Sunday, March 13, 2011

Bing West, The Wrong War

Bing West is a former Marine infantry officer who is still kicking around combat zones at the age of 70. These days he travels as a reporter, and he has written three books about Iraq, two of which I have read, and now one about Afghanistan: The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan. In his books West always takes the point of view of the soldiers in the field, and he shares their complaints about lazy generals at headquarters, politicians, restrictive rules of engagement, and the other impediments put in the way of getting the job done. He is a competent writer and he really seems to know and understand Americans soldiers, and I have learned a lot from his books.

The Wrong War is full of exciting action and heaps admiration on most of the soldiers and marines West meets, but it is ultimately a very sad book. Anyone who has followed our recent wars known that the contemporary American military is a very impressive organization, and that our soldiers are very good at their jobs. West describes dozens of firefights and a few more extended battles, and in almost all the Americans are victorious. They outshoot, outhustle, outthink or outfight their enemies again and again, and if that fails they call in F-18s with laser-guided 500 pound bombs. They build roads and schools and hydroelectric plants. And yet, in the end, nothing is achieved. West tells several stories in which the American higher ups decide that a certain small valley must be taken and held. (One of these valleys, Kornegal, is shown above.) A company of Marines is dispatched, or sometimes just a squad. They patrol the valley, attempting to keep the "bad guys" out and befriend the village elders and other locals. They are shot at almost every day, sometimes with mortars or heavy machine guns. They kill numerous "bad guys" and a few civilians, build a road or a school, hang around in the valley for a year or even two. In the end, someone higher up decides that holding the valley is no longer important, and they leave. One town was taken and held for six months, West reports, just so it could vote in the Presidential election, eventually giving Hamid Karzai about ten times as many votes as it had inhabitants. After the election, the Americans left and the Taliban moved back in.

West does a fair amount of tough-guy posturing about the restrictive rules of engagement the Americans have to work under, but he has a point. In Afghanistan, the inhabitants of some valleys are hostile to the Americans from day one, whereas in the next valley over the people are friendly, or at least willing to be bribed. As West says, 50 years ago we would not have bothered with a lot of dangerous patrolling in the hostile valleys; we would have rounded up all the people we could catch and moved them to a "resettlement camp" or a distant city. This is how empires have acted since the Babylonians did it to the Jews. We are not willing to do this in Afghanistan --quite correctly, in my view. But if we are not willing to do what might be necessary to win the war, why are we fighting at all? Many of the rules that irritate American infantrymen, such as never shooting at mosques, are designed to keep the natives from hating us; the American command seems to fear a headline about American troops doing something un-Islamic much more than they fear their enemies. And this makes sense, given our circumstances. But if we are so worried that one stray bomb might turn our alleged allies against us, why are we fighting for them?

West's solution is to change our mission from fighting to supporting and training the Afghan Army, making them take over the work of killing their own countrymen and blowing up their own mosques. American infantry would pull out, or stay only to guard our air bases. I would prefer this to the war we are fighting now. I have to wonder, though, why we are fighting at all. People thought dire things would happen to America if we abandoned our friends in Vietnam, but instead the Cold War ended and now the place if full of American tourists and Koreans looking for wives. I hate the Taliban, but I do not believe that their return to power poses any threat to the US. They let Bin Laden attack us once, and in return we have killed thousands of their men and half their leadership, driven them into the mountains, and generally made the point that we are not to be trifled with. Why would they try that again? Assuming, that is, they actually return to power; now that Afghans know what Taliban rule is like, they may actually rally behind the government to fight against them. Who knows?

The more I read about our war in Afghanistan, the more certain I am that it is a terrible mistake. We are defending people who don't want us to defend them, and supporting a government that makes itself more hated by the people every day. We place our soldiers in dangerous and morally disturbing situations every day, wearing them down mentally and physically. We waste hundreds of billions of dollars. The goal we fight for is not worth the price we are paying. We should wash our hands of the Karzai government, wish our friends the best, and go home.

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