Permissible Arms

The applicability of the martial.

Posted in afghanistan, us politics by Karaka on 2 October 2009

Rory Stewart is an interesting guy–former officer in the British Army, officer in the Foreign Office, author of several books and now the Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School; not to mention the Executive Director of the Afghan arts non-profit Turquoise Mountain. I mentioned his August essay in the London Review of Books, The Irresistible Illusion, several weeks ago and recently caught his interview on the Bill Moyers Journal. You can watch the video here or download the audio of the interview through iTunes. I’ll embed the video tomorrow; I have trouble with getting WP to play nicely with things other than youtube.

Aside from the fact that Stewart is in some ways a personal role model for me, I find that his assessment of Afghanistan is quite astute. As a man who has served in Iraq as a soldier and walked Afghanistan as a civilian, he has what appears to be an incisive view into the situation as it stands; namely, what Obama will choose to do with the information he has asked for and been giving. Entonces:

I think it would be a political catastrophe for the President to refuse to accede to a request from the man on the ground. Broadly speaking, this is a civilian President. He’s said that he believes in defeating the Taliban. He believes in building a legitimate effective state. There’s a highly respected General on the ground — who’s backed up by Admiral Mullen, who’s backed by General Petraeus — saying we need 40,000 more troops. It would be almost inconceivable, at this stage, for the President to refuse that request.

I’ve mentioned my view that the president shouldn’t have asked for a document he wasn’t prepared to take into full account, and I think that should the administration’s internal review counter McChrystal’s already implemented tactics, it’s going to be pretty rough seas for troops, for US politics, and for the Afghan people.

They may be possible over the long term for Afghans themselves to build a stable state. But it’s probably a project of decades. It needs indigenous leadership, a sort of Afghan Thomas Jefferson, to rebuild its state. It’s not something that foreigners can come in and do from outside. The United States, its allies, are quite good at certain kinds of things — building roads, providing some training to the military, helping to build hospitals and schools. But building a state is a project for a founding father. The same with fighting the Taliban. Again, they have quite a lot of support from villages in the south of Afghanistan. And the Kabul government, as we saw in the last election, just doesn’t have much credibility or support.

A rather depressingly accurate assessment. You can’t nation build from the outside; at most you can offer the tools for a nation to build itself. But perversely, that’s why Karzai is so attractive to NATO governments and the US government in particular–he’s an Afghan figure one can point to as being instrumental in the initial NATO incursion, and secured himself a position of great political power parlayed from that relationship he secured with NATO forces. So he has the thin veneer of being not only legitimate as an Afghan-for-Afghans, but also as a founding member of this new government. Of course, that is shadowplay, and not very good shadowplay; his corruption is widely known, most evidenced in the election. But in terms of keeping up experiences, NATO could do a lot worse than have Karzai running things. And it seems in this the Western world is willing to accept less in hopes of achieving more. To wit, the dismissal of Peter Galbraith when politic was against him.

But most of all, Afghans I think day to day are not actually obsessed with the Taliban. What they’re obsessed with is normal security. By which they mean crime, looting, kidnapping, gangsterism. Most of my colleagues in Afghanistan would be scared to get in a car to go down to Kandahar, not because of the Taliban, but because of the criminal gangs. They’re horrified by their police, which is perceived as very predatory, very corrupt. They’re very skeptical about their government. They’re impatient with how slowly the aid development has come.

I suppose this, then, is where I wonder at the corollary between these clear needs Stewart is describing for the Afghans, and what can be done about it. To some extent, with a presence already in the nation and General McChrystal implementing a change in methodology that will work in serious ways to address those needs, and already has in some cases, I wonder whether Stewart thinks there are other ways to implement the fulfilling of these needs?

I haven’t been shy about advocating my belief that the civilian presence in Afghanistan should be much greater than it is, nor have I ignored the very real security challenges that would accompany such a civilian presence. But while I find it generally heartening from the perspective of Afghan human rights to see the tide of our military turn towards counterinsurgency, I do have real concerns about its effectiveness long term. And not to step off-topic, but Tom Ricks had an anecdote in his blog today that’s germane to this topic.

She nodded and said, “That’s good, because I’m going for three to five years. That’s what McChrystal is asking for.”

Well, I nearly spilled my Trader Joe’s merlot. “Three to five years?” I said. What a far cry, I thought, from 2003, when Bremer’s little GOP beavers would come out to the Green Zone for three to five months, or even a few weeks.

“Yeah,” she said. “That’s what made me interested in taking the job. When I heard that, I said to myself, ‘Hey, this guy is serious.'”

A) I wish I had her job; and B) while I agree with Stewart that realistically the United States can’t make a commitment to remain in Afghanistan for forty years, I think it’s not at all outside the purview of McChrystal’s assessment or the review of Secdef Gates to commit to five-eight years of work and progression, as the reblog illustrates. Claiming withdrawal is a straw man (as too many politians have done, and a position Stewart is not taking); opposing troop increase does not address the real issue, which is strategy in Afghanistan; and while a troop increase is one tool in a larger toolbox that can be used to achieve the needs Stewart outlines and the martial goals McChrystal articulated in his brief, it is not the only thing that must be done to truly achieve stability in Afghanistan.

And stability, in a pragmatic sense, seems that it would look something like this:

And that you can invest 20-30 years in Afghanistan. And if you were lucky, you would make it look a bit like Pakistan. I mean, unless you understand that Pakistan is 20-30 years ahead of Afghanistan, you don’t understand where we’re starting from. And Pakistan is still not an ideal state. But the Pakistan army, the police, the civil service, the financial administration, the education are whole decades ahead of the Afghan. So, our whole model is broken from the beginning. Because you could put all this investment in, you would make Afghanistan look a bit more like Pakistan, but that wouldn’t achieve whatever your national security objectives seem to be.

Stewart is spot on here. But I think the point where Stewart and McChrystal overlap is more or less my own position: that in order to address the basic needs of a starved population, and in order to achieve the security needs of both US national interest and those of Afghan civilians, there must be a greater increase in civilian agencies working to provide the Afghan people themselves with tools to construct their own nation. Not a nation that is de facto controlled by the Taliban; not a nation that is led by a corrupt President buoyed by foreign diplomacy; but a nation that is by the [Afghan] people, for the [Afghan] people that addresses first, hunger, and second, a vote.

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  1. Friday Et Cetera « Karaka Pend said, on 2 October 2009 at 21:25

    […] Et Cetera Posted in afghanistan by karakapend on October 2, 2009 Just to clarify my position from yesterday, I do fundamentally disagree with Rory Stewart’s position of a minimalist presence in […]


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