The Wrong War: An Interview with Bing West (Updated)

The Wrong War: An Interview with Bing West

by Michael Few

Download the Full Article: The Wrong War: An Interview with Bing West

Bing West's The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan will be out on the bookshelf tomorrow. We asked Bing, a longtime supporter of Small Wars Journal, for an exclusive interview prior to publication. We wanted an honest, open discussion on the current war in Afghanistan and modern warfare. He more than delivered, and hopefully, this interview will be followed in several weeks with another by Octavian Manea. Enjoy the interview, and make sure that you go out and get his book!

- Mike

The new book title is quite provocative. Why is Afghanistan the "Wrong War?"

Afghanistan is the Wrong War for our benevolent strategy of wooing the Pashtuns by offering money. Our senior leaders say the war cannot be won by killing. It will surely be lost if we don't kill more Islamist terrorists and hard-core Taliban. More disturbing, the US is steadily getting out of the arrest and imprisonment business, due to politics in the States.

Why aren't we the "Strongest Tribe" in Afghanistan?

In Iraq, the Sunni tribes, with an established hierarchy and strong intra-clan ties, came over to our side because, as their leaders told me, they concluded we were the strongest tribe. It was no accident that the Sunni Awakening began in Anbar, where the Marines had hammered the insurgents - al Qaeda and Sunni tribes alike - year after year. In Afghanistan, the Pashtun sub-tribes have no such established hierarchy. Many villages have scant contact with the next. The Pashtuns will remain neutral and standoffish until they decide who is going to win. They are convinced the Taliban will return as we pull out.

Download the Full Article: The Wrong War: An Interview with Bing West

Michael Few is the Editor of Small Wars Journal.

Update. Bing expands his final answer to address Nathanial Fick and John Nagl's op-ed in the New York Times.

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Comments

Along the lines of Anonymous' comment immediately above:

Could it be that it is our strategic goal, to wit: the determination to expand the franchise of freedom (unseat the status quo) -- and our various and sundry efforts undertaken along these lines -- could it be that these explain such things as:

a. The current instability in North Africa and elsewhere in the world (strategy working; various states and societies seem to be moving toward freedom).

b.. Our "expand the franchise of freedom" approach to foreign policy (the three "Ds").

c. Our "freedom-centric" approach to today's unconventional wars (population-focused COIN; WOG concept).

d. And the GWOT generally (necessary to deal with those who feel threatened by our "expand freedom" initiatives and who, accordingly, have determined to actively oppose them)?

Thus, the wrong war, the wrong strategy or the wrong stategic goal (goal: to unseat the status quo -- by using force if and when necessary -- to expand the franchise of freedom post-the Cold War)?

Our strategy isn't working. Perhaps it's the wrong strategy, rather than the wrong war.

Dexter Filkins reviews The Wrong War:

The Next Impasse

. . . American soldiers and Marines are very good at counterinsurgency, and they are breaking their hearts, and losing their lives, doing it so hard. But the central premise of counterinsurgency doctrine holds that if the Americans sacrifice on behalf of the Afghan government, then the Afghan people will risk their lives for that same government in return. They will fight the Taliban, finger the informants hiding among them and transform themselves into authentic leaders who spurn death and temptation.

This isnt happening. What we have created instead, West shows, is a vast culture of dependency: Americans are fighting and dying, while the Afghans by and large stand by and do nothing to help them. . . .

Allow me to interject on the issue as to whether America is or isn't at war.

I was recently at a mixed gathering, in which I mentioned the war in Afghanistan. A high school principle, replied, "what war? We aren't at war." In reflection, I find this to be the prevailing notion by most indivduals I come in contact with.

His point, and in essence I think Mr. Ken White's point,is that we are not seen as a nation at war, only the few we hear about periodically on the news, that we packed-off to a foreign country, that most Americans would be hard pressed to visualize on a World map in their brain housing group.

Additionally, as for Bing West, who I last saw as a first lieutenant in Phu Bai, Viet-Nam?

Having just finished his recent book, Bing is just being Bing, and that in itself is a full time job!

Whether his strategic assertions are supported by him or not at the end, the bulk of the book was by someone that cares about the trigger puller that he still finds the energy to accompany on patrols in Afghanistan.

Perhaps if more American read this book, they would decide: yes, some of us are at war. . .and why are we?

Bob,

I look forward to reading your paper when it is released. I am sure it will drive an interesting discussion. Peace in itself is an endstate, it's a noun, not a verb, so I'm not sure what waging peace really means, other than it sounds PC for employing combat troops. Peace in itself may not always be in our best interests. Peace can also, in select cases, be interpreted as appeasement. Regardless, when we enter a conflict we identify what we're conducting combat operations to achieve and conduct those operations (along with actions from the rest of the government) in a way to achieve those ends. We didn't wage war in WWI to achieve peace, we waged it to defeat our enemies and then......? FDR had a vision as you mentioned, but as usual reality got in the way.

Bill C.,

I confess I don't know what our real objectives are, and that of course is part of the reason I'm beating the drum on the strategy issue. I came in the Army for the sole purpose of "De Oppresso Liber" (free the oppressed) from communism. It take long to see that we very selectively applied that a justification for some wars, while unaddressing the oppressed elsewhere, because it wasn't in our interests.

If our goal was to free the oppressed it would seem we a lot of opportunity to do that now in Libya and elsewhere. The resistance has started and they're asking for help. The idealist in me wishes that our main motivation for intervention was De Oppresso Liber, but I don't believe that is true.

Lastly:

Thus, have we not actually, now that the Cold War is over, returned to employing a strategy and structure more in tune with earlier times (as per the Clinton's: Lincoln/Civil War and Roosevelt/WWII analogies); one of attempting to expand the "freedom" franchise (transforming states and societies thus -- by force if necessary) and, otherwise, shaking things up?

Accordingly, should we not view the current activities in Egypt, et. al., from this perspecive (post-Cold War strategy was clearly designed -- not to maintain the Cold War state of affairs -- but, quite the opposite, to expand the freedom franchise and, thus, to unseat the status quo?

Robert C. Jones:

According to Webster, Status is defined as:

1: a : position or rank in relation to others b : relative rank in a hierarchy of prestige; especially : high prestige.

2: the condition of a person or thing in the eyes of the law.
3: state or condition with respect to circumstances .

I believe you are using it essentially as the second while I do so in the sense of the third usage. I thought that initially and disagreed that your usage, while valid, is really the important point. The important point to me is the nation, the government, DoD and the institutional Army are emphatically NOT in a wartime condition with relation to the circumstances.

As we agreed, they need not, even should not be. What I'm doing in this sub-thread is noting that implying the Nation et.al. is / are on a wartime footing or operating basis is simply not accurate and thus can lead to flawed solutions to a 'problem' that does not actually exist.

We are not a nation at war -- we just have some folks we sent off to a few -- and while some updating of our institutions and processes is needed, with respect to the "we have committed that nation to a war status" statement, I'm reminded of the advice one should be wary of fixing things that aren't broken...

Battle Hymn of the Republic:

"Let us die to make men free?"

Addendum:

Re: Methods:

Pop-centric COIN and WOG being thought of as what is required to "make men free" in an irregular war environment?

Is our real objective to disrupt terrorists organizations (Bill M)? Or is our true objective to "make men free" (thus, Operation Iraqi "Freedom" and Operation Enduring "Freedom")?

Accordingly, are we "waging peace" (RCJ) or are we "waging transformation" (from our concept what is "unfree" to our version of what is "free" (a la Roosevelt's Four Freedoms).

Does this explaination of our "wars" (to transform the client such as to make him "free" -- as per Roosevelt's Four Freedoms) also help to explain our "transforming-the-society-so-as-to-make-it- free" methods (population-centric COIN/WOG approach)?

We are waging peace, and we do indeed need a strategy for peace. Instead we are employing a strategy and structure born of the Cold War mission with a GWOT addendum.

Most of our major structures, from DOD, to NATO; from the World Bank to the UN; were created for implementing a Cold War strategy.

We need a new strategy, and then we need to look at all of these organizations and reassess them all. All must evolve, some may need to go or merge, and others may be needed. QDR and QDDR and GWOT plans are all a Band-Aid slapped onto an out-dated strategy.

I took a one-man swag at what such a strategy might look like in a paper coming out in the next edition of Defense Concepts, but it is just that, a one-man swag. I too looked to FDR as the start-point, but looked deeper than his "four freedoms." As he prepared to lead America out of World War II, and also to lead a post-WWII world as an emergent major power he also want to replace the tired League of Nations with "the four policemen" (US, UK, Russia and Nationalist China) to share the security burden and to ally the emergent powers. He also sought to promote Self Determination and to end Colonialism. Churchill naturally opposed most of that, Nationalist China fell, FDR died, etc. The whole thing got tossed onto a shelf and forgotten.

So I dusted it off and took a look at it. Not the answer, but I believe it is a swag at the right question. We need to ask ourselves as Americans "How do we lead the peace" rather than "how do we win the war." We can't afford to get mired in tactics at the senior leadership level, we have JOs for that. We must all step up to a new strategic perspective regardless of where we fall in the foodchain.

(Oh, and Ken, I'm trying, but I'm still missing your main concern over the word "status." I think I said the same thing in my follow-on post, I know I meant the same thing, so I either used the word incorrectly or we are assessing different meanings to it.)

Bob,

I think all are great points. The war talk is mostly political rhetoric, but it is rhetoric that makes it hard for political leadership to reconsider the current strategy without "appearing" to be tough on terrorism. Of course the reality would be quite different.

We don't need to continue breaking the back of the Army and Marines if our "real" objective is to disrupt terrorist operations. We can do that with SOF and airpower. If we want to decisively defeat AQ, then we need to move into their real safehavens, but we don't have the political will to do that. Instead we're in this gray area and will linger here for the foreseeable future. While not a strong supporter of what is commonly referred to as the Powell doctrine, there is some wisdom in not deploying general purpose forces unless you have clear military objectives and over whelming force to achieve them. I don't think those rules apply to SOF, we can stay forever without breaking the bank.

The bottom line is regardless if it is war, warfare, or just sustained combat operations; the ways, ends and means are not currently in synch. Regardless of the nature of the conflict (which is critical to understand), we still need a viable strategy.

Addendum:

This view of war seeming to suggest that (1) the United States has been in a perpetual state of war since its founding and that (2) the Civil War (Lincoln) and World War II (Roosevelt) were simply earlier campaigns, and Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, et al are more recent campaigns ?

Re: War:

Pres. Clinton April 1999:

Now, at the end of the 20th Century, it seems to me we face a great battle between the forces of integration and disintegration, the forces of globalism versus tribalism; of oppression against empowerment ... To succeed, we must heed the wisdom of our founders about power and ambition. We must have the compassion and determination of Abraham Lincoln to always give birth to new freedom. We must have the vision of President Roosevelt, who proclaimed the four freedoms for all human beings, and invited the United States to defend them at home and abroad."

http://www.pbs.org/eliewiesel/resources/millennium.html (About 1/3 the way down -- after Hillary and Weisel portions -- look for "President")

Sec. of State Clinton May 2010:

"We are in a race between the forces of integration and the forces of disintegration, and we see this every day."

http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/events/2010/0527_secretary_clinto... (Page 6).

Robert C. Jones:

We do indeed mostly agree. However, it's likely my limited writing skills plus the defintion thing that contributed to a slight difference.

To be at war is indeed a legal and political thing. However, it is also a state of mind...

The legal status of recent and current bouts of warfare is part of the equation. Congress has not been asked to -- nor would they likely agree to -- 'declare' most recent warlike operations as War (large W). There are several reasons for that but many revolve around the fact that during our last Declared (large D...) War (large W...) a number of War Emergency Statutes giving the Executive draconian powers in War (again, large W) were placed on the books. They are still there. Neither the Executive under several adminstrations over the years or the various Congresses have wished to open that box of potential worms. Thus we have not had a War since WW II even though we have been in a number of wars from Korea forward

That does not mean we have been at war illegally, indeed, Congress has backed every one of those wars so they're all legal -- they funded every conflict and thus declared them to be legal wars (small w). What that legality and the practicality of people getting killed cannot do is change the state of mind of a nation - or of a Department of defense or even of the institutional Army that sends people to fight those wars. All of those entities have NOT been at war in all aspects since 1945. We have sent Troops, Ships and Aircraft off to wars and they were totally involved in it and were in fact at war. However, they were a small percentage of Americans and of government effort. That far larger percentage of American, DoD or the Army not involved has not been at war, they have not been in -- nor should they have -- a warfighting state of mind.

As you say, we have a professional force that can expect and should be prepared to deploy to exotic places and negage in wars -- that BTW is emphatically NOT a Viet Nam residual, it has always been that way other than for our few really big wars. So I agree with you in this:

"The U.S. is the most powerful nation on the planet, and our role will both invite attacks from others and demand attacks initiated by ourselves. We will be in combat often. We will engage in warfare often. Neither of those facts demands that we commit the nation to a continuous state of being "at war."

No question in my mind that's totally correct. It is at very much at odds, however, with your earlier statement quoted by BillM. which drew my comment:

"The problem is that we have committed the nation to a war status, and pinned ourselves in the process to a problem that does not merit that status. The tail-chasing of various solutions is a clear metric of lack of merit of the mission."

We have not done that. Nor can or could we. It not necessary or desirable to do so -- or even contemplate.

I know you'd never deliberately mislead the masses but some reading the "status" comment could be led astray by the terms...;)

Thus I said and say again: "However, any way you slice it, this nation is not in a war status..." and I suggest that to say that it is doesn't happen to be correct nor is it beneficial to the points you often make. Stating we have committed the nation to "war status" implies that the entire nation is prepared for and involved in a war and that just isn't true, legally, practically or emotionally. Nor, as you noted, should it be.

FWIW, while we also agree on many other points, I disagree that we have pinned ourselves to any problem due to 'war' aspect. We have made choices, some good, some bad but we are not 'pinned' to anything war related at this point. Pinned implies we are forced or are forcing certain events due to war status. Since that does not exist, how can we be pinned; inclined to pursue certain aims, yeah -- pinned, no....

Ken,

I suspect we are in violent agreement on most of this, separated by my limited writing skills and slightly different perspectives on definitions.

"War" is a legal status. When the leadership of the country declares to the world that the U.S. is "at war" it creates a tremendous strategic burden. To be "at war" when not attacked by an external threat capable of destroying the nation (not to be confused with an internal threat capable of illegally changing the governance of a nation, which is not war, but rather is the civil emergency of insurgency) is a politcal choice.

One need not be at war to conduct warfare. One certainly need not be at war to engage in combat. Warfare and combat can be forced upon a state, regardless of how powerful, by virtually any state or non-state actor, regardless how relatively weak. Just as the strongest man can be attacked as he walks down the sidewalk or sits enjoying a coffee at Starbucks.

My belief is that we are over-reacting to the way the military was thrown under the bus in Vietnam in how we classified that conflict by over-classifying every little conflict since. We need to get over it. The ghosts of Vietnam haunt us. The U.S. is the most powerful nation on the planet, and our role will both invite attacks from others and demand attacks initiated by ourselves. We will be in combat often. We will engage in warfare often. Neither of those facts demands that we commit the nation to a continuous state of being "at war."

Side issue here is the jealousy of the Army - Marine roles and relationships. Committing the Marines to such combat and warfare is low risk compared to committing the Army. The Marines should lead these efforts while the Army leads efforts to deter war, train for war, and fight war. But the Army can do the math, and they don't want to sit on the bench for the small ones. So I lay the bulk of this problem at the feet of senior Army leadership. The Army took the biggest kick in the Jimmy coming out of Vietnam; and it is the Army that does not want to focus on its peacetime mission training at CONUS, while the USMC focuses on its peacetime mission of traveling the globe and engaging in the odd combat operation here and there. This ties directly to the concern often raised by Gian Gentile. If the Army is out running around pretending to be Marines, then who is at home being the Army??

Current examples: In an effort to put Iraq behind us, we extracted much of the conventional combat units and talk in terms of "end of combat" while allowing that "the war" continues. I think we have that exactly backwards. The president can declare from the Oval office the end of war; but the opposition always gets a vote as to the end of combat. Our current posture keeps us strategically joined at the hip to Iraq, while at the the same time doing a disservice to the military personnel who are there and engaging in combat operations on a regular basis. It is a cheap ploy, much like MacArthur always declaring islands "secured" while the Army units continued to take horrendous casualties in months of "mopping up operations."

In the big scheme of the US's global obligations and concerns, Iraq and Afghanistan arguably fall in the bottom 20% or so. But because we declare ourselves to be "at war" in those two locations, it elevates the interest and importance up into the top 10%. This means that more important matters are being ignored. It was ignoring the important matter of the nature of our relationships with the governments of these many arab states that are currently being pressed by their own populaces that got us into this mess of the "GWOT" to begin with. What messes will our current ignor-ance get us into?

Words matter. Some matter a lot. "War" is such a word. Particularly if applied to the most powerful nation on the planet.

Ok, that was too long. But then, this is a big issue.

Bob

Robert C. Jones:

I was going to let this slide but since Bill M. quoted it, I'll take that as a message from Mars (the God, not the planet) to address it.

"The problem is that we have committed the nation to a war status, and pinned ourselves in the process to a problem that does not merit that status. The tail-chasing of various solutions is a clear metric of lack of merit of the mission."

We have not committed the nation to a war status. That is an unequivocal fact. There are elements of national power engaged in warfare but the Nation, indeed the Armed Forces and DoD, are emphatically not at war. Washington D.C and the US as an entity have not been at war since 1945. That is a big part of the problem...

We have pinned ourselves to a problem but it is not accorded the status of war, merely of sustained combat and other operations. That, too is a part of the problem.

That 'problem' is, we agree, that the tail chasing in indicative of a lack of merit in the mission -- specifically of current operations in Afghanistan.

However, any way you slice it, this nation is not in a war status...

Bob, two of your paragraphs conflict with one another to some degree. I agree with the general jist because it supports my argument about not having a coherent strategy, and clear mission/purpose is an essential element of the strategy. Right now our ways, ends and means are disconnected. You are correct, we have stated we're fighting a war, but I'm claiming we're only half fighting. The debate between violent and non-violent tactics or a blended effort is not irrelevant, is a direct reflection of not having a coherent strategy and logical means and ways to achieve it.

There is a larger lesson here that is bigger than Afghanistan and it is our National level strategic planning process.

Posted by Robert Jones:
"But the debate over Afghanistan has never really been about the viability of violent tactics vs non-violent tactics. That is the smoke and flame that draws the attention of the debaters. The real issue has always been the viability and criticality of the mission. If the mission passed the commonsense test, there would be no debate.

The problem is that we have committed the nation to a war status, and pinned ourselves in the process to a problem that does not merit that status. The tail-chasing of various solutions is a clear metric of lack of merit of the mission."

"The elites" always have and always will make the decisions; and it will always be others who do the bulk of the fighting and the dying.

But the debate over Afghanistan has never really been about the viability of violent tactics vs non-violent tactics. That is the smoke and flame that draws the attention of the debaters. The real issue has always been the viability and criticality of the mission. If the mission passed the commonsense test, there would be no debate.

The problem is that we have committed the nation to a war status, and pinned ourselves in the process to a problem that does not merit that status. The tail-chasing of various solutions is a clear metric of lack of merit of the mission.

U.S. foreign policy got lazy following the end of the Cold War. Like an athlete who stops competing, we lost our focus and got lazy, and essentially drifted from one media inspired crisis to the next for 11 years or so until bin Laden got our attention on 9/11. Then we went chasing after the symptoms of that problem without ever really stopping to assess why it was that such a broad expanse of the populaces of our allies in the Middle East were supportive to some degree of the perpertrators of those attacks.

Afghanistan was just a convenient place to strike the first blows of revenge. No regrets there. But what is it now? Those same populaces that supported bin Laden on 9/11; and that provided support and foreign fighters to travel to fight us in Iraq once we invaded there and offered them a target; are now on their own volition standing up to our allied regimes. They are not chanting jihad, they are chanting liberty.

Now we find ourselves making the same mistake with Karzai that we made with so many leaders in this region. We enable his despotism. This is what the lessons of colonialism that we have bastardized into a "COIN" doctrine tell us to do. But it is counter to what we stand for as a nation, and it is counterprodutive to what we should really be focused on if preserving the interests of the US is our focus.

Yes, AQ threatens us. But no, AQ is not a threat to us. Chasing AQ as we have is, however a threat to us, and we are weaker now by far that we were on 9/12. Time to refocus, reframe the problem, and get back to the business of making America great and strong. Arguing tactics in Afghanistan is like arguing if Coaco puffs or twinkies are the best diet to get this pudgy old athlete back in shape.

Mellish: I'm just saying, this seems like an unnecessary risk considering our objective, sir.

Captain Miller: Our objective is to win the war.

Bill M.:

I think your observation raises a question about why our elites, who make the various decisions, go for the solutions that sound so easy. The elites go for this stuff because they want to but why? That is the thing that really worries me, that we may be drifting into culture that won't fight because that is hard and unpredictable. There was that essay about why Arab armies can't win. I hope we aren't drifting along to the same place.

Those two Bn cdrs could have said the same thing about every war we've fought since 1945 so I don't think it is about this particular war. It is about this particular time and how patterns of culture as expressed by the actions and attitudes of the elites are culminating. It is the elites I'm talking about, not the flyover people and the Marines reported on in Mr. West's National Review story. They get life. It is the elites that don't.

It is as if they believe perfection is achievable, predictable, easy and comes along as a matter of course. If it doesn't then it is somebody's fault and they will be made to pay. This attitude makes them easy marks for those who peddle "easy". It also means there is no such thing as an honest mistake or just plain bad luck. I fear this is a deep cultural thing.

More worryworting from me.

This interview and subsequent posts have definitely touched a few emotional hot buttons that I thought were numb after years of participating and watching this stupidty unfold.

America has been and continues to be led astray by think tanks like CNAS. All this empty talk of smart power, soft power, and we can't kill our way out of this is empty rhetoric that has taken on the properties of a deadly virus that is undermining our military and our national security. We are simply tossing the lessons of war learned over hundreds of years away to pursue an ideology based on so called smart power.

No one can effectively challenge the fact that our so called smart approach to war in Afghanistan is excessively expensive (much more so than a fighting war), and worse it is ineffective, and furthermore it shows absolutely no promise.

Kilcullen was quoted recently saying something along the lines that he never intended any of his writings on COIN to imply that killing was not only involved, but an essential element of COIN, and Mr. West clearly states why that is the case in this interview.

The SECDEF said he was pushing the study of irregular warfare because we don't it well, and he isn't worried about us losing our ability to fight wars, since we'll always invest in that effort. I agreed with him, but now I'm beginning to wonder if we remember how to actually fight wars to win? We may be investing in the equipment, but are we training and educating our next generation to win?

Thank god that at least our Special Operations Forces and Marines are taking the fight to the enemy in most cases, but that is insufficient, we need most ground soldiers to close with and destroy the enemy in order to sufficiently pressure them to switch sides. It is true many of our Army Officers are risk adverse as Grant points out (numerous examples), but I disagree that is the biggest problem. It is half the problem and largely a result of a flawed strategy, or actually the lack of a strategy. If we had a strategy that involved defeating the enemy and relentless pursuit of them, then that would be the expectation these commanders would comply with or risk get relieved. The fact that they're not getting relieved must indicate their behavior is in accordance with the current strategy and overarching polices, largely shaped again by the crap coming out CNAS and similiar think tanks.

I met two Bn cdrs there who said they weren't going to take "unnecessary" risks with their men's lives for "this war". I think the lack of a coherent strategy for winning equates to risk adversion in the field, because they don't want to risk lives for an unspecified or vague cause.

I agree with 90% of Mr. West's comments, but also share the same concern that Bob and others mentioned about who is actually in charge? The U.S., ISAF or the Afghans? Then again if we had a coherent strategy and plan we would probably know.

The biggest problem is we're refusing to fight because we don't have a strategy that demands fighting. The task and purpose for many are no longer clear.

Quote by Publius: "...For Grant, the major: learn how to be risk averse. Your troops are also worth more alive than dead, Grant; I hope you remember that..."

Sorry- against my nature! ;) I believe in taking prudent risks. I also believe that you are actually less likely to be killed over the long-term (assuming several deployments) if you know what is outside the FOB than if you stay locked up inside it.

Regardless- none of my anecdotes cover places like the Arghandab Valley or Upper Helmand. I'm talking about relatively safe places in RC-E and Kabul. The only risk I'm talking about is someone finding out about a policy violation and UCMJ action hurting a career. Routinely single American Anglo-Saxon girls on college break were busy doing things in Kabul that we were not allowed to do. And the last word I'd use to describe their behavior as being is "risky".

Grant Martin
MAJ, US Army

The comments above are the author's own and do not constitute the position of DoD or the US Army.

We don't do existential war, haven't done so since the 40s. What we do is cabinet wars, something that makes a whole lot of things make more sense. For instance, being risk averse in the right circumstances in an existential war may significantly impair the war effort. OTOH, being risk averse in a cabinet war just makess good sense: first, no single action or inaction is going to make any difference in the grand scheme of things, i.e., fate of the nation, plus risky behavior may jeopardize a valuable asset, e.g., a pilot in whom the taxpayers have invested significant sums, etc. Even a PFC infantryman is worth far more alive than dead.

Sure, this is the wrong war, but when it's a cabinet war, I don't really have a say in it. The way we've gone about warfare here recently, I can't even bitch about increased taxes on personal income. We don't do that any more, so here we are, making war on the good old Mastercard. Our wars are enormously costly, but for some reason, they don't seem to cost me a nickel. Plus I haven't seen any shortages of consumer goods recently.

Carl, the civilian, worries. Grant, the active duty officer, frets about risk aversion amongst colonels. Well, Carl, don't sweat the small stuff. Your government has everything under control. It knows what it's doing. Right?

For Grant, the major: learn how to be risk averse. You're worth more alive than dead in what's in effect a live-fire exercise in developing new fun tactics for dealing with foreign devils who think you're a godless heathen. Your troops are also worth more alive than dead, Grant; I hope you remember that. As you've astutely noted, with few exceptions--maybe like those small numbers of us on web sites like this--most of your fellow countrymen don't really care either, other than in some abstract way.

It's a cabinet war, after all. And the first thing you need to realize about this kind of war is that it has very little to do with daily life back in jolly old England, er, the U.S. The populace is more than willing to leave everything to the government--they were told to go shopping, right?--and kind of vaguely love and idealize you guys over there. Wherever there is.

When you've become a nation of bed wetters, your leadership is inevitably going to develop a national security paradigm to match and allay your fears. Given such a paradigm, there is no such thing as a "wrong war."

As I read through Bing's comments, I share many of his concerns with the version of COIN that has been sold to our senior leaders. I can't, however, get on board with his assessment of Sangin, "closing to zero", etc.

If this were an American war that we needed to win to preserve, or even protect, our nation, then perhaps. But it is not an American war, and while our nation may be threatened from this region, there is no threat to our nation from this region. That last part is not a play on words, it is an important nuance.

Same is true with asshats like Chavez and Amadinajhad. They threaten us, but they are not a threat to us. We need to learn to ignore the yapping lapdogs of the world and focus better on the big picture.

Ken:

I see your point but I worry that the time to make the changes won't be available the next time. The French didn't have the time available to make the changes in 1940.

The other thing that concerns me is the guys who did the replacing at that time had come from a group that had seen a major conflict, WWI. If the war hadn't started until say 10 or 15 years later, would there have been a situation whereby the risk averse were supervising the risk averse. Those eager young guys can only take the place of the drones if somebody recognizes the drones are drones.

Other nations do have the problem too, but we have been engaged in shooting conflicts for 10 years now. That should allow us to see more clearly what is needed, but we don't.

Like I said, I see and acknowledge all your points but I am just a civilian worrywort I guess.

Quite a provocative quote:

"The new religion of benevolent counterinsurgency has been defined by the best writers. Especially in Big Army, attracting attention and prominence is helped enormously by an advanced degree and by the publication of theoretical papers on macro topics at the high level of warfare.

The new COIN, however, remains an unproven theory, with a distinct downside. Since non-kinetics have been advocated as the smart approach to warfare, from the top down the infection of risk-aversion has spread. Most battalions know the sections of their AOs where the troops will be shot at; those areas are avoided until rotary-wing CAS is scheduled; that takes four to seven days. Every casualty is investigated; if a junior officer has strayed from the published regulations, he is in trouble. Every company and battalion commander must give away the money he is given, and must insure his books balance, etc..."

When one BN Commander "rescued" a colonel recently from "having" to travel with his Afghan counterparts and "insisting" he travel by air instead- the colonel protested that that would take him away from his counterpart, he would lose face with them, it was only a 2 hour trip by ground, and waiting for air could take days- the Battalion commander's reply was: "if you die in my battlespace, I have to fill out the report- and I'm not going to take the fall-out for a colonel dying in my battlespace because he was traveling with Afghans. You either get 3 MRAPs or you travel by air."

That, in my opinion, is THE anecdote from my experience there. Aversion to risk: not a true aversion to casualties mind you- but an aversion to the risk a negative happenstance could have on one's career- marks most of the efforts there. There are exceptions, but THAT was the rule I found. If that is the rule for battalion commanders today- just think what the future brigade commanders and general officers we are molding today will be like after they get promoted under this system.

I remember the anecdote of a brigade commander in Iraq who had berated a platoon leader for not taking initiative, telling a retired observing general officer later that the PL hadn't even been authorized to make decisions on what level of PT clothes his soldiers could wear back in garrison stateside. The general officer remarked, "seems he is doing what he was trained for: not to take initiative." Today full-bird Colonels are not trusted to make similar decisions in Afghanistan (what kinds of clothes to wear to functions).

My theory is that things might be different if the military thought there was political and/or social will behind what we were doing in Afghanistan. Since there isn't, our higher-ups must have decided they won't risk their careers if the American people don't really want us there. When a military effort (I was about to type "war") isn't worth a commander's career- I have to start asking is it worth one soldier's death or years away from soldier's families?

- Grant Martin
MAJ, US Army

The comments above are the author's own and do not represent the position of the US Army or DoD.

Bing West gets it half right in saying that Afghanistan is not really our fight and that the ANSF should be the main effort. Where he gets it wrong, I think, is in his apparent belief that we can and should continue to make the decisions behind the scenes, i.e. tell the Afghans whom to promote and whom to fire, and, presumably tell them how and when to fight the war. As Robert C. Jones has repeatedly and correctly pointed out, one of the erroneous premises of FM 3-24 is the fact that it is based on a colonial overseer construct. I have not read Mr. West's book so I may be presuming too much, but it seems that he also overlooks the fact that Afghanistan is not our colony. Just as in Vietnam, the more we try to exert control, the more we weaken the legitimacy of the host government.

Three excellent comments above which the US Armed Forces will ignore at some peril to themselves...

MAJ Martin's anecdote illustrates, I think, how the risk-aversion momentum that has built up over the last 9 years has reached a level that even General Petraeus can't turn around. How it is that the same stupid conversations are taking place ("too dangerous to go with the Afghans") years in to our supposed renewed emphasis on Afghanistan is mind-boggling.

I agree with MAJ Martin and Col West -- either we need to do this with everything we have or we need to go home and leave behind the people with the guts to actually do what it takes. (Although I'm not sure the majority of the current crop of officers we have is fit to fight any war, Afghan or otherwise.)

Mr. West states in the interview that "We do not need 100,000 troops." If we do not need that many troops, perhaps we don't need the supply line through Pakistan. Reducing the troop level to something that can be supplied from the north and by air might have a synergistic (I finally get to use that word in a sentence) effect, especially as it would allow us to threaten the Pak Army/ISI in the wallet.

All the other comments above scare me. Are we creating an Army that won't fight? The last time that happened that I can think of in an important war was the American submarine service at the beginning of WWII. Most of the sub skippers and senior chiefs had to be relieved during the first years of the war because they wouldn't attack. We got away with it then. I am afraid that we won't the next time.

Carl:

Who replaced those that were relieved?

All Armed Force get bureaucratic and risk averse until they get in an existential war, then they just get on with it. In peacetime, as now, they also play with their uniforms... :(

In a Democracy like the US, the legislatures do NOT want extremely competent Armies for fear they'll go into the Coup business and be unstoppable. So they insist the forces structure the personnel system to be 'fair.' This insures mediocrity and so the Pols compensate by buying, usually, a lot of nice toys to keep the Troops loyal.

Fortunately, regardless of legislative pressures and bureaucracy a lot of really good people put up with all that and thus there's a pool of eager young guys to replace the anachronisms if a balloon goes up.

Fact of life. Not ideal but as best can be expected due to the vagaries of human nature. It generally works well. The good news is that all other nations have pretty much the same problems or even more significant detriments.