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Trying to understand Afghanistan: Rory Stewart

Posted on the January 25th, 2010

Who understands what’s happening in Afghanistan-Pakistan, the two countries that have become one word now, apparently, in U.S. foreign policy? Former British diplomat Rory Stewart insists that he does. And considering his credentials, it seems a good idea to listen to him.

Perhaps highest among Stewart’s achievements, relative to discussing Afghanistan, is that he actually lived in Kabul from 2006-2008. Prior to that, 2000-2002, amazingly he walked on foot across Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal (6000 miles). And, beginning in 2003, he served for a time as coalition Deputy Governor of two provinces in Southern Iraq. In 2009 he became a professor at Harvard University, and at present he also is a Conservative Party candidate for Parliament back home.

In “Afghanistan: What Could Work,” an essay Stewart wrote for this month’s New York Review of Books, he brings his knowledge of the area to serve in analyzing the situation, and in assessing President Obama’s past and present policies there. Stewart has some praise for Obama, as well as some criticism.

One bit of praise is that the President did not take some of the advice that was showered on him by all his expert advisers:

Little wonder that some called (in the President’s words) “for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort—one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade.” How could they ask for any other course when they argued from within a conceptual prison, founded on fears, boxed in by domestic political calculations, restricted by misleading definitions, buttressed by syllogisms, endorsed by generals, and crowned with historical analogies? Yet this is what the President said about full-scale escalation:

I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don’t have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I’m mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who—in discussing our national security—said, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.

I felt as though I had come to hear a fifteenth-century scholastic and found myself suddenly encountering Erasmus: someone not quite free of the peculiarities of the old way, and therefore haunted by its elisions, omissions, and contradictions; but already anticipating a reformation…

I came away from reading Stewart’s analysis feeling confirmed in my sense of the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation as a many-headed hydra. It was a tiny bit encouraging, though, to read Stewart’s conclusion, based on various policy recommendations, suggesting some optimism for a brighter future there. Eventually.

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