Elements of a U.S. Strategy Toward Afghanistan

Third Step:

America should encourage the growth of a quasi-military formation like our Corps of Engineers.

This would have two important effects. The first is that this group could undertake some of the major infrastructure projects upon which a revitalized economy could grow. The second is that through its judicious use, the central government could reward those communities that cooperate in nation-building projects (roads, bridges, dams, etc.). This would tend to enhance the power and prestige of the central government.

At that point, events in Afghanistan will have reached a point at which America can safely speed up the process, already begun, to withdraw troops.

Fourth Step: political negotiation:

No one believes that either side in the civil war can win by military means alone. Nor does any sensible person think that a stable situation can be created by trying to exclude the Taliban. Negotiations are allegedly already in process. Certainly President Karzai has said he is trying to get them going. Obviously, he wants to save his regime (and his life), and he sees that the present course cannot be sustained.

The United States apparently is not now engaged in such attempts at negotiation and should probably not attempt to get involved. But it should not oppose them as it is now doing. The most important block to negotiations is the “joint prioritized effects list” (JPEL) which names virtually the entire Taliban leadership, at least 2,000 men, and authorizes their assassination. The group entrusted with this task is a unit known as “Task Force 373” of the Special Forces (aka “Special Ops”). Quite apart from the legality and public perception of this group (which operates like the Soviet Spetssnaz did in the 1980s) is that it makes negotiation virtually impossible: since the list is secret, no Talib can know whether or not he is on it and may, therefore, be murdered or imprisoned if he comes forward to meet with an Afghan government negotiator even in a third country.

As I was told by the former Taliban minister of defense, this is an absolute block and one that can be removed only by the United States.

On their side, the Taliban now have little incentive to negotiate. The right tactics for them have been described in a Kenyan fable as the flea versus the lion; the flea bites and jumps away. The lion swats and sometimes kills the flea. But there are many fleas. Lions don’t defeat fleas. So the Taliban will “bite” and jump away. They feel that time, numbers and faith are on their side.

It is precisely to change this context that I have laid out a program to alter the political psychology of the contest. In this altered circumstance -- when Afghans perceive that they do not any longer need the Taliban to secure Afghan independence and that the Taliban have become a hindrance to the development of a better standard of life -- that the Taliban will be driven to negotiations.

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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 www.williampolk.com.

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