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Today’s T.E. Lawrence Urges Withdrawal from Afghanistan

What seemed the greater part of Washington’s British expat community attended a book launch party [1] 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 [2] 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?

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#1 Comment By John Bruckner On August 24, 2011 @ 6:56 am

Didn’t T.E. Lawrence actually fight? Is this author’s backgroubnd one of PS3 gaming?

#2 Comment By M Shannon On August 24, 2011 @ 8:23 am

Roberts defeated the Afghans in the 2nd Afghan War. He did however realize that there was nothing in Afghanistan (unlike the Punjab or South Africa) worth fighting for. Nothing has changed.

How many modern adventurers want to be the next Lawrence? More importantly ow many writers want to proclaim one as the next Lawrence?

BTW Lawrence didn’t achieve much but he had a great publicist- sounds like Petraeus. The Turks eventually left Hejaz but the French got Damascus and the British and Zionists Palestine. Lawrence did think up an effective guerrilla strategy to tie down Turks in Syria that’s only modern application would be useful to the Taliban/ AQ attacking some but not all NATO fuel convoys coming through Pakistan. I wonder why they allow any convoys to get through? Perhaps Mullah Omar has read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

#3 Comment By Patrick On August 24, 2011 @ 9:35 am

First the Versaille Peace Treaty may end up being the worst peace treaty ever written. We are still dealing with the mistakes of the French and British leaders over a hundred years later, not just in the middle east but elsewhere.

As for T. E. Lawrence, promises were made to the Arabs he fought with and led during WWI, promises that at Versaille, were broken because the British and French decided to foolishly replace the Ottoman Empire with their own something they did incredibly badly. Lawrence would spend the rest of his life seeking to correct what he considered the injustice done to his Arab allies at Versaille. What gets missed sometimes, and it shouldn’t have, is that OBL made reference to this in at least one, maybe more of his messages. OBL, ghastly as he was, had a sense of history and should not have been completely ignored.

As for Afghanistan, no western power has prevailed there in 2000 years. We are not going to be the first. McNamara told Johnson after Ia Drang that Vietnam was finished, we couldn’t win, end the war. Maybe Stewart is this war’s McNamara.

#4 Comment By James Canning On August 24, 2011 @ 11:21 am

I am a great fan of Rory Stewart. He offers a great deal of sensible advice.

#5 Comment By James Canning On August 24, 2011 @ 11:23 am

M Shannon – – How many hundreds of millions of dollars has the US paid the Taleban, to allow the fuel trucks to get through?

#6 Comment By James Canning On August 24, 2011 @ 11:47 am

M Shannon – – The French blocked Lawrence’s hopes for a unified Arab kingdom, under Faisal, with its capital in Damascus. One reason this happened was religious, in that the French wanted to create a state (Lebanon) where the Christians could be in control or nearly in control. Especially the Maronite Christians.

The French also wanted an imperial staging point between Algeria and French Indo-China.

#7 Comment By James Canning On August 24, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

Patrick – – I recommend a quick read about the San Remo Conference in 1920 (and the Treaty of Sevres). Greece and Italy wanted to partition Anatolia. And France wanted to block the British effort to deliver to the Hashemite family what had been promised during the War.