Rory Stewart and Skepticism

Jason Zengerle has a noteworthy profile of Rory Stewart, a fascinating character and Afghanistan expert who’s a leading skeptic of the merits of an ambitious approach to Afghanistan. Stewart’s key points:

Stewart’s plan stems from his strange mixture of pessimism and optimism. On the one hand, he argues that the Afghan central government lacks the strength or legitimacy to actually run the country, nor does he have much faith in the ability of the United States to help it on those counts. “I have some friends in Afghanistan who will say, ‘If the U.S. government is infinitely flexible, capable, superbly informed, able to deliver programs precisely in every rural area, and its soldiers are able to avoid killing anybody and can identify exactly which tribal chief at the sub-district level to deal with, everything will be fine,’” Stewart says. “To which my answer is, ‘That’s a big if, and that’s not how our bureaucracies and administrations work.’” But Stewart also believes that things in Afghanistan aren’t as precarious as some fear. “There’s a certain kind of worst-case scenario view that Afghanistan is like this horrendous nightmare and, if we don’t get in there and sort it out, we’ll have global jihad, we’ll have a completely destabilized region, terrorists will have their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, American credibility will be finished forever,” Stewart says. “And these are not really, I think, fully developed positions.”

Later in the piece, Zengerle quotes Andrew Exum as saying that the counterinsurgents disagree with Stewart because they have a different view of the facts on the ground. Exum tells Zengerle: “I think the first twenty-two pages of the McChrystal assessment of the war in Afghanistan were more grounded in evidence-based reality than Rory’s was.”

Certainly I don’t have any special insight into which Afghanistan expert is right and which is wrong. But it seems to me that the real disagreement here is probably driven by different views about the U.S. military than by different views about Afghanistan as such. Exum believes that the Pentagon has developed powerful new operational doctrines about counterinsurgency that make it possible to achieve things via U.S. military intervention that U.S. military intervention hasn’t traditionally achieved. I read Stewart as being skeptical about that idea — apparently he’s running for parliament as a Conservative in the United Kingdom and as you would expect from a right-of-center politician (but rarely see in the United States) his skepticism about ambitious bureaucratic endeavors extends to skepticism about ambitious bureaucratic endeavors conducted by the United States Department of Defense.