Polk: Definite Withdrawal Date Needed In Afghan War

Historian William Polk talks to Steve Inskeep about his policy paper offering a U.S. strategy toward Afghanistan. Polk served as an adviser to President John F. Kennedy and he's written a number of history books and articles related to the Middle East and Asia.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One more perspective on Afghanistan comes from the author William Polk. He's been visiting Afghanistan since 1962, off and on. He worked in the Kennedy administration back then. Over the summer, Polk visited Kabul again and he wrote a policy analysis for the U.S. ambassador, Karl´┐ŻEikenberry. Polk's visit to Afghanistan produced a skeptical view of the conflict.

When I read what youve written about your observations there, you seem to think that almost everything that the United States is doing - increasing the amount of money, increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan - is counterproductive. Why do you think that?

Mr. WILLIAM POLK (Author): Well, let's take these one by one. The number of troops - the fact is that the Afghans, like all people who are engaged in guerilla warfare, are nationalists and they dont like foreigners to come into the country and tell them what to do. The second thing, on the issue of money, General Petraeus is widely quoted that he said money is my best ammunition in this war, so that every time we go in and do something, either passing out money or building a school or even building a little clinic, the local people interpret it as meaning that that's what we're creating to stay there. And that led me to the thing that I think we can do this different. Instead of just pouring money into the country and hoping that that's somehow going to win the hearts and minds of people, if we could change the context in which the money is devoted to projects, we could begin to turn the war around.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

Mr. POLK: Well, what happens now is, if you, lets say, build a clinic, which, of course, everybody wants, the local people say, well, that just shows that the Americans are here to stay. If we announce that we're absolutely, definitely, definitively leaving the country at a certain reasonably near date, then we change what I call the political psychology of the war. At that point when we build a clinic, the people in the local community say, oh, well, that clinic is really for us, that's what we're going to keep when the Americans leave. And so all of a sudden the things that were regarded as the tactics of our occupation become valued things to the local people. And if at that point the Taliban or any other group opposes that process, they lose the support of the villagers.

INSKEEP: Youre saying that a definite withdrawal date would change the psychology of the war and reassure Afghans that the United States is not there to permanently occupy their country. President Obama has set a date, next year, by which he intends to at least begin withdrawal. Is that sufficient to achieve what you want?

Mr. POLK: No, it's not, because he's been countermanded, in effect, by General Petraeus, who said no, this is not a definitive date, this is only a time that we can begin to talk about withdrawing. The Afghans dont believe the date and the critical thing is believing it.

INSKEEP: Well, if in your view every additional American soldier just creates opportunities for Afghans to be unhappy with foreigners, and if every dollar spent is viewed with suspicion, is there an argument to be made to just get out now?

Mr. POLK: No. I think that there has to be a transition period, and what we dont want to do is, it seems to me, is what we did in Vietnam, where we evacuate the last of our people from the roof of the embassy by helicopter. And if we're smart, we'll begin to do things far in advance of the actual date of leaving.

INSKEEP: So what date would you set if you were going to set a date - a firm date that you want for American withdrawal?

Mr. POLK: I think it would be reasonable to set a date, say, the end of next year.

INSKEEP: And end of next year to be done, to be out, to be gone, not to be starting to go.

Mr. POLK: I think we say that's the date that we're going to be out. Yes.

INSKEEP: Well, William Polk, thanks very much for taking the time.

Mr. POLK: Thank you very much for having me.

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