HKS Student, Veteran Scott Osterling Speaks on National Service and Foreign Policy

January 7, 2010
by Sabrina Roshan, MPP 2010

Scott Osterling, MPA/MBA 2010, was recently interviewed by Sabrina Roshan, MPP 2010, of the Citizen, Harvard Kennedy School’s student newspaper. Osterling, a U.S. Military Academy graduate, served in the 75th Ranger Regiment and was commissioned as a Green Beret, commanding detachment A-573 in combat in Iraq. Below are excerpt from the Citizen interview; read the full interview here.

Q. How did you or your fellow servicemen and women deal with situations in which you were in the theatre fighting a war that may not have aligned with your policy perspective?

Osterling:I can only speak for myself and the guys that I served with. I think the attitude that’s most pervasive is that if the administration that is putting young Americans in harm’s way is supporting the military with the right equipment and there is enough public support for the soldiers – even if the support is not for the mission but for the soldiers, you feel like you are doing something good. You may disagree with the decision to go to Iraq. You can still feel proud on an individual level that you are making life better for the Iraqi people. I think that for most soldiers, that’s the case.

Both the Obama administration and the latter part of the Bush Administration have proceeded with the right amount of caution in terms of winding down the US presence there. I think it’s certainly time to start bringing US forces home. I think that to President Obama’s credit, he has done it at the right pace while making it clear to the Iraqi government that their security is now their responsibility.

Q. What was your greatest challenge during your 10 years of service?

Osterling:Understanding that when you’re in the military that you really work for your soldiers. The idea that you can’t really ever have an off day, you can’t say “well, this challenge is too hard,” or “this job is something I really don’t want to do.” Every day, people expect you to make decisions that affect their lives and expect you to make the right ones. Very rarely are there easy decisions to make out there.

Q. What are factors that are not being considered in the rhetoric on Afghanistan policy?

Osterling:It’s just starting to come into focus now: what the future of the Karzai government is going to be. If he’s not seen as the legitimate leader of Afghanistan by both the Afghan people and the world, we can’t win a counterinsurgency campaign as it requires a legitimate government.

Q. What are the factors that are not being considered in the rhetoric on Iraq policy?

Osterling:I think the one big unanswered question in Iraq is what the future of Kirkuk is. The oil field around Kirkuk and how the Kurds and Sunnis in particular look to split the revenue from them has the potential to be incredibly violent. They really haven’t addressed the issue yet but it’s going to have a significant impact on the future security situation in Iraq. The Kurds consider Kirkuk to be very much a Kurdish city. Saddam moved the Kurds out and forced Sunnis into the city and altered its demographics. There are a lot of Kurds who have unresolved property claims in Kirkuk. Both the Kurdish leaders, Talabani and Barzani, want that to be resolved in a way that allows Kirkuk to essentially become Kurdish again.

Q. What is your policy prescription on Iraq and Afghanistan?

Osterling:Kirkuk is the major future flash point in Iraq. In addition, we must make sure that our force level in Iraq is commensurate with the threat.
Afghanistan is much, much harder because the resources required to replicate the same type of strategy that we did with the surge just aren’t there. We’re talking about something on the order of 200,000 American soldiers, which is not going to happen. It also assumes a level and size of competence that the Afghan national army is not at. I think a counterinsurgency strategy can only effective in keeping the situation from getting any worse.

Our key relationship in the region is with Pakistan; working with our Pakistani allies to reduce the power and influence of the Pakistani Taliban and the leadership of al Qaeda that is taking refuge in the tribal areas is our most important challenge. We don’t want Afghanistan to become the failed state it was from 1996 to 2001, where the Taliban was in control, and al Qaeda was permitted freedom of maneuver within the country. I think we can prevent that from happening without the commitment of resources and national will that it is going to take to fight a full on counterinsurgency campaign if we can work with Pakistani allies.

Scott Osterling with children in Iraq.

Scott Osterling with children in Iraq. Photo provided.

"Our key relationship in the region is with Pakistan; working with our Pakistani allies to reduce the power and influence of the Pakistani Taliban and the leadership of al Qaeda that is taking refuge in the tribal areas is our most important challenge."

—Scott Osterling


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