Stewart's proposal: at most 20,000 troops devoted to counter-terrorism operations and containment of Taliban influence, but not defeat of the Taliban, which Stewart says is impossible. The West's goal should be a 30-year commitment to slowly do the possible--shepherd Afghanistan toward a stable, economically viable country. Attempting to "win" without clear objectives, as Western strategy has it now, is likeliest to ensure failure and complete withdrawal, which would be the ultimate betrayal of Afghanistan. Following is the full text of Stewart's testimony to the Senate committee.
The Future in Afghanistan
The administration’s new policy on Afghanistan has a very narrow focus – counter-terrorism – and a very broad definition of how to achieve it: no less than the fixing of the Afghan state and defeating the Taliban insurgency. President Obama has presented this in a formal argument. The final goal in the region is ‘to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future’.
A necessary condition of the defeat of al-Qaida is the defeat of the Taliban because ‘if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban, that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.’ He, therefore, proposes a counter-insurgency strategy, which includes the deployment of more troops ‘to take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east’ and a more comprehensive approach, which aims to ‘promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government . . . advance security, opportunity and justice . . . develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs.’
Being All Things to All Afghans
This policy is rooted in the pre-set categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that policy-makers appear to put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’ These connections are global: in Obama’s words, ‘our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others.’
Indeed, at times it seems that all these activities – building a state, defeating the Taliban, defeating al-Qaida and eliminating poverty – are the same activity. The new US army and marine corps counter-insurgency doctrine sounds like a World Bank policy document, replete with commitments to the rule of law, economic development, governance, state-building and human rights. In Obama’s words, ‘security and humanitarian concerns are all part of one project.
Trying to do the Impossible
The fundamental problem with the strategy is that it is trying to do the impossible. It is highly unlikely that the US will be able either to build an effective, legitimate state or to defeat a Taliban insurgency . It needs to find another way of protecting the US against terrorist attack.
We claim to be engaged in a neutral, technocratic, universal project of ‘statebuilding’ but we don’t know exactly what that means. Those who see Afghanistan as reverting to the Taliban or becoming a traditional autocratic state are referring to situations that existed there in 1972 and 1994. But the international community’s ambition appears to be to create something that has not existed before. Obama calls it ‘a more capable and accountable Afghan government’. The US, the UK and their allies agreed unanimously at the Nato 60th anniversary summit in April to create ‘a stronger democratic state’ in Afghanistan.’
Only Afghanistan Can Fix Afghanistan
Whatever this state is, it could come only from an Afghan national movement, not as a gift from foreigners. As we have seen over the last seven years – and most starkly in the recent election – Afghan government is certainly unlikely in the next five years to reflect US ideas of legitimacy, legal process, civil service function, rights, economic behavior or even broader international assumption about development.
Even an aim as modest as ‘stability’ is highly ambitious. Afghanistan is a mountainous country, with strong traditions of local self-government and autonomy, significant ethnic differences, but strong shared moral values. A centralizing constitution may well be combined with de facto local independence and Afghanistan is starting from a very low base: 30 years of investment might allow its army, police, civil service and economy to approach the levels of Pakistan. And Pakistan clearly still does not have whatever mixture of state-formation, legitimacy, accountability or effectiveness that is apparently necessary to prevent the Taliban and Al Qaeda from operating.
Nor is it clear that even if stronger central institutions were to emerge that they would they assist US national security objectives. Osama bin Laden is still in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. He chooses to be there precisely because Pakistan can be more assertive in its state sovereignty than Afghanistan and restricts US operations. From a narrow (and harsh) US national security perspective, a poor failed state could be easier to handle than a more developed one: Yemen is less threatening than Iran, Somalia than Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan than Pakistan.