Impressions of Afghanistan

The inner circle includes but is not limited to the Hazara Vice President, Karim Khalili; Kabir Mohabat, an Afghan with American citizenship; “Marshal” and now Vice President Muhammad Qasim Fahim, a Tajik; and “Marshal” Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord who disdains any government post but is the President’s “right hand.” (Dostum deserves an Olympic gold medal for opportunism. A leader of the Uzbek people of the North, he fought the Russians, then joined them to fight the insurgents; then he joined the insurgency to fight the Russians; next he joined the Taliban; then he switched sides again to join the anti-Taliban “Northern Alliance” and is infamous for suffocating in steel lift vans in the sweltering summer captured Taliban soldiers. Now – for how long? – he is a supporter of President Karzai.) It also includes Zara Ahmad Mobil who ran what is regarded as the most corrupt organization in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Interior, and (as an editorial in The Guardian put it) “is now in charge of the opium industry;” and, of course, the Karzai family.

In their meeting with Senator John Kerry, the American press corps bluntly described the regime as Afghanistan’s native mafia. Dostum deserves an Olympic gold medal for opportunism. A leader of the Uzbek people of the North, he fought the Russians, then joined them to fight the insurgents; then he joined the insurgency to fight the Russians; next he joined the Taliban; then he switched sides again to join the anti-Taliban “Northern Alliance” and is infamous for suffocating in steel lift vans in the sweltering summer captured Taliban soldiers. Now – for how long? – he is a supporter of President Karzai.

President Karzai was himself described, in two dispatches in November 2009 from our Ambassador to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (which were leaked to The New York Times and published in January 2010), with great diplomatic caution, as “not an adequate strategic partner.” After being dressed down by President Obama for doubting Karzai’s integrity or rather not being willing to overlook it in order to get on with the war and to get along with General McChrystal, Ambassador Eikenberry, now is even more cautious. At least in public. As I will later point out, in our late night chat on the embassy terrace, he was more realistic. But, he the points out that Karzai is all we have as an alternative to the Taliban. In short we are in a position not unlike the one we faced in Vietnam.

As a general, Eikenberry was a previous commander of the then smaller American force in Afghanistan. Prior to that he was the military attaché in the American embassy in Beijing, under my friend Ambassador Chas Freeman. Eikenberry’s charming wife, Ching, is from China’s far northeast and so is of partly Mongol background.

A scholarly, intelligent, hard-driving and honest man, Eikenberry tries to be optimistic; that goes with the job. He has to be optimistic no matter what he feels to keep up the spirits of his staff, but in his confidential dispatches of last November, he wrote, “The proposed troop increase [the “surge”] will bring vastly increased costs and an indefinite, large-scale U.S. military role in Afghanistan, generating the need for yet more civilians. An increased U.S. and foreign role in security and governance will increase Afghan dependency…and it will deepen the military involvement in a mission that most agree cannot be won solely by military means…Perhaps the charts we have all seen showing the U.S. presence rising and then dropping off in coming year in a bell curve will prove accurate. It is more likely, however, that these forecasts are imprecise and optimistic.”

Here I do not want to go into detail on our private talk on the Embassy roof, which lasted until midnight, because I am writing a paper for him, based on my study and my talks here, on what I think we must now do. Let me just say that I do not believe he has changed his November assessment. Indeed, both he and all the knowledgeable people with whom I have talked believe the situation is far more dire now than last year. It is not just the statistics on casualties and wounded, although they show an accelerating downward trend and the wounded, in particular, are much more numerous than is reported and their wounds are both more grievous and much more expensive to compensate for. (A person with a head injury will cost the Treasury over his lifetime about $5 million in medical bills. Such costs are not figured into the figures given out by the Defense Department on the cost of the war.) But, it is clear that we do not have a coherent or long-term strategy and are trying to make up for that deficiency by throwing money – and people – into the fray more or less without any way of judging whether they help achieve or prevent us from achieving our vague objectives. Meanwhile, the Afghans appear to be sick and tired of Americans.

So back to my first informant, Mr. A. When I asked him about the local feeling toward the Americans he was so guarded that I did not press my question. All he felt he could say was that there are too many and their constant presence and display of power are galling. But Ambassador Eikenberry, he said, was personally very popular. Why? I pressed. “He goes everywhere without a big escort, and the Afghans like that,” was his reply. Eikenberry later told me that he tried to appear often even in the supposedly unsafe market area with only a couple of bodyguards whom he kept as unobtrusive as possible. I don’t know whether the Afghans admired his bravery or were just happy that he was not flaunting his power. But, whatever the reason, I was to hear repeatedly that he is indeed popular.

In my day with him, I was astonished by his performance. It was the very embodiment of the Washington adage: “the urgent drives out the important.” Managing his vast staff, including four subordinate ambassadors (talk about bureaucratic inflation – I have never heard of an American embassy with more than one ambassador!), over 60 US agencies (over many of which he is not in ultimate command) and a thousand people, meeting daily with General Petraeus and his senior officers, holding frequent conferences with the Afghan press and influential Afghans, giving sometimes several speeches a day, escorting and briefing visiting VIPs like Senator John Kerry, meeting with, listening to and admonishing President Karzai, and touring the ubiquitous trouble spots and even, while I was there, walking the four-mile perimeter of the embassy walls to personally check out the security arrangement, he is run ragged. I sat in on the briefing of his “country team.” There he was the coach, trying to build morale; the teacher, urging the men and women from agencies not under his control to get “out into the field” and to show more sensitivity to the Afghans; and the diplomat, complimenting each person by name for some act he had heard about. It was a remarkable performance. Then he rushed off to meet Kerry, flew with him to a remote post, assembled the American press corps for a briefing, and in the evening held a dinner for the entire Afghan television station owners and reporters at which he gave another speech. As I chided him, he never has time to sit back and think about what all our frantic activities are really all about. He must have been alarmed to hear Senator John Kerry say in an interview here in Kabul on August 19, “We have to remember that this is the beginning, just the beginning…”

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William R. Polk served as an advisor to President John F. Kennedy and later became a professor of history at the University of Chicago, where he established the Center for Eastern Studies. More

William R. Polk served in President John F. Kennedy's administration, where he was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for much of the Islamic world, including Afghanistan. He later became professor of history at the University of Chicago and president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of 17 books including Understanding Iraq, Violent Politics and Understanding Iran. He is now at work on a book on Afghanistan to be entitled The Cockpit of Asia. His website is

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