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

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9781400068739: The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan

America cannot afford to lose the war in Afghanistan, and yet Americans cannot win it. In this definitive account of the conflict, acclaimed war correspondent and bestselling author Bing West provides a practical way out. Drawing on his expertise as both a combat-hardened Marine and a former assistant secretary of defense, West has written a tour de force narrative that shows the consequences when strategic theory meets tactical reality. 

Having embedded with dozens of frontline units over the past two years, he takes the reader on a battlefield journey from the mountains in the north to the opium fields in the south. West—dubbed “the grunt’s Homer”—shows why the Taliban fear the ferocity of our soldiers. Each chapter, rich with vivid characters and gritty combat, illustrates a key component of dogged campaigns that go on for years.

These never-ending battles show why idealistic theories about counterinsurgency have bogged us down for a decade. The official rhetoric denies reality. Instead of turning the population against the Taliban, our lavish aid has created a culture of entitlement and selfishness. Our senior commanders are risk-averse, while our troops know the enemy respects only the brave.

A fighter who understands strategy, West builds the case for changing course. As long as we do most of the fighting, the Afghans will hold back. Yet the Afghan military will crumble without our combat troops. His conclusion is sure to provoke debate: remove most of the troops from Afghanistan, stop spending billions on the dream of a modern democracy, transition to a tough adviser corps, and insist the Afghans fight their own battles. Amid debate about this maddening war, Bing West’s book is a page-turner about brave men and cunning enemies that examines our realistic choices as a nation.

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Review:

A Conversation with Bing West, Author of The Wrong War

What is this book about? I bring the reader onto the toughest battlefields in order to show what the war really is – a series of short, sharp clashes between our soldiers and the Taliban. This is hard stuff, and our rules of engagement are too strict. It’s nonsense to say wars aren’t won by killing and bloodshed. That’s how the terrorists seized power, and they have to be destroyed. Our troops understand this; our leaders do not.

What is our goal in Afghanistan? Are we fighting to win? In 2009, President Obama said the goal was to “defeat the Taliban.” In 2011, he downgraded the goal to “preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people.” He no longer intends to win by defeating our enemy. Whether we settle for a tie by negotiations remains to be seen.

What does your title, The Wrong War, mean? Afghanistan was the wrong war for our strategy of benevolent counterinsurgency. Our strategy has been to give money and some protection to the Pashtun tribes in order to win over their hearts and minds. In return, the Pashtuns were expected to stand against the Taliban who were, in fact, their stronger relatives.

This strategy has failed. The Pashtuns have not rejected the Taliban. I bring the reader onto the battlefields in the mountains of the north and the poppy fields of the south to show why.

Do our troops care about politics, or do they fight for one another? They fight for one another. But -- they volunteered to be grunts before they ever met one another. They wanted the adventure - the chance to prove themselves in battle- and to serve their country.

But our generals have to set achievable goals. Otherwise grunts become cynical. Few of our grunts now believe we are winning hearts and minds, as our generals claim.

Does Pakistan control the outcome in Afghanistan? Pakistan provides a vast sanctuary, and refuses to arrest the top Taliban leaders. Pakistan lacks the resources and determination to move against the sanctuaries. Afghanistan can remain intact only by developing a strong army to fight along the Pak border.

What has been the main mistake in the war? We’re paying the bills, taking casualties and doing the fighting. Yet we ceded total sovereign control to an untrustworthy Karzai,. Our greatest mistake was not keeping some control over the finances and the promotions of the Afghan security forces.

Six US generals have failed in Afghanistan. Why? Either we had six incompetents, or we have to acknowledge that very, very few men speak truth to power. On the one hand, our military was too strong to lose. On the other hand, Afghanistan was so vast and so chaotic that our mission of nation-building required three times the number of troops we committed. Our generals knew this. Yet Presidents Bush and Obama did not know.

What is the book’s basic message? Our troops are trying to protect and provide projects to Pashtun tribes that are hurtling headlong into the 10th Century. Our strategy is kind and liberal, but it will take another ten years and one trillion dollars to nudge Afghanistan into a progressive, democratic, economically viable state.

We don’t have that time. Our vital interest is to prevent a takeover of Kabul by the Taliban radicals. We can prevent this by reducing our troop levels and placing the Afghan soldiers in the lead, with American advisers. That is why my book brings the readers into combat with both British and American adviser teams. We must change what we are doing.

About the Author:

Bing West, a Marine combat veteran, served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. A contributor to National Review, he is the author of The Village, No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, and The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq. The Village, a classic about counterinsurgency, has been on the Marine Corps Commandant’s Reading List for forty years. West’s books on Iraq have won the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s General Wallace M. Greene Jr. Award for nonfiction, the Colby Award for military nonfiction, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars News Media Award for journalism. His articles appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He and his wife, Betsy, live in Newport, Rhode Island.

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