Afghanistan in Perspective

By Beacon Staff

The U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., is where selected lieutenant colonels and colonels go to prepare to become generals. Eisenhower, Schwartzkopf and Petraeus all attended the War College.

It was a wonderful honor to be invited to sit in with the War College class of 2010 last month, in its final week of lectures and seminar discussions. Also among the several dozen civilian attendees from around the country was fellow Montanan, state Rep. Tom McGillvray of Billings. Among this year’s graduates, with honors, was Lt. Col. Tarn Abell from Whitefish.

One of the scheduled presenters was Gen. Stanley McChrystal, live from his headquarters in Afghanistan. For reasons not made clear at the time, McChrystal was abruptly pulled out of the speakers lineup.

Participants were asked not to quote any of the lecturers, or those we had discussions with at the War College, but we are free to share our impressions and observations if we do so without attribution. What follows are some random perspectives, mostly on Afghanistan, primarily from seminar discussions and individual conversations, I think not commonly reported in the news.

• The United States and our allies had significant success in beating down the Taliban in Afghanistan early in our involvement there in 2002. The Afghan people were fed up with the fanatical Islam of the Taliban. Now, increasingly, Afghans are growing tired of us. Our objectives of stability, security and reconstruction are more elusive now than they seemed several years ago.

• The American public doesn’t really care about the war in Afghanistan. It is the military’s war, not the country’s war. Coupled with slowing progress and surging casualties, this contributes to an increasing challenge in maintaining the morale of our soldiers.

• The global struggle against terrorism will continue indefinitely. The traditional “force on force” model for military training will be modified by training, tactics and overall strategy focused more on counter insurgency. Making war may include building hospitals and schools. War will be smoldering, protracted, low-intensity conflict. The concept of “victory” will become increasingly ambiguous.

• Nuclear power Pakistan is less stable and more volatile than commonly realized. A boots-on-the-ground U.S. military presence in Afghanistan may be of greater strategic significance in regard to nearby Pakistan than to Afghanistan itself.

• Whether our presence in Afghanistan has been significant in preventing more attacks on America is debatable. Almost certainly, though, our technical surveillance capability, in cooperation with that of Great Britain and other allies has succeeded in tracking the monetary transactions and related activities of al-Qaida and other suspected terrorists. This has greatly impeded the terrorists in undertaking large-scale attacks requiring planning, organization and money. They are constantly maneuvering to get around our surveillance. Much of the war on terror is a cyber cat-and-mouse game. The likelihood is that they will eventually succeed in evading our monitoring, resulting in possibly catastrophic consequences for us.

• The rise of China as a military as well as an economic power is not an immediate concern. China has a direct interest in protecting its far-flung shipping activities, which are vital to its economy and, therefore, to its stability.

• We have 10 super aircraft carriers, but unlike our free-world allies, the Chinese don’t seem to be counting on us to police the world for them. In their system they can build a sophisticated carrier for less than a fourth of what it would cost us. If the Chinese build two or three we can probably assume they are doing so to protect their economic interests. If they build six or seven we had better know they have something else in mind.

Bob Brown of Whitefish is the former secretary of state and past president of the Montana Senate.