Rory Stewart on Obama’s approach to the war in Afghanistan

Rory Stewart interviewed on Bill Moyers Journal

LYNN SHERR: You’ve met with Secretary Clinton?

RORY STEWART: Sure.

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

RORY STEWART: Sure.

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. [continued…]

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1 thought on “Rory Stewart on Obama’s approach to the war in Afghanistan

  1. Ian Clark

    I have lived in the Middle East for ten years and have always been interested in what used to be “The Great Game” where and when Great Britain relied on political agents to influence the tribes of the Arabian peninsular, Iran, and Afghanistan.

    Being a world power, the British fought three wars against the Afghans in an attempt to control Russian access to a warm-water port and to India, the jewel in the crown…lost every one of them and in one case…only three people survived the retreat to Khyber.

    Now we are repeating that experience and that of the Russians, albeit with a technologically superior army, but at what cost…see:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/Afghanistan/article6865359.ece#

    One good thing happening is the determination that Pakistan now seems to be showing in South Waziristan after their appeasement at Swat, but it’s far from over and, I consider, Afghanistan will be the key issue for success, or failure, of the Obama administration — see Ahmed Rasheed’s comments:

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23113

    The issue is how to make this omelet without breaking too many eggs. How to reduce dependence on poppy farming; how much to intervene with the Taliban; how to bring other local powers, including Iran, into the decision process; how to enable the people to develop their own way inclusive of women’s and minority rights; how to rein in Saudi Wahabbism; whether to encourage oil and gas transit from Iran to India and Central Asia to the Gulf; how to accomodate the Durand line tribes and affiliations; how to deal with the corruption and innefectiveness of the Kabul administration…

    It’s a big mess.

    We need people who know the culture and who speak the language on the ground — the old British India administration model seems adequate. Our subsidies to Pakistan might be better spent in encouraging development and alternative agriculture in Afghanistan.

    Good luck, Mr President!

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