09 September 2010

Elements of a U.S. strategy towards Afghanistan

The online edition of The Atlantic contains a first class article dated 2 September 2010, entitled Elements of a U.S. Strategy Towards Afghanistan, by William R. Polk.  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.

Polk gives a good analysis of the problem in all its complexity; here is just one example of the wicked problem the NATO forces face in attempting to pursue the military side of what everyone understands requires military and civilian action in concert:

Militarily, of course, American troops win all the battles. But our forces are caught, as in other insurgencies they have been, in a conflict of tactics: if it is to be effective in military terms, it is often self-defeating politically. To catch an insurgent thought to be hiding in a village house, a patrol, usually now a Special Operations force, must search even those parts of the house regarded by the inhabitants as haram (forbidden) territory. Whether or not the soldiers catch the suspect, they almost certainly make enemies of the household and its neighbors. And, using distant forms of warfare, particularly missiles fired from drones, has unavoidably resulted in civilian casualties with the same effect. More subtly, the drone has created a sense of almost-medieval dread of unseen, diabolic powers which, obviously, fix an image of America. Finally, the practice of “taking out” Taliban leaders has not stopped the flow of new recruits. Arguably what it has done is more dangerous for the future: the targeted men are now relatively elderly and their removal has opened the way for younger and probably more radical insurgents with less experience and less balance. This probably will intensify fighting and will make ultimate negotiations more difficult.

Central to the solution proposed by Polk is to set a clear, firm, unequivocal and reasonably proximate date for withdrawal, a step which he argues would have a major positive effect primarily on those people who live where the war is being fought: the villagers in the rural areas. His reasoning is that this would change the context in which the civil aid projects take place. They would come to be seen as benefits that would remain after the Americans have left, rather than part of the fabric of the occupation and Taliban attempts to destroy them would risk alienating the support of the local communities who value them.

Polk’s article may be accessed here.

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