West has been embedded dozens of times with frontline units in Afghanistan over the past two years. His respect for the skills and courage of the officers and troops is unequivocal. But he has come to believe they have been commanded to put too much emphasis on nation-building, and not enough on “kinetic operations” — doing battle with the enemies of Americans and Afghans.
West quotes Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who, in 2008, told the colonels at the National Defense University: “Where possible, kinetic operations should be subordinate to measures to promote better governance, economic programs to spur development, and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented.”
Given these instructions, West writes, American commanders have become “de facto district governors, spending most of their time on non-military tasks. . . . The U.S. military coined the aphorism ‘Dollars are bullets.’ Battalion and company commanders doled out millions of dollars.”
Sending the message that nation-building is “the enlightened way for soldiers to fight an insurgency,” West argues, has transformed the U.S. military in Afghanistan “into a giant Peace Corps.”
Such criticism takes nothing away from Gen. David Petraeus and his troops and what they achieved in Iraq at a time when many — perhaps most — Americans believed the conflict had been lost. I would argue that the “surge” in Iraq succeeded not because schools and clinics were built and development projects launched, but because Petraeus understood what too many Americans and most Europeans still do not: Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-backed militias were responsible for most of the carnage.
Ordinary Iraqis did not support suicide bombings in their markets. Nor were they confused about who was to blame — as were so many in the media. But there was no way ordinary Iraqis could openly align with American forces against the terrorists until they became convinced that those forces were what West has called The Strongest Tribe — a tribe that would not abandon them to their mutual enemies when the going got tough. Most Iraqis also understood that while al-Qaeda and Iran were eager to control their lands and their lives, the Americans — though derided in Europe, the U.N., and corners of the U.S. as “occupiers” — wanted only to complete their mission and go home.
Afghanistan is a different place. The Taliban is a different enemy. In West’s view, a different strategy is required. He argues that in Afghanistan the “primary U.S. mission” should be to establish and maintain “advisor task forces” that would “go into combat with the Afghan forces, provide the link to fire support, and have a voice in who gets promoted.” This could be achieved, he argues, “while reducing our total force from 100,000 to 50,000.” Such a reduction would allow American forces to stay in Afghanistan longer — which he believes will be necessary to defeat the Taliban.
In 2007, to avoid what would have been a humiliating and consequential defeat in Iraq, President Bush — perhaps belatedly — changed strategies. Four years later, to avoid what would be a no less humiliating and consequential defeat, President Obama may have to follow Bush’s example.