Warning: This post is much longer than usual due to outakes from the article. I won't make a habit of it.
“The Irresistible Illusion”, by Rory Stewart Afghanistan in the most recent London Review of Books, is a must read article about our erroneous policies in Afghanistan. His ‘what is do’ is basically what not to do, which is basically almost everything that the US is doing.
(Stewart is well known in many circles and has written extensively in newspapers and other sources on Afghanistan. He is the author of the best-selling Places in Between about his travels on foot across Afghanistan and Prince of the Marshes about his time as a commander of the British forces in Basra. He is the Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard and founder of the Turquoise Mountain, a project that helps to rebuild and revive bazaars and assisting merchants in Kabul.)
Using his extensive knowledge of Afghan history, culture, politics, economy and general policy and military strategy (counterinsurgency and reconstruction) he formulates a realistic approach to Afghanistan, rather than the inflated, ambiguous inapplicable plan of the Obama administration. (Sorry Obama, you know I love you.) I am in agreement with his perspective. The vision of Afghanistan as put forth by the US, Britain and other organizations in the international community might make us feel good inside – safe and warm due to all the talk of democracy and governance and a strong state and killing extremists and the Taliban and AQ – and serve to quell conservatives and neocons ready to attack at any perceived weakness to ‘terror’, but it is neither attainable nor sustainable, especially when it is the vision only of foreign forces.
Stewart starts with 2 eloquent and unbelievably on point paragraphs about the ambiguity and inapplicability of the US policy, and language surrounding the policy, in Afghanistan. It’s so stinkin’ good, I had to re-print it here:
“When we are not presented with a dystopian vision, we are encouraged to be implausibly optimistic. There can be only one winner: democracy and a strong Afghan state,’ Gordon Brown predicted in his most recent speech on the subject. Obama and Brown rely on a hypnotising policy language which can – and perhaps will – be applied as easily to Somalia or Yemen as Afghanistan. It misleads us in several respects simultaneously: minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals. BEST LINE: All these attitudes are aspects of a single worldview and create an almost irresistible illusion.
It conjures nightmares of ‘failed states’ and ‘global extremism’, offers the remedies of ‘state-building’ and ‘counter-insurgency’, and promises a final dream of ‘legitimate, accountable governance’. The path is broad enough to include Scandinavian humanitarians and American special forces; general enough to be applied to Botswana as easily as to Afghanistan; sinuous and sophisticated enough to draw in policymakers; suggestive enough of crude moral imperatives to attract the Daily Mail; and almost too abstract to be defined or refuted. It papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy. It conceals the conflicts between our interests: between giving aid to Afghans and killing terrorists. It assumes that Afghanistan is predictable. It is a language that exploits tautologies and negations to suggest inexorable solutions. It makes our policy seem a moral obligation, makes failure unacceptable, and alternatives inconceivable. It does this so well that a more moderate, minimalist approach becomes almost impossible to articulate. Afghanistan, however, is the graveyard of predictions. None of the experts in 1988 predicted that the Russian-backed President Najibullah would survive for two and a half years after the Soviet withdrawal. And no one predicted at the beginning of 1994 that the famous commanders of the jihad, Hekmatyar and Masud, then fighting a civil war in the centre of Kabul, could be swept aside by an unknown group of madrassah students called the Taliban. Or that the Taliban would, in a few months, conquer 90 per cent of the country, eliminate much corruption, restore security on the roads and host al-Qaida."
Stewart refutes the viability of the US vision in Afghanistan: a strong, centralized state. “It is impossible for Britain and its allies to build an Afghan state. They have no clear picture of this promised ‘state’, and such a thing could come only from an Afghan national movement, not as a gift from foreigners. Is a centralised state, in any case, an appropriate model for a mountainous country, with strong traditions of local self-government and autonomy, significant ethnic differences, but strong shared moral values? And even were stronger central institutions to emerge, would they assist Western national security objectives?” Moreover, the existence of a state, or state-building strategy, is not an effective counter terrorism approach. The planning and execution of terrorist attacks, Stewart reminds us, have s occurred all over the world, in up and running nations, like the US and Britain and Germany.
The means to reach this goal are ‘state-building’, promoting systems (more like ideas…) of ‘rule of law’ and ‘governance’. First of all, these ideas, in practice, currently mean one thing to us and another thing to Afghans. Moreover, whatever they mean to both parties, they are not realistic goals, especially with the resources at our disposal. Stewart asks: “What is this thing ‘governance’, which Afghans (or we) need to build, and which can also be transparent, stable, regulated, competent, representative, coercive?”
Counterinsurgency (COIN), like state-building, is not a solution. It guarantees nothing, Stewart argues: "…there are no self-evident connections between the key objectives of counter-terrorism, development, democracy/ state-building and counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for state-building. You could create a stable legitimate state without winning a counter-insurgency campaign (India, which is far more stable and legitimate than Afghanistan, is still fighting several long counter-insurgency campaigns from Assam to Kashmir). You could win a counter-insurgency campaign without creating a stable state (if such a state also required the rule of law and a legitimate domestic economy).”
As for what is in store for Afghanistan, Stewart first points to a somewhat likely, yet less appealing, reality: that Afghanistan ends up like one of the neighborhood Stans, or Iran. He then details why no one will win in Afghanistan: Neither the Taliban nor the US. He gives convincing, historical evidence. For example, that the Taliban would no longer have the Pakistani government to support them, for example. Populations that hated them before are wealthier and more powerful. As for the US, there are no coherent tribes for the US to work with, no political parties, for starters. We don’t have enough troops to have the proper proportion to Afghan population.
So, what, should we do????
Well for starters, it’s what I call “Cut the Crap.” We’ve got to get rid of our current policy that “…rests on misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state.” Our lofty language that makes us feel good, “does not help us to declare the limits to our power and capacity; to concede that we can do less than we pretend or that our enemies can do less than we pretend; to confess how little we know about a country like Afghanistan or how little we can predict about its future; or to acknowledge that we might be unwelcome or that our presence might be perceived as illegitimate or that it might make things worse.” Specifically no more mindless dribble about state-building because “we don’t know exactly what that means.”
After cutting the crap, goals must be narrowed. The US and Britain must create a realistic, applicable, appropriate, relevant historically, culturally, politically, accurate policy. Stewart makes this a two part policy. First, about 20,000 foreign troops should be left in Afghanistan to root out extremists and gather intelligence. They should be accompanied by small scale practical development projects.
He ends with an excellent analogy to the British predicament in Afghanistan in the late 19th Century. They realized what their fate would be if they stayed in Afghanistan, if they set their goals too high, or set any goals at all, and decided to leave. Even Sir John Lawrence, imperialist leader and viceroy of India, knew that Afghanistan was not just ‘not worth the wait’, but that the wait would never end.
Stewart concedes that “such arguments seem strained, unrealistic, counter-intuitive and unappealing. They appear to betray the hopes of Afghans who trusted us and to allow the Taliban to abuse district towns. No politician wants to be perceived to have underestimated, or failed to address, a terrorist threat; or to write off the ‘blood and treasure’ that we have sunk into Afghanistan; or to admit defeat. Americans are particularly unwilling to believe that problems are insoluble; Obama’s motto is not ‘no we can’t’; soldiers are not trained to admit defeat or to say a mission is impossible. And to suggest that what worked in Iraq won’t work in Afghanistan (or that what worked in postwar West Germany or 1950s South Korea won’t work in Afghanistan) requires a detailed knowledge of each country’s past, a bold analysis of the causes of development and a rigorous exposition of the differences, for which few have patience.”
If Obama was to wear the same thinking cap he wears when he makes other decisions, he would agree with Rory Stewart. He is someone who makes decisions thoughtfully, with patience, consulting experts – academic, policy, political – examining the nuances of situations. What is inhibiting him from wearing his proper thinking cap is the fact that he does not want to seem weak on national security, in short, politics as usual. If he is seen as ‘abandoning Afghanistan’ the place ‘where 9/11 was planned’, instantly he is a weak, whimpy Democrat. Obama must rise above these politics as usual and invite Andrew Bacevich (see my post on his most recent articles just below) and Rory Stewart to dinner at the White House. Oh, and me, he should invite me too.