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What It Will Take

by Mackubin Thomas Owens

The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, by Bing West (Random House, 336 pp., $28)

There is no more intrepid war correspondent today than Bing West. The author of two books on the Iraq War (and co-author of a third), West brings to the table a unique set of qualifications. On one hand, as an infantry veteran of Vietnam he possesses a rare empathy for those who bear the brunt of the fighting in our ongoing wars and an understanding of what they face on a daily basis. His affection and admiration for the “grunts” whose misery he has shared is clear.

On the other hand, as a former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, he is equally at home with the policymakers who establish the goals for our wars and the high-ranking officers who develop the military doctrine and strategy necessary to achieve those goals. He is also a strategist of note himself: He participated in a Marine Corps operation in Vietnam that is considered to have been a counterinsurgency success — the Combined Action Program (CAP), in which Marine rifle squads were combined with Vietnamese “popular forces” militias to deny sanctuary to the Viet Cong. His 1972 book The Village is a classic to be found in the library of anyone who takes counterinsurgency seriously. As a professor at the Naval War College in the late 1970s, he was instrumental in developing the concepts that evolved into the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy of the 1980s.

This is West’s first book on Afghanistan, and the message he delivers is not optimistic: The U.S. cannot afford to lose this war, but it cannot win the war the way it is currently being fought. The problem arises from a combination of two factors: over-ambitious goals — grounded in the belief on the part of the U.S. that it can midwife the creation of a democratic state in Afghanistan, with Hamid Karzai as president of a strong central government controlling 31 million uneducated tribesmen — and a faulty strategy.

The faulty strategy arises from the belief of U.S. military leaders that defeating the Taliban insurgency requires our soldiers to become “nation builders” in addition to war fighters, indeed that insurgencies cannot be won by killing the enemy. As a result, West contends, the U.S. military in Afghanistan has come to resemble a gigantic Peace Corps, with U.S. soldiers and Marines conducting uncounted “shuras” (meetings with village elders), drinking “billions of cups of tea,” and handing out billions of dollars for nation-building projects. The idea was that by protecting and winning over the population, we would turn the tribes against the Taliban, as we had turned the Sunni sheiks against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

But as West observes, “an insurgency . . . depends on local conditions, not upon pronouncements from on high,” and circumstances in Afghanistan differed considerably from those in Iraq. In Iraq, al-Qaeda was alien to the Sunni tribes. Having initially formed an alliance of convenience with al-Qaeda after the fall of Saddam, the Sunni sheiks rejected al-Qaeda when their objectives diverged, joining with “the strongest tribe,” the Americans, to drive the aliens from their midst.

In Afghanistan, our enemy, the Taliban, are Pashtuns — which is to say, members of the country’s largest ethnic group, dominating the eastern region from Kabul to Kandahar and across the border with Pakistan. As West once observed, for the Americans and the Kabul government to tell the Pashtuns that “we are here to protect you from the Taliban” is akin to the British telling Catholics in Ulster that they were there to protect them from the IRA. Because the tribes have calculated that the American troops will be leaving soon, that the central Afghan government is corrupt, predatory, and unable to protect them, and that the Taliban are here to stay, they have been determined to remain neutral.

West’s thesis is simple and straightforward: The current counterinsurgency approach cannot work, because Afghanistan is a “shattered society,” the enemy has a sanctuary in another country (Pakistan), and — as Pashtuns — they have allies among the very Afghan tribes we are trying to control.

The organization of The Wrong War may seem distracting to some readers. West, who made eight extended visits to Afghanistan in which he accompanied units on numerous patrols and combat operations, spends most of the book describing those operations. He devotes the first part of the book to operations in the north — Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, encompassing the Korengal Valley and the Pech River — and the second part to attempts to pacify Helmand Province in the south. For those seeking strategic insights, West’s lens seems to be relentlessly tactical. But the strategic issues come into focus as West describes the failure of the U.S. approach. As he remarks regarding operations in the Korengal Valley of northeast Afghanistan, the American abandonment of outposts there in 2010 was not a sign of “a clueless military.” It was, rather, something even more sobering: a “key to a diligent, thoughtful strategy” that was nonetheless wrong.

For West, the Korengal Valley is a metaphor for the war as a whole. It evokes the story of Sisyphus, whom the gods punished by forcing him endlessly to push a boulder to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back each time. Long before President Obama’s “surge” of troops into the country, the Americans in Afghanistan were adhering to a “new” counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. Unlike the “old” COIN approach employed in the Philippines in the 1940s, Malaya and Algeria in the 1950s, and Vietnam in the 1960s, which stressed actions against the enemy, the “new” COIN stressed services and protection of the population, while downgrading the importance of killing or capturing the enemy.

In the words of the 2006 COIN manual, “killing insurgents — while necessary, especially with respect to extremists — by itself cannot defeat an insurgency. . . . Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy and stops actively and passively supporting the insurgency.” Critics contend that the new COIN turns a means to defeating an insurgency — protection of the population — into an end, based on the belief that counterinsurgency constitutes a two-way social contract: protect the population and give them money for economic development and in return the population will turn against the insurgents. But the social contract underlying the new COIN doctrine does not fit the Afghan dynamic. As the old Texas saying goes, some people actually “need killin’.”

West argues that the “new counterinsurgency dogma confused the soldiers because it confused roles”:

The high command, beginning with [chairman of the joint chiefs of staff] Adm. [Mike] Mullen, had diminished the primacy of the military’s core competency — violence. Eliding the killing needed to defeat a fierce foe reinforced the growing instinct among senior commanders to eschew aggressiveness, due to fear of the political consequences of friendly or civilian casualties. Risk avoidance became the guiding light at the brigade level. Colonels insisted on detailed briefings before a single patrol could conduct a night ambush. This self-imposed restraint allowed the Taliban to control both its casualties and the pace and place of the fighting.

The goal of the Americans was to persuade Afghan tribes to support a “centrally controlled, deeply corrupt democracy.” Although our counterinsurgency doctrine was well-meaning, “we were unable to transpose it inside the habits of the mountain tribes. Tribal habits trumped the American offer of liberty.” In the case of the Korengal, this meant that instead of the Americans’ separating the people from the insurgents, the insurgents separated the people from the Americans.

The heroes of The Wrong War are the grunts and special forces who attempt to implement an approach to war that puts them at risk in pursuit of contradictory goals. As West shows, that they are able to do so in most instances is a tribute to their grit and professionalism.

But West takes to task political and senior military leaders alike, in both the Bush and Obama administrations, for their failure to produce a coherent strategy that is consistent with the dynamics of Afghanistan. Obfuscation, says West, is not guidance. While clearly an admirer of Gen. David Petraeus, who replaced Gen. Stanley McChrystal as overall commander of the effort in Afghanistan, West hints that Petraeus has become so invested in the COIN doctrine he successfully implemented in Iraq in 2007 that he is prone to overlook the shortcomings of that doctrine in the Afghan context.

As a solution to the problem the U.S. faces, West falls back on the program he helped to implement as a young officer in Vietnam: the CAP. He points to the success of an Afghan battalion in which he was embedded. The 400-man battalion was advised by a U.S. special-forces team and was fleshed out with a Marine Corps rifle platoon, an engineer detachment, and fire-support coordinators capable of calling in supporting mortars, artillery, and air strikes. This success suggests to West the creation of an advisory corps to enable the Afghan army to defeat the Taliban. He observes that the Taliban fear the U.S. advisers, who are able to “inspire loyalty and spirit among the Afghan soldiers.”

West argues that “we must commit to stay in Afghanistan for as long as it takes, while cutting back our conventional forces and building an adviser task force. In addition, Special Operations Forces must hunt down Islamist leaders, while helicopter assaults by Ranger-type units continue along the border with Pakistan. Neutralizing the enemy, not protecting the population, must be the main mission. The task of the advisers is to build and support Afghan security forces until they are as fierce in battle as the Taliban.” This is a long-term effort.

The Wrong War also asks an important question about civil-military relations: Why did it take three years, two administrations, and three commanding generals in country for the U.S. to finally get — in the words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009 — “its head into [the Afghan] conflict?” The broader problem was identified by military historian Richard Kohn, who called attention to the inability of the U.S. military to connect war to policy: “The excellence of the American military in operations, logistics, tactics, weaponry, and battle has been manifest for a generation or more. Not so with strategy.” He echoes the claim of Colin Gray: “All too often, there is a black hole where American strategy ought to reside.” The Wrong War seems to validate the claim of some that there is something inherently dysfunctional in current U.S. civil-military relations that accounts for this strategy deficit.

The U.S. must do what it has to in order to prevail in Afghanistan. In this book, West provides a roadmap. But, more important, U.S. policymakers must look at the failure of American civil-military relations to generate strategy, a failure that The Wrong War chronicles in distressing detail.

– Mr. Owens is professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is also the author of the newly published book U.S. Civil-Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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