“What a famous victory that would be”*

Two of the most important journalistic voices currently writing on Afghanistan


Yesterday and today the CBC has presented listeners with extended interviews with two of the most important journalistic voices currently writing on Afghanistan. Yesterday, Q had an interview with Sebastian Junger, and this morning The Current had on John Burns of the New York Times. Both men have been reporting from Afghanistan since the 1990s, both interviews are well worth your time.

As I heard him, Junger seems to be saying that there is no military — strategic or tactical — obstacle to winning the war. He painted it as strictly a matter of political will, of simply deciding to put in the necessary resources and personnel. As he says at one point, if we can land on the beaches of Normandy and push the Nazis back to Berlin, there’s no reason why we can’t defeat 20 000 Taliban fighters.

I’ll leave the responses to that for the comments. For his part, Burns sees the point of the surge as not outright victory, but merely to stabilize the country to the point where a political solution can be negotiated. The two main problems with that are a) the odiousness of the Taliban, and b) the incompetence of the Karzai government. One of the most astute things Burns said is that when the Afghans hear about us heading for the exit, they see a repeat of what happened in the 1990s when the Soviets left. And they don’t like either of the alternatives that they see left on the table.

He tells one great story about meeting with a Taliban commander, who remarked upon the problem of homosexuality within the Taliban ranks. He asked Burns: “Do we bury them alive, or throw them off a wall? What would you do?” Burns says he asked, why would you want to commit this kind of violence? He said, “why not”? “And I realized we were staring across the gulf of a thousand years.”

Junger reminds us though that it is important to realize, that Afghanistan was not always a backward, illiterate, medieval country. It was once a functioning stable state, one that has now spent over thirty years in a condition of constant warfare. For a great reminder of that, check out this fantastic photo essay of Cold War Afghanistan (which was tweeted yesterday by Doug Saunders of the Globe).

I think that Afghanistan is the most important political file in the country right now, and has been for half a decade. My personal views — what we are doing there, the moral and political basis of what we ought to be doing, and what our chances of succeeding are — swing like a screen door in a wind storm, and the best I can do is keep reading and thinking and listening to people who know more than I do.

* The line is Burns’s, talking about whether there’s hope for the allies to accomplish in Afghanistan what the US achieved in Anbar province in 2007-2008.

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“What a famous victory that would be”*

  1. Andrew, that photo essay demonstrates that the educated, modern elites of Kabul were educated, modern elites. I've seen many people claim Afghanistan was once a modern, stable country but what was the literacy rate in the countryside prior to the Soviet invasion? The life expectancy? What did infrastructure outside Kabul look like? The limited information I've seen suggests it was not a whole lot different than now. If someone knows better, please correct me.

    Oh, and we didn't land at Normandy and push the Nazis back to Berlin. We landed at Normandy and pushed the Nazis back to mid-Germany while the Red Army pushed back the large majority of Nazi forces to Berlin. It would be nice if we gave the Russians credit now and then.

    • I didn't say it was modern, just that it was once stable. Good questions though; I don't know the answers. As for Junger's comparison to D-Day…

      • Don't you have to back to about 1750 to 1840 to find a period of reasonable stability? (A few decades here and there don't particularly count, I'd argue).
        EDIT: I'd also argue that British or Soviet muscle and money doesn't make the case for the prior existence of a stable Afghanistan, so much as a controlled Afghanistan.

    • Well…the fact that 'educated, modern elites' once existed, and were themselves reduced to a hardscrabble life under a rather crazed theocracy still describes a remarkable decline, does it not? Your average Canadian city is chock full of such 'elites'; were our government to reduce the cities to rubble, and terrorize the 'elites' to death, would you point to life on a native reserve or a remote rural backwater and suggest that that's the real Canada, and that city life was merely an artifice? Don't forget: these 'elites' are/were every bit as Afghan as the tribal goatherd, though perhaps less amenable to being cast as an orientalist fetish by westerners; and they, and the emerging, progressive modern nation-state they represented were brutalized to the point of annhilation for the crime of being modern. Thats what the photo essay demonstrates; it's impact shouldn't be minimized with the casual dismissal that they are 'elites'…in the starkness of its comparison, the essay highlights something that should remain shocking to us, and reference to class structure shouldn't act as a damper.

  2. To where does Junger think we can push the Taliban fighters?

    • Berlin, natch.

    • Perhaps back to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, England, America, or Pakistan? You know, their country of origin? The 'Taliban' proper is a group of foreign interlopers in Afghanistan. Mostly, though, I think the goal would be to push them several feet under, where they may serve their historic role as natural fertilizer for the tree of liberty…

      • "The 'Taliban' proper is a group of foreign interlopers in Afghanistan."

        Not so sure about that. I always understood them to be an outgrowth of the mujahadeen resistance to the Soviets. To be sure, there's support from outside nations and nationals, and there's a fairly permeable border with Pakistan. But I've not read anything to suggest that the Afghanistan Taliban are primarily foreign individuals.

        • They were, in fact, a response to the excesses of the mujahadeen warlords: or at least, this is how they gained their fame. Remember, though, that 'foreign' would also apply, in this case, to Pakistani nationals as well. It was Pakistini madrassas that spawned the taliban proper, madrassas funded by Saudi money, and staffed by foreign mullahs, Wahabbi missionaries, if you will. So we may add 'foreign ideology' to the list as well. And remember (or reference the numerous accounts): Jalalabad was noted as a sort of port of entry for foreign jihadis: a place where Saudis, Egyptians, Americans, Chechens, etc. came in great numbers, en route to joining the Taliban. And it was across the Pakistani border that they first came, by the toyota truckload. Perhaps, in the intervening years, the term 'taliban' has become broader, and now encompasses any individual or group who takes up arms against NATO, but historically considered (and I think this is an important point…the Taliban themselves were an 'occupying force'), they and their ideology are a phenomenon from elsewhere.

          • " a response to the excesses of the mujahadeen warlords"

            I wrong in my recollection on that count – thanks! I must have read that many former mujahadeen fighters ended up in the Talian ranks, and wrongly assumed there was some continutity of leadership.

            " It was Pakistini madrassas that spawned the taliban proper"

            No, it was the madrasses that sent manpower to assist. The spread of Taliban influence was from Afghanistan into Pakistan, as best I can tell.

            I'm not denying that the Taliban is as much a factor of outside influences as inside ones, but it seems to have emerged as a force from within.

  3. It's not a war. A war suggests a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is an occupation. People don't like it when you occupy their country so they shoot at you. It's cargo cultism, to be charitable, to suggest this "war" can be "won". What we do know is that the Taliban eradicated poppy production – and were immediately invaded. We also know that the occupation is seriously eroding Canada's standing in the world; we look like neo-con warmongers. This endangers Canada and Canadians.

    Roughly zero of the 250,000 people immigrating to Canada annually support our occupation of Afghanistan from my discussions with them (I exaggerate, but only slightly) and I suspect, but cannot prove, these people look at "typical" Canadians who they believe support this occupation as stupid warmongers, which hardly helps build harmony in our society.

    The excellent photo essay you linked to reminds me that Afghanistan has one bountiful, renewable resource: chicks. They see and hear their sisters in other countries living Sex And The City lifestyles and it will be interesting to see how that develops.

    • How incredibly tightly wound (or, more likely, professionally aggrieved) do you have to be to be offended by the term chick, the female equivalent of guy (a word which means "bum", incidentally, referring to Guy Fawkes effigies, though men have better things to do than whine about it)? Is your real name Irene Mathyssen?

      This is interesting: I thought you white supremacists were all about the free speech? And you want to ban the word chick (which, interestingly, comes from shiska, a term now officially viewed as hate speech in Toronto)? Wow. Just….wow.

      • You obviously have no idea who you're talking to. Accusing Sean, of all people, of being a white supremacist simply exposes your ignorance.

        As a side note, while I agree with the general sentiment of the first message, when you refer to women as a "renewable resource", like they're something that should be exploited, that is objectifying them terribly. Perhaps it wasn't intended that way, but here in reader land, that's sure as hell what it came off as.

          • I've deleted mine. But are you seriously lumping me in with Boogard?

    • You've talked with all 250,000? You must be busy.

  4. Junger is right, but (a) we could not have defeated Germany on our own in 1939-45, and (b) the political will in that case involved total and unwavering commitment – the nation was pouring every resource into the fight.

    Therefore in the case of Afghanistan we must ask ourselves: (a) are our allies (especially the US) committed? and (b) is it worth it to us to turn this into our raison d'etre for years?

    The answer to (a) is questionable. The answer to (b) is clearly no, but that may be ok if the resources required for victory do not amount to total and unwavering commitment.

    I wish our government had addressed these questions from the beginning. Since that wasn't done (at least publicly), they should do it ASAP.

    • Do we even have a realistic measure of what winning would look like?

      • I think we do. Iraq seems to be an example of a relatively successful attempt to do something similar (not that I agree with everything that was done with Iraq). The benchmarks there were a combination of reduced attack frequency, infrastructure, return to normal life (i.e. population resurgence, schools reopening, etc.) for various sectors, and the return of command and control for security/political matters from the coalition to the local authorities.

        • I may be overstating the differences, but I think there's significant obstacles in Afghanistan that weren't present in Iraq, including:

          – the relative 'ease' of incorporating Sunni factions made a fairly unified front against against resistance: sectarian lines were more clear and soluable (in a fashion) than in Afghanistan

          – the tribal structures were/are less fragmented in Iraq, making mobilization and common organization easier than it ever could be in Afghanistan

          – opium farming's dominance in Afghanistan

          – the permeable border with Pakistan had no comparable situation in Iraq

          -the Taliban forces are interwoven amonst the rural populations – I seem to recall reading that they were more centralized in urban centres in Iraq – and thus easier to locate and expunge

          Anyway, I'm not disagreeing with you – just tossing this out for consideration.

          • I completely agree. In fact I'd add one more: Iraq was already an advanced society whereas Afghanistan is very much less so. It's extremely difficult to train people when there is a 90% illiteracy rate.

            However, these are issues concerning whether success can be achieved, not issues concerning what success would look like and whether we can benchmark it.

  5. 'if we can land on the beaches of Normandy and push the Nazis back to Berlin, there's no reason why we can't defeat 20 000 Taliban fighters.'

    That's the kind of comment that makes me scream…because I suspect that's how the military sees it as well.

    The fact that there is no 'battlefield', no set location, no lines of soldiers on each side, no uniforms….apparently doesn't make any difference to people who are replaying WWII movies in their heads.

    Afghanistan is Vietnam 2.

    • Emily, do you know anyone there? I really wish you would stop comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam. There is no comparison.

  6. The challenge we face in Afghanistan is far beyond the defeat of 20,000 Taliban and the reporters' own comments about a thousand year gap shows what a shallow remark this is. This is not a war in the conventional sense and it is certainly not winnable. The Brits, Russians and others folks past travails in Afghanistan have been well documented.
    (Google this kids: Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia
    By Karl Ernest Meyer, Shareen Blair Brysac)

    The very best Middle East reporting and analysis (in "the West") comes from a daily blog from an American Arabic scholar at the University of Michigan, Juan Cole. A regular scan of his blog is a must for anyone trying to make sense out of Afghanistan and its troubled neighborhood. http://www.juancole.com/

  7. I cannot beleive anyone considers Sebastian Junger an authority on anything. Especially strategy.

    It's just a matter of political will. What war isn't a matter of politicial will?

    • Yeah, I agree. Potter lost me when he introduced the two as "the most important journalistic voices currently writing jon (sic) Afghanistan." Because I care what two guys who fancy themselves as foreign policy experts, especially when one of them thinks fighting a counterinsurgency campaign in Central Asia is no different than two western armies clashing in western Europe. Unreal…

    • Yes. Any war would be improved with greater or total political will, but the comparisons end there. The comparison to the Second World War is ridiculous. To add to the comments of others above, here are two more reasons:

      In Europe in 1945
      1. When the Allies killed a German, there was one less German to fight
      2. When the Allies inadvertently killed a French or Dutch civilian, that person's family didn't blame the Allies, they blamed the Germans (mostly).

      In Afghanistan in 2010
      1. When NATO kills a Taliban fighter, his previously non-fighting son/nephew/brother very likely becomes radicalized through vengeance and takes his place
      2. When NATO inadvertently kills an Afghan civilian that person's family blames NATO (U.S/Western countries) and quite possibly their family members join the fight against us.

  8. Why should anybody be surprised by those photos? Didn't anyone read The Kite Runner or see the movie?

    I have harped on this many times on posts about Afghanistan but I find most of the reporting in Canadian media on our involvement in Afghanistan to be depolorable.

    All we get is ramp ceremony after ramp ceremony and most recently a mini-sex scandal. I cannot recall the last time I saw a Canadian report on what our soldiers are doing outside the wire.

    The other night Nightline had an excellent piece on what American soldiers are doing at a Forward Operating Base.

    • I was at the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee panel in Montreal a few weeks back and during the question period a person in the crowd asked why no one reported about the good things our forces were doing their and the answer was that the government does not allow the soldiers to talk to journalists about the reconstruction effort.

      • Which is bullshit. The soldiers can talk about plenty, especially good stuff – the media doesn't want to listen, it's not shocking enough to warrant a story.

      • The soldiers are able to talk about plenty. But the media is not interested in anything that doesn't make contraversy.

        • Well that was from one of the panelist that went to Afghanistan a few times and when he wanted to go see the development effort, soldiers told him that they could not talk about it and could not show what they had accomplish under orders from government officials.

  9. I havew no idea what it would take to "win" Afghanistan or if that's even possible, but what I do know is that successive Canadian governments have done a terrible job of explaining exactly what we're trying to achieve there.

    All I seem to see is 1) Casualties and Ramp Ceremonies and 2) Debates about when we'll leave.

    It's stunning just how poorly the government has been in this regard.

  10. I traveled through Afghanistan in 1970. It was one of the most peaceful placeswith few hassles, great people and yet rough. On a bus ride from Herat to Kabul someone brought a live fawn into the bus. The kids played with it until a little while later when the bus pulled off the road and the men gutted the fawn right beside the road all the while the kids were standing around laughing and playing.

  11. Certainly there is nothing analogous to WWII in the struggle in Afghanistan except that we have an enemy (their call, not ours), that wants to kill us and establish their way of life in our country. They must be stopped or we will lose our freedom.

    This struggle against Islamists – I am not talking about my Muslim neighbour who wants the same things I do, but who the Islamists want to kill because he does not hate me, will last long, and perhaps indefinitely.

    Victory will not come finally, with a signature on a document of surrender signed on the deck of a battleship, or under a pomegranate tree, but daily.

    Each day with no bombing in Toronto, New York, or London, each day boys and girls attend an Afghan school, each day a medical clinic opens to treat Afghan men and women and children, each day civilian traffic travels on an Afghan highway, each of these days is a victory.

  12. I have eight grandchildren, three of whom are girls. The oldest two will be military age in three years. I do not come to this discussion lightly, or as an ideologue, but as a grandparent. I want my grandchildren to enjoy life with the same freedoms I have. Unfortunately, like their great grandparents, they may have to fight for them.

  13. Add to my last comment:
    Someone may ask me: "What is your solution to the Afghan problem?"
    I don't have a good one yet. I don't think anyone does.

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