Rory Stewart on Afghanistan

Rory Stewart, author of two brilliant texts, The Place in Between and The Prince of the Marshes. Stewart (bio here) a British Foreign Officer spent years in Afghanistan in reconstruction and then deputy Gov. of a Southern Iraq Province.

Stewart has a must-read op-ed in Time. It raises again the specter of Afghanistan becoming Obama’s Iraq (or Vietnam). Here’s hoping someone in their camp reads this.

Stewart (speaking from on the ground experience/knowledge) states that NATO/US should not send more troops to Afghanistan. The Soviet experience, the British experience (19th-20th c.) even all the way back to Alexander the Great. Afghans are fiercely anti-occupation and the NATO force sadly in the last years has gone (like in Iraq) from being seen as a liberator to an occupier.

The country in other words has to come to its own political future and choices. Stewart points towards what can be done by the West.


A smarter strategy would focus on two elements: more effective aid and a more limited military objective.

On the former:

We should focus on meeting the Afghan government’s request for more investment in agricultural irrigation, energy and roads. And we should increase our support to the most effective departments, such as education, health and rural development; they are good for the reputation of the Afghan state and the West. Creating more educated, healthier women and men and better transport, communications and electrical infrastructure may be only part of the story, but they are essential for Afghanistan’s economic future.

On the latter:

Our military strategy, meanwhile, should focus on counterterrorism — not counterinsurgency. Our presence has so far prevented al-Qaeda from establishing training camps in Afghanistan. We must continue to prevent it from doing so. But our troops should not try to hold territory or chase the Taliban around rural areas. We should also use our presence to steer Afghanistan away from civil war and provide some opportunity for the Afghans themselves to create a more humane, well-governed and prosperous country. This policy would require far fewer troops over the next 20 years, and they would probably be predominantly special forces and intelligence operatives.

This would fit with Obama’s overall focus on destroying al-Qaeda and his publicly expressed realism and understanding of having to work with bad/less than ideal actors in less than ideal circumstances. He has also talked (following his mentor on these issues Joe Biden) about increasing aid to Pakistan for civil society predicated on certain other political measures. A similar move could be done in Afghanistan rather than Obama’s (to date) seemingly more open-ended blank check promises to the Afghan government. Though it should be noted that Obmaa criticized President Karzai in his latest speech.

This Stewartian vision pushes directly against Petraeus–assuming Petraeus as Cent Com Commander will push for some modified version of his COIN doctrine in Afghanistan. [That assumption may be prove to be false. Either A)Petraeus only continues to focus on Iraq as his baby or B)He realizes somehow that what worked in Iraq won’t work in Afghanistan].

Update I:  Per this story of Obama’s trip to Kabul and the security deterioration there, there may be a way to split the difference if (and this is undoubtedly a Big If) the increase in troops to Afghanistan is based on a very short term horizon then transiting to the kind of vision Stewart lays out.  Alternatively of course it could just entangle them in further and lead to a longer, bloodier stalemate.


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