BOOK REVIEW: Prescriptions from the front

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By Bing West
Random House, $28, 336 pages

Bing West is on his way to becoming the Thucydides of the global War on Terror. Like the Athenian, he has frequently been in the front lines, but in the capacity of a special adviser he has also been in the halls of power when the strategies of the twin conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been debated.

“The Wrong War” is his fifth book and will most likely not be the last. Unlike Thucydides, however, Mr. West publishes his views as the war goes on, whereas the Athenian published his history in retrospect. Mr. West will likely write a postscript to the war a few years after the smoke has cleared, but the problem of being prescriptive during the fight is that you might be proven wrong. This is a chance that the author is willing to take.

The primary strength of the book is in Mr. West’s willingness to live with Marines and soldiers on the front lines, enduring their hardships and observing their valor, determination and humor close-up. Other embedded reporters have done so credibly, but Mr. West brings a unique perspective, having been a combat Marine engaged in fighting against insurgents in Vietnam and a deputy secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

Mr. West begins this chapter of the saga in the tragic battles for the Pakistani border, where for the first time since Vietnam, the U.S. Army was forced to give up ground that it had decided to fight for. Mr. West argues that it was not that the soldiers lacked skill and courage. He believes that the strategy of nation building is not working in Afghanistan, and that the effort is not worth the thousands of lives and billions in treasure.

He illustrates this with vignettes of Afghan civilian venality that sharply contrast the valor of the soldiers in places in the Kornegal, Pech and Konar Valleys and in outposts such as Restrepo and Camp Joyce. Here the real weakness of the nation-building program is starkly revealed. In all of the time spent fighting and the treasure expended in that area, Mr. West reports that not one Karzai government civilian official worked in the Kornegal Valley. It was an all-American show.

Mr. West then goes on to the south, where the Marines continue to wage battles for control of Helmand Province. He again recounts the courage and tenacity of Marines, many of whom he met in Iraq. Fresh off their successful campaigns in Anbar Province, some of the most venerated organizations of the Corps were eager to test their counterinsurgency skills against a new enemy.

The Taliban proved to be tough and heavy fighting ensued. However, despite notable military success, Mr. West finds that nation building in Iraq is merely producing an “entitlement culture” rather than building a strong nation.

In the final chapter, Mr. West argues for an end to the nation-building strategy and to the time limits imposed by the Obama administration. He is not urging an end to the war - indeed, he is arguing to stay as long as it takes to crush the Taliban, but he wants to do it with fewer troops configured along the lines of the Combined Action Program (CAP) in Vietnam, which he participated in and wrote about in his book, “The Village.”

Mr. West makes his point with the illustration of the story of Task Force Commando. This was a standard Afghan battalion trained and led by a Special Forces “A” Team and reinforced with Marine Corps engineers and fire support.

Task Force Commando shared responsibility with two Marine battalions in the Marja fighting and held its own. The author believes that his is the way out. He may be right but the Obama administration seems set on the present course and there is not enough time for the West plan.

However, since the book went to press some positive developments have occurred. I recently received a picture of a congressional delegation touring Marja accompanied by high-ranking Marines. None is wearing body armor and the Marines are armed with carbines. Five months ago, that would be unthinkable.

Additionally, the “government in a box” concept seems to have provided some local governance. Despite that, the Karzai government remains its own worst enemy and the chief Taliban enabler. Military advisers can’t fix that.

Right or wrong, the real value of this book is the celebration of the fighting spirit of American soldiers and Marines. That makes it worth the price.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan, recently serving a tour with the State Department in Iraq as a senior governance adviser.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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