Out of Afghanistan: William Polk Answers a Critic

By James Fallows

In response the three-part series on Afghanistan by William R. Polk -- parts one, two, and three --  a reader who served as a U.S. military officer during the Iraq-Afghanistan era sends this complaint:

The end of that was ... sort of disappointing.  It's not that I disagree with anything Mr. Polk wrote, it's just that it's not clear to me he's very far from consensus opinion and, damn, this stuff is harder to do than I think his essay implies.  I mean, I guess I'd like to hear Mr. Polk flesh out how to do Taliban inclusion if he'd care to. 

My major objections to what he's saying is that as far as I can tell, the administration has been trying through all kinds of back channels to quietly negotiate with the Taliban.  They're coy about it, but that's to be expected, no?  That's so they can always tell the Taliban, hey man, we could walk away (even if we couldn't).  But it seems like negotiation with the Taliban has been going on on a back burner at varying levels of intensity back even into the end of the Bush administration.

It also seems like there's a hell of a problem coming from the fact that we just don't know a lot about internal command-and-control of the Taliban (understandably or else we might do better at whuppin' em).  That's why, as I recall, we got strung along by a Taliban "negotiator" who wasn't empowered to negotiate.  I don't think the Taliban care to give us a lot of insight into their organization, either.  Maybe Karzai or someone can get that, if we're not at the table?  I'd like to hear how Mr. Polk wants to identify a partner who's empowered to do anything and how to ensure that there's "Taliban" consensus for whatever we negotiate.

Lastly I think there's a damn hard regional problem, of course, that really ought to be in those last two sections of Mr. Polk's, but it isn't there.  Look, the Taliban in Pakistan have happily launched two really nasty attacks on Pakistani Army installations, and so the Pakistani Army isn't really happy with those guys at all, except for those parts of that Army which think there's somehow a discrete Afghan Taliban which functions as a cat's paw.  One way or another there's another powerful force at the table trying to position the Talibs and they haven't settled on their objectives yet (weirdly, "Pakistan" shows up nowhere in that whole second installment.)  That matters! 

When we negotiate with the Taliban and Pakistan isn't at the table, Pakistan makes trouble.  When Pakistan is at the table, Karzai makes trouble.  Omitted from Mr. Polk's list of objectives is that we need to quiet cross-border mischief (in both directions), no?  So I think this problem becomes a lot more, "look here, let me explain it all clearly to you" when you neglect the regional issues, and it gets pretty much intractable when you remember them.  But I'd like to hear his try at it.

I sent this note to Polk, at his home in France. It is not every day that you hear views on current policy from people who can say, "as I suggested to Walt Rostow about Vietnam..." But for the record here is his response:

I am grateful to  [this reader] for his thoughtful remarks on my draft policy paper and will here reply to a few of the points he makes.
The first and perhaps most significant issue is how to get the Taliban "to the table,"  that is to negotiate.
In my experience in negotiating ceasefires, I have found several common characteristics of the process.   The first is evaluation of what the other side offers.
I am not privy to what may have been communicated to the Taliban privately, but what appears to have reached them surely falls far short of what they would virtually have to demand.  At the low end, it is to surrender and accept what they would regard as a humiliating outcome of their insurgency; at the upper end, it would be to accept a fragile and largely ceremonial position in a government dominated by the current regime.  If I were a Talib, I would certainly not regard either the low end or the high end as acceptable.  To accept would almost certainly fracture their already-diffuse movement and probably lead to the assassination of the current leaders.
The second characteristic is that each side is constantly evaluating the other.  So the "window of opportunity" is shifting.  What was possible a few years ago is likely to be much more difficult today.

Again, if I were a Talib, I would doubt that the Karzai regime would or even could deliver on a deal to end the war.  Put simply, too much money is being made for anyone from Karzai on down to stop.    
 At the top, America is willing to tolerate members of the Karzai regime and adherents bleeding the economy virtually  to death as they ship their ill-gotten gains and their families to bolt-holes in Dubai and elsewhere.  According to the most recently figures, which are probably far from complete, at least $1 billion a year is drained off and sent abroad.  At the bottom, everything is for sale.  As in Vietnam,  soldiers and paramilitary forces sell their arms and ammunition to the insurgents.  And, among civilians, nothing happens without a bribe. This "black" economy is thought to amount to about a quarter of the gross domestic product of the country.
With so much money to be gained -- at least in the short term by not making a settlement -- the regime and its adherents will try to hang on.  And, again trying to think as a Talib presumably thinks, I would conclude that time is on my side, that the greed of the regime will doom it.  As one of their former senior officials said to me, "if you do not negotiate [soon], they will take it all."
During the Vietnam war, while a member of the Policy Planning Council, I proposed to its chairman, Walt Rostow, that at minimum we prevent the flight of money and Saigon government officials abroad.   Otherwise, so long as they could, they would get rich and then abandon the country.  I believe we face a similar dénoument in Afghanistan.
So how, your reader asks, can we get the Taliban to negotiate?
The answer is far too complex to be handled in a short reply, but there are a few obvious steps to be taken and some equally obvious steps to be avoided.
One to be avoided is the current American tactic of killing or removing "high value" Taliban; doing so does not stop the fighting but does apparently often swing  effective control increasingly to the younger, less experienced combatants who, presumably, are less inclined to negotiate.  It also strengthens their position with the general population which hates and fears our drones and our special forces.
One to be admitted is that, as in Vietnam, we must accept the fact that our opponents are going to be at least major players and probably dominant members of whatever government, hopefully a coalition, emerges in Afghanistan.  This will happen whether we like it or not.  At issue is how quickly and how violently it happens.
As the process begins, other issues must be addressed.
One to be embraced is diffusion of outside intervention.  Some sort of multinational  peace-seeking force will probably be useful; certainly a multinational aid effort will be required.  In these activities, America should play a decidedly modest role, but will have to contribute much or most of the funds.
And, finally in this short list, one to be acknowledged is that no foreigners are going to remake Afghan society.  That has proven to be beyond the capacity of the British (who didn't try very hard) and the Russians (who tried very hard) and us.  As I laid out in my paper, however, there are things we can encourage and help to do, but the continuity or evolution of Afghan society will depend on what the Afghans themselves do.
Finally, as your reader points out, Pakistan and other neighbors will play important roles in Afghanistan's future.  The struggle over Kashmir has given both Pakistan and India a stake in Afghan politics; the resurgence of Islam in Russia and former Soviet Central Asia has in effect reversed the old "Great Game;"  the attempt to stop the drug trade (in which the Iranians have lost more soldiers than we have lost in Afghanistan) has given the Iranians a stake in the Afghan future; and the history-proven centrality of Afghanistan's routes from north to south and east to west and its newly discovered natural resources have now involved the Chinese.
To be sure, nothing about Afghanistan is simple.  So we must not waste further time and effort and lives trying to do the impossible and must develop a feasible strategy to move toward a more reasonable, if still far from satisfactory, future.  That is what I attempted in my paper.

Now that we have a defense secretary in place -- albeit one whose fiercest critics say they are glad he has been "weakened" by the fight -- we'll see where any of these plans lead.

To go back to my previous comments on Fred Kaplan's book: It's worth remembering something now taken for granted about the Obama administration. That fact is that Obama, having mistakenly (in my view) accepted the Petraeus/McChrystal argument for a "surge" in Afghanistan during his first year in office, two years later had the resolve to correctly (in my view) declare the experiment a failure and curtail what otherwise could have been an open-ended American exposure. What Obama called in his State of the Union address the end of "our war" in Afghanistan will be good news for some people there and bad news for others. But there is a limit to what the U.S. can sanely undertake for other countries by force of arms. If Obama had decided differently, we could be in for many more years of the dilemmas William Polk describes.

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