Impressions of Afghanistan

From each of my forays, I found it a relief to return to the hotel. Again, tradition. Inside the forbidding walls was a delightful “Persian” garden, where two fountains playing into water channels which were flanked by beds of roses. I felt back in “my” Middle East. Alas, the one of fading memory. Then, I had dinner in the hotel courtyard, listening to traditional Afghan music. Suddenly came the distant call to prayer. The drummers were silenced, but the moment the call ended, they took up their drums, not concerned about prayer time but only about the announcement of prayer. The Taliban would have been outraged. And, as the Russian ambassador later told me, the ambassador from the United Arab Emirates certainly was: the accent in Arabic was terrible and the several calls to prayer across the city paid no attention to timing. In the UAE, he said, they pushed a button and the whole country heard one call!

At noon the next day, I drove over to the British embassy to see Deputy Ambassador Tom Dodd. To say the least, this is an unusual British embassy. It is the UK’s largest, although dwarfed by the American establishment. It echoed the Americans in its elaborate security but, to me more striking, was the abrasion of Foreign Office formality. The email I received from one of the clerks setting up the appointment was addressed, “Dear William,” and saying that “Tom” would be happy to see me. I thought how the British ambassador I had known of old would be turning in their graves.

Mr. Dodd – Tom – is a new arrival, and not, I inferred from his rather vague remarks about his background, a regular Foreign Office man. He was indeed a civil servant but of what kind I could not tell. He was more optimistic than most of those I met. He said that while the situation in Kandahar was the worst, some of the other cities, such as Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Kunduz, were better. What distinguished them? I asked. He said it was simply that the local warlords were more willing to share their loot with their followers. So there was a sort of “trickle down effect,” but in Kandahar the President’s half-brother was stingy. I laughed to think how the phrase “trickle down,” coined by my former colleagues, the Chicago economists, was applied to Afghanistan “security.”

Not noticing my reaction, he said that if the programs of his government, the US and the Afghans have five years, the situation in Kandahar would be better. Not much gain for five years in that word “better,” I replied. Moreover, I thought a more realistic time frame was 6 months to a year. And I pointed out how a number of the very people who fervently advocated the war, like Richard Haass, the current president of the Council on Foreign Relations, have now turned against it. As he wrote in Newsweek two weeks ago, “We can’t win and it isn’t worth it.” I didn’t feel that this registered.

When he got on to the military aspects, Dodd said he did not interface with Petraeus, but he went on to say one positive and one negative thing: the positive thing is that apparently there are many fewer Special Forces night raids, although, he said, he is not privy to them. (That too rather surprised me. As the UK’s acting senior representative, I should have thought he needed to be privy to everything that affected the UK’s position.) The negative thing is that the policy of killing off the Taliban old guard (he pointed out that here “old” means 50) is bringing forward younger and more violent men who have none of the experience or subtlety of the older generation. This cannot be good, he said. I would later hear much the same from a former senior Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, although he would tell me that much of the old guard is till alive and in command.

One interesting aspect of the government of Karzai, Dodd said, is that he can pick up a mobile phone and call almost anyone in the country and connect within half an hour, and, he said, “the Afghans love to talk.” So presumably Karzai is in contact almost continuously with people all over the country.

Despite the fall in public support in the UK for the British position here, he said, Britain has a more important stake than America since it has about 1 million Pakistani and 3 million Indian residents/subjects in the UK. But, he said, with I thought something like wry amusement, in the event of any sort of settlement, interim or otherwise, “Britain has no money for projects of any magnitude. When it leaves, as it inevitably must, it will be able to maintain its special forces and a training mission for the army or police. Nothing more.” When we got onto the cost of the war, to my surprise, he misspoke or was totally misinformed: he said that the American war effort here was, after all, “cheap.” I must have looked astonished because he went on to clarify his remark: it was only $7 billion a year. That is even less than the published figure – perhaps half the real cost – not for a year but for a month.

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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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