30 July 2009

Challenging the Afghanistan intervention paradigm

I spent several months in Afghanistan in 1977 ( A lost boy? You bet!) and the logic of repeating the errors of two centuries of great power intervention; most recently by the Soviet Union, escapes me. This guy walked all over the place, he agrees with me.


LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Rory Stewart, who as I explained earlier, has crammed about half a dozen lives into his thirty six years. He's served as a British diplomat and was awarded an OBE for his military service in the British army in Iraq. His best-selling book “The Places In Between” documents his 6000-mile journey by foot through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal.

In 2004, Mr Stewart started the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul which creates jobs and skills in Afghanistan's traditional crafts.

And since earlier this year he's been the director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard University.

Rory Stewart joins us now live from London.

Professor Stewart I'll ask you a little about your life later but let's start with the recent news out of Afghanistan. The British Government has declared Operation Panther's Claw a success. Could that end up being a bit of a "Mission Accomplished" moment?

RORY STEWART, CARR CENTRE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS POLICY, HARVARD: I think it's very dangerous to talk about success because we have no clear indications of what we're trying to achieve in that country. Sometimes we talk about stability, sometimes we talk about stat-building, sometimes we talk about trying to defeat the Taliban, sometimes we talk about trying to stabilise Pakistan. All that's really happened in the last few weeks is that they have managed to re-take some ground, quite small ground, about the size of a small island, the Isle of Wight off the coast of Britain - and they're going to try to hold it.

And then they're expecting somehow Afghan government institutions to flourish. Honestly I think a lot of this is a waste of time and sadly a waste of lives.

LEIGH SALES: Why do you think that?

RORY STEWART: Because Afghanistan's problems are much more deep-seated. They're not things that are going to be resolved with foreign troops and short-term operations. It will take 20 or 30 years for a country as poor and as traumatised as Afghanistan to reach the kind of levels of a country even like Pakistan and of course Pakistan itself is not stable.

The most that the West should be trying to do in Pakistan is to provide gentle, light support over 20, 30 years but these military operations I cannot really see the purpose of them.

LEIGH SALES: I will talk to you about some of the strategic issues in a moment. But let's set the context first. You've written that Afghanistan's political and strategic significance has been exaggerated. What do you mean?

RORY STEWART: From almost every point of view many other countries are more important than Afghanistan. If you just take Pakistan on its border. Pakistan has a nuclear bomb. Afghanistan hasn't. Pakistan is where Osama bin Laden is. He is not in Afghanistan. Pakistan has the opportunity to destabilise India. So it's 20 times more important than Afghanistan but we're putting 20-times more resources into Afghanistan than Pakistan.

And you could probably make the same point about Iran, and of course in broader strategic terms about many other countries in the world ranging from North Korea to China.

LEIGH SALES: You've spent considerable time in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The so-called surge was success in Iraq yet you're one of the few voice arguing against the surge in Afghanistan. Tell me a little bit about your thinking on that.

RORY STEWART: In Iraq, the surge was largely a success because Iraqi politicians, particularly the big Shia parties, got behind it. And the Sunni tribal groups who were under a lot of pressure decided to broker a deal. So it was an Iraqi-led process. The troop increases was not the key.

In Afghanistan, we simply don't have those kind of political forces. The Afghan Government doesn't have the weight or the mass political support of the Baghdad Government. And there aren't people coming to us in the way the Sunni tribal groups did in Iraq and saying, "We want to lay down our arms. We want a ceasefire and in return we would like uniforms and salaries."

So without that Afghan push, troop increases on their own are not going to achieve anything.

LEIGH SALES: Is there anything that could make the push come from the Afghan side?

RORY STEWART: I think it's very difficult but, yes, of course. Afghans are generally much more canny, much more competent than the international community acknowledges.

And I see again and again in my work in Kabul that when Afghans want to sort something out, they can. But the challenge for the international community is to understand that you can't force that process and there are many people in southern and eastern Afghanistan who are relatively conservative, who are suspicious of foreign troops, who may not like the Taliban but may prefer them to the foreign troops and there needs to be a political accommodation that recognises that.

LEIGH SALES: You've written that the best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of about 90,000 to far fewer, perhaps 20,000. In that situation, what would be the objectives of the reduced military mission?

RORY STEWART: I think the objective of the reduced mission would be much more focused on counter-terrorism. In other words, it wouldn't be trying to fight the Taliban, who predominantly are a domestic Afghan force. The Taliban's agenda is really to take over the Government of Afghanistan. Instead it would focus on al Qaida and their international terrorist agenda. And what you would like look at is the special forces and intelligence presence over a very long period, whose job would be to ensure that Osama bin Laden couldn't again re-establish terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.

LEIGH SALES: If there are only a small number of troop, though, couldn't they easily be overpowered by hostile Afghan forces?

RORY STEWART: Again, it depends what you're trying to do. The key here is to distinguish between international terrorists, people who want to attack Australia, the United States, Europe, and many people in Afghanistan fighting our troops who have no international agenda at all whose problem basically is with the Kabul Government that they perceive as corrupt and with foreign troops in their country. So I think if you were able to focus on the counter-terrorism mission, you should be able to maintain that. And it should certainly be possible to defend our basis against the Taliban, who have no conventional option.

LEIGH SALES: We've heard the senior American military commanders make the exact opposite argument to you, which is that rather than reducing troop numbers they need to increase troop numbers. Why do you think that they hold the exact opposite view to you?

RORY STEWART: Because naturally if you're a general you're going to go for a maximalist solution. You want to have as many resource as possible and troops as possible. The job of politicians or the voting public is to check the military and to say, "We have many other priorities and many other responsibilities around the world. We simply cannot afford to put all our eggs in our basket."

So as you saw in Vietnam took what started as a few thousand troops up to 500,000 eventually. And the military in Iraq, in Afghanistan will push again and again for more resource an troops. We need to push back and say, "Ultimately Afghanistan does not justify this kind of troop presence." We need to look at the world in general, we need to husband our resources for other crises occurring in other countries. We simply cannot put this amount into a country like Afghanistan.

LEIGH SALES: Do your views mean that you think the surge in Afghanistan will fail?

RORY STEWART: I certainly believe that, if they think they can create an enduring stability through the current strategy, it will fail. They will not get an enduring stability. Afghanistan is likely - it's very difficult to predict but it's likely in the future to remain a fragile, poor, traumatised country. And the thing that will turn that around will not be foreign troops, it will be the Afghans themselves.

LEIGH SALES: And what will drive them to eventually do that?

RORY STEWART: This is a question partly of political leadership. It's also a question of will, a question of resources. Essentially Afghans need to have a sense of what kind of country they want to live in. Once that's developed it's perfectly plausible for an Afghan force to emerge which could win the support, the attention of its people and which can stabilise the country. And I think the international community Europe, the United States and the other partners on the ground could certainly play a useful part in training or providing logistical or technical support to Afghans to do those things. But I think foreign troops trying to go on the lead will be seen as an occupying power and that's self-defeating.

LEIGH SALES: Afghanistan will hold elections next month for the presidency and provincial council representatives, how do you see that playing out?

RORY STEWART: I would imagine that what will happen in the elections is that President Karzai, the existing President will be re-elected which will mean that the current political structures in Afghanistan, broadly-speaking, will remain unchanged. The kind of cabinet he will bring in will resemble he had before and the kind of things the international community has been complaining about in Afghanistan will persist.

LEIGH SALES: So more of the same?

RORY STEWART: Yes. Which is why I think, again, the international community needs to be more realistic. This is a country where perhaps 40 per cent of people cannot read or write, where in schools about a quarter of the teachers are illiterate. This is not a country which is going to be able to be transformed overnight into a stable, functioning state in the way that NATO and the other allies on the ground seem to imagine.

LEIGH SALES: If, as you say it's not a particularly or its political and strategic significance is overstated, then why should the West have any stake in improving the lot of Afghanis? Why not just leave the whole thing to them?

RORY STEWART: Because I think we have some responsibilities, not an overwhelming responsibility, not a blank-cheque responsibility. But we have invaded this country. We have disrupted things.

So it seems perfectly reasonable that we should continue over a 20, 30 year period to provide international assistance and aid. But it shouldn't be extravagant but proportional to the sort of assistance we provide to other poor countries around the world. We have aid programs in Nepal. We are trying to work in countries even as difficult as Somalia.

So both from a view of our moral obligations to Afghans we should be doing something but also in terms of self-interest. It's very useful to keep intelligence operatives in a country which has in the past provided some support for international terrorism.

But we need to look at this as a long-term management and containment issue, not as a question of electro-shock therapy pumping in the troops to try to sort everything out.

LEIGH SALES: Tonight, the Japanese Opposition Leader said that he would withdraw from Afghanistan next year and public opinion in other countries has slowly over time turned against the war in Afghanistan. How long do you think governments will be able to resist withdrawal when their populations are increasingly opposed to involvement?

RORY STEWART: I think in cases such as Canada or Germany where, of course, the populations are largely against, the governments are going to respond to that. The interesting case of course is Britain.

In Britain more and more of the population are in favour of the war in Afghanistan. At a time when the Government itself seems to be quite sceptical. So it's almost the opposite problem. In Germany, parliamentarians are going all out to maintain a position in Afghanistan when the public is against them. In Britain, it's the Prime Minister and the Government who are limiting the number of troops and the public and the newspapers are pushing to deploy more.

LEIGH SALES: The British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has said it's time to talk with moderate Taliban leadership, what do you think?

RORY STEWART: This is fine. But it's nothing new. From the very beginning people have understood the importance of trying to talk to the Taliban. We haven't done it very effectively but there were efforts as far back as 2002, 2003. Everybody acknowledges that the only way you can solve this kind of insurgency is to try to negotiate with moderate elements. But the real problem is: Why would they want to negotiate with you? What sort of carrot or stick do you really have to bring them to the table? And how do you draw the distinction between moderate and the extreme elements and what sort of concessions are you prepared to make.

Of course in principle, talking is no problem but what seems unlikely is they're unlikely to come up with any real solution.

LEIGH SALES: So there are no obvious carrots or sticks?

RORY STEWART: No, because the Taliban of course when under pressured can quite easily disperse or cross across the border into Pakistan. What they're really aiming for is to take a stake in the Government and negotiators will be reluctant to give them that because that seems to be exactly what we're fighting against. I can't really see how that kind of negotiation can operate. And, for sure, that kind of negotiation would need to be negotiation led by the Afghan Government. Not by foreigners. It's not something Britain, for example, could do.

LEIGH SALES: I explained some of your background, that very long list of adventures and achievements. Don't you feel guilty just sitting back and letting life pass you by like this?

RORY STEWART: That's what it feels like, for sure.

LEIGH SALES: I only really skimmed over what you've done. Did you set out to live a highly adventurous life?

RORY STEWART: I've been very lucky. But I grew up - I was born in Hong Kong, I grew up in Malaysia and my father was a very active outdoors person. He used to take me into the jungle when I was five or six. I became excited by the idea of being outside in the natural landscape. So I resigned from the foreign service and walked from Turkey to Bangladesh over 21 months, which was probably, I think, the best thing I've done in my life and a lot of the things I've done since then have come from those kinds of experiences.

LEIGH SALES: So what made you decide to take the job at Harvard, which some people might perhaps look at as a little more staid compared to some of the other things in your background?

RORY STEWART: I am not quite sure. I think I probably did it to please my mother.

LEIGH SALES: And is she pleased?

RORY STEWART: She's delighted.

LEIGH SALES: Is it true that Brad Pitt has bought the film rights to your life story thus far?

RORY STEWART: Yes, but I think this is a very uncertain world of film. I am hoping that Danny DeVito is going to play me in the movie.

LEIGH SALES: You might have to do a little bit of eating between now and when they start filming then.

RORY STEWART: Yeah. It's him or Judi Dench. I'm not sure which one.

LEIGH SALES: Judi Dench gets all the good British roles so, I'm sure that's what it will be who it ends up as.

Rory Stewart thank you very much for joining us tonight. A very good pleasure to have you on the program.

RORY STEWART: Thank you very much.


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