Bing West Critical of U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

Afghan children with a U.S. soldier from the 5th Stryker Brigade on Monday as he patrols in Sari Ghundi village near the border with Pakistan, about 63 miles southeast of Kandahar. (AP)
Afghan children with a U.S. soldier from the 5th Stryker Brigade on Monday as he patrols in Sari Ghundi village near the border with Pakistan, about 63 miles southeast of Kandahar. (AP)

BOSTON — After his fourth trip to Afghanistan, writer and former Assistant Defense Secretary Bing West explains why he's critical of US commanding generals in Afghanistan who think the war can be won without shooting the enemy.

West describes how he met Staff Sgt. Eric Lindstrom, the father of twin baby girls and "the best squad leader in the platoon," who days later was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade.

"It was in a very remote valley way up in the top of Afghanistan, the people up there weren't regular Taliban, they were just kind of al-Qaida recruited from somewhere in Pakistan, and they attacked across the border. It was a bizarre thing. It's like you're fighting tribes that are back in the first century."

"None of them are organized the way we think they're organized. it's more equivalent to fighting the Apaches in the 1870s. You get these different gangs, and they're very good fighters. They use the mountains very, very well, and they were shooting down, they had what we call 'plunging fire,' and were firing rocket-propelled grenades, and unfortunately one of them struck and killed Sgt. Lindstrom."

Robin Young: You mention the Apaches, the difference would seem to be that, you write, the Taliban, in modern day, has very little popular support.

Bing West: Well, I doubt that the Apaches had too much popular support either!

RY: Well, they had fellow Apaches...

BW: That's about what the Taliban have... The dilemma you have now in Afghanistan is that most of the people just want to be left alone, but when the Taliban come in at night , there's no one to there to ward them off, so while they like the Americans-- they really like the fact that we're the ones building the schools and hospitals and roads-- the idea that they're going to stand up to the Taliban, that hasn't happened, because they keep saying 'holy smokes when you're not here, they come right in.' So the Taliban are looked at by most Afghans as being a bunch of wackos, but they're very, very fierce fighters, and they come back and forth across the Pakistani border just like they're driving down the road!"

"The morale of the Taliban has not been broken, they're still willing to stay out on that field and fight with you."

RY: Well now, this observation, coupled with Staff Sgt. Lindstrom's death, underscores something else you say about how the military is presenting the war in Afghanistan: we're not hearing about these battles.

BW: "I'm a little bit miffed at our senior commanders for spending so much time saying that we have to sit down and have cups of tea with village elders, and that war is not kinetic, meaning it's not shooting. Well, if they believe that, why are they sending over all our soldiers with rifles? Well the fact is that it is a shooting war, and every time they say, 'well this has to be solved by political means,' that strikes me as being like the chief of police who says, 'well, you can't blame me for crime, because crime comes for society as a whole.' And I think that our senior generals should spend more time focused on the battles and less time talking about cups of tea."

RY: We understand that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who took over the command of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan in June, is reviewing [the overall strategy of the war there]. It sounds as if what has been talked about for years, is indeed going to be pushed
even more. We're hearing that this thinking is to switch from tracking insurgents, to the primary mission: protecting civilians.

BW: "I don't understand it, and I've been on a lot of battlefields throughout my entire life, starting with a combined action platoon in Vietnam for two years. I just don't understand this talk of protecting the people without fighting the enemy. It baffles me, it's double talk as far as I'm concerned."

RY: Well, some of your recommendations are in line with what we're hearing General McChrystal is also [considering]; you say what's needed is more troops-- U.S. and Afghan-- more helicopters, let the Afghans do the work. What do you mean by that?

BW: "I mean it's their country, the Taliban are their primary enemy, and I want to see more of the Afghans out there. We just sent 10,000 Marines in to Helmand province and there were only 500 Afghan soldiers when we got there. So I think our military bureaucracy has done a terrible job, and absolutely terrible job, of building up the Afghan soliders, because the Afghans will fight. But we have been spending years, we're nine years into this war and we're just building an army now? I don't get it, we've made some very bad military mistakes and trying to cover that up by saying, 'well, it's because we haven't drunk enough cups of tea, strikes me as being a cop out."

RY: But where's the disconnect? We're hearing from people like former British diplomat Rory Stewart, that you have to drink tea first.

BW: "Well, whatever mechanism gets them there, do it. I agree with Rory entirely, he'd like to see many more Afghans out there and eventually many fewer Europeans and Americans. I believe that after this surge is over, say a year from now, it's time to have many more Afghans out in front, to fight their own fight."

RY: So it's sort of like you are saying you agree there should be this interaction with Afghans, but not as much to sit and have tea, as to get them to get out and defend their own country.

BW: "Correct, that's exactly right."

This program aired on August 6, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.


More from Here & Now

Listen Live