Small Wars Journal

Bing West on The Colbert Report



Tue, 09/06/2011 - 7:41am

Thanks for posting the interview here:)
However I'm not really impressed by anything he said. I totally agree with the majority of people commented on this video. He's a dangerous man for sure. I guess I should perform <a href="">YouTube mp3</a> conversion of this video and discuss the interview with my collaboratives at work.

I agree with your comments about bias and the general inability to get an understanding for the ground truth. Having been an ODA commander, I also agree with your comments about what ODAs can and are doing. Unfortunately, much of that information collected about the micro-cleavages (with a nod to Kalyvas) that guide most of the violence on the ground does not impact the understanding of what is going on. I have seen Shia side with Sunnis, Shia side with Kurds against Sunnis, Kurds side with Shias against Sunnis, Sunnis side with Shia against Kurds, and about every other combination possible. The macro-labels tend to lose their usefullness the more you drill down through the problem. Having been able to see one area over a 3 year period, I was aware that we had only scratched the surface of the "game" being played for high stakes by the Iraqis. My concern is that even for the ODAs doing their best to gather this information, we still must rely on individual initiative and conscientiousness to work through our pre-existing paradigms.

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 02/27/2011 - 1:06pm

COL Jones:

Could we not view this somewhat differently? For example:

a. The United States, post-the Cold War, HAS consistently employed its influence to encourage governments of the region to transition their societies more toward a Western way of life.

b. Based on such things as the Iranian Revolution, however, (a conservative and popular backlash against such an evolution), all sides have been cautious about what pace to marshall, and to march, this effort.

c. Mr. bin Laden, like the Ayatollah Khomeini before him, being considered a champion of such conservative and popular causes/interests.

Bill M.

Sun, 02/27/2011 - 12:35am


I think it might be helpful if you revisit France's COIN efforts in Algeria. Galula was simply one "small" player (with a gift for narrative). The French killed many more insurgents percentage wise than we have in Afghanistan, and it was the suppression of the insurgency through overwhelming violence (often unskilled application of violence) that broke the insurgency's back. Bing can speak for himself, but I don't hear him tossing the all lessons of the past, instead what I hear him saying is we shouldn't be doing COIN in Afghanistan. That is a significant difference from what you're claiming.


Why should we help the governments in the Middle East maintain stability? That may be good for us short term, but does it benefit the people there? Instability is how societies progress, while stability equates to stagnation. The revolutions in the Middle East are no different than the revolutions we witnessed in Europe and in our own nation. As "outsiders" we're all a little apprehensive about the day after, while the locals are looking forward to the day after. If we intervene in any way (political, information, military, etc.) to promote the status quo then we'll be pushing against the wave of change only because we're scared, not because it is the right thing to do.

Bob's World

Sat, 02/26/2011 - 6:43pm


No, I think that the people of the Middle East, like people everywhere, celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War with hope. They they then watched as Europe evolved in siginificant ways to reflect the end of the Soviet threat. Meanwhile, they saw no such adjustments locally. If anything, the US upped the ante in the Middle East.

Desert Storm shocked the US. We realized that the Middle East too was in play, and responded by increasing the degree of our presence to sustain what we had set in place. Those who were hoping for the opposite became a ready audiance for those like Mr. bin Laden who came with messages of a Middle East free from Western Influence.

Personally, I think Western Influence, particularly US influence, can be a very positive thing for the Middle East. It certainly was in the 1800s and early 1900s when we brought advances in education and medicene to the region, primarily through missionaries who were denied license to preach, so opted for other means to spread their influence. Our government was also constrained by the Ottomans and those Euros who were there before us. As WWII came to a close we cranked up the voltage on US influence. Backing the Saudis, recognizing Israel, installing the Shah of Iran,etc.

Now we should be employing our influence to encourage the governments of the region to avoid revolution, and to engage their popualces and seek reasonable evolutions instead. We should have began this 20 years ago, but got cocky. We do better when we take a more humble approach. It's one thing to be able to kick everyone elses ass. It's another thing to actually do so.

Bill C. (not verified)

Sat, 02/26/2011 - 6:33pm


This "unseat the status quo -- by expanding the franchise of freedom" initiatives -- also going a long way in helping us to understand such things as our "freedom-centric" approaches to today's unconventional wars (population-centric COIN; WOG approach)?

Bill C. (not verified)

Sat, 02/26/2011 - 6:19pm

COL Jones: At your Feb 23rd 1:17 PM comment above, you said:

"The current instability in North Africa is due primarily to our efforts to sustain a status quo that we carefully shaped during the Cold War -- long after the cold War was over. The GWOT has been primarily our sticking our finger in the dike, now the dike has finally broken."

Sir: Should we not see this somewhat differently; more along these lines:

The current instability in North Africa, and elsewhere, is due primarily to our post-Cold War strategy and efforts, which have been designed and implemented more to shake up and overcome the status quo (in this regard, consider the various post-Cold War Presidents' "expand the franchise of freedom -- by force if necessary" -- efforts and initiatives); with the GWOT being necessary only to counter those who feel threatened by and thus actively oppose these "expand-the- franchise-of-freedom" efforts and initiatives?

Charles (Germany) (not verified)

Fri, 02/25/2011 - 7:15am

Bing West appears to believe one can kill oneself out of the whole problem. He throws the whole Galula school of counterinsurgency out of the window.

His take on Anbar, at least as presented in this interview is simplistic and wrong. He myopically focuses on the use of firepower.

Plainly he doesn't like US soldiers being anything approaching "armed social workers". Just not what most soldiers are comfortable doing.

Really not too impressed with West's interview here.

Eric (not verified)

Fri, 02/25/2011 - 2:33am

To S-2:

"Bing also carries a huge hard-on for his Marines. His Al-Anbar analogy conveniently forgets the legwork done by the U.S. Army/McMasters in Tal Afar that laid the precedent."

Everything McMaster's did was already being done successfully by the Marines in Al Anbar a yr before he even deployed.

The USMC's Small Wars Manual was one of McMaster's major influences for what he did there. He even put in on his recommended reading list for the soldiers of the 3rd Cav.

I don't understand the animosity fr/some in the Army fr/even acknowledging any success fr/the USMC, its childish.

Robert C. Jones-

"Bing is dangerously wrong in his assessment of what worked in Iraq, and is dangerously promoting pimping out the USMC to settle Mr. Karzai's grudges for him in the Helmand."

I think you're correct about Iraq. Bing also carries a huge hard-on for his Marines. His Al-Anbar analogy conveniently forgets the legwork done by the U.S. Army/McMasters in Tal Afar that laid the precedent.

Afghanistan, I'm not so sure. At least on Colbert West is emphatic that it's an afghan army war and emphasizes, instead, our need to retain an ability to hunt and attack Al Qaeda and affiliates that remain our core interest. Nothing in that suggests that we should continue killing on behalf of Karzai.

We've no business otherwise in Afghanistan besides killing international terrorists and have facilitated all to which Gen. Reeder alludes. Karzai has played our simpering politicos brilliantly and we've squandered our considerable leverage propping the unpropable and defending the indefensible.

Long overdue that we get the hell out of there with the bulk of our combat forces and cease the CNAS nonsense of a "kinder, gentler" infantryman.

If we've missed our window to successfully attack the internat'l islamists then we can pull everybody. That was and remains my sole focus.

William Harris:
The reality is that none of us really know what drove the Sunni Awakening, and of course whoever writes the history gets to shape it to fit their views on the topic. Contrary to what many effects based operations advocates believe the decisions people make are due to a confluence of several factors, and that is obviously the case with Sunni Awakening. To be human is to be bias, and we all view situations based on our "limited" knowledge of actual events (even when were there), our past experiences, and our education. With this built in bias we develop schemas to explain why something happened to our satisfaction, and then promote those ideas. It would be very helpful to actually hear the views of the Sunnis who actually participated in the Awakening (which wasn't nationwide, it didn't happen in the sector I was working in because the Shia were too strong). As ADM Mullen has repeatedly said we must improve our ability and will to listen to the people. We dont do this well, if we do it at all. Instead we analyze things through our pet theories or preconceived notions due to doctrine or other sources of information, yet the truth is right in front of us if we would actually talk to the people.
Human terrain is a term we throw around quite a bit, and while instinctively we understand it is important, I have seen few examples of "practical" application. I have seen many ODAs develop a detailed knowledge on their specific AO (in depth understanding the human factors), and they generally identify some operational and strategic level concerns, but theyre lucky if theyre able to voice their observations to the decision makers because our current reporting and analytical processes generally overlooks this type of ground truth (a point the MG Flynn made previously). I hope the ODAs doing the VSO work in Afghanistan now have a voice and that these topics are actually being heard and acted upon in a meaningful way.

I would submit that most of the arguments based on the sunni awakening we hear in the US are too American-centric. From my research into the Iraqi sources and from my time in the country dealing with Sunnis (2003-2004, 2007-2009), they did not switch to ourside because we convinced them that we were tougher or because we bought them with roads. Rather, they realized that they lost a civil war with the Shia and that their best COA was to cooperate with the US while they still could. I fully admit that I do not have all the answers or data, but I argue that it is very fool hardy to only look at things from our perspective. Almost all of the writing I have seen about Iraq and the awakening is based on what we did, and not on what the Sunnis, Shia, AQI, 1920s, NBP, or anyone else did. This is similiar to how we approached (still approach) Vietnam, how the Israelis deal with the Palestinians, how the French dealt with the Algerians, and how every COIN effort I have studied fails to understand the human terrain.

William Harris

Bob's World

Thu, 02/24/2011 - 11:02am

I would refer Bing to the great intro to this document written by Maj Gen Kelly. Yes, there was a gunfight in the Anbar, but it was not being the best gunfighter that turned the tide. The same is true in Aghanistan. The political structures in the two places are very different, as is the political aspect of the insurgency in Anbar vice in Helmand. Until we take on the political framework, no amount of engagement in Helmand is likely to make much difference, be it gunfighting or nation building.

Joe (not verified)

Thu, 02/24/2011 - 9:10am

Strawman meet go at it!

That is quite a bit different than challenging the wisdom of the ages as it relates to warfighting and trying to replace what has been proven to work if done correctly with nation building. I don't disagree with your comments as explained above.

Bob's World

Wed, 02/23/2011 - 2:47pm


The current political instability in North Africa is due primarily to our efforts to sustain a status quo that we carefully shaped during the Cold War long after the Cold War was over. GWOT has been primarily our sticking our fingers in the dike, and now the dike has finally broken. This was quite foreseeable, and some of us have been predicting this for some time now.

If we had managed the post Cold War transition to allow greater domestic legitimacy of governance over the past 20 years this would have been much less disruptive to our econonmy. We didn't, so now we will have to suffer through s short period of higher gas prices while things sort out. I for one will not demand that my government support holding millions of others in conditions of despotism just so that I can save a couple bucks at the pump for a few months.

But back to Bing. I agree that the CNAS nonsense is just that. Where I disagree is that he thinks that the Sunni's in Iraq flipped sides because we beat them into submission. I suspect it is the opposite. They flipped because we offered them a seat at the table. They know we're the strongest tribe, letting the Marines hunt and kill them in Anbar was not the necessary precedent to get them to the table. In fact, I suspect they came over in spite of, rather than becausee of, the Marine's tactics.

Now the Marines bring those same tactics to the Helmand. Killing the fathers and sons of those tribes in Sangin that are outside the circle of trust of Karzai's hand picked governor has no affect on getting the Taliban leadership in Pakistan to the negotiation table. It has the opposite, as it validates the propaganda coming out of Pakistan. Those tribes that are connected to the centrally selected governors support GIRoA. In this patronage society they thrive under the current government. Those tribes that are not connected to the current government support the Taliban as they have no other option. They are excluded by this same patronage system from any legal economic or governmental opportunity.

The fact is that we are being manipulated by Karzai at the national level to take out his competition for him. Talk to General Reeder. We lost a lot of good SF soldiers in Sangin a couple years ago in opening that valley up to establish FOB Robinson. He'll tell you how in his many tours he was often manipulated to settle grudges and to create advantages as well. And no one knows this fight better than Reeder does.

So I stand by my position. Bing is dangerously wrong in his assessment of what worked in Iraq, and is dangerously promoting pimping out the USMC to settle Mr. Karzai's grudges for him in the Helmand. You read it here first, but we'll all read it in the history books 20 years from now. The sad thing is that we aren't even killing for the profits of US corporations. We are killing because the Intel guys and ideologues have completely missed the mark on understanding this threat and identifying US interests in this region.

Let me get this straight, Bing West is a dangerous man because he understands the true nature of warfare that the new self declared elitists "desires" to reject and replace with new ideas such as nation building? War when waged correctly has been proven to work, while nation building hasn't. We can't even do it right in Haiti. I'm not an advocate of carelessly employing the military to solve problems that are not military problems, but if we "are going to wage war", then do it right.

The CNAS view of warfare is the new communism. If you don't agree with it, they don't challenge you with counterarguments, they simply claim you are not enlightened. This tactic is wearing thin now, because folks can plainly see their view of thw world has not been productive and has actually been counterproductive.

I know this wasn't your point, but political instability in Iran and North Africa pose a threat to the global economy due to its requirement for natural resources from those areas. Therefore the turmoil in those areas pose a threat to our economic interests, which indirectly impact our security interests. That doesn't mean we have to employ the military, but we do have interests there.

Bob's World

Wed, 02/23/2011 - 11:34am

Wilf: No one arguing here what military power does best; merely that there is no military solution to any issues the US may have in Afghanistan. Killing Afghans on behalf of Mr. Karzai does not serve our interests there.

Maximus: As to threats in Iran, Pakistan and North Africa, I'd be interested to hear how any one of those countries or regions pose a true threat to the U.S. Terrorism is a tactic, not a form or person or orgnaization. Organizations form and individuals join for political purposes. Sometimes killing such people and destroying such organizations is absolutely the thing to do. But do so with an understanding of the political purposes behind the ideology and the violence, or otherwise you aren't solving problems, your just killing people. Such mindless killing tends to make these problems worse in the long run; but perhaps we can create a true threat in these regions you mention through such tactics.

Maximus Decimu… (not verified)

Wed, 02/23/2011 - 11:14am

Agree with Mssr West...we won the Long War in Afghanistan in 2004, and in Iraq in 2008.

What's left is security assistance missions i both countries and terrorist hunting in Afgahnistan. You hunt terrorists with special forces...not armies.

Time to turn our attention to other theaters like Iran, Pakistan, and North Africa.

William F. Owen (not verified)

Wed, 02/23/2011 - 11:14am

Bing is on the money for me. It's the logic of 5,000 years of history and limiting military power to what military power does best. Kill and capture.

Bob's World

Wed, 02/23/2011 - 9:01am

Bing West is a dangerous man. Would have made a good commander for Genghis.

Agree that nation building is no road to victory, but what he offers in the alternative is at least as bad. He misunderstands why the Sunni's turned in Iraq, and applies that misunderstanding to his recommendation for Afghanistan.