Elements of a U.S. Strategy Toward Afghanistan

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Shape of the Afghanistan of the postwar era:

Americans are unlikely to be able to set the format of the future Afghanistan, but we can encourage certain elements and discourage others. This is what it seems to me to be the best that we could hope for:

1) A coherent nation-state. No responsible Afghan, even in the midst of the civil war, favored the break up of the country. To balkanize Afghanistan would be to create a disaster. This is because, first, Afghanistan’s ethnic communities are mingled. Predictably, the splitting of the country into pieces would set off a panic flight which would create millions of refugees; second, the several pieces would be too weak to sustain themselves and would invite intervention by the neighboring counties (Iran in the west, Pakistan in the south, perhaps China in the east and one or other of the central Asian republics in the north); third, even without external intervention, almost certainly, the states would fight one another as in the 1990s; and in this circumstance, it is probable that the Taliban would take over the entire country and engage in a bloody repression.

2) A relatively strong central government in control of foreign affairs. That would give it control over foreign aid which, for the foreseeable future, will be the dominant factor in the economy. Such control would enable the central government to allocate aid projects among the provinces and so exercise a considerable influence over their policies. The central government should also have a small but mobile military force with which to defend itself. This should probably include a monopoly of air power and heavy weapons. As I have suggested, it would be beneficial if it also had a sort of Corps of Engineers with which it could carry out or assist the provinces in carrying out the infrastructure projects that will be necessary to enable the economy to revive. The central area, a sort of federal district, should also contain the major national educational institutions. Particularly the university with such associated professional schools as a medical training college, perhaps associated with one or other American university medical school and a foundation (acting as the Rockefeller Foundation did in China) will attract potential leaders from the provinces and help to integrate the country.

3) The provinces must be accorded large degree of cultural autonomy. That is the historical legacy of the country and is required because of the ethnic and religious diversity of its society. The probably seven provinces would coalesce approximately on ethnic and religious grounds. All the inhabitants would be Afghan citizens and would be able to move freely among the provinces. There would be a single currency and economy, but certain aspects of their lives, particularly religion and customary law, would be local. Villages would continue to be largely self- governing under their jirgas, ulus, and shuras. However, if the process I envisage for the federal district works, the regions will gradually move toward a central consensus under a constitution approved by the traditional Afghan authority, the Loya Jirga.

4) Such a state will over time evolve toward an Afghan version of participatory democracy. Afghans will begin to see that while they control their affairs, as they will certainly insist on doing, they will find it in their interest to move away from violence toward a more secure way of life and away from restrictive and retrograde customs toward a freer way of life.

In this process, which we can encourage, I see their – and our -- best way forward. Indeed, without it, I see years of futile and violently-opposed occupation which is beyond the financial capability and political will of our country to sustain. And, even if sustained, will endanger other of the basic American national objectives which I have set out in the first paragraph, including the preservation of our own cultural and political heritage from damage by the practices that have grown in this war.

In conclusion, after nine years of strenuous efforts, vast expenditure of resources, enormous losses of people, both Afghans and Americans, I think this policy would be a major benefit to our nation and should be undertaken urgently.

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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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