Bing West is the author of the new book The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan. West is a combat vet himself, and the book is an on-the-scene chronicle of the war we’re in. The 70-year-old West compares himself to “the old football player invited to sit on the bench” and tells National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez that “the young grunts are stronger and smarter than we were, but we were better looking.”
West’s is an honest, gripping, important analysis of the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan – where we are and where we can be.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why do you persist in going into battle at the squad level?
BING WEST: To tell the story candidly. An insurgency is fought from the bottom up. Colonels and generals aren’t on the battlefields, and their views have gone through several filters.
LOPEZ: Why do you say our strategy has been muddled since 2001? Ten years is a long time.
WEST: Look at where we are: still mired down. We’ve had six generals in command in Afghanistan, and every one of them said he saw progress with his way of doing things.
LOPEZ: Why did you call your book “The Wrong War”?
WEST: After 9/11, we went into Afghanistan to destroy the terrorists. When Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda walked down the east side of the Tora Bora mountains into the tribal area of Pakistan, we stopped as if hitting a concrete wall. We then decided to build Afghanistan into a modern, democratic, economically vibrant nation. Our generals ordered our soldiers to be nation-builders — a giant Peace Corps in armor. Afghanistan was the wrong war for that misguided strategy.
LOPEZ: Why do you insist that winning hearts and minds is the wrong approach? After all, you wrote the Vietnam classic The Village — in which your squad won hearts and minds!
WEST: We fought the Viet Cong every night for months on end. We destroyed the enemy at a high cost — seven of 15 Marines killed — and then the village police were able to identify and arrest the Viet Cong secret cadre inside the village. The villagers ideologically were anti–Viet Cong and gradually became willing to fight. In Afghanistan, we have seen after ten years that the Pashtun tribes are unwilling to stand against the Taliban, who are their Pashtun relatives. The people would prefer that the Taliban not be charge, but they’re not willing to die for that belief. We cannot win the hearts of Islamic tribes hurtling headlong into the ninth century; we can rent their tolerance by giving them money.
LOPEZ: Isn’t it insulting to say the Afghans aren’t capable of gratitude?
WEST: How many families are grateful to the rich uncle for expensive Christmas gifts? Why do not those who receive so much from our system of transfer payments show gratitude? Why do the Iraqis not show gratitude for our sacrifices for them? President Bush was terribly wrong in declaring that the U.S. had an obligation to bring freedom and benefits to Iraq and Afghanistan.