From Kandahar to Congress: Interview with Retired U.S. Army LTC. Allen B. West
Read on for my interview with Frontpage Magazine’s 2003 "Man of the Year," retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Allen B. West. Currently stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, West is planning a congressional run in Florida later this year. He was kind enough to share his thoughts on military strategy, politics, race, media and the lessons of the ancient world.
Q: You’re a retired Army officer currently working as a private contractor for the Department of Defense (DOD) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, advising and training the Afghan Army. To the extent you can divulge information, explain in more detail what you’re doing in Kandahar.
Sure, Cinnamon. My organization is comprised of former military officers and senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) who have retired. We are not "gun-toting" contractor types. We are not authorized to carry weapons and our function is the implementation of functional systems. This includes medical operations and we are about two months shy of opening a new military hospital.
Our mission here is to develop the Afghanistan National Security Forces functional operating systems, from the Ministry of Defense and Interior down to the respective, tactical level, brigade staff. We are part of their institutional military training system, Kabul Military Training Center, where I began assisting in doctrine development and training.
My main team is located here in Kandahar, with two subordinate teams that work with forward-deployed brigades in Zabul and Helmand provinces. Our program was deemed so successful that it received approval for implementation in Iraq. What we bring to the table is continuity with the military forces, NATO, and U.S. troops that have tours of only 6-12 months on the ground.
By the time I depart Kandahar in November, I will have served here in Afghanistan for two and a half years.
Q: The mainstream media has painted a picture of Afghanistan in which U.S. and NATO troops are losing control and the Taliban has retaken control. Add to that the return of warlordism and the thriving opium trade. Does that picture jibe with what you’re seeing in Afghanistan and to the extent it does, what do think is to blame? If appropriate, what strategies would be better implemented to deal with the situation there?
When the Taliban comes to my room and asks me to leave, then the situation is out of control and lost. I don’t think that will be happening anytime soon. Plus, I’m not giving up my classical music collection.
Afghanistan, as one studies it, has been a region involved in conflict for the past 25-30 years and has never truly had a centralized governing structure. Warlordism has been the way of the past and it’s based upon tribalism. It is the undercurrent in the lake in which we swim here. However, it is not pulling us down. The greatest challenge in Afghanistan is overcoming a country with a 20-25% literacy rate among men and a less than 10% literacy rate among women. That is why in the past year the Taliban made the destruction of schools - some 180 - a center of focus. You can keep anyone subjugated as long as they remain uneducated and therefore, subject to false indoctrination.
Last year was crucial because we saw NATO take over a larger ground combat operations role in Afghanistan for the first time in its 50+-year history. There were many steep learning curves. Canadian forces that, for the first time since the Korean War, were involved in combat and not peacekeeping operations expanded our influence deeper into southern Afghanistan (Helmand province). Also, we are dealing with nations coming to fight with respective caveats and without a full compliment of combat multipliers. With all that stacked against us, the Taliban did not "take" control of a single province, district, or piece of terrain (we gave them Musa Qaleh in a Pakistan style brokered deal). Last years Operation’s Mountain Thrust and Medusa hit the Taliban hard and turned them back without any tactical gains, except those created by our media.
This year, we have a solid force, new leadership of NATO forces and combat multipliers such as F-16s, AV-8B Harriers, Attack Helicopters and UAVs. Could we use more? Sure. Quantity always has a quality of its own. The message is that we are being proactive and striking the Taliban and other anti-government elements. The key, however, lies across the border in the uncontrolled tribal regions of Pakistan. We must deny the enemy sanctuary and interdict his incursions.
As for the opium, that is the mother lode here. It fuels the terrorist machine, it’s highly lucrative and it provides a shadow element that foments corruption. Who loses in all this? The poor farmer who is exploited, taxed by the Taliban for protection to grow poppy and abused by warlords/drug lords for their gain. What should we do? Protect the farmers and buy the poppy ourselves. It can be used for good purposes, such as morphine development. That would be a very welcome commodity for Third World hospitals and would create a positive industry for this country. Even if that is not a viable option, we should still just buy it from the farmer, who only wants to provide a living for his family and in the meantime, offer him alternative crops to grow under our protection.
Q: Critics of the war in Iraq often claim that the U.S. has "abandoned" Afghanistan with the "distraction" of Iraq. Do you agree with this assessment and to what extent do you believe the situation in Iraq could be better handled? Do you see President Bush’s troop "surge" strategy as having a positive effect?
Well, I am not the President and I don’t believe in armchair quarterbacks. However, I think we could have done a better job of keeping pressure upon the enemy here in Afghanistan, as I mentioned earlier, by denial of sanctuary and interdiction of movements and support (men, funding, and weapons). There were clear reasons for Iraq and at the strategic and operational levels, there have been some miscalculations and errors. But then again, show me an American war that has not had errors. We should have had forces in position to cut off retreat and interdict forces coming in from Western Iraq, we should not have sent every "Baath" party member home creating unemployment, we should have had a better way of assimilating the Iraqi Army instead of disbanding it, and lastly, we should have pulled a lesson book from post-WWII Germany or Japan as a basis for transitioning a country. MacArthur did a fine job in Japan.
But we are there now, so let’s think of solutions and not problems. That should be the American way. The bottom line is we are in a worldwide conflagration and we went into this with a military that, for the previous eight years before the Bush administration, had been raped and yet told to deploy and secure U.S. interests abroad. I can tell you horror stories about lack of training, ammunition, fuel and spare parts, and still having to deploy and complete "sensitivity" training. There is a cumulative effect.
This surge will work if and only if the rules of engagement work and we combine this with an operational and strategic level surge emphasizing our diplomatic, informational and economic national power. How do you fight an insurgency? You must clear, hold and build in designated zones of influence. You must effectively drain the pool in which your adversary seeks to swim. If we do that, then we can have success.
Q: As part of a 20-year career in the Army, you served in Iraq for eight months in 2003. You were involved in an incident in Taji that received a fair amount of press at the time. Could you explain what happened and what came out of it?
We arrived in Kuwait late March 2003 and road-convoyed into Iraq in early April. I remained in Iraq until December 17, 2003. I, as a leader of American soldiers in combat, took a decisive action to preclude a probable ambush, took complete responsibility and held myself accountable to the Army and my commanding officers. We all know that the action was to fire a pistol over an Iraqi detainee’s head, after which he confided information to us, previously not given. Now, in combat a leader has two missions - mission accomplishment and taking care of his troops. Everything else is subordinate to those two primary objectives.
For my actions in August 2003 in Taji, Iraq, I was removed from command of my battalion, underwent an Article 32 hearing where it was determined there were insufficient grounds for a court-martial and fined $5,000 under administrative punishment. I redeployed back to Ft. Hood, Texas and in February 2004, submitted my retirement paperwork. The hardest punishment was to be taken away from the battalion of men who I had been with since June 2002 and trained, suffered hardship and fought with. I am not a desk jockey type, so it was best for both the Army and me to retire - to keep the sanctity and reputation of the Army as a great institution intact, no scandal or exploitation.
After 22 years of commissioned service to this country, I only wanted to depart with my honor and dignity, no ceremony or recognition. My greatest joy was that the Friday before I hit the road for Florida and retirement, I took my last PT run on an Army base and ran into my soldiers who had since re-deployed. That was my send off.
There are people who will never understand the bond of a commander to his troops and their families, and hence, will not understand my action. But if I had come home from Iraq whining and touting myself as a victim and target of racism, well, I would be Cindy Sheehan and Howard Dean’s best friend. However, my standard has always been one of duty, honor and country.
Q: You return to the U.S. in November, 2007 and have indicated your interest in running for a congressional seat in Boca Raton, Florida (District 22), near your home district of Plantation, against incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. Ron Klein. What will your campaign focus on and what do you think differentiates you from the other candidates? Does your military background give you insight that other candidates might lack?
My candidacy focuses on four points: knowledgeable leadership, courage, faith and vision. These are some critical characteristics that our country sincerely needs at this time. I feel that my 22 years in service to this nation does differentiate me from most political candidates, in that I am not a political person. I am just a common American man, a tribune raised in the ranks of the legion, from the plebian class. I want the best for this country and my fellow Americans. The only interest I would represent is that of the people of the 22d Congressional District.
My military background certainly gives me a decided edge. I learned about the elements of national power back at the Army Staff College in 1997. I clearly understand the interrelationship of Strategic, Operational, and Tactical level tasks and their objectives. I have traveled to 13 different countries and have a sense of foreign relations, which has an effect upon us in America. But most importantly, when there is an issue in reference to U.S. national security, I know how it affects the combat troop on the ground, the soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, or Coast Guardsman. For me, this is about leadership, not political maneuvering or gaining power.
Q: You’ll be running in the Republican primary. Do you have any concerns about your Republican opponents? And what made you register as a Republican in the first place?
I have no concerns about a primary or a general election if successful in the primary. I will address issues and let the people of District 22 decide who is best to serve them. If that decision is not for me, then I press on serving America as best I can.
Registering Republican was based on the fact that I am a simple and conservative type fellow. The flag that will one day drape my casket is not a rag to be burned in some semblance of self-expression. I do not believe in multiculturalism (as defined to make American culture and beliefs subservient), pluralism, secular humanism or moral relativism. I believe in the empowerment of the individual and self-reliance – not government intervention to make us all equal, but rather, the creation of opportunity. I like to sing the National Anthem – albeit, it’s not a pretty sound - and I detest self-loathing. It is a cancer I cannot tolerate. Lastly, I believe there are people in this world that just have to have their butts kicked. No amount of Oprah hugs or Dr. Phil sessions can abate their belligerence.
Q: Some have criticized you for not registering to vote until you retired from the Army. How do you explain that?
The Hatch Act prohibits political campaigning on military installations for a reason. As a Commissioned officer, I took a simple oath and repeated it each time I was promoted: "to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic…[to] bear true faith and allegiance to the same…[to] obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me…so help me God."
The last thing the United States needs is a politicized military leader. Case in point: the young officer in Ft. Lewis, Washington who refused to deploy to Iraq, stating that it was an "unjust war." He preferred to go Afghanistan instead. Now imagine if we had officers picking and choosing where they would be willing to fight on a widespread basis. Then you have a liberal media championing this young officer and politicizing his actions. As an Army officer for 22 years, my charter was very simple. And that was my focus. Never would you hear me in officers’ clubs or in front of my men criticizing our chain of command. I was not a political entity. I was a soldier and leader who this nation depended upon to answer the call, regardless of who made it. I stand by that decision and as soon as I arrived in Plantation, I found the Broward County office and registered Republican. I am now a free citizen and have my assessments and political viewpoints to pronounce.
Q: Do you think being a conservative African-American candidate allows you to bring anything different to the table? What do you think black conservatives in general have to offer both the black community and the country as a whole?
I will tell you that the West family is an example of the triumph of the Civil Rights movement, as well as Ronald Reagan’s challenge to the black community. There is a negative mystique and paradigm that must be broken. Being successful, conservative and black in America does not make you the devil. My parents, Herman West Sr. and Elizabeth Thomas West, were middle class, inner-city Atlanta people. They were raised in the segregated South, but had a vision for their three boys. I remember Mom and Dad teaching me to read the stock report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They did not sit back and wait for anyone to give them a handout, and that sentiment permeated throughout our extended family.
Being American, black, and conservative is just another option – a vision, way of life and philosophy. My candidacy shows to the district and America as a whole that there is an alternative in the black community.
Q: You seem to be well-versed in classical history and in particular ancient warfare. Do you think studying the ancient world and its battles provides any parallels for examining the present? And if so, what is your view on the phenomenal success of the new film "300," which Americans are flocking to see, even as (mostly liberal) film critics pan it?
It is interesting that you mention this film. Most people think that classical history for a University of Tennessee alumni centers around the last SEC football championship victory. Since the downtown Kandahar movie cinema seems to have over-sold tickets to the opening release of "300," I decided to stay here in my room and watch the original 1960s film, "The 300 Spartans," starring Richard Egan as Leonidas. I have read Pressfield’s novel "Gates of Fire" twice and studied this famed battle for quite some time.
The success of this movie follows along the same genre of "Spartacus," "Braveheart," "Gladiator," "Glory" and "The Last Samurai." Why? Because this film echoes something time-honored and eternal: men fighting for the simple principle of freedom and honor. Yes, dare I say those two words, freedom and honor. And that, along with the warrior ethos of the Spartans, is drawing people to this film.
Now, are there parallels? Of, course. In a world where tyrannical subjugation and dominance prevailed, there was this small oasis called Greece and its principles of individual freedom, democracy and reason. This ran totally antithetical to Darius I and the Persian Empire. Hence, in 490 BC, he invaded Greece, but was turned back by the Athenians at Marathon. Xerxes sought to avenge his father’s defeat and launched an even greater army, conscripting slave soldiers from his empire along with his venerable "Immortals." Greece, being more a collection of city-states than a unified nation, had to pull together in order to defeat this oncoming aggression from the east.
The most feared warriors in antiquity were the Spartans. Raised to fight, they refused to use bows and arrows, which they deemed cowardly. Their helot servants were their bowmen. Leonidas, realizing how vital this would be for the future of all Greece, took only his personal bodyguard of 300 men to Thermopylae to stand. They did not retreat even though they were betrayed by a Greek. They held the pass to the last man, buying time for Greece to eventually win a great naval battle at Salamis and then decisively defeat the Persians on land at Platea.
The parallels to today are clear: freedom versus tyranny. Regardless of what liberals think, they are pretty doggone free in America. But one thing reigns supreme and that is the love of warriors who take a stand based upon the principles of their society. Most of our elected officials have not had that experience, which is why we need more former military officers who possess the courage to do so.
Q: What do you see as the single most important issue facing America in the 21st Century?
Sun Tzu once stated, "Know your enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated." America must regain a sense of herself. If we do not embrace our core beliefs, defend them and educate our generations about them, then this great experiment of government of the people, by the people and for the people will perish from this earth.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. God bless and sincere regards to all from Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Lieutenant Colonel Allen B. West (US Army, Retired)
Update: Atlas Shrugs, who has been featuring LTC. West's "Column from Kandahar," weighs in on the interview, his candidacy and an upcoming appearance on her radio show, Atlas on the Air.