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.