Monday, May 16, 2011

Monday Book Review

I finished a couple of books over the past few week, and I have been blog a few thoughts.  But it has been a busy few weeks with Osama, Canadian elections, a new column at Current Intelligence and the end to a pretty fun TV season.

So, first, I read Bing West's book on Afghanistan, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan.  As others have noted, the last part of the title is almost entirely missing from the book.  There is no new way out here.  But I will get to that in a minute.  The best part of the book is West's incredible effort to live with and document the experiences of American troops in some of the toughest spots in Afghanistan: Kunar and Helmand.  Grit, indeed.  West shows his own grit and and that of the Americans in harm's way.  He also does an excellent job of showing many of the contradictions involved in this war--trying to build up local capacity while distrusting the Afghan government.  He also shows quite clearly how under-manned the US is in the East.  There are simply not enough troops to hold enough ground out there.  It would have been nice for him to contrast that with Southern Afghanistan, where there is some progress (sustainable or not) in large part because that is where the commitment has been made of late.

It would have been nice for West to hang out with some of the other contingents, if only to help out my research agenda.  

West is quite critical of the war, especially of the civilians running it.   I think it s kind of strange that West notes many of the challenges but does not seem to recognize that the leaders have faced a series of bad alternatives.  There is no magic solution for getting Pakistan to be more helpful (we are constantly reminded), for instance.  Likewise, fighting a war against an enemy that seeks to endanger the civilians presents all kinds of challenges.  This has lead to fairly onerous procedures for calling in air-support.  But the alternative of dropping bombs in a carefree way seems a mistake as well.  Again, there are tradeoffs with no easy choices, but West does not seem to get that. 

And the choice is not really between killing and giving assistance. Population centric warfare involves a fair amount of "kinetic" efforts--killing the Taliban to clear and then hold.  So, rather than posing a false alternative between aid and fighting as West does, we need to figure out what kind of aid to deliver, how to deliver it, and fight the fight at the same time.

West ends with only a few pages on the "Way Out."  Negotiations will not work because we are not strong enough, he says I guess that leads training the Afghans, but the argument becomes distracted at the end.  The reality is that we are doing that already--every NATO contingent is now saying that it is focused on training so that the Afghans can do the job. But it requires some security for that to happen, which means that ISAF cannot thin down very quickly.

Finally, I cannot hep but get upset at the usual canard: "Our mistake in Afghanistan was to do the work of others for ten years...."  Ten years?  Really?  No, the US did not take this effort seriously until the past couple of years.  LTG Barno was told by Rummy in 2003-04 not to do counter-insurgency and then replaced him with someone who would not violate expectations. 

So, I would recommend this book for its depiction of modern combat in a difficult spot.  But not for its policy recommendations, as West notes all of the conflicting pressures and challenges, and then ignores them when it comes time to his recommendations.

West constantly notes that the Afghans are not standing up for themselves.  Really? How big is the Afghan National Army these days?  The Afghan National Police?  Given that both of these are softer targets than the ISAF forces, the indigenous forces have been taking huge and frequent hits.  So, we need to be careful about saying that the Afghans are not staying up for themselves.  True, we are not getting as much actionable intel as we would like (although probably more than West recognizes).  Why?  We have a credibility problem, not so much a hearts and minds problem--we say we are going to leave sometime soon.  Even if we did not say it, they would still fear it.  So, why side with the US and its allies now when they will be gone in three or five  or ten years, and the bad guys will still be around?  Only if they believed that the Afghan government would show up and use its powers effectively and without abusing them does it truly make sense for the Afghans to get off of the fence.

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