Panel Debates Current Situation in Afghanistan

The United States has occupied Afghanistan since October of 2001, when the U.S. and Great Britain launched an offensive against the Taliban in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the eight years that the conflict has endured, the U. S. has made relatively little progress in establishing social or political order. In the March 1 panel discussion, “The Way Forward in Afghanistan,” experts debated the current situation in Afghanistan and the ways in which the United States military could improve its handling of the conflict. 

Panelists included former U.S. Ambassador and Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Global Political Theory Ned Walker ’62, Assistant Professor of Government Ted Lehmann, First Lieutenant Matthew Zeller ’04, who served a tour in Afghanistan in 2008, and student Max Currier ’10.

Zeller spoke extensively and quite critically of his experiences serving in the military. Before he left for his tour, Zeller trained for three months in Fort Riley, Kansas with about a dozen other men. In Kansas Zeller went through the army’s premier counter insurgency training, where he learned to train and mentor members of Afghanistan’s army. Though Zeller spoke fondly of the friendships that he built at Fort Riley, he says that the training he went through was practically useless, and everything valuable that he learned he had to learn on the ground in Afghanistan.

When Zeller was eventually deployed, it was to Ghazni, a city in eastern Afghanistan about 85 miles southwest of Kabul. Zeller was upset to find that the team that he trained with in Kansas was being split up and sent to different outposts across the country; these were men that he was comfortable with and whose moves he felt he could predict, and he thought it was unwise to separate them and send them to different bases where they wouldn’t know any of the other soldiers.

Zeller, upon arriving, became quickly disillusioned with the United States’ treatment of the conflict in Afghanistan. Newly-trained and outfitted members of Afghanistan’s police force were selling their AK47s as soon as they got them, humanitarian aid was almost nonexistent, and hospitals were in such need of medical supplies that doctors were forced to donate their own blood on an almost daily basis. In an area that had been occupied by the United States for years, Zeller felt as though the rebuilding process should have been much further along.

The solution to Afghanistan’s problems lies in education, Zeller said. Because the majority of the adults are uneducated and many are illiterate, it is near impossible to build a government that will be able to sustain the hardships that Afghanistan faces in the near future. Zeller thinks that the United States has to completely rethink its strategy and focus on securing villages and actually integrating American soldiers into the culture, so as to be seen more as allies and less as unwelcome guests.

Max Currier spoke about the summer research he conducted in 2009, which dealt largely with provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan. The strategy for liberating people from intimidation from insurgents: clearing operations. Where the infantry occupies itself with the clearing and holding of territories, it is the PRTs’ jobs to try to empower local governments in order to facilitate a sense of independence and to marginalize the insurgency. PRTs have proven relatively effective where the United States has utilized them, which is in the eastern and southern regions where the Taliban is strongest.

Toward the end, the panel opened up and fielded questions from the audience, most of which dealt with the future of Afghanistan and the future of American occupancy in the state. All four panelists seemed to agree the current military strategy for dealing with the Taliban was outdated and rules and policies have to be rethought if there is any hope of liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban. Zeller emphasized that the best way to enact change is through political action, and he urged all those in attendance to make an effort to let the government know that it could be handling Afghanistan more effectively. “History is written by those who show up,” Zeller said. “Show up.”
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