Rory Stewart: "nonsense" policy in Afghanistan

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rory Stewart. (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

Rory Stewart in professorial mode

The Kipling-esque adventurer and writer Rory Stewart — the man who walked alone across Afghanistan and made a best-seller of The Places In Between — was quoted by Nicholas Kristoff in the Times the other day dismissing the Obama rationale for escalating the war as “nonsense.”

In our second annual conversation yesterday, in Boston, Rory Stewart expanded on the theme. He teaches now at Harvard’s Kennedy School when he’s not running a model redevelopment project in the heart of old Kabul. I am listening respectfully here to a man who said recently in an FT interview, “I’m a bit rougher and tougher” than T. E. Lawrence! He sounds to me, through his careful Eton and Oxford delivery, like a recovering imperialist.

Short form: It’s a “mistaken” hope and theory that heavy doses of American money and military power can build a legitimate state in Afghanistan or defeat the Taliban.

Rory Stewart in seven-league boots

These are worthy objectives but they’re tasks that really can only be performed by Afghans, not by foreigners, and which are probably very long-term goals — a question of maybe years, or much more, decades. I think that in so far as Obama’s aim is simply to prevent Al Qaeda from becoming stronger, it’s not necessary for him to defeat the Taliban, or build a legitimate, effective, stable state. The Taliban is not very strong. The Taliban is not in a position to take a major city. It’s not the Taliban of ’94. And even were they in the very unlikely event to take a city, it’s extremely unlikely that they’d invite Al Qaeda back… In fact the lesson of the last seven years is that Osama Bin Laden prefers to be in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, in part because Pakistan is a more established state and because Pakistani state sovereignty prevents US Special Forces from operating freely in their territory. A very fragmentary failed state of the sort the Taliban would be participating in if they were to increase their position in Afghanistan is not likely to provide much protection for Al Qaeda, and probably therefore unlikely to pose a considerably increased danger to the United States…

What worries me most about the troop increases is that they’re likely to precipitate … withdrawal. We tend to lurch from engagement to isolation, and from increases to withdrawal. My dream has always been to define a very limited ‘light footprint,’ because I believe a light footprint is a more sustainable footprint. What Afghanistan needs with the international community is a long-term, patient, tolerant relationship; not electroshock therapy, huge amounts of cash, huge numbers of troops, in an attempt to turn it around on a ninepin…

The international community is now in a bind… The United States has said ‘I can’t affort to fail in Afghanistan; this is the Number One threat to the world,’ and therefore it doesn’t really have much leverage over an Afghan administration. They can’t really threaten to reduce troops or leave Karzai to the Taliban so long as they say this is our front line on the War on Terror… It’s very dangerous in any relationship or situation to say failure is not an option, because it effectively renders you impotent. In order to deal with Afghanistan or Pakistan we need to be able to say our interests are not identical with yours. We don’t need to be here… The current situation, suggesting we have no alternative other than the current strategy, simply exposes us to being perpetually exploited. One way of putting is: if the Afghan administration has, as I believe, caught on to the fact that the reason we’re pumping so much money into their country is because they’re perceived to have the Taliban and Terrorists and Drugs, and that if they didn’t have those things we would treat them like Nepal, what possible incentive do they have to get rid of those things? …

I think the entire political culture suffers from an inability to be passionate about a moderate solution. The political culture finds it almost impossible to envisage anything other than increases or total withdrawal. Stuck in that binary opposition and taking into account both our obligations to the Afghan people and the risks posed by Afghanistan, you can see why the president is going for increases. Personally, though, I think he’s wrong. I think the light footprint we had in 2002 – 2003, when we were taking few casualties, when we weren’t pretending to be involved in nation building, when our troops didn’t go much outside the capital, and when at the same time Afghanistan was relatively secure and prospering, was the correct posture. And that we have been misled by our ambitions. We’ve bitten off more than we can chew. We’ve provided fuel for the Taliban insurgency by allowing them to present themselves as fighting for Afghanistan against foreign military occupation. And that our current policy is going to make all of those things worse.

Rory Stewart with Chris Lydon at Harvard, September 15, 2009.

The much longer form was delivered to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. The still longer text is at the London Review of Books.

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