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Covering Afghanistan

What the War Really Looks Like 8 Years After 9/11

At today's launch event for the AfPak Channel, a joint project between the New America Foundation and Foreign Policy magazine, a panel of journalists who have often traveled to the region that U.S. President Barack Obama has made the focal point of his foreign policy shared their experiences reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Peter Bergen, the editor of the AfPak Channel and director of the New America Foundation's Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative, began by relaying observations from his recent trip to Afghanistan's southern and violent Helmand province. He said that the United States is expending a huge amount of effort for very uncertain outcomes and efforts in Helmand have a 99.9% military dimension and 0.01% civilian dimension, out of line with what a classic counterinsurgency campaign would dictate.

A series of myths in reporting Afghanistan have also adversely affected the debate in the United States. These myths include the danger to civilians in Afghanistan as compared with Iraq, Afghan attitudes towards international forces, misleading comparisons with Vietnam, and overstatements on the general level of violence in the country. These reports also disregard any positive trends. Lastly, Bergen said that al Qaeda in Pakistan is America's greatest security concern, and the terrorist group's operational capability has been damaged by the U.S. drone program and dwindling public support for terrorism among the Pakistani population.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, associate editor for the Washington Post, discussed his observations from his recent trip to Afghanistan to report on NATO's counterinsurgency operations. After pointing out the need to use Afghan national or local forces to begin expanding the "oil-spot" security area being established by NATO and U.S. forces in Helmand province, he related further developments around Kandahar. He described Canadian efforts in Dand district as an example of how NATO is not "aggressively enough" using the tribal dynamics of the country's regions to marshal support for the government and opposition to the Taliban. He concluded by offering a short description of the faltering COIN effort in Kunduz Province, site of a deadly NATO airstrike and the kidnapping and violent rescue of New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell, and the difficulties posed by an illegitimate and possibly antagonistic Karzai government to the Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy.

New America Foundation president and longtime observer of the region Steve Coll described the upcoming process by which the Obama administration will proceed with respect to Afghanistan. Explaining that the president will have "a very deep and very open debate on strategic objectives" before committing to troop increases, Coll suggested that Obama has an opportunity to focus on strategic ends, not just the means employed. This debate, Coll said, may well challenge the military-dominated strategic perspective on the war, putting it in the context of larger American policy and strategic objectives in south and central Asia. Reading from the president's just-released objectives and benchmarks for measuring progress, Coll described the difficulties associated with 3B, the "nation-building" objective, and posited that this will be the goal subject to the most intense scrutiny and debate over the coming weeks, as upon it hinges the decision to deploy up to 40,000 more American forces and commit to a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign of indefinite length.

Matthew Caris and Alexandra Taylor, research interns with the American Strategy Program



Featured Speakers
Steve Coll
President, New America Foundation
Author, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

Peter Bergen

Editor, The AfPak Channel
Co-director, Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative
Senior Fellow, New America Foundation
Author, The Osama bin Laden I Know

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Afghanistan Correspondent
Former Baghdad Bureau Chief
Washington Post
Author, Imperial Life in the Emerald City

Karen DeYoung
Senior Diplomatic Correspondent
Washington Post

Susan Glasser
Executive editor, Foreign Policy


Event Time and Location

Thursday, September 17, 2009 - 12:15pm - 1:45pm
New America Foundation
1630 Connecticut Ave. NW Suite 400
Washington, DC 20009

Event Materials

Event Photos

A range of photos from this event are available on Flickr. Click on the icon at left to view or download the photos.