In his latest book, One Million Steps, Bing West describes the daily battles of a platoon of U.S. Marines he embedded with as they engaged in one of the mostly desperate and deadly engagements with the Taliban in Afghanistans Sangin Province, a fight in which half of them would be killed or injured.
First, you were once a young Marine in Vietnam yourself. Following your experience embedded with the Marines of 3/5 Battalion in Afghanistan’s Sangin Province, what the hell is it that still compels young Americans to raise their right hand and volunteer? These men served multiple tours in combat in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The work conditions aren’t great. The pay sucks. Your friends might die and so could you. When you get home, nobody knows what you have been through. What kind of people are they? What is it they see that others don’t? What is their war like?
The 50 Marines in 3rd Platoon came from middle-class families – 75% from two-parent families. All had graduated from high school and had job opportunities. Most chose the Marines for its discipline and toughness. They were twice volunteers – first to join the Marines and second to join the infantry. They were quietly, perhaps defiantly, patriotic. Sgt. “Mad Dog” Joe Myers expressed it when he said, “This war’s stupid. But so what? Our country’s in it.”
Marines win battles, not wars. They are not the coach or the team owner; they are the players in the mud on the field. They take pride in finishing every fight standing on the enemy’s ground. The platoon lived in caves hacked out of the walls of an abandoned farm compound one mile outside friendly lines, without garrison chores. They had no internet or distractions from home. Each day they patrolled about two and a half miles – adding up to one million steps in six months. Every day they got into gunfights or found – one way or the other Improvised Explosive Devices. This was raw combat in thick brush along a wide river – a setting eerily similar to Vietnam.
The 3rd platoon in Sangin District fought the hardest six-month campaign of the Afghan war. Twenty-five members of their battalion were killed. Every day was a slugfest. But now that ISIS in Iraq has gained so much territory in Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan has become the forgotten war. My intent in joining 3rd Platoon and writing about them was to preserve a narrative of how hard our grunts fought.
It’s been said that the wars in Iraq and especially Afghanistan were or are “squad leaders’ wars” characterized by the shifting of control from flag and field grade officers in divisions, brigades, and battalions, down to Lieutenants and Sergeants at company and platoon level. From what you saw in Sangin, how much of that is true? How much were the leaders at the lowest levels—platoon, squad, team—allowed to fight the war? Were they helped or hindered by those further up the chain of command?
A gulf – no, a chasm – opened in Afghanistan between our grunts fighting the fierce, smart Taliban that shot from compounds and our top generals who declared our grunts should spend 5% of their effort killing the enemy and 95% protecting and persuading the Pashtun tribes. Americans could not “protect” farmers from their cousins.
3rd platoon didn’t know who was on which side on which day. Rules of engagement from the top intended to protect compounds did not make sense. The Taliban used those rules to shoot and scoot safely away.
“Capturing hearts and minds” is the phrase that has been knocked about regarding American COIN efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq and made heroes out of leaders such as General David Petraeus. The argument is that we could win the population away from the enemy that depends upon them and gain actionable intelligence and cooperation in our reconstruction task from a friendly populace. It sounds like a compelling argument. Did it really work? How much credence should the idea be given?
When the Marines left, the Taliban reestablished control. The Afghan Army simply abandoned 3rdPlatoon’s patrol base. It was too dangerous. Most Afghan soldiers are Tajiks from the north who do not speak Pashto and have no desire to be stationed in Taliban havens. No, we did not win hearts and minds; no, we did not persuade the Pashtun tribes to support the government in faraway Kabul. The theory of winning the support of the Pashtuns failed.
However, if we keep about 10,000 – 15,000 troops, including Special Operations forces, in Afghanistan indefinitely – say, at least another five years – then the Taliban can be kept at bay and away from the major cities. Thus we avoid a catastrophic defeat on the global stage.
That should be enough. We want to prevent another sanctuary for terrorists to launch attacks against Europe and the States. We can do that with air power and Special Forces raids. The problem is that we tried to do too much. So after 13 years, the president and the Congress are tired. Thus we might repeat what we unwisely did in Vietnam – slash our aid to zero and cause a collapse. I hope we have the wisdom not to do that.
Nation-building was a conceit by the top generals. It never had a chance. Afghanistan is comprised of xenophobic Islamic tribes hurtling headlong into the ninth century.
Regarding Afghanistan, it appears that we have developed a bipolar view of the situation—there is the enemy (al Qaeda and the Taliban), who want us gone. Then there is the United States and its interests. But what about Afghan agency? Afghans are known for a fierce sense of independence, as the Soviets found out. But not everyone who shoots at a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan is Taliban or Al Qaeda. For a Marine, if they’re shooting at you, they’re the enemy. But what does it mean for ideas such as “nation-building” or “reconstruction?” Can we or should we even attempt to “build’ or “reconstruct” a nation that doesn’t want us there—no matter our best intentions?
No. President George W Bush rashly claimed America had the obligation to bring freedom to Iraq and Afghanistan. That was a noble but misguided sentiment that was compounded by General Petraeus and the top leadership of the Army and Marines. Our top generals developed a counterinsurgency doctrine based on the principle that “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.”
That was crazy. Nation-building was a conceit by the top generals. It never had a chance. Afghanistan is comprised of xenophobic Islamic tribes hurtling headlong into the ninth century. The government is innately corrupt. Elections are massive frauds. The Taliban enjoy a 1,500-mile sanctuary in Pakistan. We invaded to destroy the al-Qaeda terrorists who murdered 3,000 civilians on 9/11. We then stayed to build a democratic nation. That was unnecessary and imprudent.
It’s been said that the best way to win a counterinsurgency is not to fight one—meaning they are to be avoided if at all possible. America’s COIN track record is shaky at best. It seems those concerned with military strategy are still in search of that “magic bullet” strategy than can kill an insurgency. Having fought, studied, influenced policy and written about COIN from Vietnam to South America to Afghanistan, do you think there is a COIN strategy with a good chance at success?
The key to successful counterinsurgency is adequate host-nation governance. Americans as outsiders can be helpful, but the task essentially rests with the host nation. Insurgencies lose more often than succeed. Look at Colombia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, etc.
Our prudence occasionally gives way, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, to irrational exuberance. We’re not going to rush into another insurgency. The danger today is that we will do too little in Mesopotamia, not that we will do too much. For Mr. Obama to promise “no boots on the ground” was welcomed by the ISIS terrorists. Certainly we should not again put large numbers of our grunts into nation-building combat. But Special Forces on the ground to call in airstrikes and occasional raids would help local tribes fight against ISIS. As fight after fight described in the book illustrates, even a unit as small as 3rd Platoon is too lethal to be challenged by Islamists, even on their home turf – provided our small unit can call in hell from the air, as 3rd Platoon was able to do.
One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War
$27; available September 2014
[Photo: Flickr CC: DVIDSHUB]
Bing West served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Reagan administration. A graduate of Georgetown and Princeton Universities, he served in the Marine infantry. He was a member of the Force Recon team that initiated attacks behind North Vietnamese lines. He wrote the counterinsurgency classic, The Village, that has been on the Commandants Reading List for 40 years. He has been on hundreds of patrols and operations throughout Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Bing is a member of St. Crispins Order of the Infantry and the Council on Foreign Relations.