A Troubling Yet Hopeful Note on Afghanistan from USAF Colonel Edward Westermann


I just acquired an interesting letter sent to a number of military officials and academics around the country by Air Force Col. Edward Westermann who has been working in Afghanistan and who now teaches at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
Westermann is a serious and well-respected intellectual who has authored numerous books on military strategy and history.
Strangely enough, I also happened to go to high school with him in Japan — at least until the 11th grade when his parents were moved elsewhere. Until his departure, he was the only person at Yokota High School who was simultaneously a friend and true intellectual rival. I joined track because he was on the wrestling team and knew our ferocity in the academic arena would get too intense if we took each other on in sports; besides I know he would have wiped the floor with me.
This Westermann letter addresses troubling realities of nepotism, racism and corruption that make doing the right thing and building professionally run institutions in Afghanistan (and other nations for which America has responsibility) more exception than rule.
This story ends well. The right guy got selected for a position running a training curriculum at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, but the selection process that he describes reveals much.
Westermann’s words don’t need moderation by this writer, but it does say something when an active duty officer in the U.S. military refers to “the ill-named Global War on Terrorism.” From my vantage point, it seems like this kind of commendable independent thinking is regrettably a diminishing resource in the military ranks.
Westermann writes:

Having recently returned from Afghanistan, I wanted to take a moment to share some thoughts and observations that might be of interest to you based on the current debate concerning the US position with respect to the ill-named Global War on Terrorism and the course and outlook for future success in this endeavor.
The purpose for my visit to Afghanistan was to support an existing effort by the US Military Academy at West Point to build an academic and military training curriculum at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan (NMAA).
The USMA asked for the assistance of the Air Force Academy in the development of lessons related to general military theory and aviation and airpower theory and application in particular.
The good news is that the security situation in Afghanistan, despite the news of the recent Bagram bombing and the planned Taliban spring offensive, is considerably more stable than in Iraq. There continue to be random attacks to include a rocket attack against NMAA’s training site and improvised explosive device attacks against US and NATO installations and convoys, especially in the vicinity of Kandahar in the south.
With respect to road convoys, I traveled in an unarmored SUV throughout Kabul during my time there without a problem. In contrast, the trip from Bagram to Kabul has associated hazards from potholes that could swallow a car to potential bombing attacks and to travel about 35 miles takes an hour and a half. In short, the situation in Kabul is stable and largely secure with many signs of destruction after three decades of war, but also many signs of incremental progress in rebuilding the physical and intellectual infrastructure of the country.
With respect to the latter, the American University of Kabul has reopened and has provided a program for Afghan women to continue their education with emphasis on English and business/management studies — a major opportunity for these women in the wake of the Taliban regime’s restrictions. Likewise, I would estimate that some 50% of the women in Kabul have shed their burkhas from my travels throughout the city.
In contrast, the widespread presence of war widows and orphans offers a less positive aspect of the effects of 30 years of conflict, especially since these women and children occupy the lowest rung of the social order. In fact, there are an estimated 70,000+ war widows in Kabul alone.
During my visit to NMAA I had the opportunity to participate in a hiring interview for a new member of the history faculty. I wanted to share this experience with you for several reasons as I hope will become apparent. Each candidate was judged on three criteria: knowledge, teaching potential, and professionalism and the interview board consisted of an Afghan Colonel and one US representative. We were initially told that only two candidates who had applied for the position were selected for interviews.
The first candidate was a teacher in an outlying province instructing middle school. A member of the Pashtu tribe, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. He was 50+ and had a degree in Pashtu literature from the University of Kabul and had written a thesis on the subject. He produced in a handwritten and apparently often read copy of the same.
When questioned as to his qualifications for teaching history, he produced a soft-cover history book published in Dari by the University Press of Nebraska-Lincoln. The book provided a general overview of the development of the US and the Western World including discussions of laissez-faire economics and US isolationism and major world events including the Second World War.
When asked about WWII, the interviewee responded that between 20-30 million had perished as a result of Adolf Hitler’s “selfishness.” When asked about the Holocaust, he stated that Hitler and the Germans had mistreated the Jews and “tortured” them terribly. Upon further questioning, the candidate agreed that he was not really a history teacher but a literature teacher and that he should apply for jobs in this discipline.
The second candidate was a middle-aged former Colonel who had served with the military of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s and also Pashtu. In fact, he was a former political officer who had studied in the Soviet Union. In his own words, his teaching experience related largely to “providing information” to the troops. He noted that he had a degree in Social Sciences from the University of Kabul.
When questioned about his area of study, he characterized himself as a generalist. When asked about what research he had done, he stated that he had “never” written a thesis or even a research paper during his time at the University. In other words, he had received a degree in Social Science and never written a single paper. His knowledge of general history was fair and his knowledge of Afghan contemporary history was good.
At this point, it appeared that the second candidate would get the position by default and I must admit my concern for the quality of the instruction that his students would receive and the general implications of being forced to hire someone not qualified for the position on the overall goal of building a stable and democratic Afghanistan. However, a third candidate had unexpectedly appeared.
The third candidate was a young man in his late 20s who was finishing a degree in ethnographic studies at the University of Kabul. He was Hazara (reputed descendants of the Moghul dynasty and the third largest ethnic group in the country).
The Hazara were one of the groups that have suffered periodic persecution and discrimination in Afghanistan, especially under the Taliban, based on their adherence to Shia Islam as well as their distinctive anthropological appearance and cultural practices (e.g., the wear of bright colors and jewelry). This candidate was preparing to defend his thesis in which he had traced the ethnographic history of the Hazara in Eastern Afghanistan. A research project that included the “rediscovery” of some lost Moghul words that were now being reintroduced into Dari.
When asked why he wanted to teach at the National Military Academy, he talked of the importance of service to the country and making a contribution to the development of young military officers. Likewise, he talked of teaching techniques that involved the participation of students and stimulating their interest in learning versus the Soviet era practice of straight lectures. He was the only one of the three candidates who had been trained in the use of computers (Microsoft Windows to be exact) and he also was the only candidate to have had a basic English course.
After the interviews, I participated in a discussion concerning the candidates with the Afghan Colonel (a Pashtu) who somewhat reluctantly agreed that despite the last candidate’s youth he was probably the best candidate for the job. The Colonel originally favored the second candidate and was inclined to have the Hazara candidate reapply at a later time after he had “gained more experience.”
For me, the job interview symbolized in microcosm the challenges, issues, and opportunities associated with rebuilding Afghanistan.
In contrast to the current situation in Iraq, I do believe that the current situation in Afghanistan does offer some room for optimism. The task of rebuilding Afghanistan will be slow and only incremental progress will be made in the short-term, but I believe that there is a desire and resolve on the part of those that I met to make it work.
Unfortunately, the translators we worked with are among the most educated persons in the country (most are MDs earn more money as translators than as Doctors) and they are the ones who are applying for visas to leave — a problem indicating the “brain drain” that is occurring not only in Afghanistan but also Iraq.
I will be returning to Kabul in May and June to mentor their faculty on the lesson plans that I will being developing and that will be forwarded for translation into Dari. I apologize for the length of this email, but I felt that you might be interested in a first-hand account of my experience and as I know all of you are interested in US policy and the efforts of the US and our coalition allies in the “Long War.”
For those interested in reading more about Afghanistan or assigning an excellent book on this subject for the classroom, I highly recommend Christina Lamb’s The Sewing Circles of Heart (NY: Harper Perennial, 2004) which provides a fascinating examination at the daily experience of men and women under the Taliban’s authoritarian regime. Lamb also has a chapter on a former Taliban torturer that raises the issue of perpetrator actions and motivation — a topic of special interest for those of us engaged in this issue with respect to the Holocaust.
With best regards,

Just an interesting glimpse into the work of a smart soldier trying to make things better. . .
— Steve Clemons


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