Polk: Let America be America, and Depart Afghanistan

William R. Polk writes in a guest editorial for IC, which he wishes someone would pass on to President Obama, quickly:

In its war in Afghanistan, the United States has come to a crossroads. President Obama will be forced to choose one of four ways ahead. The choices are cruel, expensive and dangerous for our country; so we must be sure that he chooses the least painful, least expensive and safest of the possible choices.

The first possible choice is to keep on doing what we are now doing. That is, fighting the insurgency with about 60,000 American troops and 68,197 mercenaries at a cost of roughly $2,000 a day per person. That is, we now actually have a total complement of over 120,000 people on the public payroll at an overall cost, of roughly $100 billion a year. We can project a loss of a few hundred American soldiers a year and several thousand wounded. Our senior commander in the Central Command, General David Petraeus, tells us that we cannot win that war.

The second possible road ahead would involve adding substantial numbers of new troops. In General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine, the accepted ratio of soldiers to natives is 20 to 25 per thousand natives.1 Afghanistan today is a country of about 33 million. Even if we discount the population to the target group of Pashtuns, we will must deal with 15 or so million people. So when he and General Stanley McChrystal ask for 40,000, it can only be a first installment. Soon — as the generals did in Vietnam – they will have to ask for another increment and then another, moving toward the supposedly winning number of 600,000 to 1.3 million. That is just the soldiers. Each soldier is now matched by a supporter, rather like medieval armies had flocks of camp followers, so those numbers will roughly double. Thus, over ten years, a figure often cited, or 40 years, which some of the leading neoconservatives have suggested, would pretty soon, as they say in Congress, involve “talking about real money.” In addition to the Congressionally-allocated outlay, the overall cost to our economy has not yet been summed up, but by analogy to the Iraq war, it will probably amount to upwards of $6 trillion.

Then there are the casualties: we have so far lost about a thousand — or a quarter as many as in Iraq. Casualties we can count, but the number of seriously wounded keeps growing because many of the effects of exposure to modern weapons do not show up until later. We have no reliable figures yet on Afghanistan. In Iraq at least 100,000 of the one and a half million soldiers who served there suffered severe psychological damage and about 300,000 have reported post-traumatic stress disorder and a similar number have suffered brain injuries. Crassly put, these “walking wounded” will not only be unable fully to contribute to American society but will be a burden on it for many years to come. It has been estimated that dealing with a brain-injured soldier over his remaining life will cost about $5 million. Cancer, from exposure to depleted uranium is, only now coming into full effect. All in all, it is sobering to calculate that 40 percent of the soldiers who served in the 1991 Gulf war – which lasted only a hundred hours – are receiving disability payments. Inevitably, more “boots on the ground” will lead to more beds in hospitals.

General McChrystal has told us that we must have large numbers of additional troops to hold the territory we “clear.” He echoes what the Russian commanders told the Politburo: in a report on November 13, 1986, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev commented that the Russians attempted the same strategy but admitted that it failed. “There is no piece of land in Afghanistan,” he said, “that has not been occupied by one of or soldiers at some time or another. Nevertheless, much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centers, but we cannot maintain political control over the territory we seize . . . Without a lot more men, this war will continue for a very, very long time.”

The Russian army fought a bloody, brutal campaign, using every trick or tool of counterinsurgency ever identified. The Russians killed a million Afghanis and turned about 5 million into refugees, but after a decade during which they lost 15,000 soldiers and virtually bankrupted the Soviet Union, they gave up and left. General McChrystal says it may take him a decade or more to “win.” But what “winning” means is unclear.

Third, we could marginally increase our troop strength. That is, adding only between 10,000 and 30,000 troops and a comparable number of mercenaries. Not the full complement that General McChrystal has now demanded. This road, according to Petraeus, McChrystal and their acolytes would lead to “mission failure.”

Not meeting the generals’ demands also brings forward the danger to the Obama administration of being charged with putting our soldiers at risk “with one hand tied behind their backs,” a phrase from the acrimonious aftermath of the Vietnam war which even General James Jones, President Obama’s director of the National Security Council, has recently repeated. The potential ugly campaign, against which even Henry Kissinger has warned us,2 could pose risks to our political culture and even to our legal structure: some military men are already talking about their restiveness in obeying civilian government. “You kind of get used to it after years of service” one Army general said at a convention in Washington last month. Forgetting the constitution, he continued, “We tend to live with it.” Maybe they will or maybe anger will be channeled into a further extension of the military into politics, intelligence and diplomacy.

For the first time that I know of in recent American history, the uniformed military have created what amounts to a pressure group of their own. Generals Petraeus and McChrystal are the leaders but, by influencing or controlling promotions panels, they have fostered the advancement of middle grade and junior officers who agree with them. Some have been brought into a group called “the Colonels’ council.” And numbers of retired senior officers have joined not only in what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” but have become the opinion-makers on foreign policy in the media. Private soldiers and non-commissioned officers have, at the same time, become a major component of the private armies of such groups as Xe (formerly Blackwater) and form an active part of the constituency of the right wing of the Republican Party.

In the dangerous months and years ahead, if this road is taken, we are apt to hear echoes – particularly in the next presidential election –of the post Vietnam rhetoric that the civilians sold out the military. In short, while this option sounds moderate and “business-like” I believe that it is the worst option for President Obama and, more importantly, for the nation.

Or, fourth, we could Get out.

* * *

Since obviously getting out is my preference, I will now describe how it could be done. In doing this, I want to emphasize that I learned as an official policy planner that a plan is of little value unless it incorporates elements that would make it

* attractive or at least politically feasible for a president;
* foresees a specified allocation of funds to effect it;
* provides a timetable;
* makes clear both benefits and dangers; and
* can be shown to be better than other options.

I begin with the reasons why the President should adopt it:

* Other things being equal, reversing decisions and public statements is not an attractive option for a sitting president. But other things are not equal. I have asserted that the other three options endanger the country and could cost President Obama his job.

* Even if he accepts this evaluation, the president must weigh any potential move in the scale of public opinion: what do the people think? Polls indicate a steady deterioration of support for the war.

But, as any politician knows, the public is fickle and substantial numbers of dedicated and influential people are still strongly in favor of “staying the course” or even getting in deeper. This, of course, is, particularly true of the self-proclaimed military-political strategists (and above all the neoconservatives who are active in virtually all of the “think tanks” and write influential columns in most of the press not to speak of Fox News). They speak to the sentiment of the far right of the Republican Party.

The President, who after all is a Democrat, would be unlikely to be able to win over the Republican far right by any sort of compromise. He must hope that the general public will reach the conclusion that “staying the course” is costly, does not work and is pointless. But, if waits until a course of action is completely evident to everyone, it will be probably be too late to implement easily, cleanly and in command of our principal objectives. Thus, a large part of a president’s responsibility is educating the public. If we have a first lady and even a first dog, he must be our “first teacher.” He must, in short, work to create an environment in which reasonable policies will be understood and accepted.

* Consequently, the president must choose the timing of his action with great care and in doing so he would be wise to recognize and be prepared to deal with his Republican foes and Democratic rivals. The best way he can do this is to do the job quickly and get it over with well before the next election.

* Timing will be influenced not only by the pace of domestic politics but also by foreign opportunity. Fortunately for him, the President now has been presented with an opportunity. Although at terrible cost to Pakistan’s society, its army has undertaken a campaign against the Taliban in the Pashtun areas of Swat and both Waziristans. Why is this an opportunity or rather how could it be an opportunity? At first sight the answer seems paradoxical: it is that the campaign is unlikely to be completely successful: the Taliban are unlikely to be so stupid as to stand and fight. The proper tactic of the guerrilla is to hit and run. So, recognizing that they cannot win, the Pakistani military will soon offer a cease fire and the Taliban will accommodate.

The Pakistanis have a long history with the Taliban, know them intimately, have subsidized them and have sought in the Taliban a barrier against Indian infiltration of their backyard, Afghanistan. That long-term interest remains despite the current conflict. And, at base, the Pakistanis share with the Afghanis, religion, a population of nearly 30 million Pashtuns and the desire to preserve their neighborhood from foreign control. Thus, I believe that in the coming months, they will do what neither the Russians nor we have been able to do — bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. This move would offer a wise American president an opening to begin the process of turning over the war to our ally Pakistan.

To enable such a course of action to become effective and to encompass Afghanistan, we must set a date for ending our part of the war. Before such a date is announced, negotiations are unlikely. But it is important to be clear: It is the setting of the date rather than actually withdrawing that will enable the process to begin.

* * *

Once the date is set, let us say in late 2010 or early 2011, the villages and tribes, particularly in the southern part of Afghanistan but also soon in the center and north, will begin to jockey for position vis-à-vis one another and with whatever larger authority they think likely to affect their lives. This will almost certainly take the form of their holding village assemblies – known in the south as jirgas and in the north as shuras or among the Hazaras as ulus– to sort out local issues.

Little known or appreciated outside of Afghanistan, neither by the Russians in their time nor by us today, the jirga is the quintessential Afghan means of political action. We need to understand it because, whether we like it or not, it will play a major role in the way the war is brought to a close. I must dilate briefly on it.

The jirga is a very old and common Asian way of settling disputes and legitimating ruling authorities. Among the Mongols and Turks, it was known as a quriltai and similar assemblies were held by the Iranians. Probably few Americans realize that a native American people, the Iroquois, had a similar way of dealing with military and diplomatic affairs.

Is this just a historian’s indulgence in dredging up the obscure and the antique?

Fortunately, not. Jirgas are active at the village level all over Afghanistan today. They are called into being either when village headmen, known as maliks, or respected religious figures cannot resolve a dispute or when a new event calls for change of course. The jirga is thus a transient event, not a standing institution. Its procedure is set by custom. And it does not aim to mandate or to impose penalties; rather it is a process that aims to ventilate grievances, to debate alternatives, to dissipate angers and to affect accommodations until, at the end a consensus is reached. Voting is not a part of the process. But when a consensus is reached, it is considered absolutely binding and further opposition is regarded as treason. To oppose the consensus could result in expulsion from the community which, in a tribal society, amounts often to a death sentence.

Since many of the problems of each village depend on actions beyond its locale, the village elders will press for and participate in tribal meetings. In turn these participants will be drawn into regional meetings. At the end of the process will be a grand national assembly which is known as a loya jirga.

Such meetings have been called on great issues of state for centuries. Three were called in the 1920s to approve fundamental laws, establish the Afghan Muslim orthodoxy and legimate the change of rulers. Another was called in 1949 to void existing treaties and establish the frontier with Pakistan. In 1955, a loya jirga composed of some 360 notables from all over Afghanistan assembled to declare support of an independent “Pashtunistan.” Then in 1964, one was assembled to ratify the constitution. Notably, the constitution proclaimed that the loya jirga is Afghanistan’s ultimate authority, being empowered ““to decide on issues related to independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity as well as supreme national interests” and designated the loya jirga to be “the highest manifestation of the will of the people of Afghanistan.”3

The Russians were, obviously, opposed to the very concept of the loya jirga and managed to by-pass or suppress it. They did so, however, at great cost because without such a legitimating authority, they could not find an Afghan counterpart with which to negotiate an end to their occupation. The puppet government they set up lacked the imprimatur of the loya jirga and was not regarded by the people as legitimate. So the Russians left with their tail between their legs.

As the current Russian ambassador and long-time KBG expert on Afghan affairs, Zamir N. Kabulov, has commented, there is no mistake the Russians made that has not been copied by the Americans. He was right about the way we approached the jirga. In 2002, nearly 2/3rds of the delegates to a loya jirga signed a petition to make the exiled king, Zahir Shah, president of an interim government to give time for the Afghanis to work out their future. An interim government might have avoided the worst of the problems we have faced in the last seven years. But we had already decided that Hamid Kara was “our man in Kabul” and did not want the Afghanis to interfere with our choice. So, as Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason reported,4 “massive US interference behind the scenes in the form of bribes, secret deals, and arm twisting got the US-backed candidate for the job, Hamid Kara, installed instead. [They] then rode shotgun over a constitutional process that eliminated the monarchy entirely. This was the Afghan equivalent to the 1964 Diem Coup in Vietnam; afterward, there was no possibility of creating a stable secular government.” While an Afghan king could have conferred legitimacy on an elected leader in Afghanistan; without one, as they put it, “an elected president is a on a one-legged stool.” Then, as Selig Harrison wrote in the New York Times,5 our proconsul, Zalmay Khalilzad, “had a bitter 40-minute showdown with the king, who then withdrew his candidacy.”

Among the lamentable results of this policy was that outside of the major cities, few Afghanis think of the government as legitimate. Most regard it as a foreign tyranny.

Not understanding or being willing to deal with the concept of a loya jirga, we have sought to legitimate the men we chose to rule Afghanistan by an election. Doing so has produced a great embarrassment to our government. It isn’t only that the recent presidential election was blatantly fraudulent although that is what the press has focused on. Nor was the trumped up competition between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah important. As a Tajik, there was no way that Abdullah Abdullah could have been a credible candidate. He was just a straw man, put up to make it look like the election was a choice. But even that was not the fundamental flaw: it was simply that elections – the American way of choosing and legitimating a government – is not the Afghan way.

The Afghan way is a loya jirga.

It is my belief that the holding of a loya jirga is the means that offers the best hope to create a reasonably peaceful, reasonably acceptable and reasonably decent Afghan government.

* * *

So the question is how to convene it. The answer to that question is simple: the Afghans have a traditional way to do so. The central authority, in this case the Parliament, can call for a loya jirga.

Will they do it?

Probably not so long as America is willing to pay them off and protect them. So to get them to act, America must set a timetable for withdrawing. Faced with that deadline and the need to protect themselves, the current members of the Parliament will have an interest in espousing what they will see as the national cause, and they will scramble to call for a loya jirga.

Participation is traditional. It is made up by the upward thrust of recognized leaders from the village level to the provincial level to the national level. We will have little or no influence on this process and it would not be wise for us to attempt to exercise any. But, realistically, we must anticipate that a vast majority of the delegates, particularly in the Pashtun area, will be at least passive supporters of the Taliban. I do not see any way that this can be avoided. Indeed, even today while we are in occupation, qualified observers uniformly point out that, except when a large contingent of our soldiers is physically present, the insurgents are in control. At any given time, they control about 70% of the country. That, as I have pointed out, was also the Russian experience.

* * *

So what are the disadvantages and what are the benefits of the policy I recommend? Let me highlight the potential criticisms:

The first criticism is that the Taliban will emerge from the war as the strongest organization in what at best is a coalition. I do not see any way that this outcome can be avoided – indeed, whether it happens soon or not, it is virtually inevitable in the long run.

The longer we delay the process and the harder we try to prevent it, the more certain it is that the Taliban will dominate. This has been uniformly true of insurgencies for the last two centuries all over the world: those who fought hardest against the foreigners took control.

A really free loya jirga and one held soon is the best hope to create a more balanced national government. This is partly because in the run-up to the national loya jirga, local groups will put forward and struggle to enhance or protect local interests. That will constitute a natural brake on the Taliban which will find itself impelled to compromise. And we should remember that despite all the hype about their early victories, much of the Taliban’s success was the result of negotiation. Today, they enjoy the aura of national defenders against us; once we are no longer a target, that aura will fade.

The second criticism: suppose I am wrong. Suppose the Taliban overawes all the village communities and emerges as the sole arbiter of Afghanistan. What will be the danger to the United States?

Recall that our invasion came about because the Taliban was providing a base – the meaning of the word al-qaida – for Usama bin Ladin and his acolytes. Will they come back? Will Afghanistan be a base for terrorism? I don’t think so, or at least not in the same way.

The terrorists who attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 were partly trained in the United States and were based mainly in Europe. Propaganda emanated from Afghanistan, but the real work was done elsewhere. Terrorists can operate anywhere.

As we, the Taliban and Bin Ladin have discovered, Afghanistan is not a suitable base. It is land-locked, has poor communications, little money to give or lend outsiders and has learned how costly it is to give a free rein to terrorists. True, Usama bin Ladin has been given sanctuary by the Pashtun people and/or by the Taliban. For this, they have paid a heavy price. They will not wish to continue to pay such a price. And, more important, there are ways acceptable within the cultural code of the Pashtun people, the Pashtunwali’s imperative of melmastia (protection or refuge) that Bin Ladin and his band can be protected but disabled. A protected guest cannot be turned over to his enemies but he need not be allowed to endanger his hosts. Pakistan, rather than we, should and can take the lead in bringing about this restraint. Pakistan can, indeed, make it a condition for the ceasefire I have mentioned and the ultimate peace it will find to its interest to achieve.

The third criticism that can be directed at this program is that, focused as it must be on the Pashtun community which is Afghanistan’s largest group, it could split the country with the northern Tajik , Uzbek and Hazara areas withdrawing. The fact is that those areas are already effectively separated from the Pashtun south. They are under the domination of independent warlords whom we were instrumental in installing and maintaining. So the calling of a national assembly will not break up the country; it already is split. But if the jirga process begins, I think it is likely to end with a federation which the tribal structure of Afghanistan has always favored.

Even if a sustainable arrangement is not accomplished in the near term, the danger to American interests would be minimal. Indeed, Afghanistan’s neighbors (Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran and perhaps India) would (or could be induced to) take a hand to push toward a modus vivendi as Henry Kissinger among others has pointed out.6

* * *

If we adopt this policy and allow the process to begin, how can we facilitate it? What will it cost? What will it save? How likely is it to enable us to leave Afghanistan as a viable society? What will be the impact on the danger of terrorism? And, what should we avoid while carrying it out?

The first step, as I have argued, is to set a date for withdrawal. Once this is done, a notable transformation will begin in the psychology of the Afghans. Today, even the non-lethal and beneficial efforts our government and non-governmental organizations make are regarded with suspicion or are rejected. General Petraeus perhaps unwittingly explained why: In describing his counterinsurgency program, he proclaimed that “Money is my most important ammunition in this war.”7

The Afghanis of course realize this. As Andrew Wilder and his team found in some 400 interviews, “Afghan perceptions of aid and aid actors are overwhelmingly negative.”8 And, since they regard all the civic action programs as the “weapons” in the war – as indeed they learned years ago from the Russians who similarly mounted large-scale “beneficial” or civic action programs in Afghanistan9 — they have often destroyed schools, roads, bridges and even clinics.

But, when the withdrawal pattern is set, the Afghans will have no reason to continue to do so. At that point, aid programs, preferably administered at least in part by other countries or by international agencies will become acceptable and will help smooth the reconciliation process and encourage participation by the local loya jirgas, who after all are concerned with their neighborhoods’ prosperity and health. They will then eagerly seek what they now dramatically destroy. Their needs are evident and urgent. Afghanistan is a poor, land-locked, dry country with few resources. Its people have suffered through virtually continuous war for 30 years. Many are wounded or sick. Their normal passage through schools into jobs and secure lives have been disrupted or derailed. They hurt and are tired. They need help. It will be hard for them to employ outside help beneficially, much can be done to pick up where a reforming government left off in the 1970s. We can and should be a part of this process.

If we are wise, we will do so subtly rather than, as we often manage our aid efforts, with great fanfare. Through the United Nations family of organizations, the World Bank or a coalition of Afghanistan’s neighbors, we can provide money for reconstruction projects. Such ventures as the building of farm-to-market roads, the opening of clinics, a program of disease prevention, subsidy for food-grain crops, electrification, purification of water, disposal of waste, etc. will be perceived by the village loya jirgas as unthreatening and beneficial once it is clear that they are not weapons in a counterinsurgency.

What will this cost? If we participate, as we should in our own interest as well as for moral reasons, in these activities, we might consider offering (hopefully with matching funds from others), say, $5 billion dollars a year for the period the military and their hawkish civilian advisers propose, ten years. That would amount to roughly $50 billion over a decade.

So what will spending that amount of money save us?

At our current level of activity – before the introduction of more troops – we are “burning” as venture capitalists say, about $60 billion a year. Next year, our direct costs will probably rise to at least $100 billion. And even that figure will surely rise in the years to come. So the Congressionally allocated funds in the coming few years under even the most modest form of “staying the course” would amount to a minimum of $600 billion and more likely to much more. On top of that, we are otherwise harming our economy so that over a 5 to 10 year period of our current policy the real costs we would incur would probably amount to between $3 to $6 trillion.

This is money we don’t have and will have to borrow from overseas. Those who have opposed expanding health care because of the costs should note that the venture in Afghanistan will be more expensive with no compensating benefit.

The degradation of our currency is one effect of such an outlay: during the period of the Iraq war, the dollar vis-à-vis the Euro has fallen from 80¢ to $1.50. And currency traders are betting on a further fall. The fall so far means that sovereign funds (notably Japan and China) that have lent us money have lost heavily; a further fall calls into question our ability to borrow at all. Some funds (led by Kuwait) are considering transferring from the dollar to a basket of currencies while others (including South Korea) have stopped buying Treasury notes. If we attempt to make up our shortfall by printing money, inflation is inevitable and will saddle our grandchildren with our debts.

In short, by getting out, our saving would be immense, indeed perhaps, truly vital.

I have argued that if we get out soon and with held for the transition, the Afghans will find their way back to their traditional way of governing themselves. This will not be exactly our way, of course, but they will recreate a viable society. If we look at what has happened in Vietnam in recent years, we have reason to believe in political evolution. Once the horrors of war receed in memory, the joys of peace become powerful forces. And, in any event, at some point, whether now or years from now, the Afghans will face this challenge; my judgment is that the sooner it happens the more likely and the quicker is achievement of an acceptable degree of success.

What about terrorism? As I have pointed out, terrorists can operate anywhere; they do not need Afghanistan. But they do need the support of people wherever they are. So the more we are seen to be enemies of their religion, opponents of self-determination and supporters of oppressive governments, the greater the danger we face. We cannot completely overcome these charges, but we can blunt or avoid the most blatant and the most unpopular. Three stand out: first, we need to work hard to implement the call President Obama has made for us to recognize that we live in a multicultural world where we must respect the right of others to live their own way; second, we need to repudiate the neoconservative-inspired U.S. National Defense Doctrine that asserted our “right” to preëmptively attack any country anywhere at our sole discretion; and, third, we must stop the dangerous and unproductive “James Bond” games of subversion which we have played for years. Otherwise, there will be a continuing incentive for the weak and angry to find means to attack us. This is not to say that we must let down our guard: there are and will continue to be dangerous, deranged and determined malfactors in other countries – just as there are in ours – so we will need to employ a variety of police measures to protect ourselves. But once we are no longer generally seen to be “the enemy,” such pyschopaths will be far less dangerous because no longer popular.

Finally, we should avoid moves to create an overwhelming military and police force in Afghanistan. That is what we are being told is necessary. I think that would be a very dangerous and self-defeating move. Every time we provide weapons, as independent observers constantly tell us, the newly empowered force uses them against the public to extort money or goods or to kidnap people or rape their wives and children. It is highly unlikely that such forces can be disciplined by the existing government (or by us) for years to come. And even if they were disciplined, they contribute little or nothing to the Afghan economy or society. And, of course, they ultimately pose the danger of a military dictatorship since balancing civil institutions are still and will for years will remain weak.

What we should do is to put our emphasis on the creation of a quasi-military force like our Corps of Engineers which could, under proper supervision and with proper funding, make a real contribution to the country. It would also help alleviate the chronic problem of unemployment. The police force should be kept small, only lightly armed, and subject to some supervision by village and tribal jirgas.

* * *

What follows?

We are indeed at a cross-roads in our history. The step the President takes on Afghanistan is a step on a road that could lead either to catastrophe or to a new period of our prosperity, freedom and security.

In one direction, we will move in the direction signposted by the Australian armchair warrior David Kilcullen, the key adviser and ghost writer for Generals Petraeus and McChrystal, and enthusiastically approved by the neoconservatives. They and Petraeus’s and McChrystal’s new acolytes among junior officers – saw Iraq and see Afghanistan as the first steps in America’s crusade, what they have named the “Long War.”

The Long war would truly be a march out into the wild blue yonder. The neoconservatives and the new military leaders believe it will last generations. Fifty years is already under plan at the Pentagon. The cost, even in economic terms, cannot be predicted – numbers lose meaning beyond 15 or 20 trillion dollars. But the ultimate cost will be the end of America’s position as the world’s leading power. Our standard of living will fall; our sources of borrowing will dry up; and we will stand in danger of the kind of economic implosion that destroyed what in the 1920s was arguably Europe’s leading democracy, the Weimar Republic.

While the monetary and general economic costs are the most obvious, my real worry is about the fundamental beliefs and institutions of our country. I confess that I am very emotional about this: I have inherited through my family both a military and a civic tradition that I see being undermined in the name of patriotism. Patriotism is a blunt instrument and can be wielded by dictators – as Herman Göring observed during his trial at Nurenburg — as often as by democrats. I don’t want to lose the America in which I was born, have served and believe in. So I determined to do what I can to protect and preserve our heritage of freedom, decency and mutual respect. These are the key elements in the social contract you and I share and which we share with our government. To lose that social contact is to descend into chaos. Of course, “it can’t happen here,” but let us not forget the fate of the Weimar Republic.

To the contrary, getting out of Afghanistan, could lead us toward a reassertion of the principles and purposes that have made our country not just respected for its wealth and power but beloved throughout the world. If we make a sincere effort to live up to the message in President Obama’s address in Cairo – that we are willing to live in a multicultural world – much of the fear and danger we perceive today will become a bad memory. Then we can truly turn toward the serious business of educating our children, providing our citizens with adequate health care and again becoming for the world’s peoples “a city on the hill.”

William R. Polk

November 10, 2009

[1] Portside.Org, Sept 11 09 “Foreign Policy in Focus,” Conn Hallinan, “Afghanistan: What are these people thinking?” The field manual on counterinsurgency recommends a ratio of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents: for Aghanistan, population 33 million, that would be at least 660,000 specially trained soldiers. Also see NYT, Oct 11, 2009, AP “Afghan Outlook Bleak as Taliban Grabs Territory:” ” . . .a former top commander there, US. Gen Dan McNeill, said in an interview with NPR last summer that ‘well over 400,000 troops’ are needed to tame the country. He then called it ‘an absurd figure,’ because Afghanistan will never see that many troops . . . More troops would mean more forces driving over increasingly lethal roadside bombs.” The basic government text is The U.S. Army [&] Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Published by the University of Chicago Press in 2007, it has forewords by General David Petraeus and Lt. General James Amos and Lt. Colonel John Nagl.

[2] International Herald Tribune, October 5, 2009, Henry Kissinger, “Afganistan’s cruel options.”

[3] International Herald Tribune, September 16, 2009, Ansar Rahel & Jon Krakauer, “Save Afghanistan, look to its past.” [Rahel, a lawyer, advised King Muhammad Shah’s loya jirga committee.]

[4] Christian Science Monitor, August 20, 09, Thomas H. Johnson(research professor at the Naval Postgrad school in Monterey) and M. Chris Mason (a retired FSO who worked in Paktika province, is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington), “Democracy in Afghanistan is wishful thinking.”

[5] August 17, 2009.

[6] The Nation, Nov 17, 2008, Tariq Ali, “Operation Enduring Disaster” and International Herald Tribune, October 5, 2009, Henry Kissinger, “Afganistan’s cruel options.”

[7] United States Army Combined Arms Center, Leavenworth, Kansas, Handbook 09-27 April 2009. “Center for Army Lessons Learned.” Also see the Department of State, Counterinsurgency for U.S. Government Policy Makers: A work in Progress, October 2007, Department of State Publication # 11456.

[8] International Herald Tribune, Sept 17, 2009, Andrew Wilder [research director at Tufts Univ Center] “Squandering hearts and minds.”

[9] Russian ambassador Zamir N. Kabulov pointed out that during their occupation the Russians spent billions on education, building roads, dams and other infrastructure as well as education and programs designed uplift women, “to no avail.” See New York Times, October 20, 2008, John F. Burns, “An Old Afghanistan Hand Offers Lessons from the Past.”

——-
William R. Polk was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia from 1961 to 1965 and then professor of history at the University of Chicago where he founded the Middle Eastern Studies Center. He was also president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. His most recent book is Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, From Persia to the Islamic Republic, From Cyrus to Ahmadinejad (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, October 27, 2009).

End/ (Not Continued)

19 Responses

  1. I very much share your perspective, but I don't understand your math in the first paragraph. 600,000 (actually 660,000) is the number we would get at 20 per thousand for a country of 33 million. But if, as you suggest, the correct base might for argument's sake be considered 15 million Pashtuns, that gives a figure of 300,000 — not 600,000 to 1.3 million.

    Again, as I said, just wondering. Perhaps a key sentence got inadvertently edited out?

  2. .
    I thank Mr. Polk for his thoughtful piece.

    I deal with the US State Department, USAID, the Army Corps of Engineers, ISAF, US Forces – Afghanistan, and others involved in occupying Afghanistan on a daily basis.
    This piece is simply too cerebral, too brainiac, for the folks running the war.*

    I, too, wish that the President would read this. He won’t. Unfortunately, he doesn’t serendipitously browse the Web; he only reads what has been read and recommended by others on his staff. So this Polk piece will only be read and considered by the academy, and us fanatics here in this virtual community.

    I say this not to discourage, but to encourage. I encourage a healthy debate on the various ways to withdraw from Afghanistan. The National Security Council has given months of consideration to a multiplicity of options for escalation, from the 85,000 troop increase requested by General McChrystal, all the way down to the 15,000 troop escalation recommended by the Vice President. But there has not yet been ANY consideration of the many, many options for withdrawal. Since withdrawal is best for US national security, in the long run, these options also need to be debated, too.
    I encourage a robust debate on these options on the pages of our mentor’s website. Like it or not, our key foreign policy decision-makers do not have any particular expertise in foreign policy. They don’t always listen to or embrace the recommendations of their advisors with relevant advanced knowledge. Therefore I recommend that submissions be accessible to the lay reader.
    Since pulling out in the next couple of years is inevitable, this would be a good time to start thinking about and planning for what we eventually must resort to anyway.

    With the Professor’s indulgence, I suggest that the first couple submissions in this debate should survey the top 8 or so ways to withdraw, since the NSC has been examining 8 or so different options for escalation. Later posts can explore each of these in detail.

    ….. ….. ….. ….. …..

    * – to understand the thinking of the folks out in the Afghan Provinces who actually run this war, please read current contract solicitations at http://www.fbo.gov and job announcements at http://www.usajobs.gov.
    Examples:
    A current solicitation for even more Mercenaries: link to fbo.gov
    A current solicitation for a person to oversee development programs: link to jobview.usajobs.gov
    These solicitations recite delusions about how the Afghan people want us there running their communities.

    * – to understand how the top people in Kabul and DC think, check out link to ndu.edu
    No joke, they write that they can see a light at the end of the tunnel. INSS is the think tank that belongs to the Secretary of Defense, located at the National Defense University in DC. Check out PRISM’s Editorial Board on Page 2 to gauge the Petraeus influence.

    an avid student of how "research" can be cooked to conclude that war is peace
    .

  3. Reading Polk's article is like breathing fresh air. Sadly, Obama is a diplomat, a foreign minister, but Obama is NOT an executive who can make difficult decisions. Obama is the boss at work who knows someone is not working hard but keeps because boss is uncomfortable being tough. The Economist referred to Obama as Pussyfooting around.

    Bush was an executive who could clearly make decisions. Sadly, Bush consistently made the wrong decisions. President Obama is afraid to make a decision and thus a very weak leader. Two failed presidents in a row, but for different reasons. When two successive leaders of the world's only superpower are failed executives, the continued existence of the world becomes worrisome.

  4. This is one of the most effective and detailed articles that I have ever read on the Afghan war.

    I think that Mr. Polk has explained the choices and their consequences with alarming accuracy.

    The stumbling blocks domestically are very clear to the current administration and Mr. Polk is being very kind to the neocons, their allies and the extremely dangerous supporters of the right in the US. However, equally important is that there are no non-extreme Republicans. They have swallowed the neo-Nazi drug, frankly, and those so-called moderate Republicans (and those like Senator Lieberman)are too cowardly to say anything in opposition to the mob leaders on talk radio and Fox because they would rather keep their jobs. The Republican party will do anything (and the emphasis is on the last word) to regain power and it must be recognized for what it is.

    This current administration must put the economy back on course – meaning jobs and restraining the corporatism that has been rewarded by TARP and other bank bailouts. If this can be accomplished – and it must be visible and palpable very soon – then there is a chance that the Republican party will simply implode.

    However, is the left ready to really fight what may be coming? Are they ready to take to the streets? Are they ready to organize to oppose a Republican takeover and right wing leadership that is little better than the Nazi party? I don't think so.

    I was around to vote against Nixon. I took part in the street demonstrations against Vietnam and worked in local politics in New Jersey and New York to support progressive policies. I worked for Humphrey, Mondale, McGovern, Florio, Robert Kennedy and Carter. I was not alone and many of my age thought the country was on the right road. Then came Reagan, and Bush and then another Bush.

    I no longer feel that the US holds any promise for anyone in the world unless the cancerous growth of the Glen Beck's, Inhofe's, Bachmann's, O'Reilly's and their ilk are effectively marginalized. They are more dangerous than anyone can imagine.

    To this generation of activists, I say that if all you are doing is talking on chat boards, Dailykos or other blogs, get up and actually do something. Get in the face of politicians and take part in campaigns to dismantle the Republican party – because above all it is a threat to the Republic. Be a Cato before it is too late.

    Expect that the adminstration will send between 15,000 to 30,000 more troops. That's a given. But without a domestic change, there will be no disengangement. Mr. Polk is right in his assessment and alternatives. But the connections are there and Afghanistan policy is connected in the extreme.

  5. This is an exceptionally insightful and thought-provoking piece that needs to be read by journalists and policy makers.

    However, part of the argument is perhaps marred by a measure of "essentialism." The argument in question is that elections, unlike the jirgas, are not essentially Afghan and therefore they won't work. But the fact that elections aren't traditionally Afghan is no proof that they won't work. Other nations have succeeded in adopting foreign institutions and laws and making them work for them.

    Your conclusion may be right; but I'd look for some other justification for the conclusion. For example, maybe presidential elections won't work because something about the process means that the winner won't truly represent Pashtun aspirations? The jirga process, in other words, may be better for Afghanistan than American style elections on objective grounds rather than merely for not being a "true Afghan" institution.

  6. The public is not "fickle." The public's opinion is shaped by the overwhelming propaganda of the MSM.
    If the MSM would publish what one reads in the Internet, the large majority would be against the 2 wars and the President would stop the wars immediately.

  7. I love how a progressive is blaming the US for not reinstalling the afghani king. If the US did we'd never hear the end of it – support of king/dictator, US corporate zionist blah blah blah.

    I agree though the US should get out of afghanistan. I used to think if the west stays afghanistan will be different a hundred years from now, and for the sake of that generation it's worth it. but who cares, I think afghanistan will stay backward for a thousand years. This has nothing to do with the US or any 'imperialist' – it's simply a country that's too backward by even 7th century standards, and it's the people and their values and culture that made this happen and will stop it from improving.

    This is the best the afghans can do, to put it simply. Leave and let them go their own way. Send a few cruise missiles or some special forces should the need arise, otherwise let the country stay illiterate and sick and poor. don't even send aid, much better people are worth it, ones that don't consider it honorable to shelter a terrorist mass murderer and don't burn the face of girls with acid for going to school (and yeah maybe it's not the majority that does that, but the majority isn't fighting this like any population with decency should, like all muslims, if they'r not with taliban or the ayatollahs or bin laden, they sympathesize or aren't against strongly enough).

  8. it's also worth noting the iranians most likely also played a role in preventing the afghan king from returning. I read they were instrumental in that loya jirga. That was I think in a progressive article talking about arrogant american imperialists slapping the iranians in the face after they helped; now I guess it's a progressive article removing any role had in it and blaming everything on the US. Surprise surprise.

  9. Thank you for this contribution to public discourse. We ignore the sociological context of Afghanistan at our own peril.

  10. This is an extraordinary essay! I have come across nothing that matches its breadth of view and depth of understanding of the situation that faces the United States. What Ambassador Polk proposes is the only viable course available to the United States. (I say this as a former senior officer of the Pakistan army, who closely follows events in that part of the world).

    One can only hope, desperately, that someone in Obama's circle will read it and bring it to his attention.

  11. Obama had a brief window right after he was elected to end the US occupation of Afghanistan, when everyone was distracted by Iraq and the economic meltdown. That moment passed, he declared Afghanistan "the front line in the war on terrorism," probably thinking to himeself, "everybody believes this is the 'good war', so this will allow me to withdraw the occupation forces from the 'bad war' in Iraq," which he began to do. Unfortunately, Generals Petraeus and McChrystal took advantage of this faux pas and began to escalate Afghanistan. The president then found that by his own rhetoric and the Generals' opportunism he has painted himself into a political corner. Suddenly Afghanistan, which was nothing, (e.g., there are no al Qaeda, strategic interests, etc., there) is perceived to be something ~ something Over There "worth fighting for," (but no one can say, exactly, what that prize might be, what 'victory' would look like, or what anything remotely resembling an 'exit strategy' would consist of). It's obvious (to everyone, including imho the Republicans) that the proper policy is to end the military occupation of Afghanistan. But policy is not politics. Mr. Obama, himself has characterized Afghanistan as a "War," and his political opponents (and his Generals) and all those erstaz "nationalists" in the media echo chamber (the rabble-rousing political pundits on angry-radio and fear-TV) say the same thing: Afghanistan is a War. You can't "win" or "lose" an occupation, (you either choose to do it, or you don't). But in most peoples' minds, you either "win" or "lose" a War. What this means is that Mr. Obama cannot choose to withdraw US occupation forces from Afghanistan, he can only choose to lose the War in Afghanistan (there is NO EXIT, n'est-ce pas?). Maybe, maybe Mr. Obama will do something which is so clearly sensible policy but also obvious political suicide during his second-term. Meanwhile, we're talking another what, ~2,000 KIA and ~20,000 WIA NATO-American casualties, and three more years of combat (if we can call random IED's and sniper attacks "combat"), All by design of the Generals, who espouse that the best thing to do is to escalate the number of military forces and place them in an entirely defensive posture (!) And so the Americans will continue this hideous expenditure of treasure for a meaningless endeavour Over There, all for the sake of politics, Over Here.

  12. I too thank Mr. Polk for his thoughtful contribution to the kind of serious debate we need to have.

    Anonymous found the article "too brainiac" for policy-makers in Washington. Having spent my career in Washington, I am afraid he has a point. It is of course also a bit too long for the average concerned citizen. So, here's the opposite extreme: a very concise starting point…

    All the endless debate over tactics is nothing but a sandcastle unless it stands on a foundation of correct principles and priorities. The choice between the goals of a well governed Afghan society on the one hand and some combination of establishing Central Asian military bases for the empire, guarding pipeline routes, or defeating an insurgency on the other is a choice that matters. All the above goals may be defensible, but where to put the focus matters profoundly.

    Three core underlying principles should define Washington’s starting point:

    · Local Control: Muslim socio-political reform should be managed first by locals and second by neighboring non-Western societies;

    · Civil Society First: The method should always give precedence to civil society reform with military action firmly subordinated;

    · Afghan Independence: The goal should not be incorporation into the American system but the establishment of an independent society.

    To begin the arduous process of implementing these principles, make the following two steps top priority:

    1. Washington announces that it will vacate any region of Afghanistan that is either -
    * peaceful and drug-free or
    * guarded by an international force, preferably from Muslim societies
    2. the international force will have two duties -
    * preventing the use of force to resolve conflict
    * eliminating illegal narcotics, with emphasis on destruction of the refinement business.

    Let those who disagree make their case…but at this level. Before the U.S. can sensibly consider issues related to military tactics or which Afghan politician to support, it needs to determine why it is in Afghanistan and what would constitute an acceptable exit strategy.

  13. Obama had a brief window right after he was elected to end the US occupation of Afghanistan, when everyone was distracted by Iraq and the economic meltdown. That moment passed, he declared Afghanistan "the front line in the war on terrorism," probably thinking to himeself, "everybody believes this is the 'good war', so this will allow me to withdraw the occupation forces from the 'bad war' in Iraq," which he began to do. Unfortunately, Generals Petraeus and McChrystal took advantage of this faux pas and began to escalate Afghanistan. The president then found that by his own rhetoric and the Generals' opportunism he had painted himself into a political corner. Suddenly Afghanistan, which was nothing, (e.g., there are no al Qaeda, strategic interests, etc., there) is perceived to be something ~ something Over There "worth fighting for," (but no one can say, exactly, what that prize might be, what 'victory' would look like, or what anything remotely resembling an 'exit strategy' would consist of). It's obvious (to everyone, including imho the Republicans) that the proper policy is to end the military occupation of Afghanistan. But policy is not politics. Mr. Obama, himself has characterized Afghanistan as a "War," and his political opponents (and his Generals) and all those erstaz "nationalists" in the media echo chamber (the rabble-rousing political pundits on angry-radio and fear-TV) say the same thing: Afghanistan is a War. You can't "win" or "lose" an occupation, (you either choose to do it, or you don't). But in most peoples' minds, you either "win" or "lose" a War. What this means is that Mr. Obama cannot choose to withdraw US occupation forces from Afghanistan: he can only choose to remain there, "an occupying force," engaged in this self-referential conundrum = a fight against insurgents = anti-occupation forces, or he can choose "to lose the War" in Afghanistan. There is NO EXIT, n'est-ce pas?

    Maybe, maybe Mr. Obama will do something (to end this madness) which is so clearly sensible policy but also obvious political suicide during his second-term. Meanwhile, we're talking another what, ~2,000 KIA plus ~20,000 WIA NATO-American casualties, and three more years of combat (if we can call random IED's and sniper attacks "combat"). All this by design of the Generals and vested interests who espouse that the best thing to do is to escalate the number of military forces in Afghanistan and place them in an entirely defensive posture (!) And so imho the Americans will continue this hideous policy = the expenditure of blood and treasure for a meaningless endeavour Over There, all for the sake of politics, Over Here.

  14. This is the best piece I've read on the issue.

    By any rational theory of national interest–geopolitical, economic, resource-based, a war to make over Afghanistan in something approaching our image is goofy. Worse than goofy, actually.

    The Pushtuns still follow the Pushtunwala. Even if the Taliban take over, which they might not, things will come into balance. 40,000 Americans died in Vietnam, and we lost, but now Americans take bike trips there.

  15. This wonderful article recommends something American pols (and tycoons) seem incapable of doing — learning something about the REALITY behind the GAME they are playing.

    Loya jirga instead of imposed puppet seems so sensible when it is explained.

    What the USA is doing is not like "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" but more like "insisting on finishing the poker game before agreeing to look out for icebergs".

    Americans in power prefer their games.

  16. .
    I don't see what the post by Richard at 6:11 AM adds to the conversation.
    .

  17. I really appreciate all the time and effort Mr. Polk obviously invested in this article, I learned a lot from it. Nonetheless, as many of you pointed out it will not be on the 6 o'clock news any time soon.

    Ironically a suggestion from talk radio host Randi Rhodes the other day made a lot of sense to me.

    To wit:President Obama should demanded Congress actually present him a formal Declaration of War, (plus a war budget and reinstate the draft).

    I suspect she is right, the congress critters who are now so eager to spill blood in yet another unwinnable "war," will run away like cockroaches exposed to light.

  18. Mr Polk's analysis is totally irrelivant to Washington as it's game is to have a compliant government in Afghanistan and to install more military bases there for the purposes of: 1) continuing surrounding Russia and China with US military bases, 2) control the natural gas pipeline from the "stans" to a US client and 3) continue to surround Iran with US military bases (Iran being an non-copliant country since it kicked the US out in 1979 when it overthrew the Shaw and nationalized oil – a huge no no in the halls of Washington)

  19. Even if Polk is wrong (and I think overall that he's right), the USA does not have the money to continue occupying Afghanistan.

Comments are closed.