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Book review: 'The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan'

A former Marine gives an unsparing account of the war on the ground and why it won't succeed.

March 03, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As the title of Bing West's new book suggests, "The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan" argues that the U.S. military has been harnessed to a strategy that is bound to fail in what has become this country's longest war.

The strategy in question is counterinsurgency, which is based here on the notion that if the U.S. protects Afghan population centers and provides infrastructure projects — schools, roads, clinics — the Afghans, out of gratitude, will join the Americans in opposing the Taliban. The strategy has worked well in Iraq's Anbar province by convincing tribal leaders to switch sides, West asserts, but it does not fit Afghanistan. The Pashtuns are too splintered in their social structure, with too many tribes and local rivalries.

A former Marine and former assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, West has little use for the strategy as applied in Afghanistan or for its key proponents: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Gen. David H. Petraeus. In citing the strategy's limitations, West offers vivid accounts of the war from ground level and an unsparing analysis of the chances for U.S. success.

While prosecuting this 10-year conflict, West argues, the U.S. has created a culture of dependency and entitlement among the Afghan civilians as the risk-averse Afghan military prefers to let the U.S. Marines and soldiers do the fighting — and the dying. It doesn't help, West writes, when Gates gives yet another speech that seems to put a higher priority on "nation-building" than in confronting the enemy. Of one Gates speech, West says: "That was obfuscation, not guidance. No commander can carry out a mission that the secretary of defense cannot define."

West is not opposed to counterinsurgency in all places, at all times. In fact, his earlier book, "The Village," about Marines living with and fighting alongside Vietnamese villagers, is one of the seminal texts of counterinsurgency: It's required reading for Marines bound for Afghanistan. But as West sees it, in Afghanistan, politicians and "political generals" have mated counterinsurgency with nation-building, with disastrous results.

West's dour view is not shared by high-level military brass (including the top Marine general in Afghanistan), who see incremental progress and a possible tipping point not far in the future.

Still, it bears remembering that West is not an armchair analyst. The author of three well-regarded books about the Marines in Iraq, West is a dogged observer who has made numerous trips to the field in Afghanistan, particularly to Helmand province in the south and Kunar province in the east. At age 70, West may schmooze with officers, but he also goes on patrol with the grunts who speak candidly while dodging snipers and roadside bombs.

In both Helmand and Kunar, West found that U.S. efforts were undercut by the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. In the Garmsir district, where Marines out-fought the Taliban, West reports that the Karzai government replaced a competent local governor with a political crony and now will not authorize the hiring of enough police to protect the populace. "The Afghan government is the problem," says a Marine major.

Restrictive rules of engagement have left Marines and soldiers reluctant to engage the enemy, sapping battlefield morale, West writes. He mocks the daily news releases issued from NATO headquarters that note that U.S. and other coalition forces carried out another mission without firing their weapons. In effect, the American military is engaged in a war in which its rules of engagement won't allow it to kill the enemy, West argues. Rules restrict the U.S. in its pursuit of enemy hiding places, keep the U.S. from arresting suspected insurgents and require many operations to be reviewed by lawyers in advance.

In the bureaucracy that is the U.S. military, swearing allegiance to counterinsurgency is smart politics, West writes: "Advocacy of enlightened counterinsurgency sprouted into a social network that boosted the careers of military officers comfortable with academic theories."

West's solution to the U.S. problem in Afghanistan is a kind of hybrid of the military's strategy in the Vietnam War: Drop the military's involvement in Peace Corps-style projects, assign U.S. advisory groups to work with the Afghan military. Tell the latter that it's sink or swim — no more allowing the Americans to do their fighting and dying. As one Special Forces captain tells West: "Afghan forces will never take a lead role in fighting as long as the coalition is willing to bear the brunt."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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