Still lost in Afghanistan?

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.

Stewart, in a recent Harvard lecture, doubted that Iraq can be replicated in Afghanistan because the nature of the societies is so different. In Iraq there is a comparatively high literacy rate. In Afghanistan, between 75 percent and 80 percent of people cannot read nor write. Iraq is basically an urban society. Afghanistan is still agricultural. In every measurable way, Afghanistan is a much less advanced society than Iraq, with nothing to sustain it economically compared to Iraq and its oil. Iraq was an effective and centralized state, albeit ruled by coercion, until we created a vacuum by invading it.

Afghanistan is the opposite with only dim memories of a functioning state.

Saddam Hussein put the Iraqi tribes to work for the state. In Afghanistan the relationship of the tribes to state power has always been “less defined, and often hostile,” Stewart said.

Iraq has its defined political parties. Afghanistan has nothing similar. The Kabul government has no political base, and it has worked hard to limit any challenge from political parties or parliament.

One of the problems in Afghanistan is that the minorities are way over represented when it comes to political power. The Pashtuns, who are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and traditional rulers, feel excluded. The Taliban, which is made up almost exclusively of Pashtuns, is too often seen by Pashtuns as a way to redress that balance.

Stewart believes that a minimum counter-terrorism force of about 10,000 strong, combined with a development effort of about 20,000, would be better than the new forces being contemplated of 80,000 to 100,000 troops. That level of engagement will cost at least $100 billion, when you include all its nation-building apparatus. The bigger foreign footprint will turn Afghans more and more against a foreign presence, just the way the British presence did in the 19th century or the way the Russian presence triggered resentment in the 20th century — with Western encouragement, Stewart adds.

It was interesting to hear Stewart say that such a big commitment of Western resources will prove not only counter-productive in Afghanistan, but unsustainable in America where politics is based on the next mid-term election rather than on the 30 to 40 years it could take to stabilize Afghanistan. Stewart was only two years old when the last American helicopter departed from Saigon, but that, too, was a war in which public opinion sickened and died, leaving those who had become too dependent on us to deal with the consequences of our departure.

More by HDS Greenway:

Of borders and other divisions

Bukhara on the Potomac

The war hotels