Tag Archives: General McChrystal

Obama’s Afghanistan announcement, David Loyn’s book.

David Loyn's book provides helpful context for President Obama's decision about the war in Afghanistan.

President Obama is expected to announce his long-awaited decision about the war in Afghanistan tomorrow.

On yesterday’s edition of State of the Nation, CNN’s John King said Obama is likely to approve sending about 34,000 additional troops to the war-torn country.

During a conversation with Sen. Richard Lugar and Jack Reed, King explained that the troop increases would be accompanied by a drawdown strategy as the Afghan police and military reach full strength and benchmarks for the administration of President Hamid Karzai to fight corruption.

As seems to be common these days, Obama’s predicted call is receiving heavy criticism from many quarters.

Some say the troop numbers are too far below those made public in September by General Stanley McChrystal.  Others says trusting Karzai is a fool’s errand.  And still others say that Obama’s policy resembles that of former President George W. Bush.

Enter David Loyn.

The 2005 Dart Fellow and longtime BBC correspondent has written In Afghanistan, a book that provides useful context on the failed colonial ventures by British, Russian, Soviet and American powers during the past 200 years.  Drawing on his unusual combination of field experience and collection of rare books, Loyn argues strongly that none of these efforts has succeeded, in large part due to the inherent conflict between, on the one hand , the imperialists’ desires, and, on the other, indigenous will and knowledge of the local geography.

I wrote about the book last month, and thought that Obama’s arrival at a decision merited another recap of the work.

Understandably, Loyn spends the largest chunk of the book talking about the British experience, with significantly shorter sections on the Russian and American eras.  A skilled spinner of yarns, Loyn describes in vivid, if understated detail, several near-death adventures he had during his more than 20 years of reporting in the country’s forbidding terrain.

The well worn cliche that time will tell if Obama’s decision is the right one may be apt here.  In the meantime, though, readers wanting to learn more about the country that has repelled invader after invader would do well to read Loyn’s helpful primer.


Obama’s Afghanistan dilemma, David Loyn’s historical background


Veteran journalist and Dart fellow David Loyn provides historical context for the current conflict in Afghanistan.

Veteran journalist and Dart fellow David Loyn provides historical context for the current conflict in Afghanistan.

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.” 

The New York Times’ letters have been filled with counsel and opinion about how to proceed Operation Enduring Freedom, which earlier this month entered its ninth year.

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.