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Still lost in Afghanistan?

Opinion: Rory Stewart discusses why what worked in Iraq might not in Afghanistan.

A U.S Marine searches the clothes of an Afghan man for weapons in the Golestan district of Farah Province, Afghanistan, May 8, 2009. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

BOSTON — Harvard’s Rory Stewart, a Perthshire Scot, is 36 years old and once walked clear across Afghanistan. A former soldier, he also spent a year as a civilian administrator in southern Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority. He believes that General David Petraeus is wrong in thinking that the lessons of Iraq can be applied to Afghanistan.

You can read about Stewart’s Afghan adventures in his book, “The Places In Between,” and about his year in Iraq in “The Prince of the Marshes.”

Although Petraeus always says that Afghanistan is a far different culture than Iraq, and that tactics and strategies will be adjusted for that difference, Stewart thinks the differences are being underestimated.

Stewart fears that the Obama administration is about to create a monster military and civilian establishment in Afghanistan that will be ill-suited to Afghan mores, counter-productive in that it will turn Afghans against us, fuel insurgency and in the end prove unsustainable and untenable. In short, we are becoming the new Russians who came to such grief in Afghanistan.

Of course the counter argument is that those who opposed the “surge” in Iraq were wrong, and now they are about to be wrong again. Violence has been reduced in Iraq partly because we have better intelligence, partly because of the Sunni “Awakening” in which former foes switched sides, partly because Moqtada al-Sadr called for a cease-fire, and only partly because of the surge of American troops. But Petraeus had the wit to take advantage of changing circumstances to radically reduce violence. 

Nothing has really been settled in Iraq, however. Sunnis and Shiites are not reconciled. Kurds still want more in the north than they are allowed, and violence is creeping up again. But for all of that, Iraq is looking better than it has in years, and Petraeus deserves a good measure of credit.