Cliff May

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’d 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’d 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 jihadis.

Such doubts have increased in recent days in 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 member of the Board of Advisors of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, West has 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.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.