More Polk on Afghanistan: What Should We Do Next?

Two days ago I mentioned a dispatch by William R. Polk, who first visited Afghanistan in 1962 (and first wrote about Iraq for the Atlantic in 1958), on his most recent visit to Afghanistan this summer. That dispatch is here.

Polk has now done a follow-up item, on what exactly it would take to begin a proper withdrawal from Afghanistan. You can read it here. His introductory note says, "while I was in Afghanistan, I wrote the sort of paper I used to write when I was a member of the Policy Planning Council, laying out for Ambassador (General) Karl Eikenberry, what I thought America should be doing. He encouraged me to print it; so I am sharing it with you."

And below, a message that came in after the first Polk article, from the person who blogs under the name "Charlie" at the abu muqawama site. Charlie writes:

I'm currently on my second assignment as a civilian advisor in Afghanistan; previously working with Marines in Helmand and now at the NATO headquarters in Kabul. I've read your notes on Afghanistan carefully, knowing that I share many of your concerns but ultimately arrive at somewhat different policy conclusions.

Based on your set-up, I was excited to read Prof Polk's impressions of Afghanistan. And now, I've spent the last day or so trying to figure out why exactly his piece set me on edge (to the point where I feel compelled to write you). Initially it was because I found him smug. (But I went to Harvard and live in DC; I can deal with smug.) In the end, it's the rank hypocrisy of his dispatch that riles me -- the idea that he discovered the "real" Afghanistan while rattling off a veritable Fodor's guide to ex-pat life in Kabul (The Serena, The Taverna, etc.) Though he's right, the food at Sufi is excellent.

The comparison between the UN's "field" presence and the military's also rings hollow. There are Marine platoons stretched far along the Helmand river valley; there is no UN presence to speak of. The UN offices in Kandahar were closed earlier this year due to security concerns. There is no doubt that too many NATO troops spend too much time on large bases (and life on those bases is even more surreal the Kabul). But to the extent the UN enjoys freedom of movement in Afghanistan, it is because they operate in much more permissive provinces than those assigned to American soldiers and Marines.

We face huge challenges in Afghanistan. Prof Polk's interviews with Dr Samar and Mullah Zaeef highlight corruption and reintegration as chief among them. It's clear that he has specific ideas regarding a better way forward -- would that he had written about them instead.

We aim to please here, and fortunately William Polk has done just what Charlie hoped. Again, his "how to get out of Afghanistan" proposal is here.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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