Expert: Afghanistan Policy Bound To Fail

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is expected to request even more troops for a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. But a former British diplomat who has advised American officials says NATO's efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are bound to fail. Rory Stewart — who spent three years in Afghanistan — writes a sharp critique of the Obama administration's policy in a recent article in the London Review of Books. Stewart lays out his argument in a conversation with host Guy Raz.

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. This hour, we'll check in with the biggest pop star in Italy and get an update on the mass protest movement in Iran.

But first, to Afghanistan, where in these first two days of August, nine NATO soldiers have been killed, including three Americans ambushed this morning.

July was the deadliest month for NATO forces since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. The casualties are rising as the U.S. military reframes its Afghanistan strategy. The catchphrase is one we've heard before, counterinsurgency. It worked in Iraq, but can it succeed in Afghanistan?

Mr. RORY STEWART (Director, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy; Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): I don't think it's our business to get involved in trying to create a stable, legitimate, effective state in Afghanistan. If we try it, I fear we would fail.

RAZ: That's Rory Stewart, a former British diplomat. He walked across Afghanistan in 2001 and ran a private foundation in the country for three years. He now directs the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard and occasionally advises U.S. officials and military officers. But he's angered some of them with an article in the London Review of Books. The piece argues that a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is a recipe for failure.

Mr. STEWART: It seems as though the Obama administration is saying that they have a very narrow objective, which is to prevent terrorist attacks against the United States but that the means to that objective is very broad, very wide-ranging.

In other words, in order to achieve the counter-terrorist objective, they need to defeat the Taliban. In order to defeat the Taliban, they need to build some kind of stable, legitimate, effective state. And that also entails providing humanitarian development assistance, and it also entails providing regional stability including Pakistan.

So what we see is an argument that takes this very narrow objective, al-Qaida, and ends up aiming at nothing less than the creation of a functioning Afghan state.

RAZ: Rory Stewart, I mean, as you make this argument, and as you know, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, reportedly wants even more troops than the 20,000 the Obama administration has agreed to send.

Mr. STEWART: But the point is that it's not our task to stabilize the country. I don't think it's within the gift of the United States and its allies to stabilize Afghanistan. Afghanistan is an unstable country, in part, because more than half the teachers are only educated one grade above their students, that maybe a third of the population can't read and write, that after 30 years of war, this is such a fragile, traumatized, impoverished place that stability is not something that's going to be delivered to a country like Afghanistan or a country like Chad or a country like Somalia simply through the deployment of 110,000 international troops.

RAZ: If stability isn't necessarily the objective the West should be after, what can be done to, you know…

Mr. STEWART: What can be done is what we've, broadly speaking, been doing over the last seven years. I'm trying to push for a much more light footprint. The United States and its allies would keep a few tens of thousands of troops on the ground, far fewer than we have at the moment, over a longer time period, with the objective of trying to make Afghanistan too uncomfortable for al-Qaida and trying to help the country to develop with the emphasis on help.

RAZ: In your article, you concede that aid agencies, human rights activists, think tanks, liberals, conservatives, all tend to support, or rather not protest over a troop increase in Afghanistan. And you write about how many Afghans also support a troop increase. How do you explain that?

Mr. STEWART: Largely because people, quite rightly, don't like the Taliban. The Taliban are a brutal, violent, regressive movement. People want to have better lives. And they're hoping that the deployment of extra troops will transform the situation in Afghanistan, eliminate the threat of the Taliban and create a centralized, multi-ethnic state based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. And those are good things to want. I'm just afraid that they're wrong in believing they're going to achieve them through troop increases.

RAZ: As you know, the talk in the United States is about a counterinsurgency strategy, one that was applied to Iraq that ought to now be applied to Afghanistan. In your view, from your experience living in Afghanistan, a counterinsurgency campaign won't work.

Mr. STEWART: Afghanistan is a much poorer, much more fragmented country than Iraq. The success of the counterinsurgency in Iraq depended largely on Iraqis, elements in Iraqi society and Iraqi economy and Iraqi politics, which just don't exist in Afghanistan.

RAZ: Your article - or your assessment, it upset many senior military officers, Mr. Stewart, including some I spoke with and some, perhaps, you've spoken with. They have long come to you, seeking your opinion and advice, particularly because you've lived in Afghanistan for many years. How sure are you that the current course being suggested by the U.S. military is wrong?

Mr. STEWART: I'm as confident about this as I can be in any foreign policy prediction. They're attempting to create the security environment through military action, and then they're hoping that the Afghan government, the Afghan army, the Afghan economy is somehow going to grow green shoots and fill the space which the military have created. And that's not going to happen.

RAZ: Rory Stewart is the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His article, "The Irresistible Illusion," can be found in the London Review of Books.

Rory Stewart, thank you so much.

Mr. STEWART: Thank you very much indeed.

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