Commentary: An Afghanistan scale-down road map

E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

On the eve of World War II, our Navy was heavily invested in battleships and poorly prepared for the aircraft-carrier war that actually ensued. Our admirals saw future conflict through a mental frame that became obsolete at Pearl Harbor.

They adhered to a military doctrine that was radically out of sync with the war they found themselves fighting.

Bing West, a former Marine infantryman and former Pentagon official, argues that in Afghanistan, our current doctrine of counterinsurgency is similarly out of sync.

As the title of his recent book bluntly states, we’re fighting “The Wrong War.”

West’s book, laced with first-hand experience with combat troops in Afghanistan, is generating a tremendous amount of interest. He argues that the “new” counterinsurgency doctrine that helped turn the tide in Iraq can’t work in Afghanistan.

The book’s subtitle promises to offer “the way out of Afghanistan,” but what West serves up is less an exit strategy than a way to carry on while our current force is drawn down over time.

What he suggests deserves serious consideration in Washington. The book is well timed: This week, Gen. David Petraeus, the top general in Afghanistan, will testify before Congress on the war’s progress.

West’s plan borrows from one of the few successful counterinsurgency tactics applied in Vietnam — the Combined Action Program. Under CAP, Marine infantry units were quartered in Vietnamese villages and Marines fought alongside the local villagers. West’s idea would assign task forces of U.S. advisers to larger Afghan units, an arrangement he’s already seen in action.

He writes of a Special Forces captain who advised an Afghan battalion at the battle of Marja last year. The initial group of 10 Special Forces sergeants was too small for the 400-man battalion, so a Marine platoon was added along with engineers and fire-control coordinators to call in artillery or air support.

This arrangement, West writes, “enabled the Afghan battalion to perform credibly on its own.”

West’s beef with existing counterinsurgency doctrine is that it discounts the importance of the military’s traditional mission: Seek out and destroy the enemy. It presumes that “stability operations” like building schools deserve to be on the same footing as combat operations.

Current doctrine, West argues, has “transformed our military into a giant Peace Corps” and is undermining the warrior ethos of our troops.

Under counterinsurgency theory, if the people are supported and protected they’ll turn against the Taliban. But in Afghanistan, the population has remained neutral and we’ve created a nation of dependents. “Both the Kabul government and the Pashtun tribes are accustomed to receiving something for nothing and giving nothing in return,” West writes.

Fortunately, in recent months there have been clear signs that the aggressiveness of our troops has been ramped up considerably. Thomas Donnelly, a defense policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, says the situation in Afghanistan has changed markedly since West began writing his book.

“This year and next, I think you’ll see a campaign much more oriented to defeating the enemy rather than winning hearts and minds,” Donnelly said.

In fact, a recent piece by West himself in National Review tells of a Marine unit that took over an outpost from British troops late last year. Immediately, the Marines adopted a more offensive posture.

They steadily pushed out their patrol perimeter and drove the Taliban back. Their immediate concern wasn’t winning the allegiance of the district’s poor farmers, but dominating the battlefield.

West’s book offers a plan for gradually scaling back our current large-scale involvement while shifting more of the burden to the Afghans, and he makes a good case that the nation-building “stability operations” have been a poor use of scarce resources.

Those who wonder when we’ll be out of Afghanistan completely shouldn’t hold their breath. The region will be a zone of contention for a long time.

But we can steadily reduce our involvement via West’s model, which seems a realistic middle ground between our current heavy commitment and the too-light, attack-from-a-distance approach once suggested by Vice President Joe Biden.

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