When it comes to Afghanistan, and Western involvement in it, expressions like “we told you so” and “we’ve been through this before” seem a lot less trite and churlish today than they might have a few short years ago. Of course, a few short years ago, things were not quite what they are now, and while a short and sharp military operation in 2001-2002 to smash Al Qaeda‘s Ansars and their Taliban sponsors felt epic and righteous, the slow slog of the subsequent counterinsurgency mission holds much less appeal. For a time, it looked like everyone understood the generational investment in troops, resources, and political will needed to secure, hold, and democratize Afghanistan. That still holds, but the idea that a single generation might do the trick is held as little more than eyewash. With this, the interventionism of the post-Cold War era may have had its hopeful (or pragmatic, depending on where your partisan sympathies lie) bubble rudely popped.
Last Thursday evening, I was at the Frontline Club for close to two hours – well spent – listening to BBC reporter David Loyn, in conversation with historian, novelist, and broadcaster Saul David. They were there to discuss Loyn’s new book, Butcher and Bolt: Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan (Hutchinson, 2008), and the lessons of history we should have had in pocket in 2001 but have had to relearn (or, in Loyn’s case, excavate from the historical record). Loyn has been around the block a few times, including an early journalism career that had him covering the first free elections in Poland, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Romanian revolution, and stints as correspondent from Moscow and New Delhi, among other places. As the BBC’s man in South Asia, he covered events in Kashmir and Sri Lanka, and notably, the rise of the Taliban.
He’s been reporting on Afghanistan for the last fifteen years, a condition that’s gained him unique access and perspective (and earned him British government criticism for speaking directly to Taliban representatives in 2006, a special irony given the current Afghan, American, and British atmospherics about negotiating with these once and again foes). The roles of experts and witnesses, the commonalities and differences between the two and the contributions they can make to the public good, were discussed at CTlab during a recent symposium on Social Science in War: Defending Hamdan. Loyn’s profile, and his accomplishment in penning Butcher and Bolt, is therefore especially apropos, combining deep local knowledge, archival work, interviews with serving military officers, government officials, and non-state actors, and an observer’s keen eye for historical colour and contemporary detail.
Saul David cued Loyn with the basic- but still relevant – questions we all have about Afghanistan, and Loyn responded with fantastically engaging narrative vignettes from British military history. There was nary an “I told you so” to be heard, from either the discussants or the audience. Only an interest in hearing about what was once known, and how it might make a difference today. Frontline’s intimately spaced events room, with its exposed brickwork and iconic media images of past and present wars, amplified the sense of relevance, and as I looked around, I could see members of the audience, veteran journalists, soldiers, and other Afghanistan hands among them, who were simply captivated. If nothing else, this was good history, the kind that tells a tale worth listening to. While many are wondering how screwed we are in Afghanistan, we’d be remiss if we didn’t take away from Loyn’s work lessons for our political masters (and ourselves, as we vote for them). As Saul David noted in his review of Butcher and Bolt in the Telegraph, “The US will have a new leader by 2009, as perhaps will Britain. He should read this superb book before he makes matters worse.”
Don’t take my word for it, or anyone else’s. Watch the video, read the book.