British Lawmaker On Way Forward In Afghanistan

Published on 4 July 2010

Author(s): NPR/Guy Raz

Type:  Interview 7.29 Min

Well, the alternative, I suppose, is acknowledging that there's a limit to what we can do in a country like Afghanistan, suas Rory Stewart

London, 19 July 2010. Afghanistan's history is strewn with the failures of big powers that tried to use and control it: Britain in the 19th century, then Russia in the 20th. And just this week, top U.S. generals went before Congress with reassurances that the current strategy to subdue Afghanistan, and eventually withdraw troops, is on track. Guy Raz speaks with author and adventurer Rory Stewart. Stewart is a former British soldier, diplomat and Harvard professor who once walked across Afghanistan -- he's now a newly minted politician himself, representing the Conservative Party in Britain's Parliament.

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GUY RAZ, host:

For more than three years, Rory Stewart lived in Kabul running a charity. Before that, he was a British diplomat. And from 2000 to 2002, he walked across Afghanistan and wrote about it in the book "The Places in Between."

Now, up until a few months ago, Stewart was a scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School. But last month, he returned to the UK to take his seat as a newly elected conservative member of the British Parliament. And in that position, he hopes to change Britain's approach to Afghanistan.

Rory Stewart is in London. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RORY STEWART (Member of Parliament, United Kingdom; Author, "The Places in Between"): Thank you very much indeed.

RAZ: And first off, congratulations on your victory in the election.

Mr. STEWART: Thank you.

RAZ: While you were still here in the United States, you worked to try and convince the Obama administration to go with a so-called light footprints strategy in Afghanistan, focus on counterterrorism. Obviously, the White House chose instead to go with a surge of troops. Has it been a mistake, or has it worked, or is it too early to tell?

Mr. STEWART: I believe, still, that it was an error. I think having done it, we might as well stick with it and give it the year and a half, which the president set out. I mean, he was talking about beginning to reduce troops in July next year.

My main fear is that the military will say towards the end of this year or beginning of next year this is all going very well, we just need to get a few more troops, a bit more time and we're going to win this one.

Instead, I prefer a situation which the president says in July next year, listen, we gave you a time. We gave you the opportunity. Either it worked or didn't, but if it isn't working, we're not going to reinforce failure.

RAZ: What do you make of the attempts by U.S. military officials to focus on governance, local governance and anti-corruption measures? I mean, do you think that that is something that can be worked out successfully?

Mr. STEWART: The diagnosis of the problem is correct. There's a big problem with the Afghan government. There's a big problem with corruption. Where I differ from them is that I didn't think there's a lot that we, as foreigners, are going to be able to do about that. What happens in Afghanistan is going to be determined by the Afghan government. It's not going to be determined by what the military do.

And one of the frustrations, I think, if you're an American soldier or officer is that you're fighting very hard, you're often incredibly creative and dedicated to your task. But if the Afghan police remains corrupt and predatory, if the Afghan government is not popular, doesn't attract anybody's loyalty, then it doesn't really matter how much American or British troops fight. There's still going to be this gap, which ought to be filled by the Afghan government, isn't being filled by the Afghan government.

RAZ: So, what's the alternative?

Mr. STEWART: Well, the alternative, I suppose, is acknowledging that there's a limit to what we can do in a country like Afghanistan. This is a country where the majority of teachers are only educated one grade above their students. So if they're teaching third grade, they got a fourth grade education.

You know, this is a country which is right down there, sadly, at the very bottom of world indexes. It would take, if you are very lucky and put a lot of energy in 30 years to get Afghanistan to the state that Pakistan is in in terms of its police, its military, its administration, its infrastructure, its economy, we're not going to be able to guarantee within a five or 10-year framework that this is a stable functioning state as the kind of which many people dream.

RAZ: What do you make of recent reports that U.S. surveyors have estimated that the country, Afghanistan, sits on something like a trillion dollars in mineral wealth? Could that transform the country overnight?

Mr. STEWART: No. I'm afraid not. There is very, very little correlation between the kind of mineral wealth that you have on the ground and how you perform in terms of state stability, a functioning civil service or financial administration, the rule of law or any of the kind of things that you really want.

Countries like the Congo have untold wealth under the ground, but that doesn't, in any way, mean that they end up being, you know, more stable and more prosperous, more humane than a country like Botswana, which has less wealth under the ground.

Any country, and particularly a developing Muslim country like Afghanistan, is going to be very suspicious of foreigners coming in. and Afghans, when they are confused and troubled by what on earth the international forces think they're doing, when Canadian soldiers turn up in your village and say: I've come here to build a girls' school, and you say: What do you mean? You've turned up in a tank and body armor and I've been shooting at you. And you say you've come to build a girls' school? No. There must be uranium here. Or you must be coming to take our oil.

When the international community gets involved, it's going to be - it has to be very, very careful to convince Afghans that they're getting the best part of the deal and we're not getting - going in there and ripping them off.

RAZ: Rory Stewart, a recent poll in your country, in the U.K., shows us something like 77 percent of the British public wants their soldiers out of Afghanistan. Now, you're a member of parliament, in the ruling party. Do you hope to convince your prime minister, David Cameron, to change Britain's involvement there?

Mr. STEWART: The problem for Britain is that our presence in Afghanistan is very little to do with Afghanistan. We're in Afghanistan because of our relationship with the United States.

Effectively, we keep out troops on the ground because we believe in something called the special relationship. And we believe it's important that Britain is seen to partner with the United States from these international operations, that we play our role.

Britain doesn't, if I was to be very brutal, have an entirely independent foreign policy and relationship to Afghanistan, which is why I've been putting a lot of my energy into trying to convince the administration in Washington.

RAZ: Rory Stewart, before you were elected, you had a platform to criticize policy from your perch at the Kennedy School at Harvard. Are you starting to see the challenges of making policy now as a member of parliament?

Mr. STEWART: Yes, it's very difficult. I am a very junior member of parliament. So I've just been elected and I used to be briefly a British soldier and then a British diplomat.

And, of course, if you leave those kinds of organizations and then start criticizing what they're doing in a place like Afghanistan, those organizations themselves can be very, very nimble at portraying you as a maverick, as a self-promoter, as out of touch, as outdated, as not understanding the realities of the situation.

So, it is very, very, very difficult to change anything. I imagine it should be possible to find a way to try to be honest about what you believe about a situation like Afghanistan and do it in a way that's respectful, intelligent, moderate and might eventually have an impact. So I'm trying to find out a way of continuing to say what I believe, but continue to be listened to.

RAZ: That's Rory Stewart in London. He is the newly elected member of parliament from North West England and the former director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Rory Stewart, thank you so much.

Mr. STEWART: Thank you.

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