IRAQ: “Afghanistan will be twice as hard”

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After 15 extended trips to Iraq, numerous articles and essays, and three well-reviewed books, Bing West may be the premiere chronicler of the war, particularly as experienced by frontline troops. Not for nothing does he wear a hat that says simply, ‘Grunt,’ which is Marine-ese for an infantryman.

West feels that, after a faltering start, the U.S. has now largely achieved its aims in Iraq and should head carefully for the exits so it can concentrate on Afghanistan. He sees the Afghanistan fight as vital to U.S. interests but does not downplay its difficulty compared with Iraq.

‘Afghanistan will be twice as hard,’ West told a group of Marine officers and senior-enlisted this week at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

All the elements that made Iraq a hard slog, he said, are present to an even greater degree in Afghanistan: a weak national leadership (he’s no fan of Hamid Karzai), insufficient number of U.S. and coalition troops, balky allies, rugged landscape, lack of a coherent U.S. strategy, and the presence of sanctuary areas for the enemy.


West, 68, knows war. He was an infantry Marine in Vietnam and later an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan Administration. His book about Vietnam, ‘The Village,’ is considered a seminal work on how a small group of U.S. troops, partnered with local troops, can defeat an enemy.

In his book ‘The March Up,’ he reported on the taking of Baghdad by the 1st Marine Division in 2003. In ‘No True Glory’ he wrote of the fight to oust insurgents from Fallouja in 2004. And in his latest book ‘The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq,’ he details how the U.S. finally got its act together and defeated the insurgency.

West will not be getting Christmas cards from President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer.

He credits Army Gen. David Petraeus, Marine Gen. James Mattis, and Sunni tribal sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha with cobbling together an alliance between the U.S. and the tribes and, along with it, a counter-insurgency strategy that worked first in Anbar province and then in Baghdad.

But most of his praise goes to the perseverance and bravery of U.S. soldiers and Marines. The day when wars were won by generals, West told the boot-camp gathering, is over. ‘Future wars will be won from the bottom up,’ he said, with equal amounts of combat and police work.

He counts numerous journalists among his friends (full disclosure: I’m mentioned in his books) but criticizes the media for what he feels is an unfair approach in its coverage of Iraq. ‘In World War II, we highlighted valor,’ he said. ‘In Iraq, we highlighted mistakes.’

His days of close coverage of Iraq may be over but not his efforts to report on the reality of war from ground-level.

‘I look forward to catching some of you guys in Afghanistan,’ he told the Marine audience, ‘because I know that’s where you’re going to be.’

— Tony Perry, in San Diego

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for ‘L.A. Times updates,’ and then clicking on the ‘World: Mideast’ box.