"Impressions of Afghanistan"

By James Fallows

Back in 1958, the Atlantic published "The Lesson of Iraq," by a young Harvard professor named William R. Polk. The breaking Iraqi news that then required explanation  was the military coup that overthrew the Hashemite monarchy and created the Republic, which Saddam Hussein would later control.

Writing at a time when most of the world was unrecognizably different from now -- tens of millions of Chinese were starving to death during the famines of Mao's Great Leap Forward, the United States was reacting in fear to the recent Soviet launch of Sputnik, France and Germany were taking their first wary steps toward post-war cooperation -- Polk made points that are all too recognizably current: 

The problems of the Middle East will be with us for the foreseeable future. They are primarily the responsibility of the peoples of the area, but they also affect us closely, for the Middle East provides 80 per cent of the oil required by the European economy, is crossed by the major trade routes between Asia-Africa and Europe, and could be the seedbed of a war. The question then is whether we can find in the steps leading up to the Iraqi coup d'état any clues to what lies ahead for Jordan and the Arabian peninsula.

wrp.jpgIn the past few weeks, this same William R. Polk -- who has had a long career as professor, author, and foreign-policy advisor* in the intervening 52 years -- traveled to Afghanistan to report on prospects there. Last week he sent a summary around privately to associates. With his permission, we are publishing his whole dispatch on our site. You can read it here. It is lengthy and discursive, but as I reached the end of each page I felt a grim compulsion to go on to the next.

Those of us who have not spent time on the ground in Afghanistan have a hard time assessing reports of "progress" or "hopelessness." But Polk's very sobering conclusions are based in long, repeat exposure to this part of the world over the decades, since his first visit in 1962. Here is a sample from one of his interviews, with Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who had been head of central banking under the Taliban and then was captured and spent four years in prison, including at Guantanamo:

In our talk [Polk writes], I found no sign of animosity toward me or even, as I expected from his autobiography, toward America and Americans. After preliminaries, I asked what he saw ahead and how the Afghan tragedy could be solved.

In reply, he said, " it is very hard to devise a way, but we should know that fighting is not the way. It won't work. And it has many bad side effects such as dividing the people from the government." ... It was clear that he was thinking in terms broader than Karzai. He meant that the Afghans must have an accommodation to government, per se, if they are heal their wounds and improve their condition.

The only realistic way ahead, he went on, "is respect for the Afghan people and their way whereas America is now relying wholly on force. Force didn't work for the British or the Russians and it won't work for the Americans." The word "respect" often figured in his remarks, as from my study of Afghanistan and the Arabs and Iranians, I knew it would....

So how do the Taliban see a post-US-controlled Afghanistan? I asked.

He replied that "it all depended on how it comes about. If it comes through negotiation, then probably the Taliban will be content with genuine participation in the government, but if it comes through force, then the Taliban will take everything."

I asked about what he has been doing since his autobiography was translated. He perhaps did not quite understand my question and said that he was in Guantánamo until he was released. He suddenly asked me how old I am and, when I replied with my august status, he said "good. There was a man in Guantanamo who also was old and he was gentle with me. The younger men were not."

Entire dispatch is here; Polk's bio is after the jump. Thanks to FCS and JRG.

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* William R. Polk was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for much of the Islamic world including Afghanistan in the Kennedy Administration. Then he 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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/08/-impressions-of-afghanistan/62322/