On the Bookshelf: The Wrong War by Bing West
by Bing West
As always, Bing West is insightful, informative and on-point. In The Wrong War Bing West tackles the conflict in Afghanistan, combining the dirt-level accounts of soldiers on the front lines, with high-minded analysis of the strategy that drives the doctrines that those soldiers are using. It is this synthesis that makes books by Bing West required reading.
Most of the The Wrong War deals with detailed accounts of operations and campaigns fought by in the rugged terrain of the valleys and passes of the Afghanistan / Pakistan border region. Bing West uses these accounts to illustrate the various interactions between the Afghan people, the Afghan government, the geography and the Western military forces; and how there is a fundamental disconnect between the situation on the ground, and the strategy that guides Western action in the country. His bottom line is that what we are fighting “the wrong war.”
Counterinsurgency doctrine, or rather the current flavor of counterinsurgency doctrine being used in Iraq and Afghanistan known as COIN, focuses on engaging the people and building their trust through development and security in order to convince them to reject insurgent forces and deny them the safe-havens they require in order to operate effectively. This “nation-building” strategy puts a premium on the COIN theory that “dollars are bullets” and that actual bullets should be rarely used in order to avoid civilian casualties that create political resistance and “accidental guerillas” among the Afghans and poor public relations back in the Western world.
To West this as a horrible strategy. As he sees it, what we have created in Afghanistan is not a nation that can stand on its own against the Taliban, but rather that we have propped up an exceedingly weak, corrupt, kleptocratic, government that enriches itself on Western developmental funds, and a people who see that development as an entitlement they can depend upon and don’t need to work to attain. Worse, through lack of oversight, control and poor policy, we have raised up this innately corrupt government as the preferred alternative to the Taliban. With that in mind, it is no wonder that the Afghan people are reluctant to buy what we are selling.
To West, the “Way Out” advertised in the subtitle of the book isn’t a literal exit from the conflict but rather a prescription for a re-think and realignment of policy and strategy. West argues the main reason we are receiving no real support from the Afghan people is that, despite all of the hand-outs and developmental projects, we aren’t showing them that we are ultimately going to be the winning side of the conflict. West points out that in Iraq the Sunni’s came to our side because they recognized we were The Strongest Tribe and he doesn’t expect the Afghan people to step up until they are convinced of the same eventuality of victory against the Taliban. Until that occurs they will continue to be noncommittal and hedge their bets. However, West also argues that the flaw in U.S. involvement is that we are physically and politically incapable of committing the forces and funding to make that sort of victory a reality, that we have handcuffed ourselves so severely in regards to Pakistan, the Afghan government and rules of engagement, that such a result isn’t possible. In other words, our policy in this conflict won’t let us be the strongest tribe. What then to do? West’s answer is to focus our energies on building up the Afghan security forces and partnering our Special Forces with them so that they can fulfill that role.