Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Vermont and the Colby in March 2010

There were two local (that is, in the US) symposiums set for March: one on spies and targeted assignations and the other involving military writers and Iraq/Afghanistan. The spies were postponed but the military writers’ met as scheduled. And I attended it at Norwich University, the only significant activity in Northfield, Vermont.

It was the 15th Annual William E. Colby Military Writers’ Symposium entitled America at the Crossroads: the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since I had been in both countries last year, I was interested in the military viewpoint. The panel included four author-speakers, colonels all, who had been involved with Forces’ planning and operations, past and present, three from the US and one from the UK. A fifth author-speaker, who endeared himself to the cadets, was a former Staff Sergeant less concerned about theory, and more about practicalities. More of a Hurt Locker type.

Integral in the discussion of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was Counterinsurgency (COIN) philosophy . The major participants had been advocates/practitioners of COIN techniques. Admittedly, there is disagreement among the military between preparations for more conventional warfare (“shock and awe”) as opposed to the COIN approach necessary in Iraq-Afghanistan. Problem: can you do both at once?

Where was it I heard that the Army was always fighting one war ago? And several times at this gathering, I heard: while we may have gotten into Iraq stupidly, that doesn't mean we have to get out stupidly!

All the major speakers believed that committing to a withdrawal date is a mistake, that the locals have to feel secure that combat forces will be supportive until a stable political process is in place, however long that takes. Otherwise, it’s a waiting game for the opposition who can move in at the time and date given.

(To some extent, I believe, that’s what happened in Afghanistan after the US’s original efforts. Following the original effort, the US promptly moved out to deal with the ongoing Iraqi conflict, which had precedence in the planners’ minds.)

it seemed clear that an Iraqi solution was not necessarily an Afghan one. But Western involvement was necessary given the Pakistan-Indian situation. Geopolitically, a somewhat stable Afghanistan is a must. Implied were concerns about the central government’s ability (understandable: many Afghans I talked with were doubtful of Karsai and Afghanistan has a long history of local, rather than central, rule.)

I was impressed that several participants had earned doctorates; all were bright, articulate men, military scholars and published authors. One, a retired LtColonel, has written over half a dozen books including several biographies. Another, West Point graduate, PhD and retired Colonel, has several books and the editorship of a military history magazine under his belt (and I do subscribe to Armchair General).

A two day event with few outsiders attending; most nonmilitary attendees seemed to be donors, It was a close knit group. In addition to various presentations and book signings, the participants spent time in classes, meeting with students. Norwich is a military school headed up by a retired Coast Guard admiral although about half of its student body is civilian. The architecture, engineering and nursing schools bring in the nonmilitary element. A good share of the cadets are from Service families and have made a commitment to the Forces upon graduation. As a result, they benefit from financial aid for attendance at Norwich is not cheap.

The university is located on the outskirts of Northfield, a New England village that is centered around a cross road maybe a mile from the school. “Town” consists of several cafes, a bank, a library, a church with numerous white frame farm houses scattered about. I stayed in one of these, morphed into a comfortable Bed/Breakfast across from Norwich. With snow on the ground, very picturesque New England. Sunny days though a bit “fresh” as the Brits say.

I found myself in a different culture, both in terms of being in New England and the exposure to the military. I’m glad I went and given another stimulating topic, I may return next year.

And yes, Jet Blue turned out to be an excellent airline not only comfortable and reasonably priced but with staff that was courteous and helpful. The shuttle service was prompt and reliable. However, at Burlington Airport, I had the most thorough body search I’ve ever experienced, just one step from a strip search. And I’ve been searched in many venues and countries over the past years.