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.