Politics & Policy

True-Life Grit

Marine-to-Marine reporting from Bing West in Afghanistan

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 Villagein 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.

LOPEZ: You claim Afghans have adopted a “culture of entitlement”; they expect us to give them money and projects. Pres. Lyndon Johnson created a similar feeling of entitlement with his “War on Poverty” and “Great Society” programs. So is General Petraeus the Lyndon Johnson of Afghanistan?

WEST: General Petraeus is a skillful political general in the complimentary sense of the term. He knows how to brief different audiences and how to use different tools. However, as a whole, our Republican and Democratic policymakers and generals have endorsed as our military strategy Rousseau’s Social Contract. On the one hand, we Americans will provide the Afghans with some security and serve them billions of dollars in handouts and projects. On the other hand, the Pashtuns will reciprocate by embracing the Karzai government, by informing on the Taliban, and by rejecting their Islamist violence.

In ten years, that contract has not been honored. I have not seen one village that has stood up for itself the way my village of Bing Nghia in South Vietnam did. The Pashtuns are the prize for winning, not the means to win. Our strategy is misplaced. The Pashtuns are determined to remain neutral until they see whether the Afghan army or the Taliban will gain control after the Americans leave.

It is ironic that conservatives in the U.S. reject social-makeover programs at home and support a war strategy abroad based on the same philosophy.

LOPEZ: You argue for reducing our troop presence and increasing our advisers. Will that make a difference?

WEST: I don’t know. No one knows how this war will end. I’d say there’s a 10 percent chance of an outcome we can’t predict, just as we didn’t predict the uprisings across the Middle East; a 10 percent chance Karzai is out of office in the next few years; a 40 percent chance Karzai cuts a deal with the Taliban that leads to our exit (and to anger about why we fought and bled for ten years); and a 40 percent chance we muddle through.

Muddling through, in my judgment, means gradually pulling out most of our combat troops, leaving fewer than 30–40,000; cutting back our spending to under $30 billion; bulking up our advisers; focusing on destroying the enemy forces rather than protecting the neutral population; and, above all, insisting the Afghans fight their own war.

LOPEZ: Which Marine or soldier do you wish the readers could meet?

WEST: That’s like asking which of my grandchildren is the cutest or funniest. Only a nutcase would answer your question! I just love the grunts. They’re irreverent, caring, profane, hilarious, warm, mean, relentless killing machines. Read any chapter, and I hope you will laugh as well as shake your head in wonder at their determination and spirit. My next book is about a platoon: who they are, how they fight, and what happens to them when they return. I’m really interested in who will fight for us and why.

LOPEZ: Why do you so emphasize courage? Why do you think grit is so important? You seem to treasure that more than intelligence or personality or even achievement.

WEST: Aristotle wrote, “Courage is that quality that makes all other qualities possible.” That’s a profound statement when you reflect upon it.

LOPEZ: Did the performance of today’s soldiers and Marines surprise you?

WEST: No. At 70, I have to accept that I am “the Old Breed.” I’m like the old football player invited to sit on the bench. The young grunts are stronger and smarter than we were, but we were better looking.

LOPEZ: Has your opinion of the military changed?

WEST: Our senior officers should be careful about issuing directives that foster risk-aversion. I’m not impressed with Admiral Mullen, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, repeatedly claiming that the war won’t be won by killing or capturing the enemy. Really? Then why send 100,000 soldiers with rifles into Afghanistan? If a chief of police said crime reflected social ills and couldn’t be reduced by arresting the criminals, we’d think he was too politically correct.

On the other hand, the aerial surveillance by aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, and blimps is almost beyond comprehension. Those eyes in the sky are now linked to our squads on patrol. They are the reason I believe we can pull out many of our combat units and replace them with adviser units that can patrol with terrific air surveillance to protect them.

LOPEZ: In the chapters and in the videos on your website (bingwest.com) and in the e-book, there are near misses. You were pretty much in a mess up in Nuristan, and that rocket-propelled grenade almost hit you down south in Helmand. Do you worry about a foolish mistake?

WEST: I have spent about nine years on infantry battlefields in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I don’t think I take foolish chances, but I’ve been knocked about. That’s going to happen. It hurts when a young man like Sergeant Lindstrom will take care of me and then die. I can’t figure it out. I think God calls you when it’s time. I know that sounds absurd, but I don’t dwell on it. I don’t think in terms of danger. Death is the absence of explanation. On the battlefield, the good leaders never let their troops mull after a hard hit.

LOPEZ: Has Vietnam hurt us in Afghanistan?

WEST: The opposite. Vietnam has helped us. The entire country regretted how our troops were treated during and after Vietnam. So as a country, we rallied around them in Iraq and Afghanistan, and gave them good pay, terrific care, and love — regardless of what we felt about the wisdom of the wars. We’re a terrific country, and we instinctively understand we must nurture a warrior spirit.

LOPEZ: At the end of your book, you have ten rules for fighting an insurgency. Will the military heed them?

WEST: I’m only a writer, an observer, and a chronicler of the battles.

LOPEZ: What is the most important thing for our elected officials to know about the war?

WEST: We gave total sovereignty to the Karzai government. We have gone too far. It’s our forces and our money that are keeping the country together. We should insist on joint promotion boards for police and army officials. Use our political leverage; don’t let the erratic President Karzai push us around.

LOPEZ: What is the most important thing for every voter to know about the war?

WEST: There will be no sudden turnaround, as there was in 2007 in Iraq. There’s no easy or quick way out.

LOPEZ: What is the mood of our troops in Afghanistan?

WEST: Based on reenlistment rates, the mood is good. On the frontlines, morale depends upon leadership and upon the battle conditions. What saps morale are hidden mines, because the unit does not have a target to strike back against.

LOPEZ: Is the culture of Afghanistan deeply Islamic, with trends that can be interpreted as anti-Western — for instance, intolerance of Christianity?

WEST: I don’t know.

LOPEZ: What about the larger regional context — the global War on Terror?

WEST: The Obama administration has banned the term. The administration’s instincts are squishy. The CIA and our special forces seem to be doing a good job globally. We have to trim back in Afghanistan. Too many eggs in one basket. Surely we’re going to do something against the Somali pirates, and surely we are going to continue leasing civilian ferries to pull our citizens out of places such as Libya, while the United Kingdom sends in its warships.

LOPEZ: When will conditions be good enough for us to leave?

WEST: In my book, I explain the fighting in the north and south, and recommend that we start pulling our forces out now, while increasing the advisers. I show how an adviser unit held its own in Marjah, a tough neighborhood. I hope the reader will see, based on the nature of the enemy and the battles described, that we can successfully fight this war with fewer forces, while transferring the bulk of the burden to the Afghan soldiers.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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