Rory Stewart of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard has been an interesting person to watch on the Afghanistan policy debate. A former British soldier, Stewart walked 6,000 miles across Afghanistan in 2002, and has spent far more time with Afghan people than many who are engaged in the debate about where to go from here.
In an interview with Lynn Sherr on Bill Moyers Journal last week, Stewart made a clear case for why the US needs to adjust its goals in Afghanistan:
LYNN SHERR: What’s wrong with those goals?
RORY STEWART: So, the problem is that these are all quite different objectives. In and of themselves, they’re fine. But they’re not connected, necessarily, in the way the President thinks. There’s a huge theory that everything that we want to do is somehow connected. The stability of Pakistan. The security of the United States. Beating the Taliban. Beating Al Qaeda. Bringing development to the Afghan people. But we end up in a bit of a muddle, because we tend to be pursuing five objectives at once, assuming that they all amount to the same thing. The real problem is that some of these things just may not be possible. They may be possible over the long term for Afghans themselves to build a stable state. But it’s probably a project of decades. It needs indigenous leadership, a sort of Afghan Thomas Jefferson, to rebuild its state. It’s not something that foreigners can come in and do from outside. The United States, its allies, are quite good at certain kinds of things — building roads, providing some training to the military, helping to build hospitals and schools. But building a state is a project for a founding father. The same with fighting the Taliban. Again, they have quite a lot of support from villages in the south of Afghanistan. And the Kabul government, as we saw in the last election, just doesn’t have much credibility or support. It’s perceived as having won in a corrupt fashion, and it’s going to be very difficult for the United States to try to put itself between the Kabul government and the Taliban.
LYNN SHERR: So, you’re saying that the goals are simply wrong–
RORY STEWART: I’m saying that the goals are absolutely mistaken in terms of U.S. national security, and probably in the end in terms of the interests of the Afghan people.
LYNN SHERR: They’re wrong because we can’t accomplish them? Or because it’s not what we should be trying to do?
RORY STEWART: We can’t accomplish them. And in trying to do so, we’re often making the situation worse. Afghanistan is very poor, very fragile, very traumatized. To rebuild a country like that would take 30 or 40 years of patient, tolerant investment, and probably that’s what we should be aiming for. But in order to do that, we need to have a presence there which is affordable, which is quite small, which is realistic, and which the American people will endorse. People aren’t going to put up with over 100,000 troops on the ground and this level of casualties forever. So, probably better for us, better for the Afghans, would be to step back and say, “Hey, we’re not going to try to do all this stuff. We’ve got two very limited objectives — we’d like to make sure that Al Qaeda doesn’t significantly increase its ability to harm the United States, and we’d like to do something for the Afghan people. And we recognize that doing those two things is a very long term process, and so, we probably need fewer troops, not more.”
…Again, my message is: focus on what we can do. We don’t have a moral obligation to do what we can’t. People can get very fixed by saying, “But surely you’re not saying we ought to do nothing? Surely you’re not saying we ought to allow the Taliban to do this or that?” And I just keep saying “ought” implies “can”– you don’t have a moral obligation to do what you can’t do. [emphasis mine]
Stewart has been appearing in congressional hearings and consulting with advisers in the administration. While I am glad to hear that his voice is getting out, his description of interacting with White House advisers is both amusing and disconcerting:
They listen politely, but in the end, of course, basically the policy decision is made. What they would like is little advice on some small bit. I mean, the analogy that one of my colleagues used recently is this: it’s as though they come to you and they say, “We’re planning to drive our car off a cliff. Do we wear a seatbelt or not?” And we say, “Don’t drive your car off the cliff.” And they say, “No, no, no. That decision’s already made. The question is should we wear our seatbelts?” And you say, “Why by all means wear a seatbelt.” And they say, “Okay, we consulted with policy expert, Rory Stewart,” et cetera.
With President Obama reportedly considering shifting away from the current strategy and denying a request for additional troops, it would be good for him to listen to experts like Stewart. At some point, we are going to have to come face to face with the reality that there are some things the US cannot do in Afghanistan. Let’s keep the pressure on so it can be sooner rather than later.