Afghanistan: A war experienced in shorthand

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network
Marines patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. William Eddy leads a patrol near Fire Base Fiddler’s Green in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on Aug. 3, 2009. (Photo by Sgt. Christopher R. Rye | U.S. Marine Corps)

In Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan,” one of the few events most Americans would likely recognize comes just eight pages before the end of the book.

It’s President Barack Obama addressing the nation from the East Room of the White House on June 22, 2011. The speech was the bookend to his earlier West Point speech announcing a plan to “surge” troop levels in Afghanistan. Here’s the part of the East Room speech that Chandrasekaran quotes:

“In Afghanistan, we’ve inflicted serious losses on the Taliban and taken a number of its strongholds.

“Along with our surge, our allies also increased their commitments, which helped stabilize more of the country. Afghan security forces have grown by over 100,000 troops, and in some provinces and municipalities we’ve already begun to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan people.

“In the face of violence and intimidation, Afghans are fighting and dying for their country, establishing local police forces, opening markets and schools, creating new opportunities for women and girls, and trying to turn the page on decades of war.”

Little America: The war within the war for Afghanistan

I watched that speech and had no trouble feeling the gravity of the moment. But I also felt acutely my inability to comprehend the full context of President Obama’s words — to grasp all of the twists and turns, all of the victory and folly that preceded his march up the red carpet to that East Room lectern in front of the nation.

Americans who have not put their feet — or boots — on the ground in Afghanistan experience the war in shorthand. Chandrasekaran’s book is a tremendous antidote to this. But it raises the question: After more than 10 years of war, and with another anniversary coming in October, what is essential knowledge for Americans trying to assess the war and how it has been waged? Everything in “Little America” felt essential to me, but the book is the result of just three years of reporting in Afghanistan, specifically during the surge phase of the war that began in 2010 and is now winding down.

Here’s what I want to know: What books are essential? What experiences are essential? Whose experiences are essential to understanding this war?

I’ll be working my way through these questions as the anniversary approaches. If you’ve spent time in Afghanistan since 2001, or if you have deeper experience in Afghanistan stretching further back than that, I’m eager to hear from you. Share your experiences with me here:

Experiencing Afghanistan: Stories that must be told