obama's war
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Interview: Rory Stewart

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Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Stewart served in the British army and foreign services and lived in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2009. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 21, 2009.

“Nation building could only be done by an Afghan Thomas Jefferson. It's a job for a founding father.”

What has the Obama administration proposed for Afghanistan?

The Obama administration has proposed a very, very narrow objective, which is counterterrorism, and a very maximalist, broad definition of how to achieve it, which extends to counterinsurgency and the defeat of the Taliban, and basically the fixing of the entire Afghan state. And the whole problem with this strategy is its very narrow aim is connected to this hugely ambitious means.

You're skeptical? ...

The means to that end is proposing a strategy that is impossible. We're not going to win a counterinsurgency campaign. We're not going to defeat the Taliban. We're not going to be able to fix the Afghan state. That's not to say those things are impossible. Those things might happen very slowly under Afghan management. But we, the United States and our allies, are not in a position to do those things.

A maximalist approach you called it?

Yes, a maximalist approach, because their vision of counterinsurgency encompasses everything: rule of law, governance, development, state building. In fact, when you read their manuals, it almost looks like a World Bank policy document. It proposes a vision so broad that it can encompass Swedish humanitarians and American Special Forces officers.

It has a moral language that can appeal to the mass media. It's so abstract and vague that it's very, very difficult to pin down what's wrong with it. And all of this provides an irresistible illusion. It's a hypnotizing vision. It's very easy to get people onboard with and very, very difficult to say: "Well, wait a second. How exactly are you going to do this? What kind of resources do you think you need? How much time is this going to take? And how does any of this contribute to our two key objectives, which are protecting the United States and helping Afghans?"

Nation building is what we're talking about. Can you give me a sense of the scale of the project?

I think what we're talking about is actually state building, not nation building, which is to say that it's very blind to politics, to religion, to history, to culture, to context -- the kinds of things from which nation [building] is composed.

Nation building could only be done by an Afghan Thomas Jefferson. It's a job for a founding father. It's an indigenous project. State building, in the view of the Pentagon, is a very technical, technocratic process where there are certain things just listed off: civil service; legitimate monopoly on the use of violence; good financial administration; the rule of law; a pragmatically regulated free market. It sometimes seems to be a little bit like the recipe for building a garden shed or baking a cake. It's a management consultancy tool for fixing a state.

It's a very big cake.

It's a very big cake. It's a cake with 30 million people in it. It's a country the size of Texas. There are maybe 20,000 villages. ... It's one of the poorest countries in the world. There's very little that you have to work with there.

In Bosnia, in Kosovo, you have a highly educated population on the edge of Europe. Even in Iraq you have a relatively educated population with a huge resource base, parties, strong government. None of that is present in Afghanistan. You are basically working with raw materials which are very unhelpful in terms of that kind of vision.

What was your impression of the president's speech in March?

My impression was that it isn't really a major change from where we've been for the last few years. It's a restatement of a conception that's become increasingly fashionable over the last four or five years, that somehow we need to address the underlying root causes of conflict. We need a one-time solution that's going to ensure that never again can Afghanistan become unstable. Never again could it be in a position to host Al Qaeda.

And I listen to this, and I just think it's a vision that seems unrealistic. You could put 20, 30 years' investment in Afghanistan, and if you were lucky and skillful you could give it the kind of state structures of Pakistan. ... But that, of course, would not really fulfill your U.S. national security objectives. It wouldn't achieve the kind of stability of which you dreamt. ...

So there's a general sense in which the argument is driven from statements like "Failure is not an option," "We have no alternative," "The only thing we can do is a counterinsurgency strategy."

That can't be right. I think it must be possible to posit a different view of the world which says there are useful, constructive things the United States can do in the world to protect itself, to help other people, which don't involve totally fixing somebody else's state; which don't involve the deployment of more than 100,000 troops; which don't involve half bankrupting ourselves.

True, Afghanistan is one of 40 troublesome countries in the world. So the challenge for the Obama administration, the challenge for Americans in the next 20 years, is how to define something which is manageable, footprints in these countries which are affordable, legitimate, realistic, and which would allow us to operate in Chad and Yemen and Somalia, rather than putting all our eggs in the Afghan basket and imagining that somehow if we just deploy enough resources we're going to be able to turn this whole thing around once and for all.

What drives it, people would argue, is that Afghanistan is the source of Al Qaeda. It's the source of the hurt that started this whole process. There is an imperative to get Afghanistan right. Is that misguided? ...

Let's not get so carried away by this. I mean, in effect, Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. Insofar as we have a counterterrorist objective in Afghanistan, we're doing pretty well. We've been pretty good at keeping him out of that country without a grand counterinsurgency strategy, without anything like the kind of numbers that Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal, [head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan], is now requesting.

And you can see that the argument is beginning to shift now. They're beginning to acknowledge that counterinsurgency warfare doesn't have a great deal to do with a narrow counterterrorist objective. The military would acknowledge that if their only job is to keep Osama bin Laden out of Afghanistan, they could do that relatively easily with Special Forces operations and better intelligence.

Counterinsurgency is now being used as an excuse for stabilizing Pakistan, reinforcing the United States' credibility around the world. It feels to me as if you bought an electric toothbrush planning to brush your teeth with it, and the battery somehow failed. It turned out it didn't function like that, and you've now decided that you're going to have to use it for a totally different thing. You're going to use it as a hammer to bang in nails. So counterinsurgency was invented in order to deal with counterterrorism. ...

Counterinsurgency has acquired a momentum of its own. How did we reach this point where counterinsurgency becomes this lens through which we're viewing all these problems?

Counterinsurgency is the most fashionable thing at the moment because the U.S. military believes that's what allowed them to turn around the situation in Iraq. Afghanistan, however much people claim otherwise, is really about Iraq. It's really about the fact that people said it couldn't be done in Iraq and it was done.

And a lot of the U.S. military think if we manage to pull it off there, we can pull it off again. ... What they forget is that what made it work in Iraq is all about Iraq. It's all about Iraqi politics; it's all about Iraqi government; it's all about Iraqi landscape. You try to move the same thing over to Afghanistan, where you don't have that kind of government, you don't have that kind of landscape, you don't have that kind of politics, it's not going to succeed.

Let's talk specifically about a couple things you hear over and over again from counterinsurgency advocates. One is that the first step you have to achieve as a counterinsurgent is separate the population from the insurgents, ... which in this case is tricky, because that division is not so clear. ...

If you go into an Afghan village and you try to separate the population from the insurgents and connect that population to the Afghan government, you firstly have to convince the population that the Afghan government, the government in Kabul itself, is legitimate and effective, and it's going to last, and it's going to look after them.

So that's the first problem, because as the elections have revealed, there's many ways in which that Kabul government is not perceived by the population as fully legitimate in effect.

Secondly, you need to convince that population that the government is on the winning side; that they and their helpers, which in this case is the U.S. military and its allies, have the staying power. ... That's going to be very difficult to achieve in Afghanistan, because Afghanistan is not a colonial situation where the United States is the government where they're proposing to remain indefinitely. ...

The Taliban understandably believes they can outwait us. And of course, to some extent they can. There's a real limit to how long we're going to have the political will domestically to put out for this kind of operation.

Next, you need to actually generate something in that society. You've got all this "clear, hold, build" strategy. It's the build bit that's so difficult.

People who have been working in development in Afghanistan for 30 years just say to you again and again everything takes four times as long as you'd imagine, and you achieve half as much as you'd hoped. This is a country where most people don't have anything approaching a high school education, where about one-third of the population can't read or write, where the government so entirely lacks capacity to even do things like clear garbage in the center of Kabul, the idea that you would be able to in any realistic time frame get some subdistrict in Afghanistan generating the kind of self-sustaining economic or governance energy ... [is], I think, delusion.

And then there's the issue of corruption.

All these things are different ways of putting the same problem. They're all different ways of saying, broadly speaking, this is a poor, fragile, traumatized country after 30 years of war which has elements in it which are suspicious of a foreign military presence. ...

This notion of shadow government, how does it work? How does it manifest?

One of the reasons why when people talk about shadow government they're very unclear is, we actually [don't] know a great deal about the Taliban. It's astonishing how difficult it is for people to provide an account of what might happen if we were to reduce troops. ...

When you talk to people in Kunduz [province], ... people will say: "Oh, the Taliban [are] threatening. They turn up with 'night letters,' [menacing notes posted under cover of darkness]. They intimidate people." You talk to people in Wardak [province], which is just on the edge of Kabul, ... and they say: "In our experience the Taliban are young men, mostly from our community, who turn up on their bikes and who run little courts, and they will resolve land disputes for free and quickly, and they'll make sure that if someone has stolen a cow, that cow is returned. And they provide a service that the government doesn't provide."

But they're not really a shadow government. These people are very, very starved of resources. Their revenue-raising capacity is extremely limited. Their actual intellectual capacity is very limited. I mean, when they were the government in Kabul, they were running it with a box under a bed from which they were handing out bits of cash.

It's not really a fight between a Taliban government and a Kabul government. I think it comes down to villages which for 30 years have largely run themselves and whose concerns have nothing to do with a Kabul government or the Taliban or even the U.S. forces. [They] have to do with the kind of things that villages think about, primarily, at the moment, security, by which they don't mean necessarily Taliban bombs. They mean kidnapping, robbing on the roads, looting, these kinds of things -- things which actually [have] to do with civilian security and policing more than terrorism and insurgency.

And [then there's] a village chief or head of a household who's sitting there trying to negotiate his way through a visit from the Taliban, a visit from the U.S. military, a visit from the police, and trying to work out how on earth to keep back all these external factors, most of which are perceived as generally unhelpful or intrusive.

So maybe it's a misnomer, "shadow government." It overstates the effect of the Taliban presence?

... One of the problems of the counterinsurgency strategy, it just assumes that history repeats itself exactly. Somewhere at the bottom of this is some idea that we withdrew our support in 1989; therefore there was a civil war in 1992; therefore the Taliban took over in 1995; therefore Sept. 11 happened in 2001.

And somewhere at the bottom of it, even if it's dressed up in fancy language, is some kind of idea that if we were to withdraw our support again today, there would again be a civil war, and the Taliban would again take over, and they would again invite back Al Qaeda, who would again attack the United States. ...

But the Taliban today are not the Taliban of '94, '95. They don't have the Pakistan army behind them in the same way. They don't have the same appeal to the public. They don't have tanks. They don't have artillery. They don't have the wherewithal to take a city. ...

What are we doing in Helmand province?

[Here is a] snapshot of Helmand. ... In the beginning of 2005, there were about 200 [foreign] soldiers. ... U.S. Special Forces [were] sitting in a base in the Lashkar Gah. Broadly speaking, internationals could move around that province. ...

The objective then had nothing to do with the Taliban. It was just about the fact the economy wasn't functioning and there wasn't enough security, and the governor seemed to be in league with the drug lords. The troop deployments initially were all about dealing with those things, trying to improve the government for Afghan people.

But what then happened is we found ourselves facing an insurgency. It's a matter of debate whether deploying those troops caused that insurgency, provoked that insurgency, or whether it was just a coincidence.

The bottom line is we've gone from 200 troops in 2005 to nearly 20,000 today, and there has been no improvement in governance; there's been no improvement in economic development; there's no improvement in security. The people of Helmand are worse off in 2009 than they were in 2005. And in addition to no improvement in those governance factors, we're now facing a Taliban insurgency.

Four thousand Marines recently went [into southern Helmand province]. Their orders are to establish bases, reconnect with the population, begin the clear, hold and build cycle. ... Aren't we asking a great deal of the soldiers on the ground at this point?

I think you're asking the impossible. You potentially might be able to clear and hold an urban area like Baghdad, but you can't clear and hold ... a country the size of Texas with 20,000 villages. It's inconceivable. ...

Secondly, even if you were able to clear and hold through some miracle, you were given the troops to do it, you can't build, because the ingredients are missing within Afghan society to ... give the dividends to the population, which are going to convince them to stay with us. ...

And then the question is, how long are [we] going to stay? When is this going to be sustainable? When are these people going to be able to look after themselves? And the answer is probably it's going to take much, much longer than any of the military planners are currently suggesting, which, unfortunately, causes a real problem for that population. ... Unless something fundamentally changes in the structure of Afghanistan society, its economy and its governance, all you're doing is you're holding a lid on things, and as soon as you take it off, ... the whole thing explodes again.

That seems a very fundamental problem: How do we know when we're done?

Right.

Has the administration articulated that?

No. ... The reality is, to deal with a country like Afghanistan, you need to be involved for 30 or 40 years. It's a very patient, tolerant, long-term relationship with the international community, and it needs to be a relationship which is perceived by the American voter as affordable, as realistic, as legitimate. ...

The danger of the current strategy is, to take a psychiatric metaphor, it's not a long process of therapy and counseling. It's electroshock therapy where you go and pump in resources for two years and run out the door. And that simply cannot work in a society which has the kind of structures, the underlying historical, social, economic structures, of a society like Afghanistan.

One thing we saw over and over again is young sergeants on the ground: They're shooting in the morning, and they're development experts in the afternoon. ...

I used to be a soldier, and I served in Iraq before I was in Afghanistan, so I have enormous respect for the efforts the military is making. It's an incredibly professional, energetic outfit. But they're trying to do things which they're simply not recruited to do and they're not trained to do.

[It] doesn't matter how much we talk about counterinsurgency. To do development in Afghanistan well requires a level of exposure to the language, the culture and just time. And the best development workers I know in Afghanistan have been working there for 10, 15, 20 years with individual communities. ...

And in fact, even worse, often the actual skill set that you're looking for isn't even the skill set of a soldier, a diplomat or a development worker. It's something more like the skill set of a 1920s Chicago ward politician. And soldiers are really not very comfortable doing that kind of political work. You see them come to you again and again and say: "I'm not going to deal with this guy. He's completely corrupt. He's totally discredited. I've just got information that he's a bandit and he's smuggling across the borders."

Necessarily, they have quite a robust honor code, relatively clear moral view of the world. They find it very difficult to get involved in the micro-trade-offs and compromises which are involved in trying to deal with an imperfect world and patch together deals with local leaders.

And when they're trying, they may be successful within their one-year tour, but ... the next unit will come in, and they'll say: "Everything that our predecessors were doing was mistaken. They were dealing with people who are corrupt. Why are they working with this police chief or the deputy police chief?" Everything will be reversed. ...

And so you have a narrative produced. ... You seem to be going back to the beginning. And overall you just have to turn around and say: "Listen, wait a second. ... Have we actually fundamentally improved the condition of these people from where they were when we had 200 troops on the ground as opposed to 20,000?" ...

The current debate is very focused on this issue of troop levels. Is that a relevant question?

I think troop levels are relevant in terms of sustainability. I'm in a very difficult situation here, because I do not believe we should abandon Afghanistan, and yet as soon as I oppose increases, people say, "Oh, you're for withdrawal," and it seems to be very black and white. ...

The reason why troop levels matter is that the American people, in the end, are not going to put up with the kind of casualties, the kind of resources, over the long term. If we had kept things at 20,000 troops, which is where we were in 2004, it's perfectly plausible that we could have continued and maintained a 30-, 40-year, patient, tolerant, long-term relationship with the Afghan people, [where] we could have supported the positive and diminished the negative. ...

When you start ramping up on the basis of slightly unconvincing rationales, then you're going to get to a position where I think eventually Congress and the Senate are going to say: "Forget it. This doesn't make any sense. Why on earth [have] we got all these people on the ground?" ... You get to a situation where you don't have any start for having any presence there at all because you've ballooned it up to this unstable, vast edifice.

So one thing I would be saying on troop levels in the military is, why are you asking for 40,000? Where does this number come from? People are testifying in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee saying that they reckon they need 600,000 troops on the ground, of which it seems more than 200,000 are supposed to be American.

So why are we only asking for 40,000? What do they think they can achieve with 40,000? Why are they asking for insufficient resources? Or is it simply that that's all they think they can get away with, and they're going to come back to us with a request in a few months' time for a few more and a few more and a few more? ...

And then there's Pakistan.

Pakistan is, in this debate on counterinsurgency, a dangerous and misleading addition to the debate. ... Pakistan is now becoming an excuse for our activities in Afghanistan. Another way of putting it would be this: Because we're beginning to doubt whether what we're in doing in Afghanistan really makes much sense, any attempt to try to link it to the much bigger and clearer national security problems posed by Pakistan is a way of judgment [of] our activities in Afghanistan. It's a kind of cover story for what we're doing in Afghanistan. ...

It's as though we've gone into a room and we've got an angry cat called Afghanistan, we've got a big tiger called Pakistan, and we're beating the cat, and somebody says, "Why are you beating the cat?," and you say, "Oh, it's a cat-tiger strategy; it's an Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy." But really you're beating the cat because you've got no idea what to do about the tiger. ...

Yes, of course there are connections. ... [But if] Pakistan becomes fragile and unstable, that is largely driven by factors within Pakistan -- the relationship between the Pakistan army, the government and society. Afghanistan's contribution to that, while there, is going to be minor. ...

One of the reasons we're in Helmand province is the narcotics issue. Narcotics is a classic example of the problem with our strategy at the moment. It is possible to do things about people growing opium, but it's a very long-term, tricky, complex process.

Broadly speaking, the way to get farmers out of growing poppy is to develop alternative livelihoods in the context of proper rule of law and policing. ... But in order to really make that work in southern Helmand, where the ground is good for growing poppy, you also need a police force that provides the stick along with the carrot of the alternative livelihood. Some progress [has been] made on this slowly, but it's a process over 10, 20, 30 years. ...

A lot of the short-term stuff is simply driven by things we can't control. The commodity price of wheat, for example, this year meant that the amount of land devoted the to poppy fell, and we might claim that as a success. And next year the amount of crops under cultivation will go up again, and we'll say, "Well, it's all a catastrophe." So it's a classic example of a situation in which a much bigger economic problem, which would have to be addressed very slowly and very exactly in different areas, is being headlined as something that we can somehow crack with more resources within a sort of two-to-five-year window.

It has been presented rhetorically as, if was don't fix the narcotics problem, we can't defeat the insurgency.

Right.

It's that lingo?

There's a lovely set of logical connections going here, right? If we can't fix the narcotics program, we can't defeat the insurgency. If we can't defeat the insurgency, we're not going to be able to defeat Al Qaeda. Terrorism flourishes where there's poverty; terrorism flourishes where there's the Taliban; terrorism flourishes where there's a failed state. You can't have development without security; you can't have security without development. You can't fix Afghanistan without fixing Pakistan; you can't fix Pakistan without fixing Kashmir.

This amazing worldview of all these strange logical connections and intersections come together in which you end up in some situation where, unless you do everything, you can't do anything at all. And this is really dangerous, because this is going to drive us from engagement to isolation, from troop increases to withdrawal. It's this kind of totalitarian, black-and-white view of the world which basically means we try to do everything and we end up doing nothing.

I think that says something very [specific] about the American collective psyche. I'm not sure what it is.

I think one of the things that it says about the United States, which is a very good aspect of the United States, is a can-do attitude. I mean, our president's motto is not "No, we can't." But unfortunately, in Afghanistan, there are many things we can't do, not because we haven't got enough resources or time to it, but just because this is a very fragile discussion.

To pursue the kind of interpersonal metaphor perhaps further than it would go, there are certain things you can't do for another human being, however much money or energy or time or theory you put in, because they're independent; they're autonomous; they have their own experiences and worldviews. You can aid the more positive; you can diminish the negative. But Afghanistan is not our puppet. I don't mean that in a rude sense. I just mean that in the end, there are 30 million people there with their own imaginations, their own projects, their own visions, and a lot of those collide with ours.

They're going to disagree with us on freedom of religion, clearly. Clearly the majority of men in Afghanistan disagree with us on the issue of women. Clearly many people and some in Afghanistan disagree with us in our view of the Karzai government. Clearly most of the farmers in Helmand disagree with us on the subject of drugs.

Now, if you have a policy that says, "We need to fix all these things," that this project only works if we create a gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic centralized state [with] human rights and rule of law, where the Taliban are defeated, the narcotics eliminated, and the state is constructed, then we're setting ourselves up for failure.

But the United States doesn't need to say that. The United States plays an honorable and constructive role all over the world in developing countries without these kinds of grand counterinsurgency theories. Traditionally, diplomats, soldiers, development workers have operated in poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa and have made real contributions ... that don't say, "Our entire national security is about this; everything is invested in [it]." The president started to do this -- you know, their development is linked to our security." ... It's an amazing confusion, certainly, and a dangerous one.

One thing I would ask about is, on some level, if we're going to build anything in Afghanistan, doesn't that require something to change on the border in Pakistan? Is that sanctuary always going to be re-infecting?

... I'm very doubtful whether you can't do anything in Afghanistan unless you sort [out] the sanctuary in Pakistan. I think there are probably many ways in which you could contain or manage the problem posed by those unstable areas of Pakistan [and] both Afghanistan and Pakistan itself.

It may be a situation in which you find a way of living with an unstable tribal fringe while the economy develops and the state develops in the more stable areas, the central and the north. This is true all over Africa. It's true even in India. ... So we just have to, I'm afraid, be a little bit more optimistic here and say we can probably fix something without fixing everything. ...

Is this Obama's war?

I hope not. I hope he's not pinning the credibility of his administration on a ground notion of success in Afghanistan. I hope he's not saying that he's going to be able to build a legitimate, effective, credible state or that he's going to be able to defeat the Taliban once and for all, because if he is, he's setting himself up for failure.

I hope we have a moment there where we can get the administration to review and redefine a more moderate policy, a policy that achieves three things: protects U.S. national security, which is actually not as difficult as it seems. It's not that difficult to prevent Al Qaeda from significantly increasing its ability to harm the United States from Afghanistan. Secondly, to help the Afghans. And thirdly, find troop levels and presence in a plan which the American people can put up with, which they see as affordable, realistic and legitimate. If he can do those three things, I think he's showing us a very mature and enlightened foreign policy which could be a model for what we do around the world for the next 20 years. ...

Are you advising the administration in any formal way?

I am very, very happy to talk to them, but no, I'm not a formal adviser to the administration in any way. People do get in touch, and I chat.

When you talk to them, what do you stress? ...

I tend to emphasize the national security point. I tend to say: "Listen, you probably can do more with less. ... Think about the fact that a lighter footprint is more sustainable politically." I said: "Don't pin the credibility of the administration to this kind of grand ambition and idealism. Otherwise, it's going to come back and bite you in the midterm elections."

So I'm trying, in influencing the policy debate, to find arguments that can appeal to them. But secretly, my real motivation in all of this is to try to make sure that Afghanistan is in a better place in 30 years than it is today. And sadly, I do not believe launching an unaffordable, unrealistic and, ultimately I think, unachievable counterinsurgency dream is going to leave either the United States or Afghans better off.

posted october 13, 2009

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