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.