My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention
By Rory Stewart
The views expressed are his own.
I returned to Afghanistan (after spending a short time at Harvard) in 2005. And when I heard that the British government was about to send three thousand soldiers into Helmand, I was confident that there would soon be a widespread insurgency. I also predicted that the military would demand more troops, and would get dragged ever deeper.
It wasn’t that I had any particular skill in predicting the future. I failed to predict that Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak would fall. I was wrong about Iraq. And my prediction for Helmand wasn’t based on any knowledge of Helmand. It was simply that I recognized the mindset and the actions of the NATO governments from Iraq. And I wasn’t alone in warning against the deployment. Many others predicted the same thing in Helmand. A military friend of mine had returned from a reconnaissance trip saying, “There isn’t an insurgency, but you can have one if you want one.” The Helmand surge continued regardless. The British government seemed to have a momentum, quite distinct from any individual politician or policy-maker. Troops were increased from two hundred U.S. Special Forces in 2005 to three thousand British soldiers in 2006.
At the time, senior officials reassured me that they understood the danger of being dragged in too deep. Two offered to sign a document saying that if the three thousand troops didn’t “establish governance, economic development, and security” within six months, they would admit the policy was a mistake, rather than claim that the problem had simply been strategy and resources. But I did not force them to sign. And when six months passed and the situation had worsened, the same officials supported the call to increase the number of troops to five thousand, and a few months later to seven thousand. I began writing and speaking publicly against the policy. I argued that what was needed was not a surge but a reduction to a light long-term footprint.
This put me in a difficult position because the policy-makers were my friends and I lived in Kabul, where I had just started an NGO, restoring part of the historic city and establishing an institute for traditional crafts. My personal life and work indebted me to many of the people whose policies and governments I was criticizing. I found myself writing op-eds against generals who had been my hosts; giving academic lectures mocking the books and theories written by friends; and publicly debating an ambassador whom I admired. I was calling on the governments that were giving money to my NGO to send less money to Afghanistan. I was arguing against fighting the Taliban while many of the philanthropists who supported my work did so out of hatred of the Taliban. Many of my upper-class Afghan friends who had returned from the West to Kabul and were relying on the international community to build a state were particularly confused and hurt by my arguments. In retrospect and in the circumstances, I am astonished how forgiving they all were. Only one ambassador gently asked whether I could stop criticizing his country, in return for the millions his nation’s taxpayers were giving to our NGO. But when I wouldn’t make the commitment, the money still came.
Most of the internationals I knew in Kabul disagreed with me strongly. They said that I didn’t know what I was talking about. And in many ways they were right. I was certainly not an expert on Afghanistan. Academics such as Tom Barfield and Barnett Rubin are truly scholars of Afghanistan. Afghan statesman such as Ashraf Ghani and the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad have a much more detailed sense and understanding of Afghan history and politics. Journalists such as Ahmed Rashid have a much better sense of the language, the recent past, and the regional context. People who have run projects on the ground, from Andrew Wilder and Antony Fitzherbert to Michael Semple and Martine van Biljert, have a much more detailed sense of the reality of international assistance in Afghanistan. Generals and ambassadors and development directors know far more about military tactics, practical diplomacy, and development theory. There are, most importantly, thirty million Afghans who intuitively understand far more about Afghanistan than any foreigner. And, as the British pointed out gleefully, I had traveled only in the north and center of Afghanistan—I had been to Helmand only once.
Nevertheless, I was confident that I was right. I tried to explain that this was not based on any special insights about Afghanistan, but instead on a sense of ourselves: the international community. I felt I had learned in the Balkans and particularly in Iraq that we—the foreign government organizations and their partners—know much less and can do much less than we pretend. I knew the international community underestimated the reality of Afghan rural life: they did not grasp just how poor, fragile, and traumatized Afghanistan was; just how conservative and resistant to foreigners, villages could be. Our institutions were too inherently optimistic, too ad hoc, too isolated from the concerns and realities of Afghan life, too caught up in metaphysical abstractions of “governance” and “the rule of law” ever to succeed—or to notice that we were not succeeding.
But I don’t think I ever convinced a single international in Kabul that “counterinsurgency” or “state-building” was doomed to failure. I began, from my base in Kabul, to travel to the bewildering international policy conferences to try to make the same arguments, but I had no more success. In 2007, for example, I spoke in Tartu, Estonia, at a government conference on Afghanistan. There were German generals, Italian diplomats, and representatives from European think tanks. The three Afghans present were almost the only native English speakers in the room, having been brought up in California and Virginia. The participants were reminded that there was “no military solution”; lectured on the need for a “comprehensive approach,” including economic development and good government; and taught the intricacies of Pashtun tribal structures. I argued for my belief that there should not be troop increases but a “light long-term footprint.” The conference concluded that more resources and a new strategy were needed.
Not only did I have no impact, but I also ceased to understand why such conferences were held in the first place. The Estonians did not, it seemed, see Afghanistan as vital to their future. They were there primarily to deepen their relationship with NATO and particularly the United States. So why were the Estonians or I or any of the representatives of America’s allies, such as Germany, France, and Italy, producing PowerPoint presentations on Helmand government structures, papers on police training, and principles for tackling Pakistan? If we drew different conclusions from the United States, would we really be willing to present them, or able to implement them? The European Afghan debate seemed almost a ceremonial activity preserved to divert the public and to please visiting Americans—preserved for the same reasons that the Horse Guards still salute with their swords outside Buckingham Palace.
In 2008, I stopped working for the NGO and began to spend more time outside Europe trying to argue against troop increases. This gave me a glimpse of the frenetic activity and movement that comprised the natural living environment of people like Richard Holbrooke. I just found, doing my tax return, that I took a flight every two days, moving between Afghanistan, Europe, and the States, and participated in 104 separate meetings, lectures, and interviews146 on Afghanistan in a single month. I got jet lag and I got nowhere. By 2008, the number of troops in Helmand had risen in three years from two hundred to three thousand to nine thousand.
At the end of 2008, I moved back to the United States to teach and to run a center at the Harvard Kennedy School. This was, I felt, the best chance I would ever get of convincing the inter- national community to stop increasing the number of troops and adopt a “plan B.” I expected the debate to be more open in the United States because America carried so much more of the responsibility and costs of the operation. It certainly seemed more alive. The new administration was conducting a “fundamental review” of the Afghan strategy. Very senior figures were beginning to express doubts about the troop increases. Even the most committed U.S. general told me that creating an effective, popular Afghan government alternative to the Taliban was “challenging.” Holbrooke assured me that he had learned in Vietnam about generals who always assume that they need only to have more troops, new tactics, and more time. President Obama was acutely aware of the parallels between his position in Afghanistan and that of Bush in Iraq.
And my real advantage was that I was not alone. The center I was in at Harvard included six fellows who between them had spent over a century in the region, and who were, therefore, unlike me, real experts on Afghanistan. They covered every subject, from agriculture to tribes and counterinsurgency; they spoke Afghan languages fluently and were continually deep in the field. They were now also arguing, with their own hectic travel schedules, and through every conceivable channel and medium, against the current strategy of further troop increases, and in favor of a lighter, more moderate approach. Between us we briefed almost all of the major international policy-makers, diplomats, generals, and foreign ministers. But in March 2009, seventeen thousand more troops were sent. We redoubled our efforts to ensure that those were the last, and that the administration would now adopt a different strategy. Then, in October 2009—four years after I had begun a path where I did almost nothing other than argue against troop increases—Obama sent another thirty-four thousand troops.
Our failure with the administration was echoed by my failure in the classroom. Sixty students had signed up for a class on intervention, and in addition to the policy-makers who came to speak (we had George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser, Meghan O’Sullivan, and his deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz), we allowed each of the six specialists to deliver detailed arguments based on their decades of experience of working in Afghanistan, talking about exactly what was not working with the elections, or rural development, or narcotics. And my friend Gerald Knaus led a whole section on the Balkans. I hoped to illustrate the lack of knowledge, power, and legitimacy in the engagements in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I wanted to show how policy was distorted by surreal, misleading, and fraudulent assumptions about counterinsurgency and state-building.
The students were experienced and open-minded. And their attitudes were representative of the most ambitious policy professionals of the time, many of whom went to such institutions. (In 2009, the Harvard Kennedy School had more than twenty students or fellows who had recently served in Afghanistan and many more who were on their way there.) The military officers who had served in Afghanistan were among my best students. Erik, who had lost three men under his command in Waigal, was self-aware, critical, and focused. He wrote, “I am indescribably proud of my service, but can never feel good about it. I did the best I could with an impossible situation, but left behind what has become one of the most violent and unstable valleys in Afghanistan.” He was not shy about offering criticism of the commanding general: McChrystal’s “strategy is directly at odds with the goals. . . . Its presence stunts the growth of the Afghan state, institutions, and civil society. It enables the Karzai government’s corruption, laziness and ineffectiveness.”
He was far from alone in mounting powerful, cogent arguments that were very aware of the broader political process. Jake, for example, wrote imaginatively about the narrative of the war, the importance of accepting failure and the introductions of false crises. He explored the paradoxes of “localization” (“gaining the initiative makes strategic consolidation more difficult”). He discussed the need for different time lines for different audiences.
One student who went on to work for USAID wrote in a more abstract tone than the soldiers, with more organizational theory and language (“Since the inputs between Afghanistan and Iraq are not analogous, the same outcomes should not be expected of the former as was seen in the latter”). She was sometimes tempted to assume that something like good governance in Afghanistan was achievable with time, rather than contemplating the practical obstacles that would probably prevent the United States from achieving it. But again, she made excellent, original, and convincing observations on the growth rate in Afghan army recruitment and on the tensions between short and long-term goals.
But almost none of these experienced, able students agreed with me that the mission to defeat the Taliban or to build an Afghan state was not simply difficult but impossible. I failed even to convince them that because of the dramatic differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, “the surge of Iraq” would not work in Afghanistan. My attempt to argue that the international community necessarily lacked the knowledge, the power, and the legitimacy to engage with politics at a local provincial level, was mocked.
One student assured me that contrary to my claim that it was impossible for anyone to understand the complexity of Iraqi politics, “the key issues at the time had all been covered, in the Washington Post, The New Yorker, and other mainstream media.” When I tried to suggest how much had been left out by even the best journalistic descriptions of Iraq (the question, for example, of why the Badr brigades were strong in Samawah and the Sadrists much stronger in Amarah), the same student accused me of “moving the goal posts” and speculated, “I suspect one reason why you oppose interventions is because you were never present to see them stop massacres of civilians, as in Kosovo, and only came along some years after the fact of interventions to see Clowns without Borders, U.N. offices, etc., move in.”
The majority of students did not enjoy the detail about the specifics of Afghanistan from the six fellows who had spent years on the ground there. They preferred hearing from the public figures who had served in Washington. The articulacy, focus, and clear itemized strategies of these senior officials impressed the students, who were apparently not troubled by the officials’ lack of experience on the ground. Friends and colleagues of mine who were interested in Afghanistan also spent surprisingly little time with the fellows in the center. One distinguished former State Department officer and professor who took the lead on South Asia seemed to find my and the fellows’ views unhelpfully nihilistic. Our arguments, therefore, had little impact on the policy debate on Afghanistan, in Washington or at Harvard.
By the time I left Harvard to stand to be a member of the British Parliament in 2010, the number of foreign troops in Helmand had increased from their initial level of two hundred in 2005 to thirty-two thousand. And my two teaching assistants, who had loyally assisted my attempt to explain the futility of the surge in Afghanistan, moved to guarded compounds in Afghanistan to run governance programs for USAID.
This essay is adapted from “Can Intervention Work?” by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus (c) 2011 by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.