Sunday, March 6, 2011;
In a new book about the war in Afghanistan, distinguished military affairs writer Bing West argues that hazy objectives, bad political assumptions and a long strategic muddle have burned away whatever structure of success American grunts have built on the battlefield. In this telling, tactical excellence and the considerable courage of frontline troops are forever being rendered nugatory by failed leadership.
West spreads the blame widely but finds a failure of political culture at the heart of the problem. Endlessly engaged in euphemism and rhetorical triangulation, American generals and politicians insist on a story in which war isn't war and doesn't center on killing. Official doctrine instead declares that professional warriors are engaged in a nation-building strategy "to serve and secure the population," a focus that West argues has "transformed the military into a giant Peace Corps."
Few leaders are spared. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pronounces that "we can't kill our way to victory" in a counterinsurgency. West's judgment: "That was political drivel." He writes that "the senior ranks were determined to sell counterinsurgency as benevolent nation building," a politically motivated story that promised to minimize domestic opposition.
While he speaks poorly of most military leaders, West argues that the "political drivel" started at the top. Former President George W. Bush "proclaimed his messianic belief that all peoples desired freedom, regardless of the cultural context," and waded into war without a clear idea of what it would entail. As a result of this unrealistic organizing vision, the Bush administration "did not have a coherent strategy and was riven by internal dissension." The effective prosecution of a war requires that it be organized with achievable objectives that grow from realistic expectations. Here was the first in a long string of failures.
Not that a change of leadership helped, West adds, as President Obama carefully hedged his bets with a shifting and foggy series of objectives. "By declaring an ambiguous mission," West writes, "the president had positioned himself brilliantly as a politician. His Delphic pronouncements left open his options. That same uncertainty harmed the military mission."
While American leaders have dithered and fantasized, West charges, Afghan leaders have used the war as a business, enriching themselves through patronage and graft. But the counterinsurgency doctrine that has guided much of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan promotes stabilization for the purpose of establishing a legitimate government. "The American goal was to persuade Afghan tribes to support a centrally controlled, deeply corrupt democracy," West writes. This clash between doctrine and reality builds a trap that recurrently captures its makers.
The soldiers caught in the trap can see it clearly. West quotes a perceptive Army officer, Capt. Matt Golsteyn: "We're the insurgents here . . . and we're selling a poor product called the Kabul government."
This smart analysis of political fantasy and failure is not the heart of the book, however. As always, West's greatest strengths are his exceptional personal courage and his experienced perception of combat. He anchors a narrative of failed policy in a set of battlefield stories that explains events with unusual clarity. Particularly harrowing is West's account of a disastrous fight in the Konar province village of Ganjigal, in an operation called Dancing Goat 2 that left five Americans and nine soldiers of the Afghan National Army dead.
The battlefield sequences and West's examination of the politics of the war fit together well, showing the human price of the conflict while raising questions about what those costs have bought. Political failure in war threatens to waste human lives, and this book connects the failure and the damaged lives with careful effort.
Finally, West ends his descriptive and analytical narrative with prescription, in a chapter titled "The Way Out." Some of the solutions he offers here raise more questions than they answer, such as his observation that the availability of sanctuary in Pakistan makes it impossible to defeat an enemy that can leave Afghanistan to survive and regroup. This is true and widely acknowledged, but West joins the rest of us in having no particular answer to the dilemma.
Most important, though, West argues for Afghans to assume the lead in securing Afghanistan. The time has surely come to take that suggestion - and the book in which it appears - seriously.
Chris Bray is a former soldier.
THE WRONG WAR
Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan
By Bing West
Random House. 307 pp. $28