In his new book, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, author Bing West, former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense, tries to pass as "innovative solutions" what are really nothing more than stale Pentagon paradigms that didn't work in Vietnam -- that West believes should supplant General David Petraeus's counterinsurgency doctrine. West's archaic solutions are highly unlikely to show anyone how to get out of Afghanistan; however, they do have quite the potential to pave a road to perpetual war.
While discussing the book on Thursday at a forum hosted by the World Affairs Council in Seattle, West would have been best served to relegate the dialogue's scope to the recycled military tactics he sees as some magic elixir. Unfortunately for West, during the question and answer session he exposed ethnic and cultural prejudices and a Western Christian worldview that has been the crux of the problem in the region since the days of British colonialism.
When asked how the U.S. could win, West encapsulated the essence of his strategy by declaring the only way to defeat the Taliban was to "put them down in the earth" -- a dictum unlikely to be incorporated into West Point counterinsurgency curriculum anytime soon.
West's plan, in more detail, consists of reducing troop levels, cutting off development aid to the Afghans and focusing solely on killing the Taliban. In contrast, West sees Petraeus's haughty cerebral strategy as soft because it's based on the unrealistic notion of winning the "hearts and minds" of the local populace, which West called nothing more than "political drivel" aimed at helping Obama and senior military brass package the war as benevolent nation-building, thereby enhancing its domestic palatability.
West's book has received rave reviews and he even won himself an appearance on the Colbert Show as he continues to beguile the mainstream media because central to his proposal is troop reduction, which everyone just loves. However, looking under the hood, West's strategy amounts to "more of the same".
West recommends that small teams of U.S. military advisers should train Afghanistan's National Security Forces (ANSF) to fight the Taliban -- although the U.S. is doing exactly that today. Yet, West himself admitted that the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's ethnic majority, refuse to fight for the central government. Hence, the U.S. -- whether they realize it or not -- by building a national army comprised mostly of northern minority groups are drawing the battle lines for a post-NATO civil war between the Afghan government and the Pashtuns.
West suggests that the U.S. should also leverage its Special Forces and advanced technology to perform targeted killings, including unmanned aerial vehicles -- death from above that West guaranteed will prevent terrorists from taking over Kabul. This is befuddling, because the last time I checked we were executing a record number of "targeted" killings through night raids and a drone program that many argue is creating more militants than it is obliterating.
West ridiculed NATO's restrictive rules of engagement because they prevent soldiers from doing their jobs, as he flipped through slides of his marine teams in action in Vietnam. He was resolute that the U.S. would win if they only followed a similar approach, which made me feel really stupid for not knowing that the United States had won the Vietnam War. His clamoring for Petraeus to loosen combat restrictions seems especially absurd in light of a recent NATO airstrike that killed nine children and the fact that civilian casualties have fueled the growth of the Taliban movement like no other factor.
West places much of the blame on the corrupt, ineffective Afghan government -- and rightly so. At one point in the discussion West referred to Afghan President Hamid Karzai as a "fruitcake", yet failed to mention how that fruitcake came to power.
One of the most under-reported facts in modern history, found in The Military Review which is published by the U.S. Army's own think tank, is how Bush diplomats ignored the will of the Afghans at the 2002 Loya Jirga in Kabul and installed Karzai as president, despite the fact that 75% of the delegates wanted to make King Zahir Shah head of state. In short, the U.S. took a Western-style, corrupt, over-centralized government -- fruitcake puppet and all -- and forced it down the collective throats of the Afghans.
It became quite uncomfortable when West tried to play armchair anthropologist as he explained why the Marshall Plan could never be implemented in Afghanistan as it was in Europe. Bing scoffed at the notion, reasoning that it worked in Europe because of "cultural commonalities" that exist among Western nations. The people of Afghanistan on the other hand were too undereducated and ill-equipped to handle it, which West ascribes as a "cultural" mismatch.
West also said Westerners will never be able to understand the Afghan tribal mindset because Afghanistan is a radical Islamic country hurtling as fast as it can headlong into the 10th century, while here we sit in America trying to help them -- a 21st century Christian nation. West asserted that once the U.S. leaves freedoms such as women's rights will go right out the window, intimating that such misogynist tendencies must be an indigenous trait.
A pillar of West's strategy is to cut off development aid because it instills a sense of "entitlement" within Afghans, which reminded me of the right-wing argument against the welfare state. West operates under the assumption that aforesaid "aid" actually reaches the people that need it the most. He is correct in saying aid has bred corruption, but Western corporate interests and private military contractors are the biggest culprits. They in fact invented a cult of "mafia networks" and have transferred wealth directly to Afghan gangsters, warlords and even the Taliban.
Most entertaining was West's palpable disgust at the Taliban's violent Islamic radical ideology. West must either suffer from amnesia or is willfully ignoring history - a history in which he played an integral role, because during the Reagan era he was part of the defense team that funded the exact same Islamic radicals he finds so abhorrent today.
The U.S. partnered with violent religious Islamists called the mujahideen in a holy war against the godless Soviets in the 1980s. Today, key leaders from that movement are now leaders of Taliban affiliates, including people like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. Where was West's moral outrage then, when the mujahideen were committing the exact same types of atrocities the Taliban inflict on the Afghan people today?
West's amnesia runs deeper still, because he acts as if the nation of Afghanistan did not exist before the 1970s. Because, once upon a time, Afghanistan experienced a forty-year run of peace, stability and social progress during the reign of King Zahir Shah, which ended in the 1970s when the U.S. and Soviets began using Afghanistan as a Cold War chessboard.
Afghan society had been in the midst of progressive reform and had been transforming itself into an enlightened, modern, and democratic society before three decades of foreign intervention. During this period, there were hardly any violent Islamic radicals, there were no suicide bombers and girls wore miniskirts at Kabul University.
Most surprisingly, West even falls short from a technical military standpoint as well, defying the truth that most successful counterinsurgencies throughout history have had two major elements in common: (1) the client government had local support and (2) enemy sanctuaries did not exist or were eliminated in bordering countries.
Counterinsurgency theorist Roger Trinquier once said that "the sine qua non of victory in modern warfare is the unconditional support of a population", and West has adeptly illustrated the Afghans lack of support for Kabul. West has also failed to provide a solution to Taliban safe havens in Pakistan. Hence, failing to meet these two conditions, it would be reasonable for one to conclude that this war is unwinnable. Yet, one wonders if West even cares, so long as his boys are putting Islamists "down in the earth".
Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald, authors of Crossing Zero: The Afpak War At The Turning Point of American Empire - a book I recommend to anyone interested in reading the "adult version" of Afghan history - relayed to me that the real problem is West's entire underlying mentality and what the "Wrong War" really means:
West still keeps alive the idea that we are in a WRONG war that can be turned into a RIGHT war. The reason we are not being asked on Colbert etc. is that in Crossing Zero we question the very nature of the use of force itself and its failure to accomplish anything, a question that a career military man cannot indulge in publicly in any event without risking self-annihilation.
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