William Polk on Afghanistan

William Polk on Afghanistan


With reports that the Obama Administration will unveil its Afghanistan strategy as early as Friday — and one senior Senate staffer telling me that Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, will hold a Senators-only briefing on Afghanistan/Pakistan today — it was good timing that yesterday the Congressional Progressive Caucus kicked-off its six-part forum, Afghanistan: A Road Map for Progress.

In his opening remarks, Caucus Co-Chair Raul Grijalva described the significance of this forum: “We felt that it’s very important for staff, community organizations, and Members of Congress to begin to have this vital discussion on Afghanistan and Western Pakistan and the policy direction in which we’re moving… One of the best ways [to do this] is to listen and allow ourselves to get information from very learned individuals….”

One of the “learned individuals” on yesterday’s panel — which focused on a “Historic Perspective on Afghanistan, its People and their Cultures” — was Dr. William Polk, a former history professor and State Department Middle East expert who served in the Kennedy Administration. Polk traced his personal involvement with Afghanistan back to 1962 when he took a 2000-mile jeep trip around the country. He was on assignment to speak with the provincial governors and tribal chiefs about a series of programs under the Eisenhower Administration that had nearly all resulted in “disastrous failure.” Polk said during the trip he “fell in love with” the country.

Polk described the population as living in “deep valleys and on high plateaus scattered along one of the world’s biggest mountain ranges…. [A country] about the size of Colorado and New Mexico.” He said Afghans are diverse, speaking many languages, “divided in many respects but united by one belief: they don’t want foreigners — the British, the Russians or the Americans — on their land.” He also said that “Afghanistan is the perfect example of the land of the Hatfields and the McCoys. Every person is armed, every person is involved in protecting his local turf.”

Through his intimate familiarity with Afghanistan, experience with Vietnam during the Kennedy Administration, and research on the history of insurgency and counter-insurgency, Polk has concluded that “we shouldn’t be there at all.”

“I look in vain for a place where we have succeeded militarily against guerilla warfare,” he said. “… I think the more people we put in there, the more people are going to get shot at.” He said Afghans who help Americans will be viewed in the same way as Loyalists during the American Revolutionary War — they were despised even more than the British.

Even more powerful, however, were the lessons Polk drew from his experiences with Vietnam. “Always the idea was with a few more troops and a little more time we will solve the problem,” he said. “… We were so sure that we knew how to do everything in Vietnam.” He said the extent to which we didn’t know what we were doing was made abundantly clear when a Marine Corps Colonel informed Polk that one could purchase a tank in the marketplace in downtown Saigon.

“The government that we were trying to promote was so corrupt that they were selling their opponents all the arms to kill us with,” Polk said. He noted the corruption today in the Karzai government — its involvement in the drug trade, for example — and the consequent willingness of more and more Afghans to once again accept the Taliban as an alternative that “doesn’t steal.”

Polk stressed that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan doesn’t mean the US has no role in promoting security. He alluded to the 12 recommendations in the book he co-authored with George McGovern in 2006, Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now, and said some of those are applicable to Afghanistan as well. (He said he would provide a new list focused on Afghanistan — stay tuned.)

“We have to recognize that we have inherited an incredibly fragile, fragile position to try to build on….” Polk said. “We have to try to find ways to make that transitional period [of withdrawal] as smooth as we possibly can. But we have to be very straightforward in recognizing it’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be simple. And we’re not going to end up with the kind of [government] that we’d like to have theoretically.”

The next CPC Forum is on Wednesday — Defining American Strategic Interests in Afghanistan and the Northwest Border Area of Pakistan; Will the Policies and Goals of the Obama Administration Serve Our Strategic Interests? Testifying will be Clare Lockhart who worked as Chief Advisor for the Afghan Government and the UN on institution-building and reconstruction; Dr. Abdulkader Sinno, author of Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond; and a representative from the Obama Administration has been invited as well.

I’m concerned that policy recommendations won’t be made to the entire CPC until after the sixth and final forum on May 13th. That’s a long time to wait when all signs are pointing towards US/NATO escalation. Nevertheless, this effort is off to a good start, and hopefully it will lead to more congressional leaders speaking out with a humane, smart and progressive (and, in the case of Iraq, prophetic) voice as Polk did once again yesterday.

With reporting from Capitol Hill by Nation Reporter/Researcher Greg Kaufmann.

Ad Policy