Author Bing West

Former Defense Department official explains why he feels the U.S. military should not be in the business of nation-building and describes the single biggest killer of U.S. forces who are fighting in Afghanistan.

A Marine combat vet, Bing West also served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Reagan administration. Today, in addition to helming the GAMA Corporation, which develops training techniques for combat decision-making, he's an acclaimed war correspondent and best-selling author, whose books on Iraq have won several awards. West called upon his observations while being embedded with dozens of frontline units in Afghanistan over the past two years to pen The Wrong War, an account of the conflict in that country.


Tavis: As I mentioned at the top, the war in Afghanistan is now in its 10th year, making it the longest in U.S. history. Among those who’ve questioned U.S. strategy and policy for years now is Bing West, former Marine combat veteran and assistant secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan.
His new book on the subject is called “The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan.” In writing about the book in “The New York Times” this past Sunday, veteran military correspondent Dexter Filkins said this: “‘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.” Bing West, good to have you back on this program.
Bing West: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Good to see you.
West: Thank you.
Tavis: I want to start with – that’s “The New York Times” had to say this past Sunday; I want to go back to what you told me. I asked you a question about Iraq back in 2008, three years ago, when you were last on this program. I want to start with what you said about Iraq and the transition you made to Afghanistan before we come back to this new book, “The Wrong War.” Let’s play this clip.
[Begin video clip.]
“Tavis Smiley:” Winning in Iraq now means what, as you define it?
“Bing West:” From my definition –
 “Tavis Smiley:” Absolutely.
“Bing West:” – winning is a level of stability with violence that the Iraqis can handle without us and without the country falling apart or getting under the control of Iran, and we’re just about there. That’s quite different than saying you’re going to have this wonderful democracy or something. I don’t see that as being our business, to a certain extent.
I think my book I hope would be a warning to anybody. If you read this book and understand how hard we had to work, now we have both presidential candidates saying okay, now we have to do more in Afghanistan, and I’m in the camp of saying, whoa, I’m all in favor of that, but let’s have our eyes wide open about what we’re getting into in Afghanistan, because Afghanistan’s going to be even harder than Iraq.”
[End video clip.]
Tavis: “Afghanistan is going to be even harder than Iraq.” That’s you talking to me back in 2008. The good news is we had on different suits and ties. Whew. (Laughter) Hate to see a clip where you’ve got the same outfit on three years ago.
The bad news is, for me, at least, I’m not so sure that things are any better in Afghanistan. The bad news is that you were right – that Afghanistan is going to be harder, but I’m sure there’s no consolation in that for you.
West: None.
Tavis: Yeah.
West: I’ve been over there now for the last three years on eight different occasions, I put in about a year altogether, with our units down in the south and up in the north, and the problem that I see is exactly like Iraq, only on steroids. We’re trying to do too much.
On the one hand we’re trying to build a nation, and on the other hand we’re trying to fight terrorists, and I think we have to focus down and say why are we really there, and just do what I think should be the military mission – stopping the terrorists, but not trying to bring Afghanistan into the 21st century.
Tavis: As you see it, then, why are we trying to do both?
West: In my judgment, it started – in all due deference, I think he had some good points, but it started with President Bush, with his belief that was based on his religious beliefs, that you had to bring liberty to other people. Well, no, you don’t. I think other people should fight for their own liberty.
Then we went from that to saying we have to build nation-building, and we have to use our military to build other nations. I don’t think we do. Our military is a fighting organization. So we diverted ourselves because of our own idealism.
Tavis: You mentioned President Bush, who got us in this mess to begin with, but there are critics increasingly who are making it very clear that President Obama is not that much different on these issues than President Bush. As a matter of fact, if you pay attention, it’s only been in the last couple days that Republicans, and this is going back to before they were even in power in Congress, Republicans have been after the president on the domestic agenda. They’ve not had a whole lot to say about his foreign policy because in many ways, as I said, critics are suggesting that he is doing the same thing, more of what Bush was doing
More troops in Afghanistan, more drones in Pakistan. I raise all that to ask if you are critical of President Bush for what he got us into, your assessment of President Obama, then, who’s continuing these policies, is what?
West: The same. At some point the president has to call in the National Security Council and say, “What are we doing?” President Obama said, “We’re not doing full-scale counterinsurgency and we’re not doing full-scale nation-building,” but those are negatives.
The question then is, well, what’s the positive mission? What are we supposed to be doing? My objection is the same as it was toward Lyndon Baines Johnson when he was the president, starting the Great Society. We have given so much money now to the Afghans that they expect money from us, and we’ve created a culture of entitlement.
I don’t see that as being what we should be doing and I certainly don’t see that as being what the mission of our military is. So I spend most of my book trying to explain what our military does, and then I leave it up to the reader to decide for himself or herself how we should cut back.
I have my recommendations, which is we don’t need as many troops, we certainly shouldn’t be spending all the money we’re spending, because we’re not getting anywhere, and we certainly should keep a lot of pressure on the Taliban.
But in the end, it has to be building up the Afghan soldiers to fight their own war, not us fighting for them.
Tavis: The argument that the Obama administration continues to make, have made from the very beginning, is that we need to get out of Iraq and send those troops in to Afghanistan because while we got diverted, when we got diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq the Taliban and others were able to – al Qaeda – were able to get back to work in Afghanistan and we’ve got to reassess what’s happened there and go back and get this situation under control. That is why we need to put more troops into Afghanistan. You don’t buy that argument?
West: No, I don’t, because we went far beyond that. I’m out there with our troops, and our troops are good fighters, but after they’re finished fighting they’re also required to give out economic aid to the Afghan people. Then they’re required to help set up the government at the district level, and at that particular point I say, “Wait, wait – we shouldn’t be using our military to do that. We don’t have to do all those tasks.” We’ve taken on nation-building and that’s a bridge too far, and we don’t have to be there.
Tavis: But do we need more soldiers, whatever the number is, do we need more soldiers, to the president’s point, President Obama’s point, that is, to get back under control what we allowed to go awry when we left Afghanistan basically to focus on Iraq?
West: There are two different aspects in my judgment to that.
Tavis: Okay.
West: What I saw down in the south, and I was just there two weeks ago, is that the Marines are pushing the Taliban right out of the areas where no one thought they could be pushed out. But that’s a flat area down south. Up in the mountains in the north I’m very suspicious as to what’s happening along the border with Pakistan, because it’s a different fighting style.
But on either scale, I think we’ve done about what we can with our 100,000 troops, and it’s time to start cutting back and letting the Afghans do it instead of us.
Tavis: I hear people like Bing West and others say that they don’t think that this war as it’s now being fought is winnable. It’s not winnable, but we do have to be there. Help me square those two things – it ain’t winnable, but we need to be there.
West: Oh, I have no problems doing that at the ground level.
Tavis: Okay.
West: At the ground level I believe we need enough troops there so that the terrorists can never take control of Kabul – never.
Tavis: Okay.
West: I’d say that number of troops is under 40,000, because we’re terrific on a battlefield. Now, if somebody says, “Well, I want you, by the definition of winning, to have a wonderful new country in Afghanistan that doesn’t have corruption, that has a good government, et cetera,” I don’t think we can do that.
So I have no problem saying I know how to do the military mission, I know our troops can do that. But then if you’re going to say to me, “Well, now, what about all of Afghanistan,” I’ll say, “No, that’s a bridge too far for us. Just let us say we’re not going to have the terrorists take over here.”
Tavis: All right, so let me circle back now to that clip I played at the top. I asked you three years ago on this program what your definition of winning was in Iraq.
West: Right.
Tavis: So since we’re talking about winning now in Afghanistan, what does winning mean for us now in Afghanistan? How do you define that?
West: Winning to me is defined by we’ve done enough so that our troops begin to come back home on a regular basis, no more surge, and that the Afghans are able to stand, the Afghan army is able to stand up for itself against the Taliban.
Now, if somebody says, well, what about the fact that Karzai is a bum and he can’t get things done, et cetera, and there’s all that corruption, I’d say, “Hey, that’s none of my business.” I think that that can still remain a mess, just like I said in Iraq. It may not turn out perfectly, but if we prevent the terrorists from taking over, that’s good enough.
Tavis: Maybe the answer to the question I’m about to ask is nation-building from your perspective, but I want to hear the answer anyway. So the president is not just hearing this from critics of his; the Democratic Party last week at their annual meeting or whatever passed a resolution – this is his party – passed a resolution encouraging the president to get out of Afghanistan even more quickly than he has said that he wants to draw down.
They’re pressing the president on Afghanistan, not to be sending more troops, et cetera, et cetera. I raise that because he’s hearing it from a lot of different people. So what are they not hearing, because obviously, what you are saying and what others are saying about this war not being winnable, that the strategy is wrong, we’re seeing too many troops there, et cetera, et cetera, the people around him are obviously telling him something different and he’s talking to a lot of knowledgeable, expert military officers. So why is he hearing what he’s hearing?
West: Well, I’d be very careful, because I’ll bet you, Tavis, if we were having this conversation next September we would see that the administration and the military have come much closer to my point of view than what seems now.
Tavis: Okay.
West: I think that we’re going to semi declare victory this summer, and after that we’re going to start pulling out a little bit at a time. I believe on the ground that is the truth that we can do that for a tactical reason that I never thought I’d see that I’ve now seen.
I’ve been on battlefields for 40 years, but we have never before been able to link the air with the people on the ground to the degree we do now. We have blimps, unmanned aerial vehicles and fighter aircraft overhead that give you better pictures than what you see at the Super Bowl.
That gives our forces on the ground a terrific advantage when they’re out there fighting anybody. I was just over there two weeks ago and we were getting fire from one of our flanks, and I’m there with a sergeant on the ground, and the sergeant’s talking to this man over the radio and this man says, “I see them on a roof and they’re about 300 meters from you, and one has a long rifle. Do you want me to take him out?”
And the sergeant says, “Take him out,” and the next thing I know this F18 aircraft comes rushing in and strafes far out in the treeline. Said, “I got him; you’re not going to get any more fire from that sniper.”
That’s incredible to me, that we have that kind of linkage, and because we have that kind of linkage, I don’t think we need anywhere near as many troops, and I think you’re going to see that happen this summer.
Tavis: So your response to those who are saying that the minute we pull out all hell is going to break lose, if we think things are bad in Afghanistan now, if we think things are bad in that region of the world right now, we pull out, all hell breaks loose, your response is?
West: No, because that’s not the nature of the enemy. The enemy that we’re fighting, the Taliban, are equivalent to the Apaches in the 1860s. They’re good, cunning fighters, but they keep their distance and they fire from under cover. But it’s not a big army.
They’re fighting in small groups, and they use motorcycles just like the Indians in our country used to use horses. They’re not a big threat to a major city. They can be taken on by forces much smaller. I believe that if we put in more advisers, as I suggest, we can let the Afghans handle this because we have such fantastic air.
Tavis: I mentioned at the top of this conversation that you are a Vietnam veteran –
West: Marine.
Tavis: Marine, exactly – yeah, yeah. There are so many comparisons that have been made between Vietnam and Afghanistan. Are you seeing now – when that comparison was first made, I remember Ted Kennedy, when he was alive, made that comparison, and he got pushback from a lot of different people. He was getting concerned about this Afghanistan situation.
But I’ve heard a lot of other people, of course, since then make that comparison. What’s your sense of those comparisons now in 2011 between Vietnam and Afghanistan?
West: I think that Vietnam is ancient history and it’s very hard to make the comparison, even though I fought there. I’ll tell you where the comparison isn’t. The way we treat our troops today is terrific, and the troops know it and appreciate it, and that wasn’t the case in the past.
This country has a vibrancy to it that is terrific, and we’re able to distinguish between missions that we may not like as individuals and still representing a fine, fine view toward our people, toward our soldiers and toward our Marines, and saying God bless you for what you’re doing.
The one thing that I did see high similarity, and I bring this out, in Vietnam, land mines were a problem. In Afghanistan, this – this is called an improvised explosive device trigger – is the single biggest killer of our forces. All it is is one wire goes to an explosive and the other wire goes to a battery, a flashlight battery. When you put them together and you’re walking along, if you step on this it makes the connection, sends a spark and the explosive goes off.
The first patrol I was on two weeks ago, the Marine at point found four of these fiendish devices as we were moving along.
Tavis: It looks so mom and pop.
West: Oh, it’s just – what I think is extraordinary is that our soldiers and Marines go out every single day knowing they’re going to bump into that, and they’re staying with the mission every single day. That takes long-term courage, because they know they’re going to bump into them.
It’s not a question of if they bump into them; it’s a question of when they bump into them.
Tavis: Let me back down for a second and give you just a couple minutes here to tell me, into the book now, what these soldiers are doing. So 10 years later in this war, what are these officers, these soldiers doing every day?
West: This is the dilemma that I see. What our soldiers do every day, and I go through story after story, up in the mountains and down south, is that they go out to push back the enemy. Okay, I can understand that. That’s a military mission.
But then they are given millions of dollars – every single captain over there has a few million dollars that he has to spend on the locals, and he has to say to them what projects do you want and we’ll help you build the projects, because I’m going to win your hearts and minds.
Then they go into the districts and say to the governor, “We’ll help you in terms of governance of this particular area.” Well, at that particular point we’ve moved far, far beyond just a military mission, so our soldiers simultaneously are project engineers, they’re governors and they’re fighters, and yet I say to myself, much as I love our soldiers and I know that we can do all this, I ask, “Why are we doing all this? We’ve gone too far.”
I don’t believe we’re ever going to win the hearts and minds of the Pashtun tribes over there. Most of those tribes are hurtling headlong into the 10th century. They’ll accept whatever we give to them, but we shouldn’t just give things to them, we should say we expect you to begin to stand up for yourself.
Tavis: Tell me why you take such a hard-line position – that is to say, why you think that military operations and diplomatic operations can’t coexist. What’s wrong with a little bit of military, a little diplomacy? Why can’t those things work together?
West: Well, the issue is “a little bit.” When I find a battalion commander spending more than 50 percent of his time on economics or governance, I say stop. We’ve gone over the line. He’s forgotten what his primary mission should be.
Tavis: But isn’t that preferred, though, to fighting? Isn’t that preferred to losing officers? If you’re doing diplomacy, for lack of a better word, and you’re winning hearts and minds, which means, I assume, that you’re not losing lives of your officers, your soldiers, isn’t that a good thing?
West: It’s a perfect thing, Tavis, if that was what was happening, and that’s my real objection to this thing called counterinsurgency, because you just articulated the true social contract.
We Americans go to a village or someplace and we say we’re going to give you some protection, we’re going to give you money, we’re going to give you governance, and in return you, the people, must reject the Taliban, you must tell us who those Taliban are and you must betray some of them.
Common sensically, what the people say is I’ll take all the money you can give to me, I’ll take any protection you can give to me, but you’re nuts if you think I’m going to keep my part of that bargain.
So I think we have created a theory of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan that is wrong. That’s not what we did in Vietnam, and to a large extent it’s not what really turned the tide in Iraq. What’s going to happen in Afghanistan is a showdown that we cannot win. The showdown is going to be between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban.
And Pashtuns everywhere, when I talk to them, they’ll always say, “We believe the Taliban are going to come back once you Americans pull out of here.” That’s the acid test, and I hope this summer we’re going to start seeing people understand that and really get to that point.
Tavis: I want to ask you a question specifically about a soldier; then I’ll ask you a question, follow up more broadly about the soldiers. Tell me about Corporal Meyer.
West: Oh. An extraordinary individual. I hope he’s going to get the Medal of Honor. He deserves it. But this is classic of the kinds of young men we have over here.
He was in a battle in a valley where they were trapped. Two hundred people were trapped in that valley and they were under such intense fire that the Taliban commander was saying – over the radio he was taunting them and saying, “We killed the Russians, we can kill you. But if you put your weapons down we’ll let you live.”
Corporal Dakota Meyer’s commander was evacuated from the battlefield. He’s 21 years of age, and he came forward and he said, “We’re going to take those positions,” and he charged personally, by himself, against these fortified positions, not once, not twice – he went five times. Why he’s still alive is just a miracle.
But the commander on the other side, who was taunting them at first, toward the end of the battle was saying, “Stop that man, stop that man,” and he turned, Corporal Dakota Meyer turned an entire battle by himself. That’s incredible, and I certainly hope he gets the Medal of Honor.
Tavis: My follow-up question about the soldiers beyond Corporal Meyer specifically, I know the soldiers serve, they protect, they save, they protect our way of life, I get that. My father was in the military for 37, 38 years, in the Air Force. So I know they’re going to do their job, as you’ve made the point many times, but since you spend so much time with them, what do they really think about what they’re being asked to do?
I know they’re going to do the job, but they know what they’re up against. What do they really think about what they’re being asked to do?
West: They never look at the bigger picture. God bless them, they’re their own little tribes and all they basically say is, “I’m going to get my job done.” I think in their hearts at the lower level they’re very skeptical about this winning hearts and minds and the counterinsurgency, but they look at I’m going to beat the Taliban, and I love being out there because they’re so rambunctious and they’re so full of the spirit of vinegar it’s terrific to watch them on a battlefield.
If you said to them, “Why do you do this?” they give you a thousand excuses, but you’re right – they do it because they believe they’re our guardians, but they never come right out and say that because that sounds like fluff. They’d never say such a thing, so they’ll always give you another reason.
But they like the rough life. That’s why they volunteered. The enlistments in Afghanistan, reenlistments, are higher than they are in the United States. They’re doing what they like to do, and if you let them fight, that’s fine. It’s when you put them into these peacekeeping things that actually, their morale isn’t as high.
Tavis: What about the loss of Afghan lives, the innocent women and children? What about those losses?
West: It’s just hard. But I have to say that the people who really get me angry are the people who set in these fiendish devices so that any child, any woman, any farmer who walks by is killed just as instantly as anybody else. We found one of these in the middle of a farmer’s field just by accident. The next farmer out would have been killed.
So when I look at the balance between some of the casualties that are going to happen in any war when you’re on a battlefield, and those who deliberately put people at risk, I basically say the Taliban are real SOBs.
Tavis: Here’s the exit question. Despite everything you’ve said in this conversation, what we’re getting out of the Obama administration, if we ought to believe our government, is that we’re going to be in Afghanistan a little bit longer than even he thought when he first ran – we started this conversation with a quote from you about what McCain and Obama were saying during the campaign.
The president’s changed his own view about this. He now believes that we’re going to be there longer. So I ask why you think that there is then really a way out, and that there is a timeline acceptable to the American people for us to get out?
West: Because I have an awful lot of faith in our commanders to come together this summer with the president, and the president saying, “Now, you told me two years and we’d begin to see something,” and I believe that the military commanders are going to say, “Sir, we have achieved what we wanted to with the surge, we will begin to pull out.”
Not entirely – I’m not in favor of pulling out entirely – but absolutely pulling out to the degree that Afghanistan is on page 24 and we have half as many people there at half the cost that we have today.
Tavis: From your mouth to God’s ears.
West: I hope to. (Laughter)
Tavis: The book is called “The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan,” written by “New York Times” best-selling author of “The Strongest Tribe,” Bing West. Mr. West, good to have you on this program.
West: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Thank you for your time.
West: Thank you.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm