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‘Traumatized’ Afghanistan Could Take Decades to Fix

October 23, 2009 at 6:10 PM EST
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Margaret Warner speaks with Rory Stewart, who spent two years walking across Afghanistan, about whether President Obama should commit more troops to the war there.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now another in our occasional conversations on Afghanistan.

Last week, Margaret Warner talked with Bruce Riedel, who headed an Obama administration policy review team on Afghanistan and on Pakistan. He favored sending more U.S. troops there.

Today, a different perspective, and again to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: This is what Afghanistan looked like in November 2001, after the U.S. and its Afghan allies swept the Taliban from power.

Six weeks later, author, activist, and former British diplomat Rory Stewart began a walk across Afghanistan, part of a 6,000-mile trek across Asia. He chronicled the Afghan journey in his book “The Places in Between.” He went on to found and run the Turquoise Mountain project, which is regenerating an historic part of Kabul and training craftsmen in traditional skills. Stewart is now director the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. And he recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan.

And, Rory Stewart, thanks for joining us for this.

RORY STEWART, author, “The Places in Between”: Thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: What does President Obama need to keep in mind about Afghanistan, as he wrestles with what to do there?

RORY STEWART: I’m afraid that what he needs to keep in mind is that Afghanistan is a very, very difficult place to turn around or fix.

It’s a very poor, fragile, traumatized country. It could take 20 or 30 years investment in Afghanistan before it began to reach the levels of Pakistan in terms of its civil service, its army, its police, just its basic educational and health structures.

So, whatever we’re doing in Afghanistan, if we really want to achieve change, it’s going to be a very, very long-term process. It’s not something that you’re going to be able to achieve by a short-term injection of troops and money.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what should the U.S. goal be, do you think, based on your experience there?

RORY STEWART: Firstly, it should be trying to protect its own national security, which I think may turn out to be not that difficult.

In other words, if your only objective is to stop al-Qaida from having a serious base in Afghanistan from which to attack the United States, I think that’s achievable with relatively few troops. But you would have to keep a presence there for some time.

The second thing is, you would try to help the Afghan people. We do have an obligation towards the Afghan people. The United States is a benevolent power. It would like to deliver development. But it’s not a blank check obligation. It says, we’re going to do what we can to help with infrastructure, health, education, support the positive elements in society and reduce the negative elements.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said that this shouldn’t be — that the U.S. has an obligation, but it’s not a blank check. Yet, there are Afghans, people in the region who say, the U.S. funded the mujahedeen in the ’80s, helped create this problem. You have a moral obligation to basically stick with Afghanistan until it’s fixed.

RORY STEWART: I think that’s very, very dangerous language. I think, when people start talking about a moral obligation, you have got to stick with it until you have fixed, you have to come back and say, you don’t have a moral obligation to do what you cannot do, that “ought” implies “can.”

Once you start saying you have a moral obligation, failure is not an option, you get tied into very unpleasant co-dependent relationships. We need to detach a little bit and be a bit more realistic about what we can actually achieve in the country, because there’s no point panicking and saying we have an obligation, we have an obligation, if we don’t look clearly at what our resources are, what our power is, what we can do to help.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do you want to venture an opinion on more troops or not more troops?

RORY STEWART: My opinion is, we should certainly not put in more troops, because the danger of putting in more troops is, you just create this very expensive, unpopular presence, unpopular not just with Afghans, but even with people back in the United States.

And that will just increase the pressure for withdrawal, and we will run out the door again in two, three years’ time, leaving Afghanistan much worse off than before. I would much have rather seen us stick at about 20,000, 30,000 troops, which is where we were back in 2004.

Revamping civilian aid

MARGARET WARNER: Now, your Turquoise Mountain project started very, very small. You now employ hundreds of people.

You said the U.S. has done some of this development well, but there have been a lot of criticisms that we don't do it awfully well. Is there something about -- that you have learned from your experience really on the ground that you think should inform the administration's desire now to really revamp the civilian aid side?

RORY STEWART: One of them is, of course, that Afghans are incredibly energetic and entrepreneurial. If you can create the right kind of project, a project that they believe in, they can really put energy into it and transform it.

Our elementary school, for example, in the center of the Old City has really been driven by the Afghan community itself. It wasn't a project that I dreamt up. It was something they wanted. And it's now the most successful part of the project.

The next lesson is that things take much longer than you would expect. I have a friend who has a motto behind his desk in Kabul saying, "Half as much in four times the time," so that, really, if you're working in Afghanistan, you have to recognize that a country that has been through 30 years of war just lacks capacity.

Maybe 60, 70 percent of the people in the area where we're working in the Old City can't read or write. Most of the civil servants we deal with haven't got a high school education.

MARGARET WARNER: And, so, what do Afghans want? What do the Afghans you speak with and know so well want?

RORY STEWART: I certainly cannot speak for Afghans in general. I'm not an Afghan, and I wouldn't want to do that.

But my sense through conversations on the street is that people primarily are concerned with security, by which they don't really mean the Taliban and al-Qaida. They mean criminality. They mean they're fed up with a police force which is predatory and corrupt. They're fed up with the fact they can't travel safely on the main road down to Kandahar.

And they want justice. Again, they're fed up with the corruption in the court system. And the problem with that is that those were two things which the Taliban are perceived as having delivered in '96, '97, security and justice. So, this government really needs to address some of those very traditional concerns of the people.

Tolerance for the Taliban

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in your walk across the country, which I read with great interest, you stayed overnight in these tiny, very traditional, very conservative villages. You stayed with these very conservative elders, who regarded you with some great suspicion.

What is your sense of the nature of the Taliban?

RORY STEWART: My sense is that the Taliban is not always a popular force, by any means. But, in certain cases, they're a local force; they're an indigenous force.

And, from the point of view of a villager, they will see maybe the Afghan police turn up. They're rude. They don't wear uniforms. They may even be abducting people or taking bribes. Maybe they will see the foreign military, Canadian, British, American troops turn up. And, again, they will think they're a slightly alien force, and maybe they will be searching through their belongings.

And then the Taliban will turn up, and they won't like them either, but at least the Taliban talk about Islam. They may be occasionally more polite. Maybe they are themselves Afghans or come from related villages.

So, people don't like the Taliban, but, sometimes, the villagers, if they have got a choice between foreign troops, the police, or the Taliban, they will choose the Taliban.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, what was your sense of people who are deeply religious, who follow a very traditional, very conservative form of Islam, how they regard us, and how open they are to us or the West or any -- or even a system that somehow has been created or modeled more on a Western system?

RORY STEWART: Of course, people who live in remote villages are much more conservative and much more suspicious of foreigners than we like to acknowledge.

Night after night, staying in village houses, people would question me on why I wasn't a Muslim, talk to me about their delights at driving out the British. There's quite a lot of nationalism in villages.

I think Afghans are generous. They're hospitable. They looked after me well. I was able to travel safely from one side of the country to the other, because villagers protected me and fed me. But they don't want to live under a foreign military occupation. And we have to be very, very careful not to present our presence there as a foreign military occupation, because they were accustomed during the 1980s to fighting a jihad, a holy war, against the Soviet Union.

We shouldn't put ourselves in the position that these conservative villagers begin to believe that we're interfering in their culture, in their religion, in their lives. By and large, these people want to be left alone.

I don't believe that Afghans are a significant threat to U.S. or European national security. Most of these people we're fighting couldn't find the United States on a map. They're, broadly speaking, people with quite a narrow, conservative agenda, where they're fighting for their values within their country.

And we need to separate that group of people from the very small minority of al-Qaida terrorists who want to actually attack us here and back in the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Rory Stewart, thank you so much.

RORY STEWART: Thank you.