What seemed the greater part of Washington’s British expat community attended a book launch party  for Can Intervention Work? at the Politics and Prose bookstore here last week. The author, a former senior coalition official in Iraq and Afghanistan, did not shy from controversy. Now a member of the UK Parliament, Rory Stewart put forward that the mammoth troop surge in Helmand province – an “exit strategy” pushing numbers to 30,000 – may have in some part caused the insurgency in the region. It is certain that the swelling of Taliban numbers and their entrenchment in the region came after this colossal troop deployment, which antagonized local Afghans and presented the Taliban with a monolithic enemy to wage holy war against.
This bold assertion was par for the course for Rory Stewart. In his own affable, yet careful, manner – betraying Stewart’s experience as a diplomat in both Indonesia and the Balkans – he has become one of the most forceful advocates of comprehensive withdrawal from Afghanistan, rendering him controversial in certain obvious circles. And we needn’t be shamefaced about doing so, says Stewart: what’s important is “knowing when to step back – being prudent is not being a wimp.”
In spite of his modest stature and choirboy tones, Rory Stewart is no wimp. This urbane English chap – and he is most certainly a “chap” – is a rising star of British politics, whose shrewdly cultivated expertise on Afghanistan is in high demand both in Washington and London. In June of this year he attended the highly exclusive (and perennially sinister) Bilderberg Conference, proof that his ideas have won currency in high places. As James Forsyth remarked  in The Spectator, “Rory Stewart’s career to date reads like something from the heyday of the [British] empire.” Among other manly pursuits, in 2002 he walked alone across north-central Afghanistan, an experience he translated into a widely celebrated book, The Places in Between.
Going brazenly against the Patraeus consensus that prevailed in Iraq and was reapplied in a cooker-cutter fashion to Afghanistan, Stewart expressed profound skepticism over troop surges as a counter-insurgency tool – a standpoint to a large extent vindicated by the intransigence of the Afghan situation. The surge strategy that turned the tables on the insurgency in Iraq – a developed, comparatively urbanized country with largely conducive terrain – has not proved decisive in Afghanistan, regardless of the increasing amounts of money and hardware being thrown at it. If anything, this situation has worsened, with the native population grown increasingly sensitive to civilian casualties and ever more ambivalent towards the U.S. and allied presence. The early years of the war, till around 2005, now resemble a golden age of peace and development. At the end of 2008, acting Commander Stanley McChrystal declared that we were “knee-deep into the decisive year.” Any further invitations to optimism from the military establishment are bound to ring hollow.
Most staggering of all is the sheer amount of money involved. As Stewart mentioned, American largesse in Afghanistan extends to $125 billion a year. Set this alongside the total domestic revenue of the Afghan government – a whole 1 billion – and the distorting (and corrupting) effects of this stream of American dollars is plainly obvious. Far beyond the gleeful rubbing of palms of arms dealers and private defense companies, these cash injections have given rise to a dense nexus of vested interests, which includes an entire industry of Afghan “contractors” alongside Western NGOs and charities such as Oxfam and CARE – a “complex” that is more than just military and industrial, and extends to Washington with its roster of well-funded think tanks and an enthusiastic press. The sustained aid tsunami throws into doubt the sustainability of the status quo in Afghanistan: pulling the plug on American spending would sink the Afghan economy overnight.
For a responsible withdrawal strategy, Stewart recommends a gradual devolution of power to local institutions and existing tribal structures of authority. This seems uncontroversial enough, but Stewart singled out for criticism the hot-and-cold treatment of our anointed Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, veering between reluctant trust to outright reprimand. “We must stop contradicting, undermining, humiliating Karzai – it only makes him paranoid and unpredictable.” Devolving power will involve some difficult choices, and handing down the reigns to a class of incorruptible Jeffersonian democrats is never going to be an option.
Once we have successfully stepped back from Afghanistan – if such as thing is possible in the foreseeable future, given the vested interests involved and the die-hard optimism of the military and political establishment – we will be free to “treat Afghanistan like any traumatized country in the world,” says Stewart, many of which are suffering far greater calamities and are far more deserving of aid, if foreign aid is to be handed out.
In his advocacy of a dignified climb-down, Stewart cites British imperial precedent. Following another humiliating defeat in the Second Afghan War of 1880, General Roberts declared, “We have nothing to fear from Afghanistan. The less they see of us the less they will dislike us.” What is the likelihood of such words issuing from the lips of John Allen or David Patraeus?