International

VietnamHas Britain given up on foreign affairs? Many say ‘We don’t have an Empire anymore’; or that ‘We are not a rich country.’ That has been said since Indian independence in 1947, or perhaps since our economic fragility was laid bare at the end of the First World War. Some ask ‘What right have we got to tell others how to live their lives?’ That question has been gathered momentum since the 1960s. Some ask ‘What business is it of mine?’ That attitude has been going on since the Old Testament.

Meanwhile, the balance of power is shifting to the people, quickly. Parliament blocked government action on Syria. In 2017 there will probably be a referendum over our membership of the European Union. There is disquiet over our aid programmes. Some diplomats find all this worrying. They fear it is a sign that populism or domestic priorities are undermining Britain’s place in the world. They worry that people don’t know about the complexities of foreign affairs and don’t care. They are wrong.

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Intervention

How to Save Afghanistan

First published in Time magazine, July 17, 2008. It is summer now in Kabul, the snow has largely melted from the 15,000-ft. (4,600 m) peaks, and I am sitting with my friends Hussein, Nabi and Zia in the garden of a 19th century fort. Nearby, 10 carpenters who work with my nongovernmental organization (NGO) are […]

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Where Less Is More

Published in the New York York Times, 23 July 2007 America and its allies are in danger of repeating the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and even some Republicans are insisting on withdrawing from Iraq and sending more troops and resources to southern Afghanistan. The Bush administration’s gloomy National Intelligence Estimate […]

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When Less Is Best

First published in The New York Times, 20 March, 2007. Why are we in Afghanistan? Vice President Cheney talks terror, Britain focuses on narcotics. The European Union talks ‘state-building,’ others gender. On a different day, the positions seem interchangeable. Five years ago, we had a clear goal. Now we seem to be pursuing a bundle […]

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Our Echoes Come From You

First published in the New York Times, 24 March 2007. Afghanistan is now both more and less than a nation. Dialects of its official language are spoken from Iran to India. Its greetings and rituals are recognizable in Chechnya. Kabuli woodwork incorporates motifs from Syria, the Mughal Empire and pre-Islamic Uzbekistan. On Tuesday, I heard […]

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What We Can Do

First published in the New York Times, 27 March 2007 We must acknowledge the limits of our power and knowledge in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and concentrate on what is achievable. The question is not “What ought we to do?” but “What can we do?” This is rarely discussed. When I ask politicians whether we can defeat […]

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An Afghan Policy Built on Pipe Dreams

 First published in The New York Times, March 3, 2007. The international community’s policy in Afghanistan is based on the claim that Afghans are willing partners in the creation of a liberal democratic state. Senator John McCain finished a recent speech on Afghanistan by saying, “Billions of people around the world now embrace the ideals […]

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Even in Iraq, all politics is local

First published in The New York Times, July 13, 2006. A great many of the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq arise from a single problem: the American-led coalitions’ lack of trust in local politicians. Repeatedly the Western powers, irritated by a lack of progress, have overruled local leaders, rejected compromises and tried to force through their […]

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The Looting of Turquoise Mountain

First published in The New York Times In a deserted maze of narrow gorges in the central mountains of Afghanistan, I turned a corner and saw a tower. It rose 200 feet, a slim column of intricately carved terra cotta set with a line of turquoise tiles. There was nothing else. The mountain walls formed […]

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Iranian Girls

First published in Prospect Magazine, 1 November, 2001. They are not free because their minds are not free,” said the headmistress, introducing me to my first class. “You are not here only to teach them English, you are here to open their minds.” Ten women were seated around a table in the over-heated room. All […]

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My time in Indonesia

First published in the London Review of Books, July 2000. Caleb held a bundle of arrows in his left hand and a bow and single arrow in his right. His mother was holding her torn ears between her thumbs and forefingers. Her chin was on her bare chest. Her legs were coated with grey mud. […]