Article first published in Maclean’s by Michael Petrou on 13 May 2007.

In January 2002, only two months after the Taliban were overthrown, Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul. He had previously served in the British foreign service and the British army. In 2003, at age 30, he became the coalition deputy governorate coordinator of two provinces in the Marsh Arab region of southern Iraq. He is the author of two bestselling books about both experiences: The Places In Between and The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq. He now lives in Kabul and runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which promotes and preserves traditional Afghan craftsmanship and historic buildings.

Q: In addition to walking across Afghanistan, you walked across Iran, India, Pakistan and Nepal. When and why did you decide to do this?

A: I decided to do it about four years before I set off. I remember walking one day. It was about 11 o’clock in the morning, and it was near my house in Scotland. It was spring. And I remember thinking, this is a great thing to do, and I wish I could keep doing this and walk all around the world.

Q: Many of the villagers whom you encountered had little loyalty to, or conception of, a unified Afghan state. Some had never been farther away than the next village. What lessons does this hold for those of us who are trying to support a unified and stable Afghanistan?

A: We need to be considerably more realistic about Afghanistan. We are in danger of pursuing utopian fantasies that have no connection to either our own capacity or knowledge, or the capacities and desires of Afghans. The international community is simultaneously trying to fight the Taliban, create a liberal democracy, exterminate narcotics, create a strong central government throughout the country and defend human rights. Very few of these objectives are credible or possible. There is a surreal gap between the language of the international community and our performance. We need to be honest about the limits of our own power and knowledge.

Afghanistan itself is a country that has resisted attempts, by the British in the 19th century and by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, to impose two quite distinct ideological models on it. And it will resist again. Eighty per cent of the population is rural. They are much more xenophobic and Islamist than we acknowledge. They may be interested in majority representation, but they are often not interested in minority rights. They may be interested in freedom from torture, but they may not be interested in a free media. Millions of Afghans support sharia law and believe women should wear burkas. Millions of Afghans would probably prefer the Taliban to the international community. We need to take these things on board. We need to drop our expectations.

Q: What is feasible to accomplish? If we need to lower our expectations and be more realistic, what can we hope to achieve?

A: The United States firstly need to focus on protecting its own soil against terrorist attack, and that means counterterrorism, not counter-insurgency. We need to distinguish very clearly between special forces and intelligence operations directed against al-Qaeda training camps, and counter-insurgency, which is the currently – I believe – doomed project to try to put twenty or thirty thousand troops on the ground to defeat the Taliban.

Secondly, we should try to deliver more of what Afghans are demanding. Afghans are saying, “Bring back the Russians. At least they built roads and dams.” The garbage is seven feet deep in the centre of Kabul at the moment. Historic buildings are collapsing. There’s no sewage. There’s no water. It is a complete disgrace. I cannot understand how the international community has allowed that to happen.

Q: You had an encounter with the Taliban, whom you described as dangerous bullies with a strangled view of God and a stupid obsession with death. What role will such men have in the future of Afghanistan?

A: They will play quite a large role because they represent a relatively powerful and effective minority of the country. Most of the Taliban, or people referred to as the Taliban, have no intention of attacking Canada or the United States on their home soil. They include the leadership in Quetta that was associated with the old Taliban regime, and which may be more intransigent and extreme in their Islamist demands; a group that see themselves as Afghan nationalists, but nevertheless supports conservative Islamic codes; and a final group of floating young men who may be quite easily influenced and convinced to join the Taliban but may be equally influenced to move back in the other direction. The real urgent requirement is for the Afghan government to engage politically with these different groups, because the international community has neither the commitment, the will, nor the resources to defeat them, and the Afghan military has no intention of taking over that mission.

Q: You note that Western intervention in Afghanistan is often described as neo-colonialism. But you argue that in fact real colonialism, the old British type of the 19th century, was actually much more effective.

A: The colonial policy of the British government in the 19th century was racist. It was exploitative and oppressive. So in no way am I trying to condone the British colonial policy of the 19th century. But the notable difference is that they were considerably more professional.

Colonial officers spent 40 years in the country to which they were posted. They generally spoke the local languages fluently. They served in remote areas. If they didn’t balance the budgets, they would be bankrupt. If they didn’t keep security, they would be killed in their buildings. We have much more power and much less responsibility. We’re there on very short tours. We’re often moving between different postings. If we fail to balance the budgets, it doesn’t matter; we’ll bring in billions of dollars in international aid. If we fail to keep security, it doesn’t matter; we’ll evacuate ourselves and return home. So the fundamental structures of our institutions today do not encourage an accountable, responsible relationship to the beneficiaries. The international development community is largely accountable to donors, not to the people to whom it’s giving money.

Q: You had a chance to put some of these ideas into effect when you became the deputy governorate coordinator of two provinces in southern Iraq. You and your team appear to have been dedicated and skilled, yet the insurgency increased. What happened?

A: The fundamental lesson in Iraq is that interventions of this sort rely on consent. In Iraq, the mission was doomed from the point at which it became obvious that the Shia were not going to co-operate in the project. For the Sunni not to co-operate, that would be one thing. That would be like perhaps the Serbs in Kosovo or the Serbs in Bosnia choosing not to co-operate. But if the majority population, which in the case of Iraq is the Shia and in the case of Afghanistan is the Pashtuns, choose to mount a violent insurgency, it’s almost impossible for the international government to do much about it. We are not particularly competent, we’re not particularly effective, and we’re not particularly informed. And even if the majority of the population is neutral toward our objectives, they’re not going to come off the fence and defend us against people who present themselves as fighting for Iraq and Islam or Afghanistan and Islam, against a foreign military occupation.

Q: When you look back at your time in Iraq, are there things you would have done differently?

A: I made an unbelievable number of mistakes. The most fundamental was a failure to fully trust and empower Iraqis. It’s easier said than done. The reality is that the Iraqi government we were dealing with was corrupt, nepotistic, and favoured a very authoritarian security policy. But in retrospect, I think we should have said, ‘this guy is the governor of the province, he’s going to have to run this place when we leave, and we’ll have to let him get on with it.’ It’s very easy for foreigners to fool themselves into believing that they’re doing something useful, but a lasting solution is only going to come if you really respect the autonomy of the local population, which means tolerating their values, their views and what they want to do. I’d say the lesser of the two evils – it’s a very difficult political choice – but the lesser of the two evils is to genuinely empower and allow local politicians to run things the way they want.

Q: What do you think will happen in Iraq?

A: I believe that we ought to leave and that Iraqi Arabs, both Sunni and Shia, are able to resolve their differences, and that they will be able to rebuild a nation. It’s going to be a difficult process to watch, but I think it will ultimately be a successful process. It’s not something that foreigners can do for them.

Q: Today, you’re living in Afghanistan, running a non-profit foundation that is trying to preserve and promote traditional Afghan crafts and the country’s archaeological history. Why do you think it will be successful?

A: Afghans need jobs. They need skills. They need renewed pride in their national culture. Kabul, which is the capital city and is of central political and symbolic importance, looks like a trash heap at the moment. We have just cleared 1,200 trucks of garbage. We have begun to pave and level the streets. We have begun to repair 20 historic buildings. And we’re also focusing hard on business and crafts, which Afghans can export. Afghanistan has a very strong 2,000-year history in trade and crafts. The carpet industry is a very dramatic success story, which employs women and the rural poor. We’re also looking at woodwork and ceramics and textiles and calligraphy. In every case, we’re both trying to preserve traditional skills and create new designs, bring in new technologies and find new markets to sustain Afghanistan’s jobs and incomes. It seems to be generating a lot of enthusiasm, which for me is a good indication.

Q: You’re meeting with officials from Foreign Affairs while you’re in Canada. What advice will you give them?

A: I’d say that we have an urgent requirement now to describe realistic objectives in Afghanistan, and that if we fail to define these realistic objectives, we’re going to be in danger of going from engagement to isolation, from troop increases to withdrawal. We’re at a tipping point. We’re at a point in which we need to grab the situation before despair and paralysis set in. Clearly explain to the public, the voting public and Afghans, what it is that we’re trying to achieve and do. We may then find that although we’re less knowledgeable and less powerful than we pretend, we’re more knowledgeable and more powerful than we fear. It means reinterpreting our role as being one of counterterrorism and the defence of the Afghan government against conventional assaults, but giving up the idea of trying to fight a counter-insurgency campaign against anti-government forces across the country.

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