj Zemesarajs
I wanted to begin reading Bing West's work on the train on my way home for Spring Break. Before even having the chance to open the book, the person sitting next to me saw the book and told me that he was an Afghan War vet. For the entire six-hour ride back to Ohio, he explained what Afghanistan really was like. He said the current war is essentially an unwinnable hell for the troops there. The United States military is not structured to fight the unconventional wars we are fighting across the greater Middle East. Bing West reaches this same conclusion in The Wrong War. The Wrong War is not your traditional academic, Ivory Tower book about counter-insurgency (COIN) and war fighting in the Third World. Instead, Bing West uses his experiences over a two-year period in Afghanistan, where he was embedded in some of the most dangerous provinces and villages with US Marines, in order to comment and critique current COIN strategies employed by our armed forces.
"Winning hearts and minds" has been the most popular expression of what counter-insurgency entails in post-Vietnam US military strategy. In its simplest form, as Bing West describes, COIN is a combination of economic, political, and military tactics meant to achieve the end of stability and governance in the provinces and towns of a state. The path taken in Afghanistan predominately focuses on the economic and political means in order to drive provinces, villages, and civilian's towards the Kabul government and away from the influence of the Taliban and other extremist groups. Current COIN strategy limits the military means available to American troops by placing a large number of restrictions on when military action can and cannot occur, leaving the Taliban relatively unscathed throughout Afghanistan and their safe haven in northwest Pakistan. Instead of being war fighters, American troops are acting as a humanitarian force, serving the needs of corrupt village elders influenced strongly by the Taliban. It is within this framework that West explores how the war is being "fought," using case studies from the North and the South of the country to show just how widespread the problems for the United States are in a war that was declared "won" years ago. The wrong war, indeed.
The root of the problems we face in Afghanistan are, as Bing West explains, founded in geography. In the first part of the book, West is embedded in the infamous Korengal Valley that borders Pakistan- a region characterized by harsh mountains, thick vegetation, and a relatively permeable border with Pakistan. These three characteristics make it nearly impossible for the US military to decisively defeat the Taliban and win in Afghanistan. Multiple times a day, Taliban snipers pepper the valley from the relative safety of the mountains, unreachable by American forces on the ground in adequate time. The insurgents get their rounds off and melt into the countryside, across into their Pakistan safe-havens or into the complex cave systems that are part of many mountains in the region. Every day, insurgents, weapons, and money are funneled across this 1500-mile border with relative ease and are used against the United States and her NATO allies. This is one of the major problems with fighting counter-insurgencies, as our experiences in Vietnam and even Iraq have showed; it is impossible to completely shut off supply lines like in a conventional war Without a decisive defeat, the problems of COIN will haunt the United States for a great deal of time, especially given the geographic considerations there. This is not a statement on the effort put forth by American armed forces, but a matter of fact that large conventional armies cannot fight -insurgencies easily. Put the American military up against Russia or China and we easily win, yet put us up against a 3rd world army in treacherous geographic areas and we struggle greatly.
Geography also has a very important implication for the possibility for political unification in Afghanistan. Hundreds of different tribes and nations populate the countless valleys and mountain ranges, especially in the Northern Provinces of the country. Places like the Korengal have kept themselves in relative isolation since the times of Alexander the Great, developing their own culture, languages, and even ideas on governance. These variable geographies have a great impact on war fighting and in bringing provinces into national governing circles.
Within this geographical setting, West details in specifics the exact mission that our troops are assigned with in Afghanistan. Troops on the ground are not fighting much with guns but instead with money and developmental aid, engaging in a public relations operation meant to draw everyday Afghani civilians toward Kabul. The US Military is there, not to kill the Taliban, but to provide jobs and consult with village and provincial elders to find out what we can give them in order for their support. Everyday combat Marines have tea with locals, sort out land disputes, and recompense farmers for accidently shooting cows in the course of battle. The theory laid out in the US COIN Manual, and in the interactions Bing West has in his book with troops for ""fighting" in this way is quite simple. Theoritically, small actions, like installing water wells in a town, help convince villagers and town elders to turn in Taliban rebels and to join with the national Afghani political structure. The idea is that the benefits of a better and simpler life outweigh those of harboring Taliban fighters or withholding information on them.
In practice, West shows that this does not work as intended. "The elders are powerless, " Farris said, "We talk to them, and they check with the muj. We leave blankets and stuff for them outside the village. Sometimes they burn it, or give it to the muj. We offered to build a road and the villagers sent a delegation to Pakistan to petition Abdul Rahim, a Taliban head honcho. Rahim said no. So no road." (41). The Taliban is deeply engrained in the political life and structure of a large percentage of towns, especially in provinces near Pakistan where they have great influence.. As a result, even with the massive investment on the part of the US military towards winning the goodwill of the populace, there has been no change in their allegiance.
When it comes to military actions, the realm of action is very narrow for Marines and Army personnel on the ground in Afghanistan. West catalogs countless instances where troops see a Talibani fighter retreat into a school with an AK-47, and then see that same fighter leave within five minutes without being apprehended. Even when the identity of an insurgent is known, he cannot be captured or killed unless he is actually caught fighting allied troops. This great care when dealing with the enemy comes out of a response to the horrors of "Search and Destroy" in Vietnam, but the opposite extreme seems to have been taken in Afghanistan. War fighting, as West shows, is a last resort to be used in counter-insurgency operations across the provinces. How can you defeat the Taliban if you cannot root them out of the towns and provinces you are trying to bring closer to the Karzai government? The Afghan strategy seems flawed in practice. Our military is not structured to be a humanitarian force; our military is designed to go out and kill the enemy. West and myself included does not believe this is being done in Afghanistan.
In the end, West calls for what amounts to an "Afghanization" of the war, which dovetails greatly with arguments put forward by University of Chicago Political Scientists John Mearsheimer and Robert Pape. Afghani's should fight the Taliban, build new infrastructure, and unify the country around the central Kabul government, not the United States. Not only are we not equipped to fight insurgencies, but the effort in Afghanistan is also costing hundreds of billions of dollars that the US does not have. If there were much more tangible results, then maybe the cost would be justified. But, as West shows, great sums of money have been spent for very little if anything at all. The US should reduce its commitments in the region and focus on advising and instilling a winning spirit into the Afghan Army in hopes that they defeat the Taliban in a long drawn out fight. In no way does West just want to pick up and leave like many on the left have called for, because doing so would bring us back to the Afghanistan of September 10, 2001. He believes that our troops should not be used like the Peace Corps. "Let them fight, and let the Taliban fear." Our troops are fighting valiantly and bravely in Afghanistan, but are fighting the wrong war.