War Planners: Iraq Not a Good Model for Afghanistan

I'm no stranger to the military. My late husband and my oldest brother are interred at Arlington National Cemetery. My other brother served in the Korean conflict.

But my three sons are of a different generation. Military service was not required of them; it was a choice, and not one they considered or that I encouraged. And I've been vocal enough in opposing the war in Iraq that when I turned up on Sunday evening at a reception for "new members" at the Army War College, a fellow attendee felt compelled to tell me that Joan Baez had participated in the same program a number of years ago.

It was his way of making me, an outsider to today's military culture, feel comfortable. If the Vietnam-era antiwar singer and activist was welcome and contributed to the conversation, then surely I was up to the task. Even so, I knew my reputation as a member of the much-maligned media had preceded me when someone introduced himself to me saying, "You won't like me. I'm a retired CIA officer." Another gentleman, retired from the military, offered this sage advice: "I know you think we're all knuckle-draggers, and some of us are, but I think you'll be surprised at the amount of dissent here."

He was right about that. I came away from a weeklong seminar at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., with my views both challenged and validated, and with a heightened respect for the men and women preparing for the senior leadership of the U.S. Army. The ground rules of the event forbid attributing quotes to anyone, but I can attest to a vigorous spirit of inquiry, particularly about the nature of the expanding U.S. role in Afghanistan among the members of the graduating class of 2009. Their average age is 44; many have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. They know the terrain, cultural and political, and they've spent the year pondering military strategy along with the increasing importance of soft power, the bottom-up building of villages and communities, versus what an army is trained to do, which is to kill people and break things.

"I thought all the smart people worked for Goldman Sachs. Now I'm not so sure," a banker from New York, Jeffrey Volk, told me, adding, "You can use my quote." He was one of 160 people who, like me, were invited to the Army War College's National Security Seminar. It's an annual event the last week before graduation, and it's the Army's effort to educate outsiders about its rigorous leadership training (no "yes" men and women here), and to acquaint its senior leaders with the forces in a democratic society they'll have to contend with, however indirectly, from the corporate world to the media.

Many in the class of 336 are headed to Iraq or Afghanistan in the next few weeks. The consensus I found among them is that the war in Iraq was a mistake, "an anomaly" that should not be a model for Afghanistan. I don't think I'm guilty of cherry-picking arguments when I quote the simple advice from one veteran of both conflicts: "Draw down in Iraq and don't surge in Afghanistan." What can we do with more troops that the Soviets couldn't do with 500,000 troops? To use the jargon of the day, soldiers who know the culture say America needs a smaller footprint, something that resembles a constabulary force as opposed to a full-out occupation. Iraq is an urban insurgency; Afghanistan is a rural insurgency in a country where 90 percent of the people are illiterate. The communications are so antiquated that one combat vet said he found people in the countryside unaware the Soviets had left the country, and when American soldiers showed up, thought they were the Soviets.

The likely reelection of Afghan President Hamid Karzai this summer is not good news in the sense that he has no credibility with the Afghan people. They view him as a U.S.-installed puppet, and his government as illegitimate. One seminar speaker envisioned a 25-year war in Afghanistan, a prediction that sparked debate over America's political will and the "spoilers" that could easily short-circuit any long slog. Once Osama bin Laden is captured, what's the point of further fighting? Nobody had a clear answer. Everybody is aware of the political calendar. If the Obama-tweaked strategy doesn't show progress in the next 12 to 18 months, in time for the midterm elections, all bets are off. A hot debate about the merits of "preventive war," the rationale for invading Iraq, ended in wry laughter when one seminar participant said of the Bush-era doctrine, "It couldn't have been too preventive if we're still at it eight years later."

President Obama's speech in Cairo provided a nice counterpoint for discussion with its emphasis on a new beginning in how America interacts with the Muslim world. My buddies in the small seminar group to which I was assigned saw the speech as a strong signal that Obama understands that the fight against Islamic extremism can't be won by military might, and that American power must be projected in other ways. They had fun parsing his words, especially when he talked about spreading democracy but not imposing it. How different is this from President Bush's pro-democracy agenda? "If I spread butter on my toast, I'm not imposing butter," suggested one participant. In the Middle East, even a difference without a distinction matters.