« Will Humans Ever Stop… | Home | Why I Got Out: The Ne… »

The Shared Sacrifice: Bing West, Afghanistan and Casualty Figures

I received a lot of flack for my last post on Bing West because I claimed he was a “war is war”-ior. Some commenters accused me of an ad hominem attack. Others accused me of over-simplifying his position.

In full disclosure, I haven’t read West’s last book, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan. In some sense, though, it doesn’t matter, most Americans haven’t read The Wrong War either. Instead, they and I have read the reviews of his book in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and other publications, and they and I have seen or read him on Fox News, The Colbert Report and The Small Wars Journal.

So I pulled a selection of quotes from Bing West. See if you can find the common sound bite (bolding mine) :

“...the central premise of counterinsurgency doctrine holds that if the Americans sacrifice on behalf of the Afghan government, then the Afghan people will risk their lives for that same government in return.

What we have created instead, West shows, is a vast culture of dependency: Americans are fighting and dying, while the Afghans by and large stand by and do nothing to help them...Most important, the Afghan people, though almost certainly opposed to a Taliban redux, are equally wary of both the Americans and their Afghan “leaders.” They will happily take the riches lavished on them by the Americans, but they will not risk their lives for either the Americans or their own government. The Afghans are waiting to see who prevails, but prevailing is impossible without their help. ”

                                - Dexter Filkins, The New York Times

The Los Angeles Times summarizes West’s book this way:

“While prosecuting this 10-year conflict, West argues, the U.S. has created a culture of dependency and entitlement among the Afghan civilians as the risk-averse Afghan military prefers to let the U.S. Marines and soldiers do the fighting — and the dying.”

The Small Wars Journal’s Mike Few did an interview with Bing West, and he said this:

“Mike Few: What do you propose for a new strategy?

Bing West: Push the Afghans to fight their own war. Stop fighting for them...”

I agree with Bing West that the key to “winning” in Afghanistan--if that is possible--is to train competent Afghan security forces (police, border patrol and army) to defend the country. A corruption free government that executes the will of the people would help too.

I vehemently disagree, though, with the idea that Afghans aren’t fighting and dying like their American allies. (He made this point on The Colbert Report interview we linked to in our last post as well.) That isn’t true.

Look at this graph culled from the Wikileaks Afghan War Logs release (h/t and thanks to Visualising Data).

The orange line represents NATO forces. The red and blue lines? Those are Afghan soldiers and civilians.

Since the war began, 24,000 Afghans have died. In comparison, over a thousand Americans have died. Sure, the information only goes until 2009, but the trend lines are clear.

If statistics are known for anything, it’s for being misleading. So one could ask, what about proportionality? Well, proportionality cuts both ways. A lot fewer Americans live and fight in Afghanistan than Afghans who live in Afghanistan--about 100 thousand to 29 million. If we compare the populations of both of our countries, the disparity in “bearing the burden” widens.

However, if one compares the Afghan soldiers to each other, than it is a different story. One category in the data is “Afghan soldiers”. And while America surged a 100,000 troops into Afghanistan, it’s unclear exactly how many real soldiers the Afghanistan National Army has. Wikipedia claims 160,000, but I doubt that factors in the horrific desertion rates endemic to that institution. Strictly comparing the casualty rates of the armed forces, they are almost directly comparable.

This logic also ignores the fact that U.S. civilians aren’t threatened in the fighting. Afghan civilians, on the other hand, experience war as an everyday phenomena. While the U.S. government knows almost exactly how many U.S. troops we have lost in combat, the number of dead Afghans is a minimum, with likely many more killed than were recorded.

It isn’t fair to accuse Afghans of not bearing the burden of this war. Afghans have borne the brunt of war almost continually since 1977. Since 2001, U.S. soldiers and marines have joined in bearing this burden. Americans and Afghans are fighting this war together, that's all that needs to be said, nothing more, nothing less. And if numbers don’t do it for you, watch this video that makes the exact same claim with brutal imagery.

I believe West’s The Wrong War is more nuanced than I have portrayed. That said, Bing West has clearly made the issue of Afghans not bearing the burden one of his key talking points. Even if his book doesn’t make this point, most Americans will think it does. And it just isn’t true.

twelve comments

I can’t thank enough Andy at Visualising Data. I really recommend checking out his site for the rest of his graphs.


Michael,

You really need to take some time to read the Village. Additionally, Owen, Bing’s son, is working on a book about his time as an adviser in Iraq. From the early reports from the editor, it will be a good one. Finally, see Rory Hanlin’s One Teams Approach to Village Stability Operations that we just published in SWJ.

One common thread that is found in these conflicts (Vietnam, Iraq, Iraq, Afghanistan, Philippines, El Sal, Guatemala, Mexico, Bosnia, Kosovo, etc) over the past sixty years is an American (CIA, State, Army, Marine, SF) in a village trying to work with an elder to shape, influence, or coerce towards following the US-backed government.

I’m going to expand more on this in an Op-Ed for 9/12.

Ultimately, it’s not really about fighting. It’s about understanding our limits of control in other people’s lives.


Mike, thanks for the recommendations. Those all sound right up my alley. They sound eerily similar to my time working with village elders.


Michael,

I agree with you holistically; that Bing West under-emphasizes the amount of sacrifices the Afghan people (and by association, the Army and the Police) are making.

However, I’m reading through The Wrong War right now – and I feel quite strongly that you’re mis-representing his position. For example:

It isn’t fair to accuse Afghans of not bearing the burden of this war. Afghans have borne the brunt of war almost continually since 1977. Since 2001, U.S. soldiers and marines have joined in bearing this burden. Americans and Afghans are fighting this war together, that’s all that needs to be said, nothing more, nothing less.

He surely contends that the Afghan people aren’t bearing much of the weight (and you and I here, agree). However, he dually claims that because of this, they aren’t bearing enough of it. Thus, my position is this: that the Afghan people are bearing the brunt of the onus of the clashes there, but they need to commit to more, something I think Bing does a fantastic job throughout his book.

The examples throughout his book are quite numerous, and I don’t have the time right now to quote them. However, I would request that you read his book before you criticize it; the reviews (at least the ones you’ve quoted) don’t do it much justice (as with any other book).

Thanks,

Joseph


How much more Joseph, and of what, should the Afghans contribute? Their GDP: 11 billion. Right now they don’t have enough money to fund their Army or police, so how should they do it? Do they need to send more people into the fight?

Instead of saying the Afghans need to bear more, the more accurate statement is the US needs to expend less time, energy and lives their. You can say it is not in our national interest—and that is an honest debate—but you can’t say Afghans aren’t doing enough. They are.

Most importantly, even though the book elaborates the point, I believe the Afghans are bearing the brunt of this war. And I have been on the ground in Afghanistan, so this is my personal experience. It is the height of American arrogance to claim that a country wracked by a civil war isn’t bearing the costs of that war.


Michael,

I’m not sure where you inferred the idea that I admitted that the Afghan people are bearing the brunt of the war. I stated in my initial comment that we agree to disagree with West here.

Also, perhaps a mis-step on my end. When I stated: “they need to commit to more”, I intended to portray that although the Afghans are given schools, money, etc, they aren’t learning how to sustain or re-build such infrastructure once the Americans leave. Furthermore, we’re simply handing out these projects, so to speak; there’s no incentive for them to provide us with information about IEDs, insurgents, etc.

West put it this way: we’re giving them carrots without the stick.

And I’m aware — I volunteer at a veterans center at my university so I’m extremely grateful for your service, Michael.

- Joseph


West embedded primarily with American Marine units. This does not give him an idea of what “Afghans” are or are not bearing. The fact is, while the American lives lost there are tragic, a few thousand, Afghan casualties are much, much higher. The government might not be the best partner. In fact, it isn’t. But there are plenty of different groups here: Karzai, the government, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, Taliban. So to say “Afghans” need to bear the brunt is too simplistic.


Michael,

The book acknowledges that — and it probes deeper anyways.

Erm, if you read the book, you’ll see that he not only embedded, but interviewed and filmed a lot of his work. He knows, from these accounts, along the Durand Line in the Konar Province, in the Korengal, along the Pech, Asadabad, Camp Joyce, etc.

Later in the book (I haven’t quite gotten there yet) he covers the Helmand province towards the south of Afghanistan.

He goes to great lengths to differentiate tribes, cultures, and how ANA usually can’t communicate with villagers although they’re both from Afghanistan (let alone with Karzai).

He was also assistant secretary to Rumsfeld, so I trust he’s aware of the situation from the top-down, too.

- Joseph


Oh, and even if it were true that he oversimplifies that “Afghans” (for the most part) aren’t bearing enough of the burden of rebuilding themselves, wouldn’t that dis-prove your conclusion that West is a “war-is-war“ior?


Oh, and lastly: 75 by the Coalition (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/10/world/asia/10afghanistan.html).


We’re talking past each other. As I pointed on in my original post, the thesis of the book might be nuanced, but I have several reviews and interviews with Mr. West himself where flat out says that “Afghans are not bearing the burden.” As your article cited last shows, more Afghans died last year than American service members have died since the beginning of the war.

The point is, we can debate whether America is spending too much of our own capital, human, fiscal and other, in Afghanistan compared to its worth in our national security. We should not compare ourselves to Afghans as a whole.

As for his “war is war”-ior status, obviously, that category has many people in it, and most people I label with it dispute it, though they have said, “War is war, right?”. He still qualifies simply by his accusing the Army of being a glorified peace corps, which it is totally not.


We’re talking past each other.
bq).

Yes, it certainly does. I still think you’re misconstruing what I’m trying to say.

We’ll just have to agree to disagree.