Intrepid diplomat, scholar, and writer Rory Stewart has a piece critical of the Obama administration’s new Afghanistan strategy up in the London Review of Books. Stewart argues that “state-building” is meaningless in “a mountainous country, with strong traditions of local self-government and autonomy, significant ethnic differences, but strong shared moral values,” and that the U.S. and its international partners should refocus by decreasing force levels to 20,000 (made up largely of special forces) and increasing development aid and assistance.
Leaving aside Stewart’s tendency toward self-congratulation — he believes those who think like him possess “detailed knowledge of each country’s past, a bold analysis of the causes of development and a rigorous exposition of the differences, for which few have patience” while others apparently are dull, impatient conformists — Stewart’s proposal is fundamentally flawed. Its proposed focus on development runs aground on the problems of security and financial integrity. All the development aid in the world isn’t going to make a whit of difference if development workers are being brazenly killed in the field or can’t make it to project areas. Then there’s corruption –- development aid isn’t going to matter much if corrupt officials line their pockets with it.
Ultimately, these are problems of effective governance -– a concept that Stewart goes out of his way to deride. While there are no doubt problems developing and putting into practice programs that result in effective governance, simply pointing these issues out doesn’t invalidate the diagnosis that ineffective, corrupt, and incompetent governance is at the heart of Afghanistan’s woes. The problem isn’t that good governance and legitimacy are pie-in-the-sky foreign notions as Stewart argues, it’s that there’s so little of either.
Worse, Stewart seems to view the Taliban with a sort of romanticism, writing that their spread is based “complaints about corruption, human rights abuses and aerial bombardments appeal to a large audience.” But the Taliban are extraordinarily unpopular in Afghanistan –- a recent BBC poll showed only seven percent of Afghans view the Taliban favorably, with 91 percent viewing them unfavorably, with 79 percent viewing them “very unfavorably.” By contrast, the United States has a combined favorability rating of 47 percent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that the Taliban aren’t exactly doing a bang-up job of winning hearts and minds and that the incompetence and ineffectiveness of the Afghan government –- which 82 percent of Afghans would prefer to rule the country versus four percent for the Taliban –- is a key component behind the upsurge in violence.
Stewart’s proposed focus on counterterrorism doesn’t stand up much better. This mission is oddly paired with development, though there’s no logical reason a pure counterterrorism mission using mostly special operations forces and increased development aid go together. If the United States’ primary goal is counterterrorism and, as Stewart suggests, there’s no real danger of the Taliban marching on Kabul, then why waste time, money, and lives on development projects that will get development workers killed, likely line the pockets of corrupt officials, and be unsupportable by an Afghan government that takes in (according to Stewart’s figures) only $600 million a year?
In Stewart’s scenario, large areas of southern Afghanistan will effectively be ceded to the Taliban. At that point, the United States might as well just expand the drone strike program from Pakistan’s tribal areas to incorporate southern Afghanistan. Putting special operations forces on the ground to do the dirty work is feasible, and it’s unlikely to require the 20,000-strong footprint to do this. Instead of a Central Asian Valhalla, the United States will be creating a Central Asian Phoenix Program. On top of this, the United States and its allies would probably still be on the hook for financing the Afghan security forces -– adding another couple billion dollars to the tab, in perpetuity.
Stewart is correct that there are severe problems with building an effective Afghan government that can resource itself, but these aren’t caused by an essential and intractable Afghan nature that resists centralization. As Peter Bergen points out, modern Afghanistan first appeared in 1747 -– prior to the appearance of the United States. Our problems are the result of the people in public power in Afghanistan –- people the United States has supported -– who are in politics for personal or “community” gain, not something inherently chaotic about Afghans themselves or ideas of good governance.
In any case, if an “ungoverned or hostile” Afghanistan doesn’t present a threat to the United States or its allies, as Stewart argues, then why care anyway? The logic of this analysis leads to the ultimate conclusion that the United States ought to pull out and stop throwing good money after a pointless cause. Sharp critics like Andrew Bacevich have made precisely this point, but Stewart’s recommendations avoid this conclusion. There are legitimate questions and criticisms of Obama administration policy on Afghanistan, but Stewart doesn’t raise them well and provides a muddled way forward.