Winning in Afghanistan

Bing West:

More coalition soldiers have died in July than in any previous month in the nine-year war in Afghanistan. Last week, the soldier who slept on the cot next to me was killed. A rocket-propelled grenade fired from a snow-capped mountain in remote Nuristan Province killed Staff Sgt. Eric Lindstrom, a father of twin baby girls and the best squad leader in the platoon.

Strangely, our military leaders rarely talk about the battles here. They urge shooting less and drinking more cups of tea with village elders. This is the new face of war—counterinsurgency defined as nation-building, an idealistic blend of development aid and John Locke philosophy. Our generals say that the war is “80% non-kinetic.”

Although they welcome the largess provided by coalition forces, the village elders with whom our soldiers drink tea are intimidated by an enemy that prowls at night when our forces return to their bases. The Taliban is a highly mobile, amorphous force, with little popular support. But it is very willing to fight. Firefights are infrequent during the harvest seasons for poppy, corn and wheat, indicating that most local guerrillas are poor kids raised in a culture of tribal feuds, brigandage and AK rifles. The enemy leaders, more sinister and gangster-like, slip back and forth across the 1,500-mile border with Pakistan.

While our Special Operations Forces launch raids that disrupt the Taliban, our conventional soldiers carry out the less-adventurous “framework” operations—mainly presence patrols. With 80 pounds on their back, day after day they slog through the heat, dust and mud, waiting for the enemy to initiate contact.

Overall, too few of the enemy are being killed or captured to sap their morale. It’s like fighting Apaches in the 19th century. The hidden guerillas shoot from tree lines or mountainsides, making accurate return fire impossible. And we rarely bomb a compound, despite press headlines to the contrary. A week ago, a Marine, a British adviser and I watched a man scurrying back and forth at one end of a long building while we were under fire from the other end. The man was carrying something, but the Marine couldn’t decide whether the rules permitted shooting him. No army has ever fought with the restraint of the U.S. and its NATO allies.


On both fronts—development and fighting—the U.S. military has surged forward this summer, just as promised. Given the vast, harsh terrain and the immense open border, instead of 60,000 American soldiers we actually need 100,000—and many more helicopters. Infantrymen wear down after hundreds of grueling patrols. Instead of a 12-month tour, the U.S. Army should rotate its units on a seven-month basis and keep their brigades intact, as do the Marines.


War is not complicated. You have to separate the guerrilla forces from the population and kill them until they no longer want to continue. Al Qaeda, dominated by Arabs, is finished inside Afghanistan. The Taliban are Afghans, to be dealt with by Afghans. As he did in Iraq, Gen. Petraeus wants to recruit local forces to protect their own villages. That will expand the Afghan forces to 300,000 and stabilize the situation. On patrols, Afghan soldiers spot the enemy 10 times more frequently than do coalition solders. Afghan soldiers are brave, hardy, ill-disciplined, individualistic, temperamental and trustworthy.


West's book, The Strongest Tribe, is the best book about the Iraq war, period. He is now bringing his insight to the Afghan struggle and the military and government would be wise to listen to what he has to say. Just as in Iraq, our intelligence gathering goes up rapidly when we get local forces involved and the support of the local people. To do that we will need more of our troops and the Afghan troops.


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