- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Q&A with Rory Stewart

| Summer 2009

Rory Stewart is the Ryan Family Professor of the Practice of Human Rights and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and a member of the Belfer Center Board of Directors. A former  officer in the British Army and deputy governate coordinator with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, Stewart spent two years walking 6,000 miles across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal - a journey he describes in his critically acclaimed book The Places in Between.

Q: In a New York Times piece in 2007, you said, "The time has come to be honest about the limits of our power and the Afghan reality."  President Obama has said the U.S. will have "limited" objectives in Afghanistan. Do you believe his objective and strategy - to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for Al Qaeda - is realistic? If not, why not?

A: It is easier to talk of more ‘limited objectives' than it is to define them. President Obama has said that ‘in order to catch Usama Bin Laden we must stabilize Pakistan and win in Afghanistan'. Victory or at least stability in Afghanistan is apparently to be generated through good governance, the rule of law, economic development and security. And that in turn is to be created, relatively rapidly (say in five years) through a military and civilian surge.

One can see the appeal of Obama's idea - an entirely stable state would indeed be the best long-term guarantee of security. But Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most traumatized countries in the world, where perhaps seventy per cent of the population can't read or write. It would take decades to bring Afghan institutions up to a level with Pakistan's and Pakistan is not stable. A hundred thousand U.S. troops over five years, will not begin to allow Obama to create long-term stability in Afghanistan. It is right for us to help foster a more just, humane and secure society in Afghanistan but that is a long-term humanitarian objective. It is not identical with simply protecting the West from terrorist attack. And it would require a very gradual patient developmental relationship over decades not a short-term surge of troops.

Q: From your experience in Afghanistan, would you outline your vision for Afghanistan policy moving forward?

A: I believe we still need to do much more research and thinking before we have a coherent and credible policy for Afghanistan. We are, therefore, gathering here at the Carr Center a group of seven full-time specialists working collaboratively on Afghan policy. We will also be drawing on the support of the Belfer Center. Our aim is to develop the most sophisticated and nuanced account of Afghanistan and most effective policy prescriptions for the region. I don't want to pre-empt the conclusions of that group. But if I were forced to hazard a guess on the shape of that policy, I would say, President Obama should continue to use counter-terrorism operations to make it too uncomfortable for Usama Bin Laden to establish international training camps in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, we should continue to provide generous development assistance to Afghanistan, targeting those areas where our aid will be effective, welcome and sustainable. In particular, we should support village-led rural development, agricultural irrigation, electricity, roads and put far more investment than we have to date into the progressive, Western-friendly communities of the center and the North: such communities, will work closely with us to complete the projects and to sustain them. But neither of these two things: counter-terrorism or development assistance adds up to a grand project of state-building. That objective, however noble, is one that we as foreigners for many reasons are not able to achieve. It is a task for Afghans, whose partners and supporters we can be in the long future of Afghanistan as an independent nation.

Q: Does your strategy for Afghanistan mean that the Taliban would control a large swath of the country and, if so, can you explain more about why you think the strategy makes sense?

A: The Taliban currently have far less support and legitimacy than they did in 1994. Their propaganda suggests that much of their support derives from a perception that they are fighting for Islam and Afghanistan against foreign military occupation. None of the Tajik, Hazara or Uzbek communities or the urban communities (Kabul has over five million people) would support their return. So long as we have even a few thousand conventional troops in Afghanistan we should be able to prevent them from mounting any kind of conventional threat to a city like Kabul - they would not for example be able to move artillery or tanks or gather in company size groups. But disengaging from the South, will create space for Afghan groups, including the Taliban (who currently control many rural areas of the South) to grow. We need to do as much as we can with a reduced troop presence to protect ourselves against Al Qaeda, foster development in Afghanistan and prevent a return to Civil War.

Q: "Afghanistan is the cat and Pakistan is the tiger," you once said, and asked "Why is the U.S. hitting the cat?" What would you advise President Obama to do about Pakistan?

A: It is common to say ‘we don't yet have an answer to Pakistan'. But that is because we are often asking the wrong question. The United States lacks the knowledge, power or legitimacy - in short the leverage - to ‘solve Pakistan.' The only people with the capacity to resolve Pakistan's problems are the Pakistanis. The challenge is to ensure that the most powerful and influential figures in Pakistan get out of bed in the morning feeling that instability in the tribal areas poses the central threat to Pakistan - as opposed for example to the threat from India. The U.S. cannot simply tell Pakistan what its national security interests are. But I am relatively optimistic about the capacity of Paksitanis to eventually resolve these problems - and I am confident that the recent events in Swat and bombs against the military will convince increasing numbers of influential Paksitanis to focus on the threats from the tribal areas.

Q: When you walked across Afghanistan in 2002, you describe in your book having met "heroes and rogues, tribal elders and teenage soldiers, Taliban commanders and foreign-aid workers." From your sense of the people of Afghanistan, what do you think they want from the United States?

A: It is difficult to distinguish what many Afghans want from the U.S. and what they want from their own government, since the U.S. is generally perceived as the power behind the throne. A very common cry is for adhilat - Justice - by which communities mean both impartial, non-corrupt judgment and security of property and movement. But corruption and rule of law are areas on which the U.S. has made little progress (perhaps because they are areas which are difficult for foreigners to influence). There is also an intense desire for jobs and incomes, for better education and health care. The U.S. has provided significant support to very successful programs in schools, clinics and rural development. Finally, the Afghan government has repeatedly requested roads, electricity and agricultural irrigation and these are clearly things that the U.S. can and should provide. We cannot do less than we pretend in Afghanistan but more than we fear.

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For Academic Citation: Q&A with Rory Stewart.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Summer 2009).