A moment of some significance in journalism perhaps, as the New York Times reviews the current talked about book, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan by Bing West. The author is no bleeding heart but a former assistant Defense Secretary from the Reagan era who stomped his way round the Afghan battlefield to research it. With remorseless lucidity, he exposes the good intentions and practical shortcomings of today’s counterinsurgency doctrine.
It brings to mind that critique of Cold War counterinsurgency in the early years of Vietnam, A Bright Shining Lie by Heil Sheehan. Although that is a polemical narrative, it has a similar effect of seeming right and irrefutable.
In West’s book incidentally, the Afghanistan conflict is all- American; no mention of little Britain. The book was referenced in a Newsnight discussion on why it might not be an entirely good idea to intervene militarily in Libya.
The new religion, of course, is counterinsurgency, or in the military’s jargon, COIN. The doctrine of counterinsurgency upends the military’s most basic notion of itself, as a group of warriors whose main task is to destroy its enemies. Under COIN, victory will be achieved first and foremost by protecting the local population and thereby rendering the insurgents irrelevant. Killing is a secondary pursuit. The main business of American soldiers is now building economies and political systems. Kill if you must, but only if you must.
The showcase for COIN came in Iraq, where after years of trying to kill and capture their way to victory, the Americans finally turned the tide by befriending the locals and striking peace deals with a vast array of insurgents.
So what’s wrong? Why hasn’t the new faith in Afghanistan delivered the success it promises? In his remarkable book, “The Wrong War,” Bing West goes a long way to answering that question. “The Wrong War” amounts to a crushing and seemingly irrefutable critique of the American plan in Afghanistan. It should be read by anyone who wants to understand why the war there is so hard.
His basic argument can be summed up like this: 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 isn’t 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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London