A video of Rory taken during his tenure as Director at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Here he explains a new program at the Carr Center that seeks to address one of the greatest foreign policy and human rights challenges of our times.
Article first published in the Evening Standard on 12 August 2009.
The man who briefs Obama’s team has a new mission: to clean up British politics. Will Parliament prove even more dangerous for Rory Stewart than Kabul or Iraq?
The ground covered by Rory Stewart, who is 36, is remarkable. A soldier, a diplomat, a tutor to Princes William and Harry, a nomad in Afghanistan, an award-winning writer, a coalition governor of an Iraqi province and a Harvard professor. His most hyperbolic admirers regard him as part Laurens van der Post, part Lawrence of Arabia. His unflinching truths about Afghanistan are gravely listened to by Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s adviser on Afghanistan. The film options to his life have been bought.
What consumes Stewart at the moment, however, is High Wycombe, one of the safe Conservative seats he hopes to represent after the next election. The seats are becoming vacant because MPs are disillusioned — as in High Wycombe — or stung by the expenses scandal.
Why would someone of Stewart’s international reputation wish to enter such a derided profession? There is a 19th-century air to Stewart and he is puzzled by the modern cynicism about Parliament. Also, he has been living in America through the Obama transition and is full of inspiration. When he read of David Cameron’s call for political novices, he presented himself to the Tory party.
His meeting with Mr Cameron was brief. “He was very polite and very neutral. Not particularly supportive. He told me to think carefully about it.”
Despite being an old Etonian, Stewart has no network to rely on. He says he has no politician friends. “I would be entering a profession where I don’t know anybody,” he says, a touch forlorn.
“My closest friends are in the Foreign Office, the UN, an academic, a playwright, a comedian. They are very disapproving of my decision.”
Stewart does not even have a personal history of Conservatism. At university — Balliol College, Oxford — he voted Labour.
It was his experience in Afghanistan, running a not-for-profit organisation in Kabul, sponsored by Prince Charles, which changed his politics.
“The thing that drove me up the wall and made me Conservative was the experience of dealing with the international donor organisations. All these organisations from the World Bank to the UN, all these people in international development are living in a crazy world of form-filling, box-ticking, report-writing.
“You end up where you are trying to get money to clear a path of rubbish and you say: ‘Could I employ some people to move the trash?’ “And they say: ‘Well, maybe if you describe it as a gender project we can get dollars through the gender pool.’ “It is like dealing with Hackney Council.”
For Rory, life-changing decisions are associated with walking. It was his walk across Afghanistan between 20022004 that bridged his old life as a diplomat and his new life of many possibilities. It also produced his first book, The Places in Between, described by the New York Times as ” a flat out masterpiece”.
His decision to stand as an MP in Britain has been hardened through walking. He has spent days this summer walking from his native Crieff to Penrith, more than 150 miles. When I meet him at his aunt’s flat by Sloane Square, he had recently walked from London to Oxford. He got up at 4.30am and walked until he reached Oxford at 11.30pm. He is a pilgrim before he is a politician.
There is a spiritual innocence to Stewart, accentuated by his child-like features. He has not mastered the evasive language of the British politician. When I ask if it will be a problem for him being an Etonian, he does not say: “It is not where you come from but where you are heading.” He nods and says: ” Sure. I don’t know what to do about that.”
His gentle, courteous manner and his high intellect would, you might imagine, render him too delicate for a life outside academia. The book he happens to be reading at the moment is Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, along with some Buddhist teachings.
His closeness to his younger sister, Fiona, aged 31, who has Down’s Syndrome, may partly explain his patient and empathetic manner. “I have learned that there are many different ways of being.”
Yet this slight, soft figure survived Iraq and Afghanistan. Why should he not manage the House of Commons? One can only speculate how our MPs will greet his idea of a chivalric code for politicians. Stewart says that his response to the expenses scandal was “there but for the grace of God” and notes that the BBC is not enjoying its turn in the spotlight.
But then his eyes widen with thought: “Wouldn’t it be time to draw up a tight code of conduct? You don’t want to turn MPs into an order of monks but there is such a thing as a vocation. It could be a code of honour, more like army officers sign up to.”
I wonder if Stewart’s conspicuously virtuous life might be hard going for some of our MPs. He frowns: “Oh, I am horrified by the idea of judging because I realise how weak and fragile I am. If I have managed to remain virtuous, it is luck. The important line in Lord’s Prayer is: Lead me not into temptation. But if you had asked me when I was younger and fresher and more confident I would have talked of honour.”
A simple reason for Rory Stewart’s wish to enter British public life after a career abroad is that he has become homesick. Having been politically engaged in Indonesia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and America, he now wants to settle, to find a wife, to start a family. And he wants to do it in his own country.
As he prepares to fly back to Kabul to witness the Afghanistan elections on 20 August, Stewart is convinced that the British mission there is doomed. It is conceptually flawed and confused in execution. He recently wrote a lucid indictment in the London Review of Books and was immediately contacted by the staff of General Stanley McChrystal, the new US commander in Afghanistan.
But, shrugs Stewart, they have already made their decision. McChrystal is expected to call for more troops and the new head of the British Army, Sir David Richards, is talking of a 40year commitment to Afghanistan.
In Stewart’s view, we need fewer troops and less commitment. A bit of practical help, rather than a vision. A return to pre-2004.
“What happened after that was a murmur from people who felt disappointed that we hadn’t created a gender sensitive, multi-ethnic, centralised state.
“Generally what happens when you push a boulder up hill is that as soon as you let go it rolls down again.”
He believes that our greater presence is “actually provoking the Taliban”. He is appalled by the inflated sense of what can be achieved and by our acceptance of our moral obligation. Everyone blunders around a small truth. It is not our country.
Stewart claims that the British Government does not really believe in the cause and that we are there simply to please the Americans, who are preparing anyway to finish the job themselves. The Americans now have nearly as many soldiers in Helmand Province as the British. General Sir David Richards is proud to have been commander of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force.
Stewart says: ” I have heard senators and congressmen frequently joke that ISAF stands for: ‘I saw Americans fight.’ “I get the impression that our Government, including Gordon Brown, doesn’t really believe in this and the reason why the Government looks as if it is not giving adequate responses to people saying, “Send more troops, more helicopters, we had better get this right” is because they are very doubtful.
“But the Government can’t say that, nor can they say in public that the main reason we are sticking with it is that it will help us with the US to stay there.
“I think that is very dangerous, because it means you are sending soldiers to fight in Helmand Province but you are half-hearted about it. And so you are not going to win brownie points with the US. What will happen is what happened in Iraq. The Americans will become increasingly dismissive of our contribution.
They are aware they are bailing us out with their air power. We are responsible for Helmand Province but the Americans have just deployed 10,000 soldiers there. They are taking responsibility for more than half of it, because we couldn’t hold it.”
Stewart warns that increased activity is just drawing us into a counter insurgency. He also doubts the final fruits of our work — a democratic nation. Most startlingly counterintuitive of all, he denies that Afghanistan is even much of a terrorist threat in the first place.
“We need to get Afghanistan into proportion. We have become fixated and Afghans have connived in this. A senior Afghan politician said to me: ‘Rory please stop calling Afghanistan a humanitarian project. We must be the number one terrorist threat in the world because if we are not, the West will stop giving us money.’ It is a crazed, co-dependent relationship.
“The fate of the world does not depend on what happens in Afghanistan and it is a ridiculous idea that if we do not fight in Afghan villages, we will be fighting on the streets of Britain. Most Afghans could not find Britain on a map.”
But what of our moral obligations? “Don’t we have obligations to our soldiers and to our taxpayers?” he shoots back.
“This can’t be a blank cheque. You cannot say that we have an obligation to an unknown country which is limitless. You don’t have a moral obligation to do what you cannot do. This is not our country.”
Worse than the impotence is the irrelevance. Stewart points out patiently that Al Qaeda is not even in Afghanistan but in Pakistan.
“We have come into a room with an angry cat called Afghanistan and a tiger called Pakistan and we are beating the cat. We say, oh it is tiger/cat strategy. But it is really that we don’t know what to do about the tiger.”
Stewart says that President Obama is locked into Afghanistan to prove that he is tough about American security after the withdrawal from Iraq. And the British are there because we are there.
He notes, I do not think from wounded vanity, that while the American political and military establishment want to listen to him and fly him in for briefings, the British do not particularly wish to raise the issue.
“Partly because the Foreign Office assumes it knows everything already,” he smiles. “I have met senior British generals, and maybe this is a difference in national character, but you don’t get the American eagerness to learn.” He adds self-mockingly: “Maybe they don’t read the London Review of Books.”
Rory Stewart hopes that experience in the community of Kabul will translate to a Conservative constituency. He likes the idea of getting things done — moving the rubbish from the path — while thinking about policy.
I fear that his determination to make British schoolchildren learn the names of native trees and birds may not look gritty enough for an election manifesto but if voters are looking for a chivalric knight of fearless truths as a cure for the expenses scandal then Stewart may be the right man at the right time to do it.
First Published as a conversation on National Public Radio
GUY RAZ, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I’m Guy Raz. This hour, we’ll check in with the biggest pop star in Italy and get an update on the mass protest movement in Iran.
But first, to Afghanistan, where in these first two days of August, nine NATO soldiers have been killed, including three Americans ambushed this morning.
July was the deadliest month for NATO forces since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. The casualties are rising as the U.S. military reframes its Afghanistan strategy. The catchphrase is one we’ve heard before, counterinsurgency. It worked in Iraq, but can it succeed in Afghanistan?
Mr. RORY STEWART (Director, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy; Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): I don’t think it’s our business to get involved in trying to create a stable, legitimate, effective state in Afghanistan. If we try it, I fear we would fail.
RAZ: That’s Rory Stewart, a former British diplomat. He walked across Afghanistan in 2001 and ran a private foundation in the country for three years. He now directs the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard and occasionally advises U.S. officials and military officers. But he’s angered some of them with an article in the London Review of Books. The piece argues that a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is a recipe for failure.
Mr. STEWART: It seems as though the Obama administration is saying that they have a very narrow objective, which is to prevent terrorist attacks against the United States but that the means to that objective is very broad, very wide-ranging.
In other words, in order to achieve the counter-terrorist objective, they need to defeat the Taliban. In order to defeat the Taliban, they need to build some kind of stable, legitimate, effective state. And that also entails providing humanitarian development assistance, and it also entails providing regional stability including Pakistan.
So what we see is an argument that takes this very narrow objective, al-Qaida, and ends up aiming at nothing less than the creation of a functioning Afghan state.
RAZ: Rory Stewart, I mean, as you make this argument, and as you know, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, reportedly wants even more troops than the 20,000 the Obama administration has agreed to send.
Mr. STEWART: But the point is that it’s not our task to stabilize the country. I don’t think it’s within the gift of the United States and its allies to stabilize Afghanistan. Afghanistan is an unstable country, in part, because more than half the teachers are only educated one grade above their students, that maybe a third of the population can’t read and write, that after 30 years of war, this is such a fragile, traumatized, impoverished place that stability is not something that’s going to be delivered to a country like Afghanistan or a country like Chad or a country like Somalia simply through the deployment of 110,000 international troops.
RAZ: If stability isn’t necessarily the objective the West should be after, what can be done to, you know…
Mr. STEWART: What can be done is what we’ve, broadly speaking, been doing over the last seven years. I’m trying to push for a much more light footprint. The United States and its allies would keep a few tens of thousands of troops on the ground, far fewer than we have at the moment, over a longer time period, with the objective of trying to make Afghanistan too uncomfortable for al-Qaida and trying to help the country to develop with the emphasis on help.
RAZ: In your article, you concede that aid agencies, human rights activists, think tanks, liberals, conservatives, all tend to support, or rather not protest over a troop increase in Afghanistan. And you write about how many Afghans also support a troop increase. How do you explain that?
Mr. STEWART: Largely because people, quite rightly, don’t like the Taliban. The Taliban are a brutal, violent, regressive movement. People want to have better lives. And they’re hoping that the deployment of extra troops will transform the situation in Afghanistan, eliminate the threat of the Taliban and create a centralized, multi-ethnic state based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. And those are good things to want. I’m just afraid that they’re wrong in believing they’re going to achieve them through troop increases.
RAZ: As you know, the talk in the United States is about a counterinsurgency strategy, one that was applied to Iraq that ought to now be applied to Afghanistan. In your view, from your experience living in Afghanistan, a counterinsurgency campaign won’t work.
Mr. STEWART: Afghanistan is a much poorer, much more fragmented country than Iraq. The success of the counterinsurgency in Iraq depended largely on Iraqis, elements in Iraqi society and Iraqi economy and Iraqi politics, which just don’t exist in Afghanistan.
RAZ: Your article – or your assessment, it upset many senior military officers, Mr. Stewart, including some I spoke with and some, perhaps, you’ve spoken with. They have long come to you, seeking your opinion and advice, particularly because you’ve lived in Afghanistan for many years. How sure are you that the current course being suggested by the U.S. military is wrong?
Mr. STEWART: I’m as confident about this as I can be in any foreign policy prediction. They’re attempting to create the security environment through military action, and then they’re hoping that the Afghan government, the Afghan army, the Afghan economy is somehow going to grow green shoots and fill the space which the military have created. And that’s not going to happen.
RAZ: Rory Stewart is the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His article, “The Irresistible Illusion,” can be found in the London Review of Books.
Rory Stewart, thank you so much.
Mr. STEWART: Thank you very much indeed.
Article first published in The Financial Times by Emily Stokes on 1 August 2009.
I was thinking we should do questions first and chat later,” says Rory Stewart, 36 and director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School. I ask if the distinction is absolutely necessary; we are, after all, settling down for lunch, not preparing for a seminar.
“There might”, he says, “be a holistic theory that there’s no real distinction between interview and personal chat, just like there’s a theory that there’s no distinction between development, state-building and counter-insurgency, but I like to see things in categories.” He pauses to gauge whether I’m still following: “It’s like my belief that counter-terrorism is completely different from development.”
It is perhaps not surprising Stewart has no time for small talk. He has walked 6,000 miles across Asia; written a bestselling travel book at 28, and last year was chosen as one of Esquire magazine’s 75 most influential people of the 21st century.
Upon accepting the position at Harvard, he bought a huge house in Cambridge, where he now lives alone, filling it with furniture from his family home in the Scottish Highlands – evidence, perhaps, that he had renounced the life of an adventurer and charity director in Asia to settle down.
The restaurant where we meet is certainly sedate. Harvest specialises in New England cuisine (stews and seafood). Jazz plays in the background, and the napkins are shaped into concertinas. Stewart greets me with a toothy smile, sits down and, after a brief tutorial on the difference between counter-terrorism and development, opens a menu. He has, he says, had clam chowder for breakfast, and, undaunted by the prospect of yet more soupy seafood, orders mussels, followed by bouillabaisse. “Oh yes, I’m very New England,” he says.
Stewart has a detached way of speaking, in perfect paragraphs, without hesitation. He once told a former colleague that he added “um”s and “er”s to his speech at school because he was scaring the other children. You can tell when he is excited by a topic because his speech seems less scripted, and he surprises me by becoming more animated when I ask him about whether he feels at home in Cambridge – even though he answers my question by talking about Afghanistan: “There, I wake up looking at a mud courtyard with peacocks prancing on the grass; I go down to the old city…”
In 2005, with funding from Prince Charles, Stewart set up Turquoise Mountain, a charity to stimulate regeneration in Kabul by teaching traditional crafts to locals, and now from Cambridge directs a team of 350 employees. He returns frequently.
“You feel in Afghanistan that every part of you is being tested,” he says. “Your management, your mind, your ability to speak and articulate your ideas, your practical skills, your alertness … Whereas here,” – he gestures to Harvard Square with his napkin – “it stands or falls on the quality of your writing, your interest in teaching young people and, at the Kennedy School, your ability to reflect on and shape policy through a research centre. And it’s the last that’s worrying me the most; I’m not convinced it can be done.”
I had been going to ask Stewart about whether he’s as settled at Harvard as he looks – but there’s no need. He interrogates himself. He wants to know how someone best places himself to make a difference. Should you work from within the system or from outside it? Abroad or at home? In other words, the issue to be tackled over starters is: what should Rory Stewart do next?
Since arriving at Harvard in June last year, he has been consultant to several members of Barack Obama’s administration, including Hillary Clinton, and is a member of Richard Holbrooke’s special committee for Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. “I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having?” he asks, pronging a mussel out of its shell.
“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …’”
Stewart has always learnt by doing. Born in Hong Kong in 1973 to Brian Stewart, a diplomat, and Sally, an academic, he was raised in Malaysia, and his childhood memories of camping with his father are straight from Boys’ Own – “We’d make bamboo rafts and see tigers, and take bacon and egg sandwiches in our backpacks … ”
After Eton, he spent a year as an infantry officer in the Black Watch before going to Balliol, Oxford, where he read modern history, politics, philosophy and economics. Graduating in 1995, he joined the Foreign Office, where he was fast-tracked, becoming a second secretary in Jakarta two years later. In 2000 he surprised everyone he knew by taking an 18-month sabbatical to go on a 6,000-mile walk across Asia.
Today, when asked why, he is vague but talks a lot about how walking makes him feel “fresher, stronger, smarter, more in tune with the world”. He was prevented from entering Afghanistan by the Taliban but returned to Herat after a detour through India and Pakistan, by which time the US had invaded. He recorded this section of his journey – undertaken on foot in the middle of winter – in The Places in Between (2001), which won the Ondaatje prize and was called a “flat-out masterpiece” by the New York Times.
The trip completed, he returned to Scotland where he “wrote and planted trees” and was at loose end. Then, in 2003, with the invasion of Iraq, he went to Baghdad and asked for a job from the British director of operations. He was appointed deputy governorate co-ordinator of Maysan – in place of an Iraqi governor, he was to exercise all executive, legislative and judicial authority in the province. It is this experience that informs The Prince of the Marshes (2006), a tangled web of names and political factions. It is also more bitter in tone than his first book; in Iraq, Stewart became deeply sceptical of what foreign intervention could ever achieve.
Now, at Harvard, he is famous for giving a lecture on politics in Maysan so complicated that it is almost impossible to sit through – which is, he says, the point. “Overarching theories are not very useful; you can’t just say that counter-insurgency is about five things:” – he lists the points on his fingers – “population security, negotiation with moderate elements, economic development, governance and an approach to the creation of an effective state.”
On the day we meet, the New York Times reports that it looks as if Obama’s policy of increasing troops in Afghanistan will work. Stewart has a different take. “The policy of troop increases will look ridiculous in 30 years,” he says. “They’re not going to make America safer from al-Qaeda. The theory of state-building is suspect. I’m not sure that the state they aim for is conceivable, let alone achievable. We should be pursuing a much more conventional development strategy in Afghanistan. And, if you want to combine that with a Special Forces unit that would make things uncomfortable for Osama bin Laden, then so be it.” He sighs. “But you can’t say that sort of thing to the policymakers. They’re grand, intelligent, busy people who have no interest in this kind of abstraction. They’re not interested in values, virtue, outlook … ” He pushes away a barely touched plate of mussels.
Something about the way Stewart speaks reminds me of David Cameron’s plea for “political novices” to join the ranks of Conservative party candidates. The two men share not only an Eton-Oxford education (though the Tory leader is six years Stewart’s senior) but a similar way of talking about family, community and tradition. Surely the young adventurer would be a catch for a party hoping to rise above what Stewart calls the “silly corruption” of British politics? I ask if he has thought of returning to Britain – perhaps he has even been approached? – and he arouses my suspicions further by coyly brushing off my inquiry (“Such questions, Emily!”) When the bouillabaisse arrives, he looks relieved.
“I’d love to do politics in Britain,” he says after a pause to taste a delicious cauldron of shellfish, tentacles and soggy bread. “But the important thing is to understand our culture and society in order to know how you do that. Being an elected member of parliament might not be the best way – it could be, it probably is, but – well – the question is whether you can actually play a useful role in changing policy in any way.”
It’s hard to know where Rory Stewart really belongs. He says he likes working with communities, but it’s difficult to imagine him enjoying the lifestyle of a British constituency politician. He wants to “change things for the better in a way that is enduring and worthwhile and not just superficially impressive … or because it looks good on your cv”. In another age, he would have been a statesman, an explorer, a philosopher – but today?
A waiter clears our plates and offers the dessert menu. Stewart looks excited by a sorbet, and then changes his mind, opting for a double espresso, which turns out to be the only thing he finishes. (The Places in Between is full of passages in which he longs for bacon and champagne, but, if my experience is anything to go on, he needs a walk of at least 20 miles as a sharpener.)
Stewart’s latest venture is television. He has made a documentary series on Lawrence of Arabia that will be shown on the BBC. It’s his first TV programme but he is a natural presenter, coolly pensive as he talks to the camera in those perfect paragraphs, even as he rides a camel in the baking heat, looking a little like Peter O’Toole in the eponymous 1962 film. The comparison between Stewart and TE Lawrence has been made before. The literary critic James Wood, who also teaches at Harvard and is a friend of Stewart’s, explains, “Rory is wily; he observes the locals closely, and he learns their ways – that’s how he’s survived.” But when I broach the comparison, Stewart at first brushes it off: “Anyone who says that I’m like Lawrence doesn’t know much about Lawrence and knows even less about me.”
Pressed a little further, though, he seems to have given the matter some thought. “I suppose I do share with him certain kinds of things.” He lists the items on his fingers: “I’m obsessed with heroes and the classical world; I have some kind of complex about knights in shining armour and would like to be one; I’m very suspicious of imperialist and colonialist projects; I would like to give voice to local people and to largely allow them to forge their own destiny; I have a huge amount of respect for traditional cultures in a way that would today be considered romantic or orientalist; I’m appalled by the way in which policy moves like a testy elephant in exactly the wrong direction … ” – he takes a breath as coffee arrives – “but my sense is that I’m a bit rougher and tougher than he is. He’s tough to the most insane degree in that he can ride a camel for two days across the desert – but you get the sense that his soul is fragile, on the edge of breakdown. I’m a bit lacking in that kind of sensitivity.”
Over coffee, we talk about travel writing. “I don’t like Lawrence,” he says. “I don’t like all that ornate Swinburnian stuff.” I could have guessed as much; his writing style is as sparse as Hemingway’s (perhaps more so; Stewart leaves out the romance). He mentions a trip to East Timor and I ask if he’ll write a book about it. “No, no, no!” he cries, a little petulant. “I would like to write a book of political philosophy!” I ask what he’s reading and he describes the books by his bath, squinting to locate each title on an imaginary pile: Johann Georg Hamman, Alisdair MacIntyre, Montesquieu, Hume, Bernard Williams, Hannah Arendt and, he laughs as he reaches the bottom, the graphic novel Watchmen.
He offers to walk me to my bicycle, and we leave the cool restaurant for the summer afternoon. After so much talking, Stewart is pensive, and seems less purposeful. He confesses he has no idea where he’s going; I wonder if he’s being metaphorical, but, no, his PA has his diary. Loitering on the street corner, he turns to me suddenly.
“Do you think I should be a politician, Emily?” he asks. I say why not. “Do you think I should I be prime minister?” I tell him that I think he should try being a politician first. Stewart clearly has some concerns about how he would be received as an MP in Britain. Will people be prejudiced towards him because he went to Eton? Does he come across too earnest in interviews? Should he be more light-hearted? Does an MP need to support a football team? Stewart is better at observing ancient Afghan traditions than modern British ones; he doesn’t know a thing about football. The only advice I can think of seems to come from his own book – to keep acting on his feet, and to bear in mind that no one, not even Rory Stewart, can be an expert on everything.