Is Afghanistan Winnable? Two Veteran Foreign Correspondents Weigh In

Soviet war in Afghanistan
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Christina Lamb, a 43-year-old veteran correspondent who last month became the U.S., D.C.-based correspondent, for the Sunday Times of London, is finally getting to know some of the American officials making policy in Afghanistan, a country she knows well, having covered it for years. “When were you last there?”, she asked one. “Oh, I’ve never been there,” he replied.

Lamb, who has worked as a journalist in Pakistan and was the West’s first correspondent to cover the rise of the Taliban, joined fellow veteran correspondent David Loyn, Developing World Correspondent, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism last night to discuss what they’ve seen, and covered, in Afghanistan. Between them, they offered more than 30 years’ experience in the region.

The event attracted a crowd of about 100, including professors, fellow journalists, a New York Times and Time freelance photographer who has worked in Afghanistan, a UNICEF worker and SIPA and Columbia J-students.

Loyn, who was last in-country two weeks ago, compared Afghanistan to Moscow in 1987: “They have the same set of options in a country long known as the graveyard of empire. This is a country in which war aims always end up altered.” He reiterated what a hostile terrain soldiers, and journalists, face there: ” a country of deserts and mountains, only five percent irrigable and arable. The mountains are 400 miles long and 200 miles wide, with only three passes. It’s natural guerilla territory.” Anyone hoping for good news in Afghanistan faces what he called “the two F’s — frontier and fundamentalism. What the U.S. forgot is that these were people who did not share American values.”

Loyn feels the war is “still absolutely winnable” although “defeat and victory are starting to look similar.” American aid “has been wasted, however noble.” He derided the creation of an “aid juggernaut” that enriches aid workers while leaving Afghans weak, unemployed and disorganized. “Not only is that aid ineffective, it’s destructive. There’s been great progress in primary education for girls — but what about secondary education? What about employment for men?” The challenges are daunting: 60 percent of police in Helmand province are addicted to heroin; 90 percent of police are illiterate and 1.5 million Afghans gave fled to Pakistan, the journalists said. Police corruption is so endemic, Loyn said, that a new form of banking — using mobile phones — is being tested, now used by 53 policemen, whereby any family member can access the funds using their cellphone.

Loyn deplored the recent firing of Peter Galbraith, the top American official at the U.N. mission in Kabul, who denounced election fraud. “His firing sends all the wrong signals. (Here’s an excerpt from Galbraith’s letter. Interviewed today on BBC World News, Galbraith said he strongly favors the idea of a run-off election. “That would be an extremely good thing.”) Loyn reminded the audience, as did Galbraith today, of one of the many issues in the disputed election, “ghost polling stations” — which reported results even though they never even opened.

Lamb thinks that adding more troops is no longer the answer. “I used to argue passionately, everywhere, that we should send more troops, until September 2008 when I went back. The situation had got much, much worse. I could now travel to many fewer places. Even traveling 90 minutes outside Kabul has become too dangerous. Sending 20,000 or 40,000 more troops will just cause more casualties.”

The war, she said, “is not winnable. We’ve lost the consent of the Afghan people and it’s almost impossible to get back.” Western troops have also lost Afghans’ confidence through repeated, grave cultural faux pas — from male soldiers entering women’s quarters, sending dogs (considered unclean) into homes, even firing upon Afghan wedding parties where firing into the air is a joyful, honored tradition — souring goodwill toward foreign troops, Lamb said. “It’s normal at a wedding to fire gunshots, but people were killed by soldiers in retaliation.” There’s little chance of forgiveness for such errors, she said. “In Afghanistan, revenge is a very important part of life.”

She described visiting a town in Helmand province heavily guarded by 9,000 British soldiers and 11,000 Americans. “There are no people there! They’ve all fled. The only people left there are Taliban, so there is no one to protect. Why are troops there?”

Loyn disagrees, but thinks 300,000 to 400,000 troops are needed to get the job done. “We’re a long way from an effective force.” Germany and France will be pressured by NATO to add more troops, he said. Lamb thinks Obama will have a tough time arguing for additional forces. “His administration doesn’t have a narrative for sending troops into Afghanistan. The unspoken issue is Pakistan, but it’s easier to focus on Afghanistan when the real situation is over the border,” she said. She was last there in June 2009, in Peshawar, and while she clearly loves the country, admitted, “I was scared.”

The one success story both writers agreed on? The growing strength and work of independent Afghan media. Loyn praised them for “trying to hold their government to account,” especially television reporters. “It’s difficult for women journalsts,” said Lamb. “They’ve had lots of threats. Television has been the biggest success.”

8 thoughts on “Is Afghanistan Winnable? Two Veteran Foreign Correspondents Weigh In

  1. Caitlin Kelly

    Chip, I don’t know. PJ Tobia, a T/S contributor on the ground in Afghanistan and training journos there would be your best bet on this…

  2. Ms. Kelly,

    What is completely lacking is any definition of what “success” or “victory” might be or look like. What is needed is a clear set of goals and a strategy to achieve them. The question then becomes are those goals worth achieving and if so, can they be achieved and at a what cost? The only objective that seems to be clear is to prevent the collapse of the Kabul government. This seems a pretty poor and negative objective. Beyond that, it is completely unclear what we asking people to kill and die for.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    David, I agree. The journalists didn’t define it, as it’s not their brief, but it seemed clear to them that these goals do remain unclear. One of the major challenges right now is the illegitimacy of the election results and how reluctant foreign governments are to send even more troops in to support a regime that the Afghan people don’t trust.

  4. I want to believe, with Loyn, that SOMEthing is winnable; right now I mostly pray. But your last paragraph gives real hope. I am just back from a meeting at which talk turned to how many around the table — and these are pretty high-level decision makers — had given up their Times subscriptions for online. Coming from a pre-online print newspaper background, I could only lament. Reporters on the scene who have integrity and brains are all that will save us from politicians making decisions sight-unseen.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    It astounds me, although it shouldn’t, how much policymakers lack firsthand knowledge of the region and its nuances.

    As every reporter knows, using whatever medium to communicate, nothing can substitute for intimacy with a place or people you’re trying to make major decisions about.

    I learned a great deal listening to the two of them, even after reading lots of coverage already.

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