Book Review: 'One Million Steps' by Bing West
During six months of fighting in Sangin, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment suffered the most casualties of any battalion in Afghanistan.
By Richard Shultz in the Wall Street Journal
In 2009, 6,000 Marines deployed to Helmand province as part of the 30,000 troop surge ordered by President Obama to take back the badlands of Afghanistan. The goal was straightforward: Drive out Taliban forces. The Marine regimental commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, explained the objective this way: "Here's the deal. We're here to take their home turf from the Taliban. I want you to patrol until your asses fall off."
That wasn't going to be easy. Helmand was a key Taliban redoubt; the province accounted for about 75% of total global opium production, the profits of which filled Taliban coffers. In 2006, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force had sought to take control of Helmand, including its deadliest district, Sangin, located in the province's remote northeast.
ISAF had limited success. Over the course of a few years, ISAF forces gained control of Sangin's main town and central market, but most of the district's farms and hinterlands remained in Taliban hands. According to Bing West's "One Million Steps," Marine commanders judged that the ISAF troops were playing defense. They had a different strategy in mind: Attack the Taliban "until they don't want to fight us anymore."
Gen. Nicholson decided to take Helmand—some 20,000 square miles—in pieces. He began in January 2010 by spreading his troops out in the north central Helmand River valley and driving south. Marines patrolled every foot of the opium-rich farmland to eliminate the Taliban. It was the first phase of traditional counterinsurgency strategy: Clear out the insurgents. By the end of Gen. Nicholson's tour in mid-2010, as Col. Paul Kennedy took command, the regiment was ready to take the district of Sangin.
This harrowing battle—and the efficacy of counterinsurgency warfare—is the subject of Mr. West's important, gripping book. To tell the story, the 72-year-old author tracks the fighting of the 3/5 battalion—that is, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. The 51 grunts in the battalion's 3rd Platoon, where Mr. West was embedded, undertook some of the most brutal fighting of the war.
The Taliban quickly attacked the Marines in Sangin. After three days of patrolling, 10% of the 3rd Platoon was gone, its lieutenant seriously wounded by an improvised explosive device, or IED. The rest of the 3/5 was also hit hard, with 10 Marines killed in the initial fighting and 35 seriously wounded. The Taliban had won round one.
But the Marines, as they have done throughout their storied history, learned and adapted. They figured out how to spot and neutralize deadly IEDs, the Taliban weapon of choice. They put Marine snipers to good use: By March 2011, snipers accounted for 51 of the platoon's 271 kills. The Marines also frequently called in F-18s for air support, obliterating Taliban fighting positions. By the end of sixth months of fighting, described in detail by Mr. West, 3/5 had suffered the highest number of casualties of any battalion, with its 3rd Platoon losing 27 of 51 Marines. Still, 3/5 put the Taliban on the defensive. The Marines finally took Sangin in late 2012—though not before four more battalions had rotated through the district.
Mr. West knows something about counterinsurgency: During the Vietnam War, he was part of a Marine platoon stationed in a village charged with clearing the enemy from the surrounding territory, holding it and providing security to the villagers. Mr. West captured the story in "The Village" (1972), which has been on the Marine Commandant's official reading list for over three decades. He has also written several books about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, each time embedding with Marine and Army platoons.
Yet "One Million Steps," even as it focuses on the relentlessness of the Marines in Sangin, also offers a blistering assault on America's senior military leadership for purportedly adopting a new counterinsurgency approach that Mr. West depicts as a "quixotic strategy of a benevolent war," one that "replaced war with social evangelism" and is more "an exercise in civics" than a type of military strategy. He levels these hard-to-fathom accusations against Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and against retired Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, each of whom served as ISAF commanders.
In making these allegations, Mr. West draws a bright-line distinction between what he believes to be two antithetical counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies. First, there is Gen. Nicholson and Col. Kennedy's "Big Stick" COIN. For Mr. West, this is what counterinsurgency is all about: "Attack the enemy relentlessly. . . . That was exactly what 3rd Platoon was doing: attack, attack, attack." The second COIN approach, attributed by Mr. West to Adm. Mullen, Gen. McChrystal and Gen. Petraeus, is focused "not on killing the enemy" but on "earning the support of the people" through "village-level projects, and . . . visiting a girls school."
Lambasting military leaders for turning American warriors into "community organizers" is attention-grabbing, but it isn't convincing. Neither the 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual, written by Gen. Petraeus and Gen. James Amos, nor an assessment of the COIN campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan square with Mr. West's take. The two generals assert in the manual's preface that a "counterinsurgency campaign is . . . a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations," which hardly sounds like "an exercise in civics." Moreover, Gen. Petraeus's September 2007 report to Congress on the Iraq surge doesn't focus on schools but on "significant blows to Al Qaeda-Iraq."
When I asked Adm. James Stavridis, the NATO Supreme Allied Commander from June 2009 to May 2013, about Mr. West's claims, he explained: "Both Generals McChrystal and Petraeus were consistently focused on taking the fight to the Taliban—and did so successfully. While they used counterinsurgency as part of their overall approach, their hard kill skills and leadership were never in doubt."
Mr. West writes of the Marines that they "guard our nation so fiercely that no one wants to fight America." The same can be said of the military leaders who sent them to Afghanistan in the first place. Their resolve deserves proper recognition.
Mr. Shultz is the director of the International Security Studies Program at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.