Bing West and the Afghanistan Conundrum
Copyright Vladimir Kagan March 11, 2014
Francis J. “Bing” West is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Middle East Institute, the Military Order of the Carabao, and the Infantry Order of St. Crispin, he appears frequently on C-SPAN and The News Hour on PBS.
At a private luncheon held at the Sail Fish Club in Palm Beach, 55 members of the Coudert Institute were treated to an earful of Bing West. He started his talk with four questions about Afghanistan:
What are the Consequences?
What’s the future in a larger context?
Bing is one tough honcho… It is good to understand that there is no such thing as an ex-Marine only a retired one! Bing is one thousand percent Marine… he earned his “wings” fighting in Vietnam and later as former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the Reagan Administration. He’s been embedded with the front-line troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a journalist and made 16 extended trips to Iraq and six to Afghanistan. West has written numerous books about military strategy, the fighting on the ground, his life with the troops on combat patrols and the counterinsurgency. He has stared down the barrel of insurgent fighter’s guns; he is no stranger to bullets whirling around his ears or death by improvised roadside mines IEDs.
West minces no words. He speaks from first-hand experience and is highly critical of our war efforts. “Misguided". West argued that the current doctrine of nation-building and winning hearts and minds by economic development is no way to win insurgent wars. This philosophy was inspired by our country’s success with our own democracy, that took us decades to produce. Conversely, we gave freedom and democracy to people who are still physically and mentally back in the 9th century.
West has grave reservations about the effects of our counterinsurgency strategy. He thinks that insurgencies proceed from the bottom up, and must be dealt with at the local level. He believes that warriors defeat warriors, not the well-meaning words of Diplomats. America's mistake in both Iraq and Afghanistan was to concede all control to appointed local authority. We invade as liberating saviors, wanting to democratize the natives and bring them out of their medieval slumber… We are the eternal do-gooders, “Let’s rid the country of its brutal dictators, give them democratically elected leaders.” Except that is not what they want… these countries are made up of hostile tribes, deeply-rooted religious hatred for each other, and religious beliefs foreign to our democratic philosophy. The few that are enlightened leave; most do not want our interference in their way of life.
it is mandatory for platoon leaders to meet with village leaders on a regular basis - looking at their faces, Bing points out that they do not appear to be our best friends...
West compared the conflict in Afghanistan with Napoleon’s defeat in Russia – (as depicted in Tolstoy's War & Peace). The Russian prince and his entourage were baffled by Napoleon’s attack; at Bordino; the prince decided that the spirit of nationalism - a shared belief in Mother Russia would defeat the invaders, So the Russian troops were allowed to sleep through the night. Napoleon on the other hand prep-talked his troops all through the night: First came the Generals, then the Colonels, next the captains and finally an awe-inspiring harangue to his soldiers… in Napoleon’s camp, there was no sleep that night… by morning they were exhausted and unfit for battle. The liaise fair Russians, refreshed by a good night’s sleep, routed Napoleon - it was the start of his defeat.
What is the point? President Bush believed in "top-down" leadership. He was gravely in error. The peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan did not share his vision.
Our expressed mission in Iraq was to rid the country of WMD and depose a tyrannical dictator … what we discovered was that there were no Weapons of Mass Destructions. We succeeded killing the hated Hassan Husain. In his place we empowered new leaders as corrupt and brutal as their predecessor. The country today is in a bitter conflict between the Shi’ite majority and the Sunni minority… Fallujah has once again become a bloody battleground of tribal warfare.
We invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for 9/11 determined to ferret out Al Qaeda and destroy Bin Laden… Afghanistan is a nation the size of Texas, consisting of 31 disparate tribes, each separated by 10,000 feet high mountains. This impenetrable countryside might be a mountain climber’s paradise, but not for an army in pursuit of an illusive enemy capable of disappearing into its jungle and impenetrable mountains…. Afghanistan has a 1500-mile porous border with Pakistan… That’s about the distance between New York and Florida… a perfect place to hide forever. We chased the “bastards” right up to the Pakistan border and stopped. (You don’t invade the borders of a neutral country)… Al Qaeda escaped un-opposed into the friendly territory of Pakistan. Unbeknownst to us, Al Qaeda had dug into tunnels and underground bunkers and Bin Laden was securely hidden. These tunnels proved indestructible by aerial bombardments… only penetrable on the ground with hand-to-hand combat, or annihilating the enemy one by one with our drones.
Al Qaeda gone, the new enemy was the Taliban: the brutal rulers that controlled Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not one homogenous country, it consist of 31 tribal fiefdoms not friendly to each other but co-exist in their 9th century world.
America’s armed forces boasts an unsurpassable Air Force, an efficient Navy and an Army trained to fight on the ground with tanks and other 21st Century ordinance… they were not prepared for the Afghans, where the battle must be fought on dirt roads, mountains and in villages of hostile natives… we were back to fighting with infantry troops in man to man combat; fighting an invisible enemy, not troops in uniforms but local farmers, poppy growers and store keepers. We were fighting people that hate us and do not see us as liberators but we are the occupiers of their land. Again we supported a leadership that is corrupt – corruption is endemic in these lands – you pay for every favor – every assist. Our military was not prepared to flight this kind of war…
Our arcane Generals indoctrinated our troops with the rules-of-engagement: A soldier on the ground is forbidden to shoot unless first shot at… every civilian kill is investigated by military lawyers and the soldier is under interrogation and considered guilty until proven innocent. Every platoon has a lawyer attached to it to assure adherence to these rules…West considers our Generals to be noble Napoleonic warriors fighting a partisan war where the enemy is everywhere; the enemy hidden amongst the native who universally hate us.
The Taliban knows that time and terrain will defeat the Americans… and so it has… President Obama’s scheduled withdrawal provided the Taliban with a time-table… time is on their side… wait for the American’s to leave and take over. . West believes that we over-reached. Eventually, the Afghan government and the Taliban will work out understandings that we cannot possibly comprehend. But we can detect and bomb any new Al Qaeda sanctuary, as we do in Pakistan and Yemen. In short, we fought for too long for too small a gain. In a few years, we will forget about Afghanistan.
In the military, the system rewards conformity: Generals work in a hierarchical chain-of-command. They advance to their exalted position by starting as low ranking officers; then climbing the ladder rank by rank with diligent adherence to the rules. Slowly, they arrive at their lofty status. (The process can take thirty-five years or more). This hierarchy is built on the buddy system… no one will criticize a higher-ranking officer; no general will contradict a colleague in arms… they have all been together too long; dependent for their promotions on the support of their fellow officers.
Below is a footnote written by Bing West for this article: (Some of the views expressed by Mr. West do not necessarily reflect those of the writer)
“Our next battleground will be decidedly different… Conflict is inevitable but we won’t know when or where. Our military must remain prepared but tailored to a new reality. We are slashing Defense as if there will not be another war. West believes Defense is the nation's insurance policy. It has taken about 6% of our wealth. Now we are about to cut it in a few years to 3%. Would we do that with our houses and our life insurance for our loved ones? Defense is not the cause or the solution of our huge debt; our selfishness and preposterous promises to the elderly - West notes that he is 74 - are the fault of our debt. Afghanistan was a dumb over reach by both Mr. Bush and Obama. But it is foolish to react by burying our heads in the sand and ignoring events like the 150,000 dead in Syria and Putin's sneers. If we choose to become weak - and we have chosen to do so - we will be pushed around. It will do us no good to complain that our two presidents tried to do too much in Afghanistan. Spare us in the future, because we made a mistake in the past. Want to bet the nation on that plea?”
An article in yesterday's New York Times illustates the vast difference between our culture and that of the Afghan's
'2 Star-Crossed Afghans Cling to Love, Even at Risk of Death'
BOOKS BY BING WEST
• Small Unit Action in Vietnam, Summer 1966. ISBN 0-405-00018-9.
• The Village. ISBN 0-7434-5757-9.
• The Pepperdogs: a Novel. ISBN 0-7434-5643-2.
• The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the US Marines. ISBN 0-553-38269-1.
• No True Glory: a Front-line Account of the Battle of Fallujah. ISBN 0-553-80402-2.
• The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq (Random House, 2008) ISBN 1-4000-6701-4
• The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan ISBN 1-4000-6873-8.
• Into the Fire: 2012