September 25, 2009

LYNN SHERR: Welcome to the Journal. I'm Lynn Sherr, sitting in for Bill Moyers, who's away this week.

Afghanistan was supposed to be the war that made sense, if any war can be said to make sense. That's where the masterminds behind 9/11 were hiding. End of story.

Eight years later, and we're still there, at a cost exceeding 220 billion dollars. More than 1400 have been killed among American troops and our NATO allies. This week, a classified report from by the American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal was leaked to the press, a report that called for as many as 40,000 additional U.S. troops, without which, the General wrote, our effort, "...will likely result in failure." If approved by President Obama, our military force there would escalate to more than 100,000.

The President's in a fix. He can accede to the General's wish, despite fading support from Congress and the American public, gambling on success or wading deeper into a Vietnam-like quagmire. Or he can cut back, as he is being urged by Vice President Joe Biden and others. They believe we should stop trying to nation-build and restore the mission's original intent: protect America from terrorism by concentrating firepower on al-Qaeda.

For all its beauty, Afghanistan is a difficult, mountainous land of corrupt warlords, complex alliances and ancient tribal hatreds. It has defied occupation by outside forces since the time of Alexander the Great, and it is, in the words of my guest, "a graveyard of predictions," where nothing is as it seems or goes as planned.

Rory Stewart may know Afghanistan better than any other westerner. A professor and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, Stewart is a former British soldier and foreign service officer. His expertise on the region has gained him the ear of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke, and the U.S. Senate, where last week he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Back in 2002, shortly after the start of the war in Afghanistan, Stewart traveled the entire country by foot, a death-defying, 6000-mile trek chronicled in his book "The Places in Between."

Rory Stewart, welcome to the Journal.

RORY STEWART: Thank you very much.

LYNN SHERR: Let me start by asking — what in heavens name made you decide to walk across Afghanistan, at a time when there was a war on?

RORY STEWART: I didn't-- I really believe that in order to talk about a country you need to spend time in villages, because this is a country where 80-90 percent of the population live in villages, and if you spend your time in an embassy compound or dealing with other diplomats or dealing with fancy cabinet ministers, you simply miss the tenor of it. So the privilege for me was that, on that walk — and I also walked across Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal — I stayed in 500 different village houses. Night after night, I sat on people's floor, I heard them talk about their families, about religion, about the government. By the end of it, I had a little bit more confidence in my work, so if I'm asked, "Are we going to be able to beat the Taliban and build a state?," having spent some time in those village houses gives me a little bit more confidence in saying, "These people may not completely be with the program in the way that you expect."

LYNN SHERR: You write very eloquently about the country. And yet you're a realist. You don't romanticize it. Give me, give us a sense of what it was like from the foot-walker point of view.

RORY STEWART: Well, one thing is that Afghans were incredibly generous and kind to me. I walked alone from one end of the country to the other at a time when there was no government. So, the first lesson I took away from that is how good these communities are in surviving in the absence of the government. It wasn't only they took me into their houses, but they looked after my security, they accompanied me from village to village, often at great personal risk to themselves. So, that's the upside. On the other side, of course, I noticed sitting night after night in these village houses that people are quite conservative. They're quite suspicious of foreigners. They don't know a great deal about the outside world. I mean, one of the things that's a little misleading about people who say, "If we don't fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, we're going to have to fight them in the streets of the United States" is that most of these people we're dealing with can barely read or write. They live very limited lives where, in the winter, they're basically holed-up in their houses. They're often three hours walk from the nearest village. The idea that they're somehow going to turn up on the streets of the United States with a train of goats behind them in order to conduct war here is a bit misleading. They couldn't find the United States on a map.

LYNN SHERR: You talked before, about our goals in Afghanistan. The President has a big decision to make — more troops, not more troops. Lay it out for us, is that what he's facing?

RORY STEWART: I think the President has defined a very, very narrow objective. He's said that we're there to do counter-terrorism. That's what he's been saying since January. But then he said in order to get there, we need this huge project, which amounts really to building a state, that's all dressed up in this language of counterinsurgency, fighting the Taliban. So we end up in this paradox, where we have this very small objective, which is to protect the United States against terrorist attack, but on the President's order, in order to get there, we need to defeat the Taliban, we need to bring development, we need to create legitimate, effective governmental structures.

LYNN SHERR: And that means, according to the leaked report, either more troops or not more troops.

RORY STEWART: Absolutely. So, the military, which is leading the fight against the Taliban, says that if you really want to build this kind of state, if you really want to defeat the Taliban, we're going to need many more troops. General McChrystal's asked for another 40,000, but when I was testifying on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, a Colonel sitting next to me said they needed 600,000 total. Which is both Afghan and U.S. troops, but would-- would be a huge footprint on the ground.

LYNN SHERR: You're saying that what General McChrystal is said to have asked for this is 40,000 — you're saying, in fact, that's not going to be the final request?

RORY STEWART: No, my imagination is that the American military will continue to ask for more and more. Because if they're saying 600,000 total is what they want, and let's say that's about 400,000 Afghan police and Army, that'll be about 200,000 international forces. So I'd like to go back to the military and say, "Why are you only asking for 40,000, if your doctrine actually requires far more than that?" And the answer probably is that's as much as they think they can get away with, which isn't really the kind of answer we want to hear.

LYNN SHERR: If you were a betting fellow, how would you bet President Obama is going to respond to this request?

RORY STEWART: I'd say President Obama has no choice. If he's not going to send the troops, he should have stopped the General from sending in the report. He's now completely boxed in.

LYNN SHERR: But he's indicating that there's not only a lot of wiggle room, but that he's actually reconsidering.

RORY STEWART: I think it would be a political catastrophe for the President to refuse to accede to a request from the man on the ground. Broadly speaking, this is a civilian President. He's said that he believes in defeating the Taliban. He believes in building a legitimate effective state. There's a highly respected General on the ground — who's backed up by Admiral Mullen, who's backed by General Petraeus — saying we need 40,000 more troops. It would be almost inconceivable, at this stage, for the President to refuse that request.

LYNN SHERR: So, this is an image problem, in part, for the President.

RORY STEWART: It's an image problem. It's also the way he's framed the problem. He said that he wants to build a legitimate effective state and defeat the Taliban. He's asked the experts what their view are. The experts have come back and said, "If you want to do that, give me 40,000 more troops."

LYNN SHERR: Whoa, whoa, but he's also said, certainly recently, "Maybe we need to reassess. We need to figure out exactly what we do want to." Isn't he giving himself a chance to maybe change the objective?

RORY STEWART: No. I don't honestly believe he is. And furthermore, I'm a little bit surprised that he's going around saying that he's skeptical — if he's actually skeptical and not sure about the strategy -- maybe it's inappropriate for me to talk about this kind of stuff — but he shouldn't have allowed the general to produce the report in the first place. He could have easily said to General McChrystal two or three months ago, Listen, to be honest, I'm not sure about this state-building, defeating the Taliban stuff. So, just hold a second. That isn't really the strategy anymore. I don't want a report on that. I don't want to know how many troops you need for that. I want to focus on a much narrower counter-terrorism strategy. But it's too late now. He's defined it. The general has provided his advice. And I would be extremely surprised if the President doesn't come out in favor.

LYNN SHERR: President Obama has made it clear that he wants two things to happen in Afghanistan, right? He wants us to rout the Taliban and build a safe country for the Afghanis. And, by the way, not have a place for Al Qaeda to operate from, correct?


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."

LYNN SHERR: How many troops do you believe are needed in Afghanistan right now?

RORY STEWART: Not that many. I would have thought what you needed from point of view of Al Qaeda counterterrorism is probably 10-20,000 special forces and intelligence operatives. Doing pretty much what they've been doing quite successfully over the last seven, eight years. People are saying we've failed in the counterterrorism objective, of course, we haven't really. Osama Bin Laden isn't in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda hasn't got bases in Afghanistan. And I think we could continue to ensure that was the case.

LYNN SHERR: With 10 or 20,000 troops on the ground, can we, can the United States, can the allies, A) keep the Taliban out? and B) keep Al Qaeda out?

RORY STEWART: We need to distinguish between Taliban and Al Qaeda. The answer is, of course, if we reduce the troop numbers, the Taliban presence, particularly in the areas where they have a lot of support would grow. And that is a risk. And that's a problem. And it's a very sad thing. Because the Taliban are a horrendous group. I mean, this is the problem that we're dealing with here. They have been vicious, their treatment of women is appalling. Many Afghans are horrified by them and don't want that, and anything that we can do to try to support more positive elements in Afghan society, we should do. But we cannot try to write a blank check. If we go for sort of all-or-nothing approach, I think we're going to end up abandoning the country in five years time, being less kind than we would the other way. So, distinguish Taliban from Al Qaeda. The Taliban, broadly speaking, are Afghans — farmers, subsistence farmers. As I say, most of those people can't find the United States on the map. Al Qaeda, traditionally, are much more educated, middle-class people, often from Egypt, from Saudi Arabia, North Africa. People who have masters degrees, who've lived in Hamburg, who learned to fly airplanes. We can't confuse those two. There's no point us getting into a fight with six million Afghans when our real target is probably a few hundred terrorists who have the capacity to harm the United States. Our real issue is not who wants to harm the United States — our real issue is who can. And how do we prevent those people who actually have that ability to do that.

LYNN SHERR: And with 10 or 20,000 troops, do you believe that the allies can get rid of Al Qaeda?

RORY STEWART: I'm not a military expert, but I would like to ask the military that question. I'd like to go to them and say, "Listen, you're not going to be able to have 600,000 troops. You're not going to be able to stay for 40 years. So, let's just turn this around. Let's say you've only got 10,000, you've only got 20,000, but we can maintain it for 20 or 30 years. What would you be able to do?" And my guess is, they'd come back and say, "Okay, with that, we can probably make sure that Osama Bin Laden never again sets up a major training camp in Afghanistan.

LYNN SHERR: Let me read to you something that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quoted as saying the other day: "…if you want another terrorist attack in the U.S., abandon Afghanistan."

RORY STEWART: I would say that Secretary Rice is exaggerating the situation. Pakistan is much more of a threat than Afghanistan to U.S. national security. Al Qaeda is in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. Pakistan, of course, has a nuclear weapon. Pakistan's a much larger country. It could destabilize India. Afghanistan is, of course, a poor, fragile state. Like Somalia, like Yemen, like many other countries in the world. Of course, we should be doing things to try to stabilize it. But that is — and I want to disagree respectfully with her — not the place where the next attack is most likely to come from.

LYNN SHERR: Let's talk about the politics of this a little bit. You've met with Secretary Clinton?


LYNN SHERR: You've met with Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke?


LYNN SHERR: What do you tell them?

RORY STEWART: 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.

LYNN SHERR: How is your advice taken?

RORY STEWART: I think what I see at the moment is that people are polite, because they imagine maybe I have some experience with Afghanistan. But I'm one of a broad community of people — we have nine people working in my center at Harvard who've worked there for 20 or 30 years and the problem we all have is that if the Administration has for some reason already decided that they're going to increase troops, they're going to do a counterinsurgency campaign, it's very difficult for them to take on board people coming back and saying, "Look, actually, I don't think this is going to work. It's a great idea. I can see why you want to do it. But by trying to do the impossible, you may end up doing nothing. I'd like to present an alternative strategy, which is lighter, more intelligent, and may end up actually achieving something."

LYNN SHERR: And again, their reaction? They listen politely, you say?

RORY STEWART: 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.

LYNN SHERR: Does the West, do the NATO allies, do they simply not understand Afghanistan?

RORY STEWART: I think they understand the country, but they have a much more basic problem, which is that they believe failure is not an option. There's no alternative. And once you get into that mindset, everything follows from that.

LYNN SHERR: You also suggest that if you add more troops, that will create a backlash that will somehow ultimately cause us to abandon Afghanistan. How does that syllogism work?

RORY STEWART: That basically works because American voters, American taxpayers are not going to put up with this. You can already see public support going against this. You can see Congress and Senate increasingly skeptical. I think it's very irresponsible — if you care about Afghanistan — to increase troops much more. Because I can see us going from engagement to isolation, from troop increases to total withdrawal. The path the President has started us on, I would predict, would mean that in five, six years time, everybody will simply get fed up with Afghanistan and abandon it entirely. And--

LYNN SHERR: And, in fact, we're seeing that in the polls right now. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll-- 51 percent of adults say the war is not worth fighting.

RORY STEWART: Right. This is the very worse thing for a country like Afghanistan. This was the "Charlie Wilson War" effect — we go in there, we give it a billion dollars this year; we give it zero the next year. It's sort of boom to bust. What we actually should have done is capped our troop levels at quite a modest number — twenty, thirty-thousand — which is what we had in 2004, 2005, and tried to stay with the long, difficult game of protecting the United States and helping Afghans.

LYNN SHERR: Do you think that our leaders are just too far removed from the people to understand?

RORY STEWART: I definitely believe — I obviously teach at the moment in a school where a lot of young people are trying to go into these kinds of jobs — and I do believe that it is so important to spend a year or two living in a rural community, because the experience of that totally changes your view of what's possible. And that relates also to my work in Afghanistan over the last three and a half years, where I've been trying to run a nonprofit. Where the lessons day by day, both on what can be done, but almost as importantly, what cannot be done, are rammed home in minute by minute, in trying to do quite simple tasks.

LYNN SHERR: Your nonprofit has a truly wonderful name-- Turquoise Mountain. Describe what you're trying to do there.

RORY STEWART: So, we've gone in, we're restoring the center of the old city of Kabul. We're trying to provide incomes to Afghan women and men. We train people in woodwork, calligraphy, ceramics, jewelry. There are great gemstones in Afghanistan. We also work to simply restore that part of the city. We bring in water supply, sewerage. We have an elementary school. We have a clinic. We've restored about 65 buildings, got about 500 employees. It's probably the most satisfying thing I've done in my life.

LYNN SHERR: And how does it fit into the larger picture of what we are trying to do in Afghanistan?

RORY STEWART: Well, I think, firstly it teaches me that it's all about Afghan leadership. The best bits of our project work because the Afghans have asked for it. They came to me and they said, "We'd like an elementary school." And I said, "That's not in my strategic plan. I don't want to do an elementary school." And they said, "Well, you better build an elementary school." And it's turned out to be the best bit about it. 165 children turned up within about an hour, and it just makes me very happy seeing it.

On the other hand, it's also taught me the kind of scale of challenges you're facing. We arrived and the garbage, the trash was seven feet deep in the streets -- people were climbing over their courtyard walls, because they couldn't get through their doors. We had to clear 17,000 trucks of garbage. And this is only two years ago, 200 meters from the Presidential Palace in the center of Kabul. So, just to get a sense of what very -- there's no sewage system in the capital city, which has got nearly four million people. When you take that on board — the idea that you're somehow going to be able, overnight, to create legitimate, effective, stable state structures, and the writ of the government will run into every ruined village, and that the Taliban will be defeated once and for all, and we're just going to be able to go home in three years time, mission accomplished — is missing the point. This is like talking to somebody, maybe, I don't want to push this analogy too far, but somebody who works in another poor country, like working in sub-Saharan Africa or working in Nepal — it's a long, painful process where even delivering water supply turns out to take a lot of ingenuity and two years of negotiation.

LYNN SHERR: From all of your travels in Afghanistan, particularly the work with your charity, what do you think the Afghan people would like us to do?

RORY STEWART: I believe the Afghan people are divided. This is a very atomized country. There are certainly some people in the Taliban areas in the south and the east who are fighting with the Taliban, and who are very skeptical about foreign presence and perceive us as an occupation. In the center and the north of the country, there are many people who see the United States as their saviors, who see us as their best defense against the Taliban. There are many Afghan women, of course, who are very, very grateful for the opportunities they now have, and they're looking on us to protect them against, particularly, extremists and those who they think would suppress those rights.

But most of all, Afghans I think day to day are not actually obsessed with the Taliban. What they're obsessed with is normal security. By which they mean crime, looting, kidnapping, gangsterism. Most of my colleagues in Afghanistan would be scared to get in a car to go down to Kandahar, not because of the Taliban, but because of the criminal gangs. They're horrified by their police, which is perceived as very predatory, very corrupt. They're very skeptical about their government. They're impatient with how slowly the aid development has come. There's a lot of inflation. They find it difficult to pay their rent. So--

LYNN SHERR: -- they're just trying to get by, is what you're saying?

RORY STEWART: Right. And just to turn it around, I mean, one way of putting it, I don't know whether this is helpful-- but if you're an Afghan villager, you sit in your village, maybe in Southern Afghanistan, and one day the Taliban turn up. And you probably don't like them very much, because they're young, fanatical men, banging on about religion. But you might give them a cup of tea, they go away. Next day, maybe some Canadian soldiers turn up. Maybe they search your house. That makes you a little bit uncomfortable, but you give them a cup of tea, they go away. The next day, the Afghan police turn up. They may not be wearing uniforms, they're waving guns around, they may be rude to your daughter. You give them a cup of tea, they go away. Basically, you want these people, by and large, to go away. Most Afghan villagers are finding themselves trapped in a very, very unpleasant battle between forces that they barely understand. And the Afghan government needs to take the initiative. The Afghan government needs to convince these people that they have a long term future in working with the government in Kabul. It's not something that foreign troops can do.

LYNN SHERR: Rory, you're on your way to Afghanistan this week. Will you be trying to change anybody's mind, when you go over there?

RORY STEWART: I try all the time. And I think maybe one way of looking at it is to say, "Look, maybe I can't change your mind today. But let's at least sketch out an alternative strategy." What I would say is, a strategy which is more modest, a strategy which tries to think very, very clearly about what we're going to achieve over the long term and how to resource it. Unless you understand what a frankly low base that country's starting from — a country where 60 percent of civil servants don't have a high school education, where maybe 40 percent of the population can't read and write, where maybe a quarter of teachers are illiterate. Unless you get that, you don't get why you can't build that amazing thing that you're trying to build. And people keep coming back and saying, "Oh, all you're saying is we need to be realistic in our expectations." And my response is, "Yeah, but you don't quite get how realistic I mean. I don't just mean drop it from Jeffersonian democracy to vaguely stable state. I mean, even that vaguely stable state is a pretty distant dream. That you can't--

LYNN SHERR: You're saying these people need water– they need the simplest things before they can even think about the larger issue?

RORY STEWART: Right. Absolutely. And that you can invest 20-30 years in Afghanistan. And if you were lucky, you would make it look a bit like Pakistan. I mean, unless you understand that Pakistan is 20-30 years ahead of Afghanistan, you don't understand where we're starting from. And Pakistan is still not an ideal state. But the Pakistan army, the police, the civil service, the financial administration, the education are whole decades ahead of the Afghan. So, our whole model is broken from the beginning. Because you could put all this investment in, you would make Afghanistan look a bit more like Pakistan, but that wouldn't achieve whatever your national security objectives seem to be.

LYNN SHERR: So, to sum up, President Obama has his big decision, and your advice is?

RORY STEWART: My advice to President Obama is, you're going to have to increase troops now. It's too late for you, because you're going to be destroyed politically if you oppose your general on the ground on something like this. But let's think now six months, a year down the line. We're going to have to decrease again. We can't keep these numbers indefinitely. Cap it. Don't go up any further. That's it. If the military come back in six months and say, "By the way, we'd like another 50,000, another 60,000." No. Say, "This is all you're going to get. And furthermore, this is all you're going to get, and the numbers are going to decrease." Force the military to work out what they're going to do with less. This isn't an ideological point. It's just a fact. They're going to have less in two years, three years, five years than they have today. So, let's try to frame the policy that works out what we can do to protect the United States and help the Afghan people with fewer troops. And hopefully, that'll mean we can have a long-term sustainable relationship, instead of this boom and bust, in and out, that I fear is coming.

LYNN SHERR: Rory Stewart, thank you very much for your insights into Afghanistan.

RORY STEWART: Thank you very much.