When a respected eighty-one year old scholar who has known Afghanistan since 1962 returns there in search of a way forward, he deserves a hearing. William Polk made his first Afghan mission as part of the State Department’s Policy Planning Council, which he joined when he left his teaching post at Harvard in 1961. The Texan Democrat was already a well-traveled young man, who spoke Arabic among other languages and had written on decolonization in Africa and the Middle East. His older brother, George Polk, was the famous American journalist assassinated in Greece while working for CBS News. I. F. Stone called the elder Polk “the first casualty of the Cold War.” George and Bill shared a love of adventure. George served in the navy in the Second World War, but Bill’s relative youth left him in army training at the time the war ended.
Bill’s first Afghan adventure saw him hiving off from Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles to tour the country in a jeep and on a horse. “I fell in love with Afghanistan from the first,” he wrote later. His trips back to the country in the 1970s increased both his sympathy for and understanding of the people the United States government would use cynically to bleed the Soviet Army in the 1980s. His latest trip to the country was last month, when he met Afghan, American, British, Russian and UN officials to develop a strategy for a US troop withdraw without necessarily handing the country back to the Taliban. His impressions are worth a read.
In a position paper he wrote to the US ambassador, retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, Polk sets out his view of what is happening in Afghanistan and what can be done to change things. The present strategy, obvious to anyone who has ever been to Afghanistan, is disastrous. It has reinstated the warlords who destroyed the country after the Soviet withdrawal. It is making the Taliban more, not less, popular. It has galvanized Islamic militants everywhere, and it is destabilizing Pakistan. It is enriching a new ruling class, most of whom send their money abroad and are ready to follow it to Switzerland as soon as the US Army stops fighting to keep them rich. There are, inevitably for someone who served in the Kennedy administration, resonances of Vietnam: corruption, torture, murder and mendacity.
“Militarily, of course, American troops win all the battles,” Polk writes. This is nothing new. Imperial armies invariably win the battles against the locals, who tend to avoid battle to save their resources for ambush and sabotage. That does not mean imperial armies win wars. “Counterinsurgency did not work in Vietnam and opinions differ on its results in Iraq,” he writes. “In any case, Iraq is very different from Afghanistan, and it is not working here.” In addition to the natural resistance most people feel towards armed foreigners in their country, Afghans detest the night-time raids when their houses, including the women’s quarters that are off-limits to males outside the family, are ransacked and searched. Former Afghan detainees at Bagram Air Base who return home with the scars of torture do little to increase popular fondness for the American presence. Polk writes,
Protecting land, culture, religion and people from foreigners is the central issue in insurgency. The former head of the Pakistani intelligence service, who has had unparalleled experience with the Taliban over many years, advised us that the Afghan insurgents see themselves as “freedom fighters fighting for their country and fighting for their faith.” We agreed with this description when Afghan insurgents were fighting the Russians; now, when many of the same people are fighting us, we see them only as terrorists.
The US is forcing strong central government on a country whose people have traditionally ruled themselves at the local level. While it props up the Kabul regime, it funnels most aid through the provinces in order to slip those hundred dollar bills past the sticky fingers of President Hamid Karzai’s clique. Provincial aid funds local warlords, including the mass rapist Abdul Rashid Dostam, and the Taliban. Polk cites a Congressional investigation report, “Warlord, Inc., Extortion and Corruption Along the US Supply Chain in Afghanistan,” that details an old-fashioned protection racket. The US pays its warlord allies and its Taliban enemies not to loot or attack American supply convoys. Think about this: the US gives money to its enemies not to attack its convoys. The enemies use the money to buy arms. With those arms, the enemies attack Americans. Both sides seem content with this bizarre arrangement, apart from the average soldiers who must wonder what the hell they are doing there. As for America’s friends, the warlords and opium dealers, why do they have to be paid?
Public support in the US, as reported in an Associated Press-GfK poll in August, has dwindled to 38 per cent. Last March, when Obama was floating his latest fantasies, 46 per cent were for the war. A decisive 58 percent now oppose extending the nine-year American adventure in Afghanistan. Among Afghans, if anyone bothered to ask them, the percentage would be higher.
I saw Bill Polk in the south of France last week, and he said he was on his way to Washington to find receptive ears for his proposals. He wants a firm date for withdrawal, based on his belief that the Afghan opposition will then “feel that their principal objective has been achieved: we have agreed to leave.” On that basis, infrastructural work – whether building a school or a road – will not be identified with the continuing American occupation. The Afghan government, meanwhile, must be cleaned up. No Afghan is going to give loyalty to a regime that robs him, not while the Taliban – for all its repressiveness – can claim its hands are clean. The US, Polk believes, must commit itself and the Afghan government to the country’s unity (its competing fiefdoms are now as united as Lebanon was in the 1980s), a strong central government responsible for foreign affairs and cultural autonomy for the provinces. All of this will mean pulling American forces out of the field, where they antagonize villagers and turn otherwise apolitical young men into Taliban volunteers.
Bill Polk is going to Washington knowing he is likely to be ignored. Like his brother George, who was killed for exposing the theft of American aid money in post-war Greece that Bill detected in American-run Kabul, Bill is unlikely to give up. Someone ought to listen.