DECEMBER 9, 2022
Afghanistan Opinion USA Opinion

Our Military didn’t Lose the War in Afghanistan, Our Politicians did

Our Military didn’t Lose the War in Afghanistan, Our Politicians did

by : Michael Judge 

A conversation with author and military historian Bing West on America’s ‘mismanaged’ war in Afghanistan and what we owe our fighting men and women.

As luck would have it, it was Veterans Day when I spoke with Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and Vietnam veteran who embedded with dozens of platoons in Afghanistan and wrote three books about what he described, nearly from the start, as a “mismanaged” war.
West is a straight-talking 81-year-old military historian who first honed his writing skills as a young Marine penning combat manuals in Vietnam. He’s been called “the grunt’s Homer,” and for good reason. His commitment to embedding with frontline troops and telling their stories as honestly and accurately as he can is unequaled, as is his tenacity. He’s taken four presidents and countless Pentagon officials to task for what he saw as an “impossible” mission in Afghanistan: a 20-year attempt to “persuade Afghan tribes to support a centrally controlled, deeply corrupt democracy.”
The original sin of the war, he says, was its shift to nation building shortly after the Taliban were driven from power in December 2001 and Osama bin Laden evaded capture at Tora Bora and found refuge in Pakistan. As he wrote in his 2011 book, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, the misguided mission of our troops was “to serve and secure the population,” which West argues “transformed the military into a giant Peace Corps.” That’s not a fighting force’s mission.
That was not only unfair for the less than one-half of 1% of the U.S. population that serves in our military, West said, it was ultimately unfair for the Afghan people, who never eventually saw the Taliban storm back to power after our “shameful” retreat from our strongholds at Bagram Air Base and the capital of Kabul.
It’s not the U.S. fighting men and women he knows and loves who lost the war in Afghanistan, he constantly emphasizes. It’s the politicians and top brass who refused to see the reality on the ground until it was too late.
West’s love for the Marine Corps is clear when he answers the phone from his home in Hilton Head, S.C.
“Happy Veterans Day,” I said.
“Thank you,” he replied. “But the big day was yesterday, the Marine Corps birthday.”
West’s great-uncle was a Marine in World War I, and his two uncles were Marines in World War II. His son Owen, who is also an author, served in Marine Force Recon during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and a second tour as an adviser to an Iraqi battalion.
Bing’s a no-nonsense kind of guy, so I get straight to it: “You’ve long been critical of nation building in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Your nonfiction books The Wrong War and One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War (2014), and most recently a novel, The Last Platoon (2020), all center around this. As the war in Afghanistan was winding down and coming to something of a catastrophic end, how did you decide to move away from nonfiction and write a novel?”
“I thought that if you want to interest readers, first tell them a story and don’t lecture,” West replies. “And the more I thought about that, I said, I can write a story that is a metaphor for the entire war, but centers around a captain on the battlefield with an ambitious colonel who represents the ambition of the military, and then link that back to the perceptions in the White House, which were crazy, just totally disconnected.”
Crazy? I ask him to describe what he means. “Afghanistan was a crazy military operation,” he says, “because anyone on patrol on the ground out there wandering around, trying to talk to these tribesmen who were hurling headlong into the Ninth Century would know that the tribal culture of Afghanistan had nothing to do with what we considered democracy. Therefore, for generals to be saying they could do this was crazy. The generals did not go out on patrol. And that’s what I was trying to point out in my novel. The people on the ground knew this couldn’t be done. And the generals kept insisting it could be done.”
That reminds me of a line toward the end of The Last Platoon when a character named Stovell says to Capt. Diego Cruz, the main character who commands a small team of CIA operatives and Marines protecting a base in the Sangin district of Helmand province, “This isn’t a country, it’s a pathology. Don’t fight what you can’t correct.”
“And that summarizes my belief,” West said. “I’ve been on battlefields for 20 years — four or five years in Vietnam, four or five years in Iraq, four or five years in Afghanistan — and of the three of them, Afghanistan was the most absurd. It’s not a country. It is a pathology. It’s a deeply Islamic tribal culture. And we conceded to the terrorists a sanctuary called Pakistan. It made no sense what we were doing militarily.”
Which brings me to perhaps his most powerful book, One Million Steps, an account of his embed with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (3/5), the infantry battalion that suffered the highest casualty rate in the war in Afghanistan. How did he decide to focus on just one platoon — 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company — commanded by Lt. Vic Garcia?
“I had been up north in the Korengal Valley with the Army, and then on several operations in the south, and I had finished the book, The Wrong War,” says West. “And a Marine colonel whom I knew from Iraq contacted me and said, ‘I’m going to show you what is really happening here.’ And he drove me to this isolated outpost in the middle of nowhere [Sangin] and he said, ‘You’re going to love these guys and they’re going to love you.’ And he dropped me off.”
West soon learned that 3rd Platoon was doing the toughest fighting in Sangin “all by itself, one mile away from the company headquarters in a tiny little farmhouse.” And every day he was with them, West says, “we were in a firefight. And usually in one day we would discover two or three IEDs [improvised explosive devices] when we were patrolling. And later, I realized the platoon started with 52. And at the end of seven months, they had 26 Marines still there. They had two killed, nine amputations of legs or arms and 17 gunshot wounds in one small platoon. So I calculated that if you made it through all seven months and you patrolled once a day, that you had taken one million steps on the battlefield, never knowing when you were going to get blown up, and 50% of you wouldn’t make it. And that’s why I titled the book One Million Steps.”
“And you write beautifully about one young Marine who lost his legs and then suffered infection after infection and finally took his own life in 2014,” I say.
“Yes. Yeah. It just, I mean, it wears you down. It just wears you down,” West says. “And the idea that you couldn’t talk to them about this notion about making a democracy out of Afghanistan. I mean, my goodness. I mean, they didn’t speak the language. We never … Whenever we saw the people, they ran away because the people knew when we came, the Taliban were going to come and it’d be a gunfight.”
It’s worth re-emphasizing here that in our post-9/11 world less than 0.5% of the U.S. population serves in the armed forces, while during World War II more than 12% served. This creates an often painful disconnect between our fighting men and women and the civilian population, a disconnect that can be overwhelming for our wounded warriors.
“The war doesn’t just stop because they come home,” the mother of the Marine who took his own life after the double amputation tells West in One Million Steps. “The war is not over for them. It still rages on in their hearts and in their heads and in their physical bodies.”
In that book’s final chapter, “Who Will Fight For Us?,” West takes Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to task for, after the “terrorists escaped into Pakistan,” having “massively enlarged and changed the mission.” And he doesn’t shy away from calling out the military’s top brass.
“Our most revered generals embraced the mission of changing Afghan culture,” he writes. As a result, “mission clarity and confidence decayed.”
That’s not to say West agreed with the so-called peace negotiated by the Trump administration in February 2020, which halted all attacks on Taliban forces even as they attacked Afghan security forces and civilians, or the frantic withdrawal of all U.S. troops overseen by the Biden administration.
Near the end of The Wrong War, West writes that “As a nation, we must commit to stay in Afghanistan for as long as it takes, while cutting back our conventional forces and building an adviser task force. In addition, Special Operations forces must hunt down Islamist leaders, while helicopter assaults by Ranger-type units continue along the border with Pakistan.” That was in 2011.
A decade later, West says in our interview, that was basically the strategy we were following. “My belief was that by 2019 we had the right strategy, which was to have a very small number of people, and let the Afghans do the fighting. For the Afghan soldiers, knowing that we were there made a big difference, and we could just keep bombing the Taliban. And we had a fantastic airbase at Bagram, in the backyards of Russia, Iran, and China.”
Sadly, the American people, for the most part, had stopped caring about the war. “We hadn’t had anyone killed in 18 months,” West says. “It was more dangerous to be a policeman in the United States. And it wasn’t costing us that much money. I believe we could have continued with that indefinitely. The Taliban would have controlled the entire countryside, and the Afghan forces would’ve controlled the major cities, and you would have had this stalemate that could have gone on indefinitely, at very low cost to us. And that would’ve been sensible.”
Was the situation on the ground in Afghanistan so dire by the time Biden came into office that we couldn’t simply maintain the status quo?
“In my judgment,” says West, “that is not technically correct in military terms, for the following reasons. In order to move against a city, and we saw this in Saigon in ’75, you have to mass troops, you have to mass artillery, and you have to mass ammunition. In order to do any of that, you have to use vehicles. In order to use a vehicle, you have to use the internal combustion engine. If you turn an internal combustion engine on anywhere in the world, and we want to snuff it out, it is gone 10 seconds later. Our aerial surveillance is so fantastic that there is no way that you can mass troops if we don’t want you to.”

In the final analysis, says West, “When President Biden on April 1 said, ‘We are pulling out entirely,’ and the intelligence community said, ‘It will fall by the end of the year,’ that was the window in which you operated. We knew in April that we had 18,000 visa applications, and we knew we had 1,000 or more American citizens in Afghanistan, and the military did nothing, and the State Department did nothing about that until August, when everything fell apart.”

I ask, what do you say to your fellow Marines and everyone who fought in the war, who lost comrades, what do you say to them after the fall of Kabul when, to many, it all seems for naught?
“In 1975,” West says, “when Saigon fell, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger didn’t say a word. But the secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, took it upon himself to write a letter to everyone who had served. In that letter, he said, ‘Your cause was noble; your dedication was determined. You answered your country’s call.’ I think those identical words could be used today to one who served in our post 9/11 wars.”

That was not only unfair for the less than one-half of 1% of the U.S. population that serves in our military, West said, it was ultimately unfair for the Afghan people, who never eventually saw the Taliban storm back to power after our “shameful” retreat from our strongholds at Bagram Air Base and the capital of Kabul.

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