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The Afghanistan Series - Rory Stewart

Posted: 8/02/2012 18:50

This is the first post of The Afghanistan Series that will, over the coming months, introduce readers to important and largely non-mainstream literature regarding Western intervention in Afghanistan. The aim of The Afghanistan Series is not to articulate my personal views, but rather be as unbiased as possible in order to aid the facilitation of more informed discussion on this often misunderstood campaign.

The individual to be featured first in this series is former diplomat, traveller, writer and current Conservative MP, Rory Stewart. The majority of Stewart's arguments that will be outlined over the course of this post, feature in his essay entitled The Plane to Kabul that is one of two essays of which the 2011-released book, Can Intervention Work, is comprised. Having previously served as a Deputy Governor in post-invasion Iraq, traveled 6000 miles on foot through among other countries, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan and mixed with some of the West's most influential policy makers during his years spent in Kabul and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, few are as well placed as Rory Stewart to assess our campaign in Afghanistan.

One of Stewart's primary criticisms of the West's strategy in Afghanistan was the shift from a light to a heavy footprint, by taking the fight to the Taliban in the South and East of the country in 2006. Indeed, Stewart points to the fact that Helmand was less safe in 2011 with 32 000 ISAF troops backed up by 30 000 personnel from the Afghan National Security Force than it was in 2005, when there were only 200 Americans. When I questioned Stewart about the causality of this correlation at an event last year, he answered that it was partly due to ISAF forces being seen as occupiers rather than a force for good, which, rather ironically, resulted in the Taliban's ranks being filled with some of the Pashtun locals that ISAF was there to assist. As one British army officer friend of Stewart stated prior to the surge; 'there isn't an insurgency, but you can have one if you want'. For Stewart, what was particularly dismaying was that year after year, the Western civilian leadership, despite an ever-worsening situation, did not challenge the ISAF commanders with their 'incurable military optimism' and wrongly held belief that with a new strategy and greater resources, they would provide the 'decisive year'. The decisive year continually failed to materialise.

Although Stewart's fervent opposition to an expanded military presence had little traction in Washington's corridors of power, he was however, supported by a significant number of Afghan experts. One such expert is former Deputy EU Representative to Afghanistan, Michael Semple, who speaks both Dari and Pashto fluently and was described as having 'unrivalled understanding' of tribal areas by Britain's distinguished former Ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, in his excellent book Cables From Kabul. Such experience and understanding contrasted quite starkly with the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and equally the US State Department and the UN. In 2008, according to Stewart, the FCO only had three individuals who could speak Dari and none who could speak Pashto, the language of the southern provinces. Moreover, whilst soldiers patrolled the most troubled provinces, civilian officials sat in their air-conditioned compounds in Kabul, sandbagged away from the reality of Afghan life because of an insurance culture that inhibited civilian organisations from doing anything else. Such deficiencies ultimately became a central cause of what Stewart described as 'the humiliating mess in Afghanistan'.

In Stewart's eyes, the depth of isolation caused by the inability of civilian personnel to spend time in troubled regions, inevitably led to a gap between the perceived and actual suitability of new policy initiatives in rural villages. Indeed, in his essay, Stewart described a conversation he had with an educated Afghan on a plane to Kabul who aptly explained how Western terms such as 'comprehensible', 'democracy' and 'market economy' had no direct Afghan translation and thus no connection to Afghan reality. For this Afghan, with a textile engineering background, the Western effort in Afghanistan was akin to 'cutting the suit to fit the cloth'. A case in point was the hundreds of millions of dollars the West spent on establishing an Afghan legal system: Despite the time and money expended training lawyers and building courtrooms, Stewart revealed that 85% of the Afghan population thought the type of informal justice system embodied by a young Taliban commander sitting under a tree was fairer and more efficient than the western constructed alternative.

Towards the end of The Plane to Kabul, Stewart employed a particularly effective, albeit superficially bizarre metaphor for intervention; mountain rescue. When are you are trapped on a mountain, he argued, you do not want a rescuer with a doctorate in mountain rescue, you want someone who knows the terrain, the weather, the context and above all, he emphasised, knows when to turn back instead of pressing on blindly into the unknown without truly understanding the powerful effects of guilt, fear and overconfidence on the mission. Indeed, Stewart blames much of what has gone wrong in Afghanistan on the West's belief that failure is not an option for, in his words, 'it makes failure invisible, inconceivable and inevitable'. In Stewart's opinion, what we needed before we plunged head first into Helmand, was leadership based on a deep understanding of the country and its people, not an overtly scientific counterinsurgency doctrine that said you needed one trained counter-insurgent for every x number of the population.

I would like to end this post by quoting from The Plane to Kabul, the great General Sir Frederick Roberts of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, who in 1880 came to the conclusion that, 'it may not be very flattering to our amour-propre, but I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us'.