I was north of Kandahar, flying in a helicopter with an American general who was telling me more than I could absorb about rural irrigation systems. I asked if he had ever imagined, back when he was at West Point, that he’d become so expert in agricultural development?
No, he said, he had not. But he did learn at West Point that a soldier does whatever is necessary to accomplish his mission. So if fighting rural poverty is what it takes to win in Afghanistan, he’d fight rural poverty.
I remember being mightily impressed by the general. I still am. But more than two years later, I’m skeptical about whether this is the most effective strategy for winning in Afghanistan — and, more importantly, for winning the global war being waged against the West by those who call themselves jihadis.
Such doubts have increased in recent days, in part because I’ve been reading Bing West’s “The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way out of Afghanistan.” A Marine combat veteran and former Pentagon official (and my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies), West has embedded dozens of times with frontline units in Afghanistan in 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 quoted Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who in 2008 told 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 wrote, American commanders have become “de facto district governors, spending most of their time on non-military tasks.” They have come to believe that nation building is “the enlightened way for soldiers to fight an insurgency,” and that, West wrote, 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. I would argue that the “surge” in Iraq succeeded not because schools and clinics were built, but because Petraeus understood what too many Americans and most Europeans still do not: Al-Qaida in Iraq and Iranian-backed militias were responsible for most of the carnage.
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 called, in an earlier book, “The Strongest Tribe,” and that the tribe would not abandon Iraqis to their mutual enemies if the going got tough.
Afghanistan is a different place. The Taliban is a different enemy. In West’s view, a different strategy is required. He argued that in Afghanistan the “primary U.S. mission” should be to establish and maintain “adviser 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.”
In 2007, to avoid what would have been a humiliating and consequential defeat in Iraq, President George W. Bush changed strategies. Four years later, to avoid what would be a no less humiliating and consequential defeat, President Barack Obama might have to follow Bush’s example.
West, an experienced and thoughtful military expert, has offered one option. There are others. Now is the time for Obama to listen hard to a variety of perspectives — not least that of Petraeus. But Obama should make it clear that the mission is not to prevail only on the Afghan battlefield.
The mission is to prevail in the global war now under way. That will require that Obama acknowledge such a war is under way, and that nothing matters more to the future of the United States than who wins that war.
Clifford D. May is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.