BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - Although he graduated from the Air Force Academy and has a master's degree from Harvard, Brig. Gen. Steve Kwast likes to think he has a lot in common with people who live outside this sprawling base.
Kwast, commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, grew up in Africa, where his parents were missionaries. He knows what it's like to hike an hour to the next village or fear anyone from the outside.
With that background, Kwast offers what some would consider an unconventional view of how the United States and its allies can win the war in Afghanistan.
Kwast tries to see the issues from the point of view of the Afghan farmer or village elder - many of whom he has met since he arrived here in April.
Those people are the key, Kwast says, adding U.S. and NATO leaders - now reconsidering coalition strategy in Afghanistan - should consult them in mapping a way to victory.
"We had better be careful that we listen to them and let them prescribe the solution-sets and not be traditional, Western-minded people that say, 'Hey, since it's successful in America, this is the process should have,'" said Kwast, whose last name is pronounced Ku-wast. "If we do that, we will fall into the same trap of every nation that has lost this ground trying to help."
SECURITY AND WATER
Kwast is on a fast track.
An F-15 fighter pilot with more than 350 hours logged in combat, Kwast is as energetic and fit as an elite athlete. He prefers to stand during an interview "so we can burn a few calories."
Graduating in 1986 from the Air Force Academy with a degree in astronautical engineering, he earned his master's degree in public policy two years later from Harvard University.
He has soared through the ranks, reaching full colonel in 17 years and pinning on his first star after 23 years of service. On average, it takes 21 1/2 years for Air Force officers to reach colonel and 25 years to pin on their first star.
Kwast's office is in the crow's nest of this base's former control tower. It was built by the Soviets during the 1980s, when they lost 10,000 soldiers and millions of rubles, trying and failing to bend the Afghan people to their will.
From his perch, Kwast has a 360-degree view of the world around him - from the Charleston-based C-17 transport planes parked on the ramp to the mud-walled villages just outside the gates of the base, where 20,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
He also knows those outside the fence line are watching the actions of the U.S. and coalition troops, as well as their leaders.
Inhabitants of a country crisscrossed by ancient trade routes and invaded off and on for more than 2,000 years, Afghans have a deep-seated distrust of foreigners.
That sentiment seemed to change after the United States invaded in 2001 to root out al-Qaida terrorists and their Taliban enablers. More recently, Afghan support for the U.S.-led war effort has plummeted, according to an ABC News Poll taken in the spring.
Afghans are disillusioned by the escalating war and the lack of economic development. Those who think their country is on the right track slipped to 40 percent earlier this year, compared to 77 percent in 2005, according to the poll.
Afghan opinion of the United States has dropped as well, falling to 47 percent favorable this year from 83 percent in 2005, the poll added.
What's troubling, according to observers, is Afghans today don't see much difference between the United States and its allies and earlier invaders.
The solution, Kwast says, is to determine and fill the average Afghan's basic needs.
"They want the end of this violence and this war," Kwast said. "They want security, and they want the things that help them live.
"If we could provide them security and water (for crops and their children), we'd win this thing overnight."
Reach Crumbo at (803) 771-8503.