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An Open Letter to President Obama | The Nation

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An Open Letter to President Obama

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Dear Mr. President,

About the Author

William R. Polk
William R. Polk's most recent book, Understanding Iran, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in October. He is...

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A stable government and an end to insurgency are possible--but only if the US withdraws.

Although we were separated by more than a decade, we lived a few steps apart in Hyde Park and were both professors at the University of Chicago. There I established the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and was also president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. Before going to Chicago, during the Kennedy administration I was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia. A Democrat, I was an early supporter of yours. So I hope you will accept the following analysis and proposals as being from a friend as well as a person with considerable experience on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In recent events I see an opportunity to accomplish American objectives while avoiding a course of action that could derail plans for your presidency, just as the Vietnam War ruined the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

According to press accounts, you are being told that America can win the war against the Taliban by employing overwhelming military power. Just like President Johnson's generals, yours keep asking for more troops. You are also being told that we can multiply our power with counterinsurgency tactics. Having made a detailed study (laid out in my book Violent Politics) of a dozen insurgencies, ranging from the American Revolution to Afghanistan, and fought by the British, French, Germans and Russians in America, Europe, Africa and Asia, I doubt that you are being well advised. When I was in government, we were told we could achieve victory in Vietnam by the same combination of force and counterinsurgency recommended by your advisers in Afghanistan. But as the editors of the Pentagon Papers concluded, the "attempt to translate the newly articulated theory of counter-insurgency into operational reality.... [through] a mixture of military, social, psychological, economic and political measures.... [were] marked by consistency in results as well as in techniques: all failed dismally."

What actually brought all the insurgencies, including the one in Vietnam, to a halt was the withdrawal of the foreigners. Some foreigners left in defeat, but others left in ways that achieved their most important objectives. I believe you have an opportunity to achieve America's important objectives in Afghanistan.

In Vietnam we never understood the Vietnamese and were defeated; so here I lay out the essential features of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir and then show how they set the context for a successful policy. I begin with Pakistan.

Pakistan has long been obsessed with Kashmir, frightened of India and favorably inclined toward its Pashtun ethnic minority. To help Pashtun "freedom fighters" in the 1979-89 war against the Soviet Union, we funneled billions of dollars into Pakistan. Opposition to the Soviet Union was our motivation, but Pakistan had a different motivation: to protect Islam. This necessarily involved it not only in Afghanistan but also in Kashmir. Since Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, is about as close to the Indian-held capital of Kashmir, Srinagar, and to the Khyber Pass, which leads into Afghanistan, as New York is to Hartford, both Afghanistan and Kashmir appear to the Pakistanis to be nearly domestic issues.

Kashmir is one of those legacies of the age of imperialism that still blight international relations. Today's problem was created in 1846, when the British sold Kashmir and its Muslim population to a Hindu who became its maharaja. Cruel and rapacious, he and his descendants were bitterly hated by Kashmiris. When the British were leaving South Asia in 1947, they assumed that because the people were mainly Muslim, Kashmir would be folded into what became Pakistan. But the maharaja opted for India. Despite a promise from Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister-designate of India, to Lord Louis Mountbatten, then viceroy of India, that a plebiscite would be held to ascertain the wishes of the Kashmiris, it has never been held. Ever since, the Indians have occupied Kashmir with half a million troops as a conquered enemy country. Under Indian rule, thousands of Kashmiris have been imprisoned, hundreds "disappeared" and almost everyone afflicted by lesser tyrannies. In shorthand terms, Kashmir is the Palestine of Central/South Asia. Pakistan and India have fought three wars and innumerable bloody engagements over Kashmir. The drain on the resources of both India and Pakistan has been immense. In part because of the destabilizing effects of this conflict, Pakistan has never developed a durable, coherent government. The only really solid Pakistani organization is the army. Civilian governments have been marked by massive corruption, ineptitude and fragility.

There are many reasons for Pakistan's problems, but one stands out: it is an amalgam of ethnic/cultural nations. The British ruled the Punjab and Sind directly, but sought merely to divide and weaken the Pashtuns. That was the purpose of the Durand Line, which they drew in 1893 along the mountainous frontier. The effect of the line is that today about 25 million Pashtuns live in Pakistan and roughly 14 million live in Afghanistan. The Pashtuns wanted to form an independent nation-state in 1947 but were prevented from doing so. Until its recent military campaign against the Taliban in Swat, the Pakistanis made little attempt to integrate the Pashtuns, but because of them Pakistan has always been deeply affected by Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has always baffled foreign invaders. After three attempts from 1842 to 1919 to rule it, the British gave up; at the end of a decade of costly war, the Russians did as well. Neither understood the complex social and political makeup of the country. Without doing so, we cannot hope to accomplish our objectives, so let me highlight the main points.

When I first went to Afghanistan, in 1962, to prepare a US National Policy Paper, I found a good analogy for the land and the society to be a rocky hill sliced by gullies and covered by 20,000 Ping-Pong balls. The balls represented the autonomous village-states. Politically and economically divided, they shared a common adherence to a blend of primitive Islam and even more primitive tribal custom (varying throughout the country but known in the south as Pashtunwali). During their occupation, the Russians crushed many Ping-Pong balls, but they could not defeat enough of them to win. At any given time, roughly 80 percent of the country remained outside Russian control; so the Russians won all the battles but lost the war. Afghanistan became the graveyard of the Soviet Union.

The brutal Soviet occupation shattered the Afghan social structure. Nearly one in ten Afghans was killed or died, and more than 5 million fled the country. Living wretchedly in refugee camps, mainly in Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of young Afghan men were "reshaped." Like the biblical Children of Israel after forty years in the wilderness, these Afghans emerged very different from their fathers. The new generation kept their stern code of belief, but they lost touch with the humanizing aspects of growing up in families. Living apart from mothers and sisters, many of the young men, mostly Pashtuns, were incorporated into male-only madrassas in which they were housed, fed, armed and radicalized. They emerged as the foot soldiers of the Taliban.

When they were in power, the Taliban enforced an ugly, repressive regime, but it was no worse than some other regimes in Asia and Africa. And, as we can observe, societies and regimes evolve. Look at what has happened in postwar Vietnam. No one in my time in government could have guessed that the Communist regime would evolve into a relatively open and indeed capitalistic society. In Afghanistan there are signs, still faint to be sure, that while the stern code remains intact, at least the Taliban leadership is beginning to modify its program. As I will point out, we can encourage this trend.

But as insurgents, the Taliban remain formidable foes. Our chances of defeating them are poor. Indeed, some independent observers believe they are becoming more popular while we are becoming less popular. They, and many non-Taliban Afghans, regard us, as they regarded the Russians, as foreign, anti-Muslim invaders. Moreover, they see that the government we are backing is corrupt and rapacious. Observers report that it is deeply involved in the drug trade, stealing aid money and even selling US-supplied arms to the Taliban (as the South Vietnamese government did to the Vietcong). Moreover, it is ineffective: its writ hardly runs outside Kabul. Most of the country is in the hands of brutal, predatory warlords. The Karzai government will not last long after our withdrawal--that was the fate of the Soviet puppet government there and of our puppet government in Saigon. Forced to choose between the warlords and the Taliban, Afghans are likely to choose the Taliban. As Gen. Stanley McChrystal has said, "Key groups have become nostalgic for the security and justice Taliban rule provided." Thus, we are courting long-term strategic defeat.

Even in the tactical short run, I believe, trying to defeat the Taliban is not in America's interest. The harder we try, the more likely terrorism will be to increase and spread. As the history of every insurgency demonstrates, the more foreign boots there are on the ground and the harder the foreigners fight, the more hatred they engender. Substituting drone attacks for ground combat is no solution. Having been bombed from the air, I can attest that it is more infuriating than a ground attack.

Our principal objection to the Taliban is that it has given Osama bin Laden and his immediate entourage a base of operations. The two groups, however, are very different: the Taliban are a national political organization, anchored in Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, while Al Qaeda is a loose alliance of dissidents from many countries, united only by their belief that their legitimate aims of ethnic/national self-determination and religious culture are being denied.

For us, the overlap of the two groups comes when we try to get the Taliban to surrender Osama. We have offered what to poor tribesmen is an astronomical reward for him "dead or alive." This ploy has failed. In the Afghan code of Pashtunwali, to fail to protect someone who has been given sanctuary (melmastia) is a mortal sin, so our attempts to get the Pashtuns to do this insults their sense of honor.

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