I was north of Kandahar, flying in a helicopter with an American general who was telling me more than I could absorb about rural irrigation systems. I asked if he had ever imagined, back when he was at West Point, that he would become so expert in agricultural development.
No, he said, he had not. But he did learn at West Point that a soldier does whatever is necessary to accomplish his mission. So if fighting rural poverty is what it takes to win in Afghanistan, he would fight rural poverty — without hesitation or complaint. I remember being mightily impressed by the general. I still am. But, more than two years later, I'm skeptical about whether this is the most effective strategy for winning in Afghanistan — and, more importantly, for winning the global war being waged against the West by those who call themselves jihadists.
Such doubts have increased in recent days in the light of revelations that a fraud has been perpetrated by Greg Mortenson, celebrated proponent of the view that "soft power" — education and economic development — is key to overcoming the appeal of militant Islam.
Mortenson's books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, have been required reading for American officers assigned to Afghanistan. But journalist Jon Krakauer, once an enthusiastic backer of Mortenson, and CBS's 60 Minutes have produced evidence that Mortenson's inspiring personal story is largely fiction and that he has not achieved what he claims to have achieved: Many of the schools he says he built were not built; he doesn't know who has been teaching what in the schools he did build; and there is no way to measure whether his efforts have had any positive impact at all.
I've also been reading Bing West's recently published The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan. A Marine combat veteran, a former Pentagon official, and a member of the board of advisors of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, West has been embedded dozens of times with frontline units in Afghanistan over the past two years. His respect for the skills and courage of the officers and troops is unequivocal. But he has come to believe they have been commanded to put too much emphasis on nation-building, and not enough on "kinetic operations" — doing battle with the enemies of Americans and Afghans.
West quotes Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who, in 2008, told the colonels at the National Defense University: "Where possible, kinetic operations should be subordinate to measures to promote better governance, economic programs to spur development, and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented."
Given these instructions, West writes, American commanders have become "de facto district governors, spending most of their time on non-military tasks. . . . The U.S. military coined the aphorism 'Dollars are bullets.' Battalion and company commanders doled out millions of dollars."
Sending the message that nation-building is "the enlightened way for soldiers to fight an insurgency," West argues, has transformed the U.S. military in Afghanistan "into a giant Peace Corps."
Such criticism takes nothing away from Gen. David Petraeus and his troops and what they achieved in Iraq at a time when many — perhaps most — Americans believed the conflict had been lost. I would argue that the "surge" in Iraq succeeded not because schools and clinics were built and development projects launched, but because Petraeus understood what too many Americans and most Europeans still do not: Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-backed militias were responsible for most of the carnage.
Ordinary Iraqis did not support suicide bombings in their markets. Nor were they confused about who was to blame — as were so many in the media. But there was no way ordinary Iraqis could openly align with American forces against the terrorists until they became convinced that those forces were what West has called The Strongest Tribe — a tribe that would not abandon them to their mutual enemies when the going got tough. Most Iraqis also understood that while al-Qaeda and Iran were eager to control their lands and their lives, the Americans — though derided in Europe, the U.N., and corners of the U.S. as "occupiers" — wanted only to complete their mission and go home.
Afghanistan is a different place. The Taliban is a different enemy. In West's view, a different strategy is required. He argues that in Afghanistan the "primary U.S. mission" should be to establish and maintain "advisor task forces" that would "go into combat with the Afghan forces, provide the link to fire support, and have a voice in who gets promoted." This could be achieved, he argues, "while reducing our total force from 100,000 to 50,000." Such a reduction would allow American forces to stay in Afghanistan longer — which he believes will be necessary to defeat the Taliban.
In 2007, to avoid what would have been a humiliating and consequential defeat in Iraq, President Bush — perhaps belatedly — changed strategies. Four years later, to avoid what would be a no less humiliating and consequential defeat, President Obama may have to follow Bush's example.
West, an experienced and thoughtful military expert, has offered one option. There are others. With Secretary Gates planning to leave the Pentagon, now is the time for Obama to listen hard to a variety of perspectives — not least that of General Petraeus. But Obama should make it clear that the mission is not to prevail only on the Afghan battlefield. The mission is to prevail in the global war now underway. That will require that President Obama acknowledge that such a war is underway, and that nothing matters more to the future of the United States than who wins it.