Article first published in The Times by Rachel Sylvester on 26 June 2010.
There are not many new MPs who have had the rights to their life story bought by Brad Pitt, with Orlando Bloom lined up to play the starring role. Rory Stewart is no ordinary politician, however. At 37 he has already done more than many backbenchers achieve in their careers. He was an officer in the Black Watch and a diplomat in Montenegro following the Kosovo conflict. He was deputy governor of an Iraqi province after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and helped to set up schools in post-Taleban Kabul.
He is the author of two bestselling books, one an account of his 6,000-mile walk across Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, and speaks 11 languages, although his Serbo-Croat, Nepali and Urdu are, he says, “rusty”. He spent a summer tutoring Princes William and Harry.
Until the election, he was a Harvard human rights professor who dined with Hillary Clinton, advised Barack Obama and testified before the Senate foreign relations committee. Within weeks of becoming Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border in May, he was invited to Chequers for a meeting about the future of Afghanistan.
Parliament must seem very narrow in comparison with his previous life. “It’s as though you are in some kind of maze,” he says. “There are glimpses of things behind frosted glass. You can sense there are all these very exciting opportunities but you can’t quite work out how to get to them.”
We meet in his remote Cumbrian cottage, which sits in the hills at the end of a winding dirt track. He was elected to the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee this week, but insists that all he really cares about is rural broadband, milk quotas and parish councils.
David Cameron, however, has already sought his views on Afghanistan. What did Mr Stewart think of President Obama’s decision to fire his top general? “I spent time with Stanley McChrystal in Kabul and I really like the guy,” he says. “He’s a soldier’s soldier — incredibly charismatic and energetic. He was always very frank and outspoken and, as a result, he was an inspiring leader . . . My instinct would have been to support the commanding general on the ground.”
He thinks General David Petraeus will carry on where his predecessor left off. But, he believes, Britain and America must adopt a new approach to Afghanistan. Mr Stewart opposed last year’s troop surge and thinks that the majority of troops should be brought home next July.
“I would be delighted if Petraeus pulled this off but I’m doubtful he will and I believe at that stage we need to start rethinking the strategy.”
Having spent months living in rural villages across Afghanistan, Mr Stewart is convinced that the current approach is unsustainable. “It is mission impossible in Afghanistan,” he says. “I do not believe we can win a counter insurgency campaign. We are never going to have the time or the troop numbers. Even if you put 600,000 troops on the ground, I can’t see a credible, effective legitimate Afghan Government emerging.”
The West should not cut and run but, he says, “if you keep going like this the backlash that will build up, the spectres of Vietnam that will emerge in the minds of the British public, will mean that we will end up leaving entirely and the country will be much worse off.”
His message to Mr Obama and Mr Cameron is: “OK, you’ve sent your 40,000 extra troops. You’re going to be in there until July of next year. But let this be the last. Let’s start now talking about a plan B — not exit but reduction.” All but a few thousand troops, perhaps 1,000 of them British, should, he says, be withdrawn next summer.
“You would have a few planes around but you would no longer do counter-insurgency. You would no longer be in the game of trying to hold huge swaths of rural Afghanistan. “It’s really unpredictable what would happen. The situation there is brutal. If you reduce the troops in Helmand then a lot of Afghans who have sided with the British will suffer — the Taleban are an extremely unpleasant organisation. There are no good options. Our obligations and our interests in Afghanistan are not sufficient to justify the deployment of 100,000 American troops and the expenditure of $100 billion (£67,000 billion) nor the deployment beyond July of next year of this number of British troops and this amount of British money.
“We need to get away from black and white extremes, from either saying we have a massive moral obligation to the Afghan people and that this is vital to Britain’s national security interests or saying it’s none of our business.
The reality is that we do have some obligation to the Afghan people but it’s a limited obligation because we have many other obligations in the world and to our own country. These are not blank-cheque obligations.” It would, he says, be helpful if Afghanistan was more stable. “But it’s not the most scary place in the region. Pakistan is far more worrying. When I saw General Petraeus six months ago, he said to me: ‘I’m fed up about talking to you about Afghanistan. What I want to know is what should we be doing about Pakistan and Iran. I’m getting rather concerned about Northern Yemen and I want to know what’s happening in Somalia.’ Afghanistan is a troublesome country but it’s one of many … and it’s certainly not the most troublesome.”
The West must accept the limitations of what it can do. “It’s a message which Cameron grasps quite easily but the US finds it very difficult to grasp that there are things that you can’t do.” Britain should be willing to assert its independence from America — “it was a mistake not to do so in Iraq”.
During his epic walk, Mr Stewart would turn up on people’s doorsteps in rural villages and ask to stay the night. “Each village is quite different to its neighbour,” he says. “Within ten miles you go from a village run by a mullah to one run by a traditional feudal chief to one run by a jihadi warlord commander to one run in some sort of commune . . . When I got back to Kabul and heard the Afghan Finance Minister say ‘every Afghan is committed to a gender sensitive multi-ethnic state-based democracy’, I thought, I cannot imagine how to translate this into language that one of these villagers could understand. I became obsessed by the gap between the rhetoric of the international community and the reality.”
He ran a cultural charity in Afghanistan — was Liam Fox right to describe it as a “broken 13th-century country”?
“Afghanistan can be sorted but it needs founding fathers. Nation building is an indigenous process. If a bunch of Spaniards had turned up here with Magna Carta, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Change, he believes, must be introduced locally. “You can get girls to school but you do it by very complicated negotiations. When I set up a school in the old city of Kabul, we had all the men in the community sitting in the back row for the first two weeks to see what their daughters were being taught.”
It’s a lesson he’s taken to Cumbria. During the election campaign, he walked from one side of the constituency to the other, staying in strangers’ homes as he had done in Afghanistan. “Normally politicians jump out of the car with their leaflets. But when you walk you meet random people and you see the landscape evolving.” He thinks you never really understand a village unless you walk to it.
“I can tell you that if you enter Croglin you pass the Robin Hood pub. On the right is Mrs Cook, who home-schools her children, and on the left is Mr Butler, who runs Croglin Toys. I wouldn’t know that if I hadn’t stopped, tired, at these people’s doors.”
Mr Stewart, whose hero is Lawrence of Arabia, is as much an adventurer as a politician. His father worked for MI6 and he grew up in Malaysia. “There’s something quixotic about me,” he says. “When I was 4 or 5 my father used to make bacon and egg sandwiches, take me into the jungle and we’d build a raft and sail down the river eating them.”
Having set up a charity with the Prince of Wales, written columns for the New York Review of Books and dined with presidential candidates, he is extraordinarily well connected. He was at Eton with some of his fellow MPs, including Jo Johnson and Zac Goldsmith, but, so far, is not part of a Cameron cabal. His friends, he says, are outside politics. In his teens he was a Labour member but “learnt to be a Tory” because he was put off by the last Government’s “micromanaging tendencies” in Afghanistan.
Since being elected he has been shocked by the public anger over expenses. “People think you’ve joined the system.” Being a politician is, he thinks, a “manic depressive” role. “You alternate between being treated in the Houses of Parliament with great politeness by men in starched shirts to going out in the street and people screaming at you that you’re a liar. You go from the illusion that you are somehow contributing to UK policy towards the Gaza flotilla or, even more deluded, that you actually somehow are going to be able to control what happens in Gaza, to suddenly realising that you can’t even deal with the Rural Payments Agency.”
The House of Commons needs to rediscover its sense of purpose, he says. “When I was in Iraq I spent six months living next to the Ziggurat of Ur. It’s a temple built 4,000 years ago and we have no idea what its purpose was. Parliament reminds me of that. It’s a chapel whose inner meaning has gone. I think we probably have to start again.”
Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp? Johnny Depp
Plato or Aristotle? Aristotle
Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations?
Pride and Prejudice
Desert or mountain? That’s too difficult
Sun or shade? Sun
Hiking boots or wellies? Hiking boots
Beowulf or Baywatch? Beowulf
Beer or wine? Wine
Indiana Jones or James Bond?
George W. Bush or Barack Obama?
Oh, come on, who answers that in any way except
T.E. Lawrence or D.H. Lawrence?
T.E. of course