August 31st, 2009

Chris Keeley

william polk

TO: Distinguished Recipients
FM: John Whitbeck
Transmitted below is a brilliant assessment of the harsh reality of Aghanistan from Bill Polk, whose personal and professional involvement with Afghanistan goes back almost 50 years.
I strongly recommend reading and forwarding this wisdom, as well as (as I have done before) reading Bill's essential book Violent Politics.

                                                                                                            August 31, 2009

Mr. Ron Fleming

8 Lowell St.

Cambridge, MA 

Dear Ron,

Thank you for sending me the August 27, 2009 article “Combat Patrols Afghanistan” by  Mr. Bing West, who I understand is a film maker and who was recently “embedded” with US soldiers in Afghanistan.   From this experience, he offers his view of the war and our policy.  To summarize, he says, “More senior-level attention must be paid to inflicting severe enemy losses in firefight and to arresting the Taliban, so that their morale and networks are broken…[we] need also to design concepts that bring more lethality to the ground battlefield.  We’re pumping billions in UAVs.  Surely we can find technologies and techniques for the grunt.”   I assume that what he will portray in his film (of which he provides a 30-second “teaser”  in ) is summed up in what he writes.  So, while I have not seen his film, I am moved to comment since film is a very powerful medium and when focused on combat is very popular. 

What he writes is interesting, but like our policy on Afghanistan, it misses the point. 

The point is that Afghanistan is a country with its own, very different, mores and structure.  The traditional rulers and its largest community are Pashtun, and, whether we like it or not, the Taliban is their only effective political-military wing.  The Taliban have many characteristics we don’t like, but they are natives who are anchored in the deeply venerated religion (a rather primitive form of Islam) and the social/cultural code (known in the south as the Pashtunwali but with variations governing the lives of all the Afghans).   To fight them is to fight Afghanistan.  And that is a fight we cannot win.

When I first went to Afghanistan in 1962 to write a US National Policy paper, I hit on an image to bring out the major characteristics of the country:  it was like a rocky hill, cut by deep gullies, on which were scattered some 20,000 ping pong balls.  The balls represented the autonomous village-states.   These communities were united with others by religion and custom but ran their own affairs and were largely autarkic.  What the Russians later found was that while they could (and did) smash many balls and chased away the population of thousands of others, they could never find a way to negotiate the end of the war.  At any given time, even with the commitment of large military forces enjoying rapid mobility, much like ours, they never controlled more than about 20% of the country and while they won most of the battles they were unable to win the war.

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1)   we must get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible with as little damage to us and the Afghans as is possible.  I have (separately) identified a way to do this.   We have what may be a fleeting opportunity right now to do it quickly and cleanly.

2)   We will have to continue to take reasonable police action against and to collect information on hostile groups.   But no amount of police or especially military action will give us complete protection.  Moreover, use of these means is dangerous to our own society and to our political and legal system. We must tread the fine line that divides “security” from “tyranny.”  Doing so is now and will continue to be one of the major domestic challenges for Americans.  The danger of failure is great and the cost of failure would be horrible.  Forty years of warfare, as the Neoconservaties advocate and the generals tell us the war in Afghanistan will require,  will probably not defeat them but it certainly could destroy what we most cherish.

3)   Consequently, the long term policy we need is one that will address issues that empower terrorists.  We cannot “solve” or even ameliorate all of them.  (For example, there is little or nothing we can do about the Chinese imperialist and colonialist policies against Tibet or the Uigurs in Xinjiang/Sinkiang/Chinese Turkestan.)  But we can help to reach accommodations on a number of others and smooth the path toward national conciliation.  We should make these actions a basic thrust of our national defense policy.   Wisely carried into effect, it is our best route to security over the longer term.

4)   I do not believe what happens to Usama bin Ladin is a “vital” issue for us.  Chasing him makes good press but, in fact, he is little more than a symbol.  However, if we decide that he must be immobilized, I have identified a way to accomplish this within the context of the Afghan Pashtunwali’s code of melmastia (roughly, “sanctuary”).  What we have tried to do, capture or kill him by offering the Pashtuns huge bribes, has so far at least failed;  attempting it has antagonized the Pashtuns because it is taken as an insult to their code of honor; but there is a way we can render him harmless which is what even those who believe him to be a major danger should desire.

5)   We must educate our people to understand and accept the fact that our little globe is multicultural.  The more we try to force other peoples to recast themselves in our mold,  as the Neoconservatives have tried to make us do, the more enemies we make and the greater danger we create.  Indeed, even trying to do so is both beyond our means and also is destructive of the very things that we should cherish.  We should aim instead to turn President Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo into real policy.  I have also elsewhere sketched out some of the steps we could take in this direction.

My own experience with Afghanistan, as I have mentioned, goes back almost half a century.  My involvement in Vietnam was fleeting but benefitted from close contact with the major players and access to everything America could find out.  And my study of insurgency, guerrilla warfare and terrorism has been exhaustive and is on record in my book Violent Politics.  You will perhaps forgive me for looking somewhat askance  at the instant experts who provide us  -- and worse our President -- with “winning” formulas that have failed every time they were tried.    It may make good cinema, but Mr. West’s portrayal is the most recent in a long sequence of such beguiling  efforts. 

Odysseus was right to tie himself to the mast and stop up the ears of his crew when the sirens sang…just off the rocks. 



William R. Polk

669 Chemin de la Sine

F-06140 Vence France

fax: +33-493 24 08 77