Good Reads: America's longest war, in Afghanistan, and Liberia's Nobel Laureate

On the 10th anniversary of the Afghanistan war, today's papers detail the lessons still to be learned. And in good news, Liberia's first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, wins a Nobel Peace Prize.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
In this Sept 27 photo, Bilal Khan sits at a destroyed cinema razed by the Taliban which serves as his family's home in the center of Kabul, Afghanistan. As the US and NATO mark 10 years of war in Afghanistan, a grim picture emerges from scores of interviews over six months across the country with ordinary Afghans, government officials, soldiers, and former and current Taliban.
Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP/File
In this Nov. 30, 2010 file photo, Liberia's first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf talks during the second day of the third Africa-EU Summit in Tripoli, Libya. Today, Johnson-Sirleaf wins a Nobel Peace Prize.

Good Reads highlights the best reporting and analysis available on the top international stories of the day – and other key topics you shouldn't miss.

Ten years ago today, American war planes began to pummel Taliban positions across Afghanistan in what became the first stage of America’s longest war.

The bombing worked, and it did so quickly. Within a few days, Taliban fighters abandoned their positions and fled for the mountains. The armies of the Northern Alliance rolled into Kabul, and hundreds of foreign correspondents like myself rolled in as well to watch Afghans put their country back together after a decade of mujahideen civil war and misrule.

These were heady, hopeful times. Afghans greeted American soldiers in their Humvees with thumbs up, Afghan children followed American soldiers the way teenagers follow rock stars, reaching for their hands, asking for chocolates, mimicking their English. Afghans also looked to a new generation of leaders – Hamid Karzai being the most prominent – many of them returning from years of exile in the West, and gave them the greatest opportunity of a generation to recreate a society from the ground up.

Within a year or two, the Afghan mood of hope had changed to profound disappointment. The Americans became occupiers. Afghan leaders were derided as “dog washers,” men who had held the lowest possible jobs in exile were now in charge, and failing at the simplest tasks.

Today’s papers are full of stories on how things went wrong in Afghanistan, and the very narrow chance of setting them right again.

The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Joshua Partlow write a devastating piece on how America is “narrowing their goals for the country,” as it prepares the long draw down of forces from Afghanistan. Once considered the “good war,” Afghanistan has become “the good-enough war,” they write.

The Post’s sister publication, Foreign Policy, backs this up with a roundtable of experts, each with an essay on the lessons that we can learn from the Afghan war.

And in the Telegraph, former British ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles, writes that the best hope for Afghanistan is to give up on the “fantasy” that there was a military solution to the political problems of Afghanistan. No one can deny the real achievements made in Afghanistan over the past year, in terms of health and literacy and political freedom, he writes, but “the real test is not what happens when and where Western forces are present, but what happens where and when they are not. And here the record of lasting achievement is more mixed, and the prospects darker.”

History is often a study of missed chances and lost opportunities, and Declan Walsh’s piece in the Guardian details the efforts of Hamid Karzai, a then little-known Pashtun tribal leader receiving a delegation of Taliban elders in the Kandahar suburb of Shah Wali Kot. The Taliban at that time wanted to negotiate a peaceful reconciliation, allowing Taliban fighters to return to their villages. Mr. Karzai seemed game, but the US military wasn’t interested. As Mr. Walsh writes,

In retrospect, it was a tantalising opportunity for a smooth post-Taliban transition and, perhaps, a novel political dispensation. But it wasn't to be. Furious after the 9/11 attacks, the US war machine pursued the Taliban hard. Karzai, the new leader, acquiesced. And the Taliban leadership slunk across the border into Pakistan to lick their wounds and plan the resurgence that is racking the country today.

But while history is about learning from mistakes, it is also about learning from success, and today’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize for three women – Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman – show the powerful effect that women can have in politics and peacemaking.

The New York Times quotes Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who is now head of the Nobel committee that chooses winners, as saying this year's Nobel prize is a very deliberate signal to the world of the important role that women play: “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”

Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf is running for a second term in office in elections scheduled for Oct. 11, so keep an eye on the Monitor’s coverage from the Liberian capital of Monrovia. See also a previous profile of Johnson-Sirleaf, the Harvard-educated economist, by Paige McClannahan, which ran last April.

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