Of all the many pressing issues President Barack Obama confronts, the choice of whether to send more troops to Afghanistan may be among the very most most pressing and momentous.
He is not lacking for advice.
The Nation recently featured a cover story by William Polk. Written in the form of an open letter, Polk argued against escalation and said he offered a course of action that could avoid derailing plans for Obama’s presidency, “just as the Vietnam War ruined the presidency for Lyndon Johnson.”
This of course is just a smattering of available civilian opinion.
The proverbial heat has been on Obama since late September, when he experienced his first major national security policy leak. This one came in the form of word getting out that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan who laid out the need for more troops.
With such an abundance of often conflicting opinions, Obama could be forgiven for not wanting more information.
However, should he choose to seek a work that examines 200 years of British, Russian and American misadventures, he would be well advised to read Dart Center Ochberg Fellow David Loyn’s In Afghanistan.
A BBC reporter with three decades of experience across the globe, Loyn was the only journalist in the country when the Taliban took power in 1996. His book is a lively read, filled with swashbuckling characters like U.S. Rep. and Cold Warrior Charlie Wilson, British generals and various Afghani leaders, that picks up even more speed when Loyn shares some of his own reporting experiences in the book’s final section. During a return trip to the country in 2006, for example, he narrowly escapes being killed by local soldiers who learn about and object to his presence. The vigorous defense of Loyn by his host and the evocation of the Pashtun code of honor avert this unfortunate outcome.
Loyn opens the book exactly 200 years ago, with the first sustained presence of British troops. The British historical section is the book’s longest-the Russian incursions to other parts of Aghanistan during British attempts at colonial rule and the Communist-era war get comparatively less attention-and is fascinating on several levels. Loyn has over the years accumulated a large number of British historical texts about Afghanistan, and draws on them to illustrate that era’s evolving conflict that culminated in multiple wars.
Beyond that, Loyn has a keen sense for how the past is prologue to the present, and repeatedly cites examples of situations that either turned out differently for the British or Russians than it has for Americans thus far, or, more often, how the misreading of the country’s geography and the people’s resistance to being subdued has led to three world powers being stymied after having expended enormous time, money, men, weapons and morale.
The latter, of course, is the point that might hold most interest for Obama.
I had the pleasure and fortune to meet Loyn at the Dart Society reunion in August. During a conversation he expressed the hope that his work would gain a wider audience because of the importance of this historical moment and the policy choices Obama and our nation face.
I echo that thought and urge readers to consider picking up this book, regardless of whether our president chooses to avail himself of Loyn’s experience and insight.