Francis J. “Bing” West, former Marine captain and assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan Administration, writing in Small Wars Journal, criticizes the current strategic emphasis on non-combat “nation-building” activities in Afghanistan, arguing that unless the Taliban’s leadership, supply, and manpower are physically reduced by combat, the insurgency is not simply going to go away.
I came back from my latest month in the field in Afghanistan disquieted about our basic military mission. Is the military mission to engage, push back and dismantle the Talbian networks, with population protection being a tactic to gain tips and local militia, or is the military mission to build a nation by US soldiers protecting the widespread population, with engagements against the Taliban as a byproduct?
It appears our strategy is nation-building, with fighting and dismantling of the Taliban a secondary consideration. Thus, the number of enemy killed will not be counted, let alone used as a metric. This non-kinetic theory of counterinsurgency has persuaded the liberal community in America to support or at least not to vociferously oppose the war. But we have to maintain a balance between messages that gain domestic support and messages that direct battlefield operations.
We must understand what our riflemen do in Afghanistan every day. The answer is they conduct combat patrols. That underlies all their other activities. They go out with rifles to engage and kill the enemy. That is how they protect the population. For our generals to stress that the war is 80% non-kinetic discounts the basic activity of our soldiers. Although crime isnâ€™t eradicated by locking up criminals, we expect our police to make arrests to keep the streets safe. Similarly, our riflemen are trained to engage the enemy. Thatâ€™s how they protect the population. If weâ€™re not out in the countryside night and day â€“ and weâ€™re not â€“ then the Taliban can move around as they please and intimidate or persuade the population.
Iâ€™m not arguing that we Americans can ever dominate the Taliban gangs. Thereâ€™s a level of understanding and accommodation among Afghans in the countryside that culturally surpasses our understanding. During the May poppy harvest, the shooting stops on both sides and men from far and wide head to the fields to participate in the harvest. Thatâ€™s an Afghan thing. Only the Afghans can figure out what sort of society and leaders they want.
That said, we should strive to do a better job of what we are doing for as long as we are there. I condensed several hours of firefights I filmed during various patrols into the 30-second clip… (Not a Tactical Hurdle). The purpose is to illustrate a tactical problem that is strategic in its dimensions. Simply put, our ground forces are not inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. However, the annual bill for the US military in Afghanistan exceeds $70 billion, with another four to six billion for development. Weâ€™ve already spent $38 billion on Afghan reconstruction. Congress may eventually balk at spending such sums year after year. The problem is weâ€™re liable to be gradually pulled out while the Taliban is intact. Nation-building alone is not sufficient; the Taliban must be disrupted.