The Real Afghanistan
"Eight years into the war; a new young president looking at a number of policy options, one of the key ones being to Afghanize the country; real concern over the Afghan leader who's in place and desire to replace him with another one; and the key policy priority option being more troops."
BBC foreign correspondent David Loyn opened an Oct. 7 panel discussion on reporting in Afghanistan, hosted by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia Journalism School, with what sounded like an overview of the current policy landscape. "Actually, that's what happened in Moscow in 1987."
The history of Afghanistan that preceded the current war is something Loyn and fellow panelist Christina Lamb could address from personal experience: Loyn has been reporting there for the last 15 years, while Lamb has worked in the region as a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London for even longer. In the wide-ranging, 90-minute conversation that followed, Loyn and Lamb elucidated what in the current conflict is new, what is old and what is far more complex than the Western media typically allows.
Loyn began by looking beyond the foreign occupiers to the mountainous landscape that fragments the country and the religious fundamentalism that has been one source of social focus and resistance.
In fact, the first recorded instance he could find of a group known as the Taliban fighting a foreign occupier occurred in 1880. And, in 1897, then foreign correspondent Winston Churchill described the group as the theological students most willing to martyr themselves to overturn British occupation. Loyn said:
"The Taliban who emerged in the mid-'90s weren't some kind of unique aberration, then; they were a development from this very strong move and mood within the country that Islamic fundamentalism could always be drawn on … in order to combat the invader.”
Christina Lamb dwelled less on history than on her own reporting in the region, which contrasts starkly with the narratives she has encountered in her new position as the Sunday Times' Washington D.C. correspondent. She explained:
"Most of my reporting [in Afghanistan] has been very focused on being in villages, being with the people, not being with policy makers, and I've always been slightly baffled by some of the policies that are made and how those decisions are reached."
She told a heartbreaking story of a friend in Logar, outside Kabul, who ran an orphanage funded by UNICEF and other international organizations. After the Taliban took over his village, they told him that he would be killed because he was accepting money from "infidel Westerners." Though the villagers whose children he took care of pleaded for him to stay, he felt unsafe and distrustful of government protection, and fled to Kabul with his family. The last time Lamb saw him, the orphanage director was in tears. He told her: "I've looked after these kids for all these years. I don't know what's going to happen to them, but how can I go back and risk my family?"
The theme of this story — the failure of the Americans to establish functional institutions outside of the corrupt nexus of Hamid Karzai — appeared in both Loyn’s and Lamb's comments.
Looking to the future, Loyn and Lamb at first appeared to disagree. Loyn suggested that with a completely retooled strategy geared at creating a functional Afghan state: "There's a chance, just a small chance, that it might not be a complete defeat." Lamb was even less optimistic: "We've lost the consent of the Afghan people, and I think that is almost impossible now to get back."
But Loyn's clarification aligned those answers:
"There's a big risk now that defeat and victory are starting to look rather similar … the gap between what's doable and humiliating withdrawal, both of which will leave still an undeveloped country and a country where the Taliban and all their like will have a very substantial role, which I think is the ultimate outcome one way or another."
Questions from the audience — which included students for Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and School of International and Public Affairs, as well as employees of UNICEF and the New York Times — brought out at least one bright spot: the rise of an Afghan press capable of reporting on the war.
"It's a real success story,” Loyn affirmed. “It's one of the only success stories since 2001."