For much of the last decade, Rory Stewart has provided one of the wisest voices on Afghanistan. A theme he pounds away at relentlessly is the necessity to differentiate between what is desirable and what is possible.
Stewart, now a newly minted member of Britain’s parliament, writes in Der Spiegel:
The only way in which we could move beyond the counter-insurgency theory, or the hundred other theories which buttress and justify the Afghan war, is by rejecting their most basic underlying premises and objectives. Instead of trying to produce an alternative theory (on how to defeat the Taliban, create an effective, legitimate and stable Afghan state, stabilize Pakistan and ensure that al-Qaida could never again threaten the United States) we need to understand that however desirable such things might be, they are not things that we — as foreigners — can do.
We can do other things for Afghanistan but the West — in particular its armies, development agencies and diplomats — are not as powerful, knowledgeable or popular as we pretend. Our officials cannot hope to predict and control the intricate allegiances and loyalties of Afghan communities or the Afghan approach to government. But to acknowledge these limits and their implications would require not so much an anthropology of Afghanistan, but an anthropology of ourselves.
The cures for our predicament do not lie in increasingly detailed adjustments to our current strategy. The solution is to remind ourselves that politics cannot be reduced to a general scientific theory, that we must recognize the will of other peoples and acknowledge our own limits. Most importantly, we must remind our leaders that they always have a choice.
As simple as this message is, it is one that is virtually impossible for American leaders to hear, and even among those who grasp its truth it remains hard to bluntly acknowledge the fact.
The limits of American power are like the borders of Israel — reaching into terrain impossible to control yet just as difficult to relinquish.
And the struggle to adjust to reality is for Americans just as hard as it is for Israelis, since it depends on a resource severely depleted in both nations: humility.