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Rory Stewart: The 'Impossible' Afghan Mission

This article is more than 10 years old.
Rory Stewart
Rory Stewart

In today's first hour, Rory Stewart, the former British diplomat and soldier who now heads Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, gave a strong critique of current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Perhaps best known for his book "The Places in Between," about his 2002 trek across Afghanistan, Stewart is a member of a committee advising Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Stewart argued that U.S. goals are simply unattainable in Afghanistan, but that this is not a view the administration is willing to consider. Stewart said Holbrooke had “been kind enough to listen to me.” But as he told our host, Tom Ashbrook, "My sense is that this is not really a question that people can really debate.  I mean, my sense is they’ve made their commitment. This is what they’re going to do. And they’re not very interested in people telling them that it’s impossible." Stewart went on:

I’m concerned that in fact, in the United States and even in Europe, there isn’t a clear enough sense of what we can’t do. I think probably some people in the administration may, if I was honest, sense that we’re not making as much progress as we imagined, and we probably are not going to achieve the things we are talking about. But that for very domestic political reasons they are not prepared to admit. It may be, for example, that there are even people in President Obama’s administration who are sounding tough on Afghanistan because they want to defend their national security reputation, having supported the withdrawal from Iraq. That doesn't necessarily mean that in their heart of hearts...they really believe they are going to be able to transform what is a very, very tricky, poor country.

The mission of U.S. and coalition forces, Stewart said, should not be focused on building a strong central government in Afghanistan:

We need a much lighter footprint, and it would be a footprint that would be targeted on containing and managing any threat, preventing terrorist training camps from being reestablished, looking at it in very narrow counterterrorist terms. And the second thing we should do be doing – we should be doing because we have a moral responsibility, I believe, to do this – is to try to help the Afghan people through development, through investments in education and health and infrastructure. What we musn’t believe is that none of these things are possible without creating a state. That’s the danger.

Asked whether Pakistan and Afghanistan should be treated as one problem, as the administration asserts, he dismissed the notion with a colorful analogy:

It’s like you’re going into a room with an angry cat and a big tiger. And the angry cat is Afghanistan and the big tiger is Pakistan. Pakistan has nuclear bombs. Pakistan has Bin Laden. Pakistan can destabilize India. And you’re in that room and you’re whacking the cat. And somebody says to you, ‘Why are you whacking the cat?’ And you say, “Oh, it’s a cat-tiger strategy – it’s an Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.’ Really the reason we’re whacking the cat is we don’t know what to do about the tiger.

Stewart aired his critique last month in a forceful essay for the London Review of Books titled "The Irresistible Illusion," and his views are gaining currency in Washington policy circles, according to Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent.

Along these lines, in a piece headlined “The U.S. Mission in Afghanistan Creeps Back to Nation Building,” Time magazine looks at the evolution of American policy in recent months. And the blog Democracy Arsenal, which features a group of foreign policy experts, is critiquing the expanded U.S. role in the region.

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