Elements of a U.S. Strategy Toward Afghanistan

I. The United States has four fundamental objectives in its involvement in Afghan affairs:

The first objective is the creation of a stable, reasonably secure and peaceful state so that withdrawal will not constitute a base for anti- American activities;

The second objective is to end as rapidly as feasible the enormous drain on American resources now being expended in the Afghan conflict; The third objective is to prevent a “blow back” of the Afghan conflict that might constitute or appear to constitute a major failure and so encourage anti-American actions in other, particularly Islamic, areas; and The fourth objective is to prevent contamination of American institutions and laws by activities begun in Afghanistan including the effects of large-scale money laundering and the destabilizing of the American system of law, justice and opposition to torture.

II. Accomplishment of these objectives is obviously a complex project, involving as it does actions not only in Afghanistan but in neighboring regions and indeed even more broadly.

But steps toward accomplishment of it can and must be undertaken as rapidly as feasible. Moreover, accomplishment depends in part on the actions and/or inactions of others although to a degree they can be influenced by American policies and programs.

III. The first step toward accomplishment of the objectives is a realistic evaluation of the current situation, trends, assets and weaknesses not only in Afghanistan but also in neighboring Pakistan, India, Iran the Central Asian republics.

Here I will discuss only those of Afghanistan, but the others must be borne in mind; and the capacities of the United States and its NATO allies to affect developments in these areas must be considered.

1) in Afghanistan the situation is neither all black nor all white: On the positive side:

a) Although severely weakened by decades of occupation and civil war, Afghanistan does have an impressive “social contract,” that is to say, a general consensus on relationships among the citizens, without which no society can function. Most of Afghanistan’s 22,000 or so villages adjudicate local affairs through gatherings known (according to the area) as jirga, shuras or ulus. These gatherings are not, in the American sense of the word, institutions but “occasions.” They are evoked when some pressing issue cannot be resolved by a local headman or a respected religious figure or when two or more families disagree. These groups, which closely resemble centuries-old American Algonquin Indian procedures, are the closest thing Afghanistan has to participatory democracy.

While the typical Afghan village is autonomous, village councils form the lowest layer of a sort of pyramid of “legitimation.” Above them districts and tribes also form assemblies and these in turn feed into an over-arching national “occasion” known as a loya jirga. The loya jirga does not come into being by election and is not a governing body. Rather, it might be roughly compared to the assembly that drafted the American Constitution. It is an gathering of people respected in their communities, selected by consensus rather than election. Its task is to set out a general direction of policy.

b) Afghanistan is not the formless collection of warring tribes the British and the Russians thought it to be. It has three overlapping sets of belief or custom that give it the toughness of character that ultimately defeated both the British and the Russians. The first of these is religion. While the country is divided between the two major sects of Islam, Sunnism and Shiism, its people uniformly regard themselves as Muslim. As believed and practiced, Islam in Afghanistan is distinctive; it is tempered by pre- or non-Islamic custom which, in the Pashtun areas is known as the Pashtunwali but in its essentials spans the country. So a sense of the “way” -- of what is right and proper -- is the second element binding the country together despite vast distances and severe geographical inhibitions to movement. The third shared belief is that the country and all of its inhabitants have been grievously harmed, generation after generation, by foreigners. This sense of injury has united them in what to us appears xenophobia but to them is the basis of nationalism. While this appears, and under the current circumstances, is an inhibition to American actions, it offers a positive element for the future of the country.

c) There does seem to be a genuine dislike, indeed fear, of the Taliban even in Pashtun areas and certainly is evident in the areas of the other minorities. How much this is tempered by respect for the Taliban as the only effective native force is debatable. There has been considerable progress in the creation of Afghan security forces. Kabul city is today almost completely “secured” (at least against the Taliban) by Afghan police, at the cost, obviously, of turning the city into a collection of fortresses and the streets into an endless array of check points. But, Afghanistan is a country of villages and the war is a rural war. The writ of the government does not run widely outside of Kabul even in non Taliban areas.

Presented by

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 www.williampolk.com.

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