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« Complexity and Simplicity in Thought and Message | Main | Soft Muslim Underbelly, Soft American Power »

Saving Afghanistan: A Response to Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart, in a July 17 editorial article in TIME magazine titled “How to Save Afghanistan,” sketches a plan that is, in regards to levels of military and governance assistance matters, a reversion to the Donald Rumsfeld “light footprint” era in Afghanistan. The former British diplomat/author turned NGO director reiterates many of the points that he has made over the last year or so, some of which are widely accepted and some of which are blatantly false. The main points of his vision for saving Afghanistan:

  • Reduced military presence with a focus on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency.
  • Rely on Special Forces and intelligence operatives, not conventional troops.
  • Less aid to Afghanistan, but with “a greater focus on what we know how to do.”
  • Target aid to the stable provinces rather than to those unstable ones.

Suffice to say that although there are points I agree with, and that are widely accepted, I can only take issue with the pillars of Stewart's plan.

All underlining and brackets are mine.

  1. “We should target development assistance in provinces where we have a track record of success. Our investment goes further in stable and welcoming places like Hazarajat than it can in hostile, insurgency-dominated areas like Kandahar and Helmand, where we have to spend millions on security and the locals do not contribute to the project and will not sustain it after our departure.”

It is quite true that the more stable provinces have been shortchanged as far as overall development aid is concerned. Like Stewart, I advocate an increase in aid to those areas. But I do not agree that we should reduce aid to the “insurgency-dominated” areas.  Essentially, what Stewart advocates is reducing aid to Pashtun-dominated areas and transferring it to non-Pashtun areas. This would have a devastating effect on ethnic politics in Afghanistan and would make it clear that the foreigners clearly favor non-Pashtuns. The Pashtun-dominated areas of Afghanistan are in dire need of humanitarian aid and development support. To reduce the already low level would create a much more severe humanitarian crisis.

  1. “We don't need bold new plans and billions more in aid. Instead, we need less investment — but a greater focus on what we know how to do.”

As far as reducing aid goes, Omar Samad, the Afghan ambassador to Canada, states that Afghanistan received “less than $80 per person per year for reconstruction over the past six years, as compared to $275 for Bosnians and $248 for people in East Timor”. According to the UN this is barely an improvement over the first two years of foreign intervention compared to the first two years in Bosnia and East Timor. “In the two years following international intervention, Afghanistan received $57 per capita, whilst Bosnia and East Timor received $679 and $233 per capita respectively.” There is obviously a need to improve how aid is delivered, but these numbers show clearly that reducing the overall amount would be extremely negligent and grossly unfair.

  1. “This policy would require far fewer troops over the next 20 years, and they would probably be predominantly special forces and intelligence operatives.”

Whatever faith anybody had in Donald Rumsfeld & Co’s same military strategy has been shattered by the resurgence of the Taliban and their allies. It failed when it was tried in the first years after 2001. And it would most definitely fail again. Rory Stewart grossly overestimates the ability of SF and intelligence operative to go it alone.

  1. “The greatest recent improvements in local government have come about through the replacement of local governors rather than through hundred-million-dollar training programs.”

Stewart needs to qualify this. Of the governors that have been removed, some were fired or rotated for reasons that had nothing to do with improved governance and everything to do with the politics of survival (as outlined by state theorist Joel Migdal). The category in use here is called “The Big Shuffle”(Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States, pp. 214-217) by Migdal and involves “deliberately weakening arms of the state and allied organizations in order to assure the tenure of the top state leadership. The executive leadership protects itself through ample use of its most manifest power, the ability to appoint to and remove from office.”

Recent examples are the firings of Governor Murad of Kapisa, who was removed after criticizing Karzai's leadership (although this is debatable, the firing occurred right after the criticism), and of Governor Nuristani who accused American forces of bombing civilians in Nuristan (again there may be additional reasons for their removal, but why wait until they criticize Karzai or foreign forces to remove them?) Additional examples feature the rotations of governors for local and national power considerations, not their performance.

  1. “Our efforts in nation-building, governance and counternarcotics should be smaller and more creative. This is not because these issues are unimportant; they are vital for Afghanistan's future. But only the Afghan government has the legitimacy, the knowledge and the power to build a nation. The West's supporting role is at best limited and uncertain.”

Yes, the Afghan government has the legitimacy to “build a nation.” But the knowledge and the power? This is an obviously over-optimistic assessment along the lines of “Patient, heal thyself.” I have never heard of any scholar of, or expert on, governance and/or statebuilding/reconstruction express anything remotely similar. In fact, it is universally acknowledged that post-conflict countries in the developing world require extensive materiel, expertise and other forms of support from the international community.

  1. “This strategy is far from ideal. But it's the best option we've got. It might not allow us to build an Afghan nation. It would involve a very long-term policy of containment and management, and it may never lead to a clear victory or exit. But unlike abandoning Afghanistan entirely, as we did in 1990, it would not leave a vacuum filled by dangerous neighbors.”

Afghanistan, as metaphor, has been the most powerful “vacuum” on the planet since the early-mid 1800s. Even if the government of Pakistan decided in the future not to fill this vacuum sub-state actors would, an action that would force Iran, Russia and the Central Asian states to react. I believe Stewart’s plan would be a reversion to 1992-2001.

  1. “We should focus on meeting the Afghan government's request for more investment in agricultural irrigation, energy and roads. And we should increase our support to the most effective departments, such as education, health and rural development; they are good for the reputation of the Afghan state and the West. Creating more educated, healthier women and men and better transport, communications and electrical infrastructure may be only part of the story, but they are essential for Afghanistan's economic future.  

I agree with much of this. However, Stewart wants to steer this sort of development away from the predominantly Pashtun areas.

I would like to see this in every province and district.

  1. “We face pressing challenges elsewhere. If we are worried about terrorism, Pakistan is more important than Afghanistan; if we are worried about regional stability, then Egypt, Iran or even Lebanon is more important; if we are worried about poverty, Africa is more important.”

Pakistan is important for terrorism, but Afghanistan and Pakistan are intertwined in this regard. You cannot neglect one and hope to succeed. Egypt, Iran and Lebanon are all of utmost importance. However, I don’t see how the situation in any of those countries requires a shift of the assets being deployed or distributed in Afghanistan at the moment. And as far as Africa being more important concerning poverty, Afghanistan is the fifth "worst" country in the world, if you believe the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index rankings. I believe the statistics show Afghanistan is of, at a minimum, at least equal in importance to Africa in regards to poverty.

  1. “Nabi's pessimism is very common now in Afghanistan.”

I will qualify this for Stewart. Here are some figures from comprehensive surveys commissioned by BBC/ARD and The Asia Foundation, respectively.


I expect further erosion of confidence this year also. However, the data shows that Afghans, against the expectations of many commentators, are surprisingly optimistic. The San Francisco-based Asia Foundation survey was massive and comprehensive (over 8000 interviews in every province) with excellent methodology. I’ll take their results as a strong qualification of Stewart’s opinion.

(Both surveys used Afghan surveyers)

  1. “Our money and expertise, which have helped make the central bank and the Afghan National Army professional and competent, cannot prevent the widespread corruption in the police and legal system. A central bank is relatively small, dealing with narrow issues such as currency and interest rates on which international economists can offer practical, technical advice. An army is able to develop its esprit de corps and drills in barracks, isolated from the broader society. But policemen and judges are much more connected to society and much more exposed to local politics and corruption. This is why most developing countries have relatively effective central banks and armies but corrupt and despised police forces.”

The ANP is not despised. In fact, despite abuses committed by a minority of its members, the Afghan National Police is, compared to a wide range of institutions in Afghanistan, second only to the Afghan National Army (83 and 88%, respectively) in terms of confidence ratings by the Afghan people (Asia Foundation).


  1. “Afghans deal with most crimes outside the court system, using a traditional leader as an arbitrator.”

No, they do not. The Asia Foundation determined that they, on national average, turn to government institutions at a much higher frequency. Afghans seem to want government as an arbiter.



  1. “In any case, the preoccupations of the West — fighting terrorism and narcotics — are not the priorities of Afghans like Nabi, Zia and Hussein.Their major concerns are the state of the economy and basic services.”

They certainly do want basic services, but again the BBC/ARD poll contradicts Stewart’s views, not on opium, but on other aspects of "the preoccupations of the West.".


And just in case you think this “violence and insecurity” is mostly blamed on foreign troops, there is this follow-up questions by BBC/ARD:

  1. “The Taliban, which was a largely discredited and backward movement, gains support by portraying itself as fighting for Islam and Afghanistan against a foreign military occupation.”

I’ll let BBC/ARD qualify this for Stewart again:

  1. “A troop increase is likely to inflame Afghan nationalism because Afghans are more anti-foreign than we acknowledge […]”

I guess that depends on what "we acknowledge" (BBC/ARD):

That’s probably enough criticism for today. I will say that there is much in Stewart’s article with which I agree. The situation in Afghanistan is dire and on its present course is headed towards failure. Government corruption, Taliban resurgence, terrorist attacks, civilian casualties, drug trafficking and addiction, wasteful spending and corrupt contractors have created a situation that can not be tolerated for much longer. Public opinion in Afghanistan, despite remarkable patience, is eroding. But we diverge sharply when it comes to the necessary remedies.

The effort required to correct the course of events in Afghanistan is substantial. The US/NATO-led effort (militarily, diplomatically, and in terms of governance, development and humanitarian aid) must be reinforced and reformed, not reduced and reformed. Unfortunately for Stewart, in his analysis he has ignored (a) the expressed desires of the Afghan people, (b) the lessons of botched past military interventions and (c) the available literature regarding the level of international involvement required in post-conflict development. There is, however, no danger of either McCain or Obama following Rory Stewart’s advice. More likely one should, if you are looking for quick analyses, rely on advice offered by the International Crisis Group, the Atlantic Council, the Afghan Study Group and/or Oxfam (see sources at bottom).

I’ll end with this passage from Stewart’s article:

“Afghans have the energy, the pride and the competence to lead that [“transformation”] process. The West, however, does not. It should not waste its money, its lives and its reputation trying to do the impossible. It should invest in what it does well. We do not have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do.”

Rory Stewart was recently appointed as the director of the CarrCenter for Human Rights at HarvardUniversity


Asia Foundation. 2007. Afghanistan in 2007: A Survey of the Afghan People. Download PDF:

Atlantic Council. 2008. ‘Saving Afghanistan: An Appeal and Plan for Urgent Action’, The Atlantic Council of the United States, Issue Brief (January 2008). Online:

BBC/ARD/ABC. 2007.  BBC/ABC/ARD Public Opinion Poll. December 3, 2007. Download PDF:

International Crisis Group. 2008. ‘Afghanistan: The Need for International Resolve’, Asia Report No. 145 (6 February 2008). Online:

Jones, James L. and Thomas R. Pickering, et al. 2008. ‘Afghanistan Study Group Report: Revitalizing Our Efforts Rethinking Our Strategies’, Center For the Study Of the Presidency (January 30, 2008). Online:

Migdal, Joel S. 1988. Strong Societies and WeakStates: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World. Princeton, NJ: PrincetonUniversity Press.

Oxfam. 2008. ‘Afghanistan: Development and Humanitarian Priorities’, Oxfam (January 2008). Online: 

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Reader Comments (6)

The argument is not as straightforward. First of all, the examples mentioned of post-conflict intervention are failures and not successes: Bosnia and Kosovo have only been holding together because of continuing international intervention and of the pumping in of massive amounts of money. East Timor as we know collapsed after the withdrawal. I shall add that to me Afghanistan is becoming more comparable to South Vietnam in terms of international presence than it is to cases of international post-conflict intervention (as it is not post-conflict at all at this point). Moreover it is not a balanced academic approach to pick a few exceptional cases of very large expenditure and compare to Afghanistan; the author could have picked Cambodia as a successful example of cheap post conflict stabilization but did not - still one cannot argue that Cambodia suffered less from war than Afghanistan did. Tajikistan suffered from state disintegration and a nasty civil war but was stabilized with a very modest expenditure. The list could continue. In other words it is not true that there is anything like a consensus among scholars concerning the benefits and drawbacks of international intervention on a massive scale.The aid community has a vested interest in arguing that more and more money is needed (see their reports), but that is not a scholarly approach. Finally polling in Afghanistan is notoriously unreliable, as you would imagine given that it is a mostly rural country where no census has ever been completed and where a war is going on. To rely on polls to draw any policy conclusions would therefore be very misleading. US Army classified polling, which relies on a mixing of quantitative and qualitative methodologies, produces an altogether different output, with much higher levels of support for the insurgents and lower levels of support for government and foreign forces. Anybody who travels to Afghanistan and talks to people knows that these classified polls offer a better picture of reality than the public ones. Having said that, you could ask the population of any poor country with bad governance if they wanted help and money and I guess they would all answer yes, yes! But what policy conclusions to draw from this is altogether another matter.

Jul 28, 2008 at 7:29 | Registered CommenterAntonio Giustozzi

Dr. Giustozzi,

Thanks for your criticisms of my article. But I would first like to point out that I did not say that Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor were successes (thanks to higher aid). I just used the figures of aid deliveries to demonstrate that Afghanistan has been given far less priority in terms of development funds. But I probably should have inserted there, rather than later in my article, that more money does not automatically equal success.

I'll take your example of Cambodia as a fair criticism. But not the example of Tajikistan. The "very modest expenditure" part is accurate, but the Gharmis and Pamiris were handed a massive military defeat in Dushanbe and Qurghonteppa by the Popular Front with support from the Uzbek(istani) army and the Russia air force (plus with collusion by the Russian MRD units in Tajikistan). The Gharmis/IRP never recovered. The "diplomatic" solution and later stabilization came about because the Pamiris had dropped out and the Gharmis were no longer capable of any serious operations outside their hometowns. If anything, Tajikistan is an example of a "military first" solution (not that I advocate anything as simplistic as that). Also, there are 700,000 Tajik workers outside the country sending remittances home to a country of 7 million. These workers have compensated for the lack of foreign aid.

But I will agree that there is no consensus on certain post-conflict issues and that Afghanistan is not post conflict (not that I directly said Afghanistan was post-conflict. But I definitely indicated that in an indirect manner). Your points make it clear that I'm not a "post-conflict" expert. I'll admit that I mix jargon and that I know little about cases outside of Central Asia. As for Afghanistan being more like South Vietnam, OK sure there is a war going on that is not going well, but could it also be compared to South Korea? Therefore with both the possibility of total failure or partial success? The South Vietnam analogy (in the context of American rhetoric) just seems like framing an irreversible decline into failure.

As for your comments on polling in Afghanistan, I just think that an interview style survey of over 8000 people in every province (Asia Foundation 2007) is more accurate that Rory Stewart's anecdotes and experience, even with the concession that Asia Foundation made towards not polling in certain districts. I agree with you and I certainly don't think that they should be relied upon for policy decisions. And I'm sure that localized support or tolerance for the Taliban is much higher than the national average, etc...

I'm glad to hear that the US Army is doing some analysis that you consider more reliable. But I really don't know enough to comment on their output: Is it just a localized analysis of their area of operations? What is the exact methodology in surveying and in mixing qualitative and quantitative analysis? I'll remain skeptical until I see their methodology. But I remain willing to consider varying viewpoints. I hope you can work this issue into a future publication (particularly on the US Army polling)to get more of a debate going on polling. And yes, I do remember the brief remarks you made on polling in your book.

And regarding this comment: "Anybody who travels to Afghanistan and talks to people knows that these these classified polls offer a better picture of reality than the public ones." Talks to how many people? As many the Asia Foundation? To people who lie to the Asia Foundation but speak truth to inquisitive foreigners? The fact is that people are hearing many different things from different Afghans. If anybody is right, then everybody is right, including those whose analyses contradict each other. That's why I turn to polling to get a sense of the national mood.

My use of these polls is to argue that Afghans, on average, still want "us" there, inlcuding the military forces. Even in Kandahar. I also believe that the same types of polls in Iraq that show continued hostility towards American troops are accurate.

And I agree that the aid community has a "vested interest." But there is the possibility that they could also be right.

Thanks for taking the time to add your criticisms. The argument is certainly not as straightforward as I represented it.

Cheers (from Australia),


Jul 29, 2008 at 3:08 | Registered CommenterChristian Bleuer

Sent via e-mail:


I thought this was a good critique and response to Stewart. His seemingly abandonment of the Pashtun belt was quite problematic to me. I also am quite troubled to see him argue for the abandonment of COIN in favor of CT -- I think that borders on delusional. The manpower issue is a whole different question. I argue in an upcoming Atlantic article (coauthored with Chris Mason) that a major problem is one of manpower distribution. We, like the Soviets, have based our strategy of administering and securing Afghanistan from urban centers such as Kabul and the provincial capitals. Hence we hold all the provincial capitals, just like the Soviets, and have sought to exert our influence from there. The Taliban, meanwhile, like the mujahideen before them, work at the district level.

The current U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is failing not because of defeats on the battlefield, but because of the endemic failure to engage and protect towns and villages at that level, and to immunize them against insurgency. We, like the Soviets and British before us, are focusing on the artificial provincial level -- big
mistake. Everything bubbles up from the village and district level and that is where we need to be located. Who cares if we control Kabul and provincial capitals, that is NOT where the action is.

You actually underestimate the amount of per capita aid received by the Afghans. When one considers "phantom aid" dynamics it is more like $10 per...about the price of a Happy Meal with an extra burger! We are not going to win "trust and confidence" with such an effort (forget about "hearts and minds")!

I did have a bit of a problem with the focus on polling data. I usually dismiss such data relative to Afghanistan because it is my experience that Afghans will usually tell you what they think you want to hear. I am very suspect of any Afghan public opinion data.

Generally I thought this argument was sound and a good response to Stewart.

Thomas H. Johnson
Research Professor and Director
Program of Culture and Conflict Studies
Department of National Security Affairs (NSA/JO)
Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA

Jul 29, 2008 at 21:27 | Registered CommenterMike Innes

Dr. Johnson,

Thanks for your comments. As for the polling data, I'm not totally confident either. But the (Asia Foundation) survey was carried out by locals, dressed like locals, speaking their dialect and making clear that they did not represent the government (although at the village level they would still be considered outsiders of a sort). So what the surveyed people thought the surveyers wanted to hear would be different from what they would think an American or European wants to hear.

The BBC/ARD poll just refers to a group in Afghanistan that carried out their poll. They don't say anything substantial about methodology so I can't really comment on their findings.

I'm not saying these polls are the ground truth. I'm just claiming that they are more accurate than Rory Stewart. I don't doubt localized pockets of high support for the Taliban, but in an national average with all those Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kabulis, Heratis, government aligned Pashtuns, etc... I don't think that the results are too far off. I think Afghans are just pointing towards their least worst option.

Note that local commanders (AKA warlords) also have very low popularity in the AF surveys. If we question levels of support for the Taliban we then may also want to look into the level of support for commanders that are supposedly very unpopular.

I would really like to see the issue of polling explored some more. Especially since the same types of polls in Iraq show very different findings (I don't know "Iraqi" culture so I don't know if they tailor their answers to the surveyor or not).

But I guess we will have a partial answer in 2009 in the presidential election when we can compare polls to results.

Jul 29, 2008 at 22:57 | Registered CommenterChristian Bleuer

On the issue of Tajikistan, yes it was a military victory, but again achieved on the cheap. The Russian role was very modest - if the depleted Russian air force was such a resolutive factor, then why did it fail in Afghanistan when it was at the height of its power? And why the much more effective US air force is not being as resolutive in Afghanistan today? The defeated Gharmis were never as throughly defeated as the Taliban in 2001, still the peace process worked because the winning side offered an inclusive deal to the losers rather then pushing them against the edge. On the diplomatic side, a deal was worked out to include the Afghan (Massoud) and the Iranians, that is the concerned neighbours. Finally, on the role of Tajik migrant workers, the Afghan diaspora is also very big and certainly richer than the Tajik one; remittances play an important role in the Afghan economy even if nobody can really quantify them accurately. Surely South Korea is the paradigm that people in Washington like to use when they talk about Afghanistan, it just seems to be going the other way right now.

As for the Asia Foundation's poll, this might be the way they planned it, but how was it implemented? I have some experience of commissioning people to do things in Afghanistan and i am skeptical that the pollsters went to areas affected by the conflict and carried out their brief in full without strict supervision. The methodology of talking to people in Afghanistan, as far as I am concerned, involves talking to people opposed to the Taliban and get their assessment about the insurgency. If you get introduced by somebody they trust they are more likely to speak honestly. Off the record, even government officials can be quite disparaging.

Jul 31, 2008 at 17:03 | Registered CommenterAntonio Giustozzi

I take your points on the Russian air force (but not on the MRD) and partially on the remittances (I believe Tajikistan likely would have "failed" without the remittances and the massive out-migration of young males). I should also have mentioned the Uzbekistani MoIA SF brigade that participated in taking back Dushanbe. As for the Gharmis/IRP, they are/were a very different creature from the Taliban. Their leadership publicly stated that they did not want an Islamic state and when they had the chance they did not implement sharia or anything closely resembling it. They were fighting for access to resources and political power at the national and raikom level, not for an Islamic state. Russian and American analysts ending up distorting their goals considerably while Uzbekistan did their best to show that the IMU and the UTO were one and the same. Also, when they were defeated they went back to their villages, town, and kolkhozes, not to an ISI/FATA safehaven. The role of Afghanistan as a safe haven for IRP/UTO/Gharmi fighters was, small as it was, exaggerated even then. The Gharmis had no foreign patron. And it was the overwhelming fear of the Taliban that drove all the conflicting parties together.

I guess what we are both saying in different ways is that is is difficult to draw comparisons between Afghanistan and other cases.

I'll try to address polling more completely sometime in the future.

Aug 1, 2008 at 0:58 | Registered CommenterChristian Bleuer

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