Monthly Archives: September 2009


Transcript first published on on 21 September 2009.

What has the Obama administration proposed for Afghanistan?

The Obama administration has proposed a very, very narrow objective, which is counterterrorism, and a very maximalist, broad definition of how to achieve it, which extends to counterinsurgency and the defeat of the Taliban, and basically the fixing of the entire Afghan state. And the whole problem with this strategy is its very narrow aim is connected to this hugely ambitious means.

You’re skeptical? …

The means to that end is proposing a strategy that is impossible. We’re not going to win a counterinsurgency campaign. We’re not going to defeat the Taliban. We’re not going to be able to fix the Afghan state. That’s not to say those things are impossible. Those things might happen very slowly under Afghan management. But we, the United States and our allies, are not in a position to do those things.

A maximalist approach you called it?

Yes, a maximalist approach, because their vision of counterinsurgency encompasses everything: rule of law, governance, development, state building. In fact, when you read their manuals, it almost looks like a World Bank policy document. It proposes a vision so broad that it can encompass Swedish humanitarians and American Special Forces officers.

It has a moral language that can appeal to the mass media. It’s so abstract and vague that it’s very, very difficult to pin down what’s wrong with it. And all of this provides an irresistible illusion. It’s a hypnotizing vision. It’s very easy to get people onboard with and very, very difficult to say: “Well, wait a second. How exactly are you going to do this? What kind of resources do you think you need? How much time is this going to take? And how does any of this contribute to our two key objectives, which are protecting the United States and helping Afghans?”

Nation building is what we’re talking about. Can you give me a sense of the scale of the project?

I think what we’re talking about is actually state building, not nation building, which is to say that it’s very blind to politics, to religion, to history, to culture, to context — the kinds of things from which nation [building] is composed.

Nation building could only be done by an Afghan Thomas Jefferson. It’s a job for a founding father. It’s an indigenous project. State building, in the view of the Pentagon, is a very technical, technocratic process where there are certain things just listed off: civil service; legitimate monopoly on the use of violence; good financial administration; the rule of law; a pragmatically regulated free market. It sometimes seems to be a little bit like the recipe for building a garden shed or baking a cake. It’s a management consultancy tool for fixing a state.

It’s a very big cake.

It’s a very big cake. It’s a cake with 30 million people in it. It’s a country the size of Texas. There are maybe 20,000 villages. … It’s one of the poorest countries in the world. There’s very little that you have to work with there.

In Bosnia, in Kosovo, you have a highly educated population on the edge of Europe. Even in Iraq you have a relatively educated population with a huge resource base, parties, strong government. None of that is present in Afghanistan. You are basically working with raw materials which are very unhelpful in terms of that kind of vision.

What was your impression of the president’s speech in March?

My impression was that it isn’t really a major change from where we’ve been for the last few years. It’s a restatement of a conception that’s become increasingly fashionable over the last four or five years, that somehow we need to address the underlying root causes of conflict. We need a one-time solution that’s going to ensure that never again can Afghanistan become unstable. Never again could it be in a position to host Al Qaeda.

And I listen to this, and I just think it’s a vision that seems unrealistic. You could put 20, 30 years’ investment in Afghanistan, and if you were lucky and skillful you could give it the kind of state structures of Pakistan. … But that, of course, would not really fulfill your U.S. national security objectives. It wouldn’t achieve the kind of stability of which you dreamt. …

So there’s a general sense in which the argument is driven from statements like “Failure is not an option,” “We have no alternative,” “The only thing we can do is a counterinsurgency strategy.”

That can’t be right. I think it must be possible to posit a different view of the world which says there are useful, constructive things the United States can do in the world to protect itself, to help other people, which don’t involve totally fixing somebody else’s state; which don’t involve the deployment of more than 100,000 troops; which don’t involve half bankrupting ourselves.

True, Afghanistan is one of 40 troublesome countries in the world. So the challenge for the Obama administration, the challenge for Americans in the next 20 years, is how to define something which is manageable, footprints in these countries which are affordable, legitimate, realistic, and which would allow us to operate in Chad and Yemen and Somalia, rather than putting all our eggs in the Afghan basket and imagining that somehow if we just deploy enough resources we’re going to be able to turn this whole thing around once and for all.

What drives it, people would argue, is that Afghanistan is the source of Al Qaeda. It’s the source of the hurt that started this whole process. There is an imperative to get Afghanistan right. Is that misguided?

Let’s not get so carried away by this. I mean, in effect, Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. Insofar as we have a counterterrorist objective in Afghanistan, we’re doing pretty well. We’ve been pretty good at keeping him out of that country without a grand counterinsurgency strategy, without anything like the kind of numbers that Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal, [head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan], is now requesting.

And you can see that the argument is beginning to shift now. They’re beginning to acknowledge that counterinsurgency warfare doesn’t have a great deal to do with a narrow counterterrorist objective. The military would acknowledge that if their only job is to keep Osama bin Laden out of Afghanistan, they could do that relatively easily with Special Forces operations and better intelligence.

Counterinsurgency is now being used as an excuse for stabilizing Pakistan, reinforcing the United States’ credibility around the world. It feels to me as if you bought an electric toothbrush planning to brush your teeth with it, and the battery somehow failed. It turned out it didn’t function like that, and you’ve now decided that you’re going to have to use it for a totally different thing. You’re going to use it as a hammer to bang in nails. So counterinsurgency was invented in order to deal with counterterrorism. …

Counterinsurgency has acquired a momentum of its own. How did we reach this point where counterinsurgency becomes this lens through which we’re viewing all these problems?

Counterinsurgency is the most fashionable thing at the moment because the U.S. military believes that’s what allowed them to turn around the situation in Iraq. Afghanistan, however much people claim otherwise, is really about Iraq. It’s really about the fact that people said it couldn’t be done in Iraq and it was done.

And a lot of the U.S. military think if we manage to pull it off there, we can pull it off again. … What they forget is that what made it work in Iraq is all about Iraq. It’s all about Iraqi politics; it’s all about Iraqi government; it’s all about Iraqi landscape. You try to move the same thing over to Afghanistan, where you don’t have that kind of government, you don’t have that kind of landscape, you don’t have that kind of politics, it’s not going to succeed.

Let’s talk specifically about a couple things you hear over and over again from counterinsurgency advocates. One is that the first step you have to achieve as a counterinsurgent is separate the population from the insurgents, … which in this case is tricky, because that division is not so clear. …

If you go into an Afghan village and you try to separate the population from the insurgents and connect that population to the Afghan government, you firstly have to convince the population that the Afghan government, the government in Kabul itself, is legitimate and effective, and it’s going to last, and it’s going to look after them.

So that’s the first problem, because as the elections have revealed, there’s many ways in which that Kabul government is not perceived by the population as fully legitimate in effect.

Secondly, you need to convince that population that the government is on the winning side; that they and their helpers, which in this case is the U.S. military and its allies, have the staying power. … That’s going to be very difficult to achieve in Afghanistan, because Afghanistan is not a colonial situation where the United States is the government where they’re proposing to remain indefinitely. …

The Taliban understandably believes they can outwait us. And of course, to some extent they can. There’s a real limit to how long we’re going to have the political will domestically to put out for this kind of operation.

Next, you need to actually generate something in that society. You’ve got all this “clear, hold, build” strategy. It’s the build bit that’s so difficult.

People who have been working in development in Afghanistan for 30 years just say to you again and again everything takes four times as long as you’d imagine, and you achieve half as much as you’d hoped. This is a country where most people don’t have anything approaching a high school education, where about one-third of the population can’t read or write, where the government so entirely lacks capacity to even do things like clear garbage in the center of Kabul, the idea that you would be able to in any realistic time frame get some subdistrict in Afghanistan generating the kind of self-sustaining economic or governance energy … [is], I think, delusion.

And then there’s the issue of corruption.

All these things are different ways of putting the same problem. They’re all different ways of saying, broadly speaking, this is a poor, fragile, traumatized country after 30 years of war which has elements in it which are suspicious of a foreign military presence. …

This notion of shadow government, how does it work? How does it manifest?

One of the reasons why when people talk about shadow government they’re very unclear is, we actually [don’t] know a great deal about the Taliban. It’s astonishing how difficult it is for people to provide an account of what might happen if we were to reduce troops. …

When you talk to people in Kunduz [province], … people will say: “Oh, the Taliban [are] threatening. They turn up with ‘night letters,’ [menacing notes posted under cover of darkness]. They intimidate people.” You talk to people in Wardak [province], which is just on the edge of Kabul, … and they say: “In our experience the Taliban are young men, mostly from our community, who turn up on their bikes and who run little courts, and they will resolve land disputes for free and quickly, and they’ll make sure that if someone has stolen a cow, that cow is returned. And they provide a service that the government doesn’t provide.”

But they’re not really a shadow government. These people are very, very starved of resources. Their revenue-raising capacity is extremely limited. Their actual intellectual capacity is very limited. I mean, when they were the government in Kabul, they were running it with a box under a bed from which they were handing out bits of cash.

It’s not really a fight between a Taliban government and a Kabul government. I think it comes down to villages which for 30 years have largely run themselves and whose concerns have nothing to do with a Kabul government or the Taliban or even the U.S. forces. [They] have to do with the kind of things that villages think about, primarily, at the moment, security, by which they don’t mean necessarily Taliban bombs. They mean kidnapping, robbing on the roads, looting, these kinds of things — things which actually [have] to do with civilian security and policing more than terrorism and insurgency.

And [then there’s] a village chief or head of a household who’s sitting there trying to negotiate his way through a visit from the Taliban, a visit from the U.S. military, a visit from the police, and trying to work out how on earth to keep back all these external factors, most of which are perceived as generally unhelpful or intrusive.

So maybe it’s a misnomer, “shadow government.” It overstates the effect of the Taliban presence?

… One of the problems of the counterinsurgency strategy, it just assumes that history repeats itself exactly. Somewhere at the bottom of this is some idea that we withdrew our support in 1989; therefore there was a civil war in 1992; therefore the Taliban took over in 1995; therefore Sept. 11 happened in 2001.

And somewhere at the bottom of it, even if it’s dressed up in fancy language, is some kind of idea that if we were to withdraw our support again today, there would again be a civil war, and the Taliban would again take over, and they would again invite back Al Qaeda, who would again attack the United States. …

But the Taliban today are not the Taliban of ’94, ’95. They don’t have the Pakistan army behind them in the same way. They don’t have the same appeal to the public. They don’t have tanks. They don’t have artillery. They don’t have the wherewithal to take a city. …

What are we doing in Helmand province?

[Here is a] snapshot of Helmand. … In the beginning of 2005, there were about 200 [foreign] soldiers. … U.S. Special Forces [were] sitting in a base in the Lashkar Gah. Broadly speaking, internationals could move around that province. …

The objective then had nothing to do with the Taliban. It was just about the fact the economy wasn’t functioning and there wasn’t enough security, and the governor seemed to be in league with the drug lords. The troop deployments initially were all about dealing with those things, trying to improve the government for Afghan people.

But what then happened is we found ourselves facing an insurgency. It’s a matter of debate whether deploying those troops caused that insurgency, provoked that insurgency, or whether it was just a coincidence.

The bottom line is we’ve gone from 200 troops in 2005 to nearly 20,000 today, and there has been no improvement in governance; there’s been no improvement in economic development; there’s no improvement in security. The people of Helmand are worse off in 2009 than they were in 2005. And in addition to no improvement in those governance factors, we’re now facing a Taliban insurgency.

Four thousand Marines recently went [into southern Helmand province]. Their orders are to establish bases, reconnect with the population, begin the clear, hold and build cycle. … Aren’t we asking a great deal of the soldiers on the ground at this point?

I think you’re asking the impossible. You potentially might be able to clear and hold an urban area like Baghdad, but you can’t clear and hold … a country the size of Texas with 20,000 villages. It’s inconceivable.

Secondly, even if you were able to clear and hold through some miracle, you were given the troops to do it, you can’t build, because the ingredients are missing within Afghan society to … give the dividends to the population, which are going to convince them to stay with us. …

And then the question is, how long are [we] going to stay? When is this going to be sustainable? When are these people going to be able to look after themselves? And the answer is probably it’s going to take much, much longer than any of the military planners are currently suggesting, which, unfortunately, causes a real problem for that population. … Unless something fundamentally changes in the structure of Afghanistan society, its economy and its governance, all you’re doing is you’re holding a lid on things, and as soon as you take it off, … the whole thing explodes again.

That seems a very fundamental problem: How do we know when we’re done?


Has the administration articulated that?

No. … The reality is, to deal with a country like Afghanistan, you need to be involved for 30 or 40 years. It’s a very patient, tolerant, long-term relationship with the international community, and it needs to be a relationship which is perceived by the American voter as affordable, as realistic, as legitimate. …

The danger of the current strategy is, to take a psychiatric metaphor, it’s not a long process of therapy and counseling. It’s electroshock therapy where you go and pump in resources for two years and run out the door. And that simply cannot work in a society which has the kind of structures, the underlying historical, social, economic structures, of a society like Afghanistan.

One thing we saw over and over again is young sergeants on the ground: They’re shooting in the morning, and they’re development experts in the afternoon. …

I used to be a soldier, and I served in Iraq before I was in Afghanistan, so I have enormous respect for the efforts the military is making. It’s an incredibly professional, energetic outfit. But they’re trying to do things which they’re simply not recruited to do and they’re not trained to do.

[It] doesn’t matter how much we talk about counterinsurgency. To do development in Afghanistan well requires a level of exposure to the language, the culture and just time. And the best development workers I know in Afghanistan have been working there for 10, 15, 20 years with individual communities. …

And in fact, even worse, often the actual skill set that you’re looking for isn’t even the skill set of a soldier, a diplomat or a development worker. It’s something more like the skill set of a 1920s Chicago ward politician. And soldiers are really not very comfortable doing that kind of political work. You see them come to you again and again and say: “I’m not going to deal with this guy. He’s completely corrupt. He’s totally discredited. I’ve just got information that he’s a bandit and he’s smuggling across the borders.”

Necessarily, they have quite a robust honor code, relatively clear moral view of the world. They find it very difficult to get involved in the micro-trade-offs and compromises which are involved in trying to deal with an imperfect world and patch together deals with local leaders.

And when they’re trying, they may be successful within their one-year tour, but … the next unit will come in, and they’ll say: “Everything that our predecessors were doing was mistaken. They were dealing with people who are corrupt. Why are they working with this police chief or the deputy police chief?” Everything will be reversed. …

And so you have a narrative produced. … You seem to be going back to the beginning. And overall you just have to turn around and say: “Listen, wait a second. … Have we actually fundamentally improved the condition of these people from where they were when we had 200 troops on the ground as opposed to 20,000?” …

The current debate is very focused on this issue of troop levels. Is that a relevant question?

I think troop levels are relevant in terms of sustainability. I’m in a very difficult situation here, because I do not believe we should abandon Afghanistan, and yet as soon as I oppose increases, people say, “Oh, you’re for withdrawal,” and it seems to be very black and white. …

The reason why troop levels matter is that the American people, in the end, are not going to put up with the kind of casualties, the kind of resources, over the long term. If we had kept things at 20,000 troops, which is where we were in 2004, it’s perfectly plausible that we could have continued and maintained a 30-, 40-year, patient, tolerant, long-term relationship with the Afghan people, [where] we could have supported the positive and diminished the negative. …

When you start ramping up on the basis of slightly unconvincing rationales, then you’re going to get to a position where I think eventually Congress and the Senate are going to say: “Forget it. This doesn’t make any sense. Why on earth [have] we got all these people on the ground?” … You get to a situation where you don’t have any start for having any presence there at all because you’ve ballooned it up to this unstable, vast edifice.

So one thing I would be saying on troop levels in the military is, why are you asking for 40,000? Where does this number come from? People are testifying in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee saying that they reckon they need 600,000 troops on the ground, of which it seems more than 200,000 are supposed to be American.

So why are we only asking for 40,000? What do they think they can achieve with 40,000? Why are they asking for insufficient resources? Or is it simply that that’s all they think they can get away with, and they’re going to come back to us with a request in a few months’ time for a few more and a few more and a few more? …

And then there’s Pakistan.

Pakistan is, in this debate on counterinsurgency, a dangerous and misleading addition to the debate. … Pakistan is now becoming an excuse for our activities in Afghanistan. Another way of putting it would be this: Because we’re beginning to doubt whether what we’re in doing in Afghanistan really makes much sense, any attempt to try to link it to the much bigger and clearer national security problems posed by Pakistan is a way of judgment [of] our activities in Afghanistan. It’s a kind of cover story for what we’re doing in Afghanistan. …

It’s as though we’ve gone into a room and we’ve got an angry cat called Afghanistan, we’ve got a big tiger called Pakistan, and we’re beating the cat, and somebody says, “Why are you beating the cat?,” and you say, “Oh, it’s a cat-tiger strategy; it’s an Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.” But really you’re beating the cat because you’ve got no idea what to do about the tiger. …

Yes, of course there are connections. … [But if] Pakistan becomes fragile and unstable, that is largely driven by factors within Pakistan — the relationship between the Pakistan army, the government and society. Afghanistan’s contribution to that, while there, is going to be minor. …

One of the reasons we’re in Helmand province is the narcotics issue. Narcotics is a classic example of the problem with our strategy at the moment. It is possible to do things about people growing opium, but it’s a very long-term, tricky, complex process.

Broadly speaking, the way to get farmers out of growing poppy is to develop alternative livelihoods in the context of proper rule of law and policing. … But in order to really make that work in southern Helmand, where the ground is good for growing poppy, you also need a police force that provides the stick along with the carrot of the alternative livelihood. Some progress [has been] made on this slowly, but it’s a process over 10, 20, 30 years. …

A lot of the short-term stuff is simply driven by things we can’t control. The commodity price of wheat, for example, this year meant that the amount of land devoted the to poppy fell, and we might claim that as a success. And next year the amount of crops under cultivation will go up again, and we’ll say, “Well, it’s all a catastrophe.” So it’s a classic example of a situation in which a much bigger economic problem, which would have to be addressed very slowly and very exactly in different areas, is being headlined as something that we can somehow crack with more resources within a sort of two-to-five-year window.

It has been presented rhetorically as, if was don’t fix the narcotics problem, we can’t defeat the insurgency.


It’s that lingo?

There’s a lovely set of logical connections going here, right? If we can’t fix the narcotics program, we can’t defeat the insurgency. If we can’t defeat the insurgency, we’re not going to be able to defeat Al Qaeda. Terrorism flourishes where there’s poverty; terrorism flourishes where there’s the Taliban; terrorism flourishes where there’s a failed state. You can’t have development without security; you can’t have security without development. You can’t fix Afghanistan without fixing Pakistan; you can’t fix Pakistan without fixing Kashmir.

This amazing worldview of all these strange logical connections and intersections come together in which you end up in some situation where, unless you do everything, you can’t do anything at all. And this is really dangerous, because this is going to drive us from engagement to isolation, from troop increases to withdrawal. It’s this kind of totalitarian, black-and-white view of the world which basically means we try to do everything and we end up doing nothing.

I think that says something very [specific] about the American collective psyche. I’m not sure what it is.

I think one of the things that it says about the United States, which is a very good aspect of the United States, is a can-do attitude. I mean, our president’s motto is not “No, we can’t.” But unfortunately, in Afghanistan, there are many things we can’t do, not because we haven’t got enough resources or time to it, but just because this is a very fragile discussion.

To pursue the kind of interpersonal metaphor perhaps further than it would go, there are certain things you can’t do for another human being, however much money or energy or time or theory you put in, because they’re independent; they’re autonomous; they have their own experiences and worldviews. You can aid the more positive; you can diminish the negative. But Afghanistan is not our puppet. I don’t mean that in a rude sense. I just mean that in the end, there are 30 million people there with their own imaginations, their own projects, their own visions, and a lot of those collide with ours.

They’re going to disagree with us on freedom of religion, clearly. Clearly the majority of men in Afghanistan disagree with us on the issue of women. Clearly many people and some in Afghanistan disagree with us in our view of the Karzai government. Clearly most of the farmers in Helmand disagree with us on the subject of drugs.

Now, if you have a policy that says, “We need to fix all these things,” that this project only works if we create a gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic centralized state [with] human rights and rule of law, where the Taliban are defeated, the narcotics eliminated, and the state is constructed, then we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

But the United States doesn’t need to say that. The United States plays an honorable and constructive role all over the world in developing countries without these kinds of grand counterinsurgency theories. Traditionally, diplomats, soldiers, development workers have operated in poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa and have made real contributions … that don’t say, “Our entire national security is about this; everything is invested in [it].” The president started to do this — you know, their development is linked to our security.” … It’s an amazing confusion, certainly, and a dangerous one.

One thing I would ask about is, on some level, if we’re going to build anything in Afghanistan, doesn’t that require something to change on the border in Pakistan? Is that sanctuary always going to be re-infecting?

I’m very doubtful whether you can’t do anything in Afghanistan unless you sort [out] the sanctuary in Pakistan. I think there are probably many ways in which you could contain or manage the problem posed by those unstable areas of Pakistan [and] both Afghanistan and Pakistan itself.

It may be a situation in which you find a way of living with an unstable tribal fringe while the economy develops and the state develops in the more stable areas, the central and the north. This is true all over Africa. It’s true even in India. … So we just have to, I’m afraid, be a little bit more optimistic here and say we can probably fix something without fixing everything. …

Is this Obama’s war?

I hope not. I hope he’s not pinning the credibility of his administration on a ground notion of success in Afghanistan. I hope he’s not saying that he’s going to be able to build a legitimate, effective, credible state or that he’s going to be able to defeat the Taliban once and for all, because if he is, he’s setting himself up for failure.

I hope we have a moment there where we can get the administration to review and redefine a more moderate policy, a policy that achieves three things: protects U.S. national security, which is actually not as difficult as it seems. It’s not that difficult to prevent Al Qaeda from significantly increasing its ability to harm the United States from Afghanistan. Secondly, to help the Afghans. And thirdly, find troop levels and presence in a plan which the American people can put up with, which they see as affordable, realistic and legitimate. If he can do those three things, I think he’s showing us a very mature and enlightened foreign policy which could be a model for what we do around the world for the next 20 years. …

Are you advising the administration in any formal way?

I am very, very happy to talk to them, but no, I’m not a formal adviser to the administration in any way. People do get in touch, and I chat.

When you talk to them, what do you stress? …

I tend to emphasize the national security point. I tend to say: “Listen, you probably can do more with less. Think about the fact that a lighter footprint is more sustainable politically.” I said: “Don’t pin the credibility of the administration to this kind of grand ambition and idealism. Otherwise, it’s going to come back and bite you in the midterm elections.”

So I’m trying, in influencing the policy debate, to find arguments that can appeal to them. But secretly, my real motivation in all of this is to try to make sure that Afghanistan is in a better place in 30 years than it is today. And sadly, I do not believe launching an unaffordable, unrealistic and, ultimately I think, unachievable counterinsurgency dream is going to leave either the United States or Afghans better off.

Afghanistan: What Could Work?

First published in The New York Review of Books, 17 December 2009.

Cool poker-players, we are tempted to believe, only raise or fold: they only increase their bet or leave the game. Calling, making the minimum bet to stay, suggests that you can’t calculate the odds or face losing the pot, and that the other players are intimidating you. Calling is for children. Real men and women don’t want to call in Afghanistan: they want to dramatically increase troops and expenditure, defeat the Taliban, and leave. Or they just want to leave. Both sides—the disciples of the surge and the apostles of withdrawal—therefore found some satisfaction in one passage in President Obama’s speech at West Point on December 1:

I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

But the rest left them uneasy. This was not, as they might have imagined, because he was lurching between two contradictory doctrines of increase and withdrawal, but because the rest of his speech argued for a radically different strategy—a call strategy—which is about neither surge nor exit but about a much-reduced and longer-term presence in the country. The President did not make this explicit. But this will almost certainly be the long-term strategy of the US and its allies. And he has with remarkable courage and scrupulousness articulated the premises that lead to this conclusion. First, however, it is necessary to summarize the history of our involvement and the conventional policies that have long favored surge and exit.

A legion of arguments almost drove Obama away from this new moderate position over the last ten weeks of discussion. There was our general fear in Afghanistan and Pakistan of the modern demons, which policy experts dub “insurgency, terrorism, civil war, human rights–abusing warlords, narcotics, weapons of mass destruction, and global jihad” and the spawn of “safe havens, rogue, fragile, and failed states.” There was our developing sense, over the last eight years, that the status quo was unacceptable.

From 2001, sections of the international community attempted to assist the Afghan government in the construction of a state. The British Department for International Development put 80 percent of its funds into direct budgetary support for the Afghan government and NGOs implemented health, education, and rural development projects as contractors for the Afghan government. Such efforts were described by NATO as a “comprehensive approach to security, governance and economic development” in which the UN, an apparently benevolent Karzai government, NATO, and the NGOs would all play their part—largely in concert because there was no perceived conflict between their aims and values.

Challenges from warlords, druglords, lack of funds, and lack of government authority were to be met through cen- tralization, disarmament of opposition groups, crop eradication, coordination, and closer partnership. It was assumed that it would be possible within a reasonable time (some documents claimed within seven years) to build a stable centralized state, largely independent of foreign support, arranged around the rule of law and a technocratic administration, with a vibrant economy based on lawful commerce and trade. Few expected the Taliban to reemerge. Comparisons were drawn with the development of Korea or Singapore.

Eight years later this seems a tragic fantasy. Frustrated by lack of progress, the US and its allies have oscillated giddily between contradictory policies. The British government that once championed more generous budgetary support for the Kabul government now portrays it as corrupt, semi-criminal, ineffective, and illegitimate. “Warlords” such as Gul Agha Shirzai, who we once demonized, are now tolerated or even praised, and are almost certain to be given good positions in the new Karzai government. We armed militias in 2001, disarmed them through a demobilization program in 2003, and rearmed them again in 2006 as community defense forces. We allowed local autonomy in 2001, pushed for a strong central government in 2003, and returned to decentralization in 2006. First we tolerated opium crops; then we proposed to eradicate them through aerial spraying; now we expect to live with opium production for decades.

Meanwhile, the Karzai government and the nations involved in Afghanistan have fallen into a cruel and dysfunctional arranged marriage that seems too often to lack common values, common projects, trust, and even patience. Each undermines the other’s legitimacy. NATO is blamed for being associated with a corrupt and illegitimate administration; the Karzai government is blamed by Afghans for bombarding civilians and for accepting the support of foreign infidels. And each has sought to shift blame to the other side.

Many of these tensions were illustrated in the first week of November: five British soldiers were killed by the Afghan policeman they were training; nine Afghan policemen, trying to come to the rescue of lost American servicemen, were killed by a coalition bomb; five UN election observers were killed by the Taliban in their Kabul guesthouse, causing the UN to begin to withdraw its staff. A PBS journalist interviewed President Karzai:

Margaret Warner: “The UN did reluctantly withdraw about two thirds of its foreign staff…. What impact is that likely to have?”

Hamid Karzai: No impact. No impact.

Margaret Warner: So you don’t care if they return?

Hamid Karzai: They may or may not return. Afghanistan won’t notice it. We wish them well wherever they are.

Even an optimist would now describe Afghanistan as a poor, dangerous country, struggling to survive in the face of jihadist ideology, insecurity, and poor governance. It is now hoped that good development in Afghanistan might allow it over decades to draw level with Pakistan. The Taliban have a growing presence even outside their traditional heartland in the south and east of Afghanistan and they mount attacks on previously safe areas and communities. Civil war is now seen as very likely. Comparisons are drawn with Somalia.

Through all these bewildering years, a subtle and refined edifice of justification for troop increases has emerged, in which arguments are categorized by type and family and reinforced with analogies and precedents, in a structure in which each claim supports another. The tone, history, and arguments in this liturgy are not only the product of soldiers, spies, explorers, journalists, administrators, writers, aid workers, professors, think-tank directors, and politicians. They have been developed by the great alliances of NATO and the UN and have drawn on World Bank economists, veterans of Iraq and the frontier, linguists with decades of experience in rural Afghanistan, and even, occasionally, Afghans. The creed, hammered out in the great international councils of Washington, Bonn, and Paris, runs as follows:

Afghanistan is an existential threat. It is the epicenter of international terrorism and the epitome of a failed state. We must fight in Afghanistan for six reasons: (1) to protect the United States and the rest of NATO from terrorist attack; (2) to protect Pakistan and the region; (3) to protect the credibility of the United States and NATO; (4) to protect the Afghan people; (5) to defeat the Taliban; and (6)to create an effective, legitimate, stable state.

Our enemies include corruption, drugs, poverty, and insecurity and we will address them through governance and capacity- building, alternative livelihoods, a regional solution, a comprehensive approach, and an exit strategy. The surge worked in Iraq. We have a moral obligation to the Afghan people. By abandoning them in 1989, we created the conditions that led to September 11. We must, therefore, implement counter-insurgency operations across the spectrum.

Just as Buddha’s fourth noble truth can be divided into an eightfold path, so each justification, need, ethical claim, doctrine, precedent, and analogy of this modern metaphysics can be further subdivided. Thus the article of faith that our operations in Afghanistan are crucial to the stability of Pakistan can conventionally be defended by reference to the need for a two-sided pincer movement against the Taliban on the border; worries about safe havens, failed states, and global jihad; the support for drone attacks in Pakistan conveyed in one opinion poll on the frontier and by one Pakistani general; the appearance of the Taliban “only sixty miles from Islamabad.” And the possibility that mad mullahs will seize the nukes.

Each argument echoes much deeper assumptions about the world: a belief in the moral imperative of humanitarian intervention, backed by our failures in Rwanda and our success in the Balkans; a maximal vision in which no one good (“security,” for example) can be achieved without the achievement of every other good (such as “development” or “the rule of law”); a rhetorical tradition in which all goods are seen as consistent and mutually reinforcing; and an Enlightenment faith that there is nothing intrinsically intractable about Afghan culture and society and that all men can be perfected (to a Western ideal) through the application of reason and the laws of social science.

But perhaps more importantly there are our more recent theories about the global order. There is the credit we take for the success of postwar Germany, democracy in Eastern Europe post-1989, and economic growth in South and East Asia. There are our apparent mistakes with Mossadeq in Iran in the 1950s; fighting in Vietnam in the 1960s, Latin America in the 1980s, and Somalia in the 1990s; the September 11 attacks; North Korea today; and the different lessons we have chosen to take about working against the popular will, supporting dictators, leaving, or failing to act. All of this experience is reflected in our division of the world into friendly, puppet, rogue, fragile, and failed states and our anxieties about instability, insurgency, terrorism, or weapons of mass destruction.

All these fears, frustrations, and doctrines contributed to the relentless logic that drove Obama to state, last year, “We must win in Afghanistan”; and to claim that Bush failed in Afghanistan because he did not invest enough resources. Even Obama’s latest speech began with the story of how Afghanistan fell and September 11 occurred because “the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere,” and the speech reminded us of “a nuclear-armed Pakistan,…NATO’s credibility,…failed states.”

Such arguments explain why he sent an extra 17,000 troops last March, insisting that “there is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated,” and he committed the US to “promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government” and “advance security, opportunity and justice.” This is also why he announced a more maximalist counterinsurgency strategy in the March White Paper and appointed a new commanding general, Stanley McChrystal, to implement it.

By agreeing to a counterinsurgency strategy, Obama implicitly committed to all the doctrine contained in a two-hundred-page field manual, derived from the analysis of seventy-three previous insurgencies. “Full-spectrum counter-insurgency,” or COIN, the President was informed in the manual, “is all-encompassing.” It is expressed in aphorisms such as “the center of gravity is the population” and “we are not being out-fought but out-governed”; and mottoes like “Clear, Hold, Build.” It includes economic development, infantry tactics, political negotiation, building capacity for governance, and eliminating “high-value” targets using predator drones. The soldiers, according to the COIN doctrine, need to have considerable cultural sensitivity, knowledge, and good fortune. They must work in close and constructive concert with a credible local government. They need to be able to control the borders and protect communities during the lengthy process of reconstruction.

It is almost impossible to say what counterinsurgency does not include. But it almost always requires more troops. I first heard almost a year ago that General Petraeus was pressing for another 40,000 troops. When I finally saw McChrystal in Kabul in October, he had completed his report and formally requested another 40,000 troops. Obama could not refuse the bulk of the general’s requests without being personally blamed for the future of Afghanistan.

Little wonder that some called (in the President’s words) “for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort—one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade.” How could they ask for any other course when they argued from within a conceptual prison, founded on fears, boxed in by domestic political calculations, restricted by misleading definitions, buttressed by syllogisms, endorsed by generals, and crowned with historical analogies? Yet this is what the President said about full-scale escalation:

I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don’t have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I’m mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who—in discussing our national security—said, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”

I felt as though I had come to hear a fifteenth-century scholastic and found myself suddenly encountering Erasmus: someone not quite free of the peculiarities of the old way, and therefore haunted by its elisions, omissions, and contradictions; but already anticipating a reformation. Obama’s central—and revolutionary—claim is that our responsibility, our means, and our interests are finite in Afghanistan. As he says, “we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.” Instead of pursuing an Afghan policy for existential reasons—doing “whatever it takes” and “whatever it costs”—we should accept that there is a limit on what we can do. And we don’t have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do.

The US must husband its resources to meet other strategic challenges. Obama’s description of these is still narrowly focused on failed states and terrorism: it does not include the threats posed by states such as China or Russia, still less Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, or Kashmir, and it does not attempt to compare the conflict in Afghanistan to the risks posed by climate change or threats to the supply of food in poor nations. But he names Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia as posing challenges. The US responsibility to the Afghan people is only one responsibility among many and “the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.” He emphasizes the competing demand of domestic priorities and costs:

Over the past several years, we have lost that balance. We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy.

Or to return to poker, he argues that we have limited chips and the amount we stake in Afghanistan should reflect the amount we stand to gain and the likelihood of winning.

This may imply that Obama has given up and is in favor of a rapid exit. (I, for one, have rarely managed to convince anyone during the last four years that I can be both against troop increases and against withdrawal.) But Obama opposes precipitate withdrawal. He acknowledges that although “our responsibility, our means, or our interests” are limited, they exist in Afghanistan. We have a certain responsibility to the Afghan people who would suffer a civil war if we withdrew. This would initially be between the Taliban and the Karzai government, but it could expand (as it did in the 1990s) into more fragmented local conflicts, fueled by neighboring countries, in which no faction is strong enough to win or weak enough to give up the fight, and in which Afghans are plunged back into anarchy, cruel conflict, and poverty. We have the means, however, to make a positive contribution and we have an interest in preventing a defeat that would wreck our hopes, humiliate the United States and NATO, embolden our enemies, and weaken our allies (and not only in Pakistan). He implies that just because we cannot do everything does not mean we can do nothing.

Obama’s objectives in remaining in Afghanistan are as follows:

We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future…. And we will also focus our assistance in areas—such as agriculture—that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.

In other words, he would continue to use intelligence and special forces to keep the pressure on Osama bin Laden. He would continue to deliver humanitarian assistance and economic development aid particularly to the many poor and neglected communities who want to work with us in the north and center of Afghanistan. In addition (which differentiates this model from the strictly counterterrorism approach), he would retain a sufficiently robust presence to prevent the Taliban from ever gathering an army or mounting a conventional threat or rolling artillery and tanks up the highway to take an Afghan city like Kabul. And combine US military presence with political action and incentives to keep tribal leaders and other regional power brokers on our side and away from the Taliban. And ultimately, through all these techniques, decrease the likelihood of civil war, increase the likelihood of a political settlement with the Taliban, and leave Afghanistan in twenty years’ time a more stable and prosperous country than it is today.

This strategy assumes that the Afghan Taliban are less of a threat to Pakistani stability and NATO than they appear. It also assumes that a counterinsurgency strategy and Iraq-style surge will not—on their own—succeed and a state-building strategy will not work. Obama still needs to find the language to express these insights without falling into the trap of withdrawal.

There are, in reality, no inescapable connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. There are positive and negative effects of our Afghan operations on Pakistan, (positive, through increasing pressure on the Taliban; negative, through inflaming Islamist anti-US sentiment in Pakistan and driving “bad guys” over the border into Afghanistan). But the future of Pakistan will be determined predominantly by factors internal to Pakistan, such as the military, the feudal system, and the relationship between the institutions of Islam and the Pakistani state. Similarly, although al-Qaeda and the Taliban cooperate and share funding, they are still largely divided between a non-Afghan group focused on international terrorism and Afghan–Pakistani groups whose primary aim is to drive foreign troops from Afghanistan and spread Islamist rule in Pakistan. You could at least in theory defeat the Taliban without eliminating al-Qaeda, and the Taliban could return to power in Afghanistan without bringing back al-Qaeda.

The counterinsurgency strategy and surge in Iraq led to a drop in violence (against predictions), but the same will not happen in Afghanistan. The Iraq insurgency was the movement of a minority sectarian group, the Sunnis, whose supporters have been driven from most of the neighborhoods in the capital city and whose leaders were tribal figures with a long-standing relationship to the central government. The Shia-dominated Baghdad government was a powerful, credible force, from the majority ethnic and sectarian group, and was supported by mass political parties, with their own militias. The challenge for Petraeus and his predecessors in Iraq was to grasp this political opportunity; provide support, money, and status to the losing Sunni groups to separate them from al- Qaeda; and convince Nouri al-Maliki to disengage from some of the Shia militias and endorse the settlement. In Afghanistan, neither the Karzai government nor the Taliban have the history, the structure, or the incentives to foster such a deal.

Afghanistan contains a diffuse rural insurgency spread among a population of 30 million people, 80 percent of whom are scattered among 20,000 remote, often mountainous villages. It is different from Iraq, where the insurgency was largely centered around the flat urban areas surrounding Baghdad. Nor is it like the much smaller Malaya of the 1950s, where the British in their antiguerrilla operations were able to move villagers to walled and guarded camps. At least half of Afghanistan (a country almost the size of Texas) is now threatened by insurgency, and the COIN doctrine requires sufficient troops to secure and protect the population areas.

This is why the architects of the COIN doctrine are calling for a ratio of one “trained counterinsurgent” (a category that includes Afghans, if they have been given the necessary skills) for every fifty members of the population or a combined total that would amount in Afghanistan to 600,000 troops, if they intended to cover the country (though most theorists believe it is only necessary to cover half). The effective, legitimate Afghan government, on which the entire counterinsurgency strategy depends, shows little sign of emerging, in part because the international community lacks the skills, the knowledge, the legitimacy, or the patience to build a new nation. In short, COIN won’t work on its own terms because of the lack of numbers and a credible Afghan partner and in absolute terms because of the difficulties of the country and its political structures.

But equally history does not doom the allies to absolute failure. The situation may not be that of Iraq in 2006 or Afghanistan in 1988, but neither is it Afghanistan in 1842, still less in 330 BC (even if we actually understood the victories of the Victorians or Alexander). Pakistan may not be a failed state and mullahs may not be a hand’s breadth from its nukes; but Pakistan is facing serious instability and a moderate, constructive policy in Afghanistan could at least prevent Afghanistan from con- tributing further to its instability. The US and its NATO allies would be able to survive withdrawal from Afghanistan but it would be damaging to their reputations. While we cannot write a blank check to Afghans, we would like to prevent their country from falling into civil war, which would probably result in tens of thousands of deaths. It makes sense to stay, if we can maintain a realistic, affordable, and legitimate presence in Afghanistan and do some good.

It is difficult to find the appropriate language to express such insights. A moderate, light policy runs against a natural tendency to invest extravagantly in defending against even minor threats to our national security (the reverse of our systematic tendency to “lowball,” i.e., to undercompensate for, or underprice, risk in our banking system or the environment). This partly reflects a general, ancient view of the “night watchman” state, involved not in internal regulation but in security. It is partly because terrorism seems a much more immediate and horrifying prospect than financial collapse, climate change, or threats to food security and is more directly linked to loss of life (even if the other issues ultimately may kill many more people). And our culture puts a very high value on life (though a higher value on the lives of our own citizens than on those of other nationals).


We would prefer, therefore, to believe that any war in which we engage is a vital threat to our very existence—in which case the odds of victory are irrelevant and any sacrifice is justified. And there must be a defined end. It would be difficult for a president to argue that we should sacrifice lives without winning in order to prevent something worse (although we build dams when we can’t control the flow of water and employ a police force when we can’t end crime).

We would be revolted by someone who tried to calculate how many lives the objectives in Afghanistan were worth (fifty? a thousand?). And these are all healthy intuitions: we would not want to be in a world where lives were treated simply as units, to which we assigned a definite and explicit expendable value in a grand cost-benefit analysis. But these intuitions still reinforce an all-or-nothing approach to foreign policy.

The simple process of naming our past and present strategies already generates and restricts our response. Thus by naming operations in Afghanistan a counterinsurgency, we may feel compelled to deploy one trained counterinsurgent for every fifty members of the population; by labeling our approach “an Afghanistan–Pakistan strategy,” we imply that our actions in Afghanistan are vital to the security of Pakistan; by putting the Taliban in the category of those pursuing a global jihad, we conclude that we cannot negotiate with them; by naming Afghanistan a terrorist safe haven or a failed state, we conclude that failure (or even a light “footprint”) is not an option.

Obama deftly avoided all these words and traps in his speech, perhaps because he has become aware of their extreme implications. There was no talk of victory. His aim was no longer to defeat but to contain the Taliban: to “deny it the ability to overthrow the government.” He explicitly rejected a long “nation-building project.” He talked not of eliminating but of keeping the pressure on al-Qaeda. He did not speak of a moral obligation to the Afghan people. He did not specify any necessary logical connections between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He asserted that “there’s no imminent threat of the [Afghan] government being overthrown.” He emphasized that “we will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens.” He did not draw parallels with the surge in Iraq. And most strikingly of all, whereas he had referred four times in March to insurgency, now he stated that “unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency.”

Such moderate analysis disappointed those who wanted a call to arms. The West Point cadets in the audience yawned, stared at the floor, and clapped only halfheartedly. Bush’s surge in Iraq was a troop increase of only 20 percent; Obama’s contributions to Afghanistan since he took office will more than double US troop presence on the ground. Bush spoke at a time of overwhelming public opposition to the war and with one of the lowest popularity ratings ever recorded; but it was Bush, not Obama, who spoke about determination, commitment, victory, and doing whatever it takes. Obama sounded like those he criticized for wanting to “simply maintain a status quo in which we muddle through.”

But this moderate tone gains Obama the leverage that Bush lacked. As long as the US asserted that Afghanistan was an existential threat, the front line in the war on terror, and that, therefore, failure was not an option, the US had no leverage over Karzai. The worse Afghanistan behaved—the more drugs it grew and terrorists it fostered—the more money it received. If it sorted out its act, it risked being relegated to a minor charitable recipient like Tajikistan. A senior Afghan official warned me this year “to stop referring to us as a humanitarian crisis: we must be the number one terrorist threat in the world, because if we are not we won’t get any money.” By asserting convincingly that Afghanistan is not the be-all and end-all and that the US could always ultimately withdraw, Obama escapes this codependent trap and regains some leverage over the Afghan government. In his politer words:

It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

But perhaps even more importantly, defining a more moderate and limited strategy gives him leverage over his own generals. By refusing to endorse or use the language of counterinsurgency in the speech, he escapes their doctrinal logic. By no longer committing the US to defeating the Taliban or state-building, he dramatically reduces the objectives and the costs of the mission. By talking about costs, the fragility of public support, and other priorities, he reminds the generals why this surge must be the last. All of this serves to “cap” the troop increases at current levels and provide the justification for beginning to reduce numbers in 2011.

But the brilliance of its moderate arguments cannot overcome that statement about withdrawal. With seven words, “our troops will begin to come home,” he loses leverage over the Taliban, as well as leverage he had gained over Karzai and the generals. It is a cautious, lawyerly statement, expressed again as “[we will] begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.” It sets no final exit date or numbers. But the Afghan students who were watching the speech with me ignored these nuances and saw it only as departure.

This may be fatal for Obama’s ambition to “open the door” to the Taliban. The lighter, more political, and less but still robust militarized presence that his argument implies could facilitate a deal with the Taliban, if it appeared semi-permanent. As the President asserted, the Taliban are not that strong. They have nothing like the strength or appeal that they had in 1995. They cannot take the capital, let alone recapture the country. There is strong opposition to their presence, particularly in the center and the north of the country. Their only hope is to negotiate. But the Taliban need to acknowledge this. And the only way they will is if they believe that we are not going to allow the Kabul government to collapse.

Afghanistan has been above all a project not of force but of patience. It would take decades before Afghanistan achieved the political cohesion, stability, wealth, government structures, or even basic education levels of Pakistan. A political settlement requires a reasonably strong permanent government. The best argument against the surge, therefore, was never that a US operation without an adequate Afghan government partner would be unable to defeat the Taliban—though it won’t. Nor that the attempt to strengthen the US campaign will intensify resistance, though it may. Nor because such a deployment of over 100,000 troops at a cost of perhaps $100 billion a year would be completely disproportional to the US’s limited strategic interests and moral obligation in Afghanistan—though that too is true.

Instead, Obama should not have requested more troops because doing so intensifies opposition to the war in the US and Europe and accelerates the pace of withdrawal demanded by political pressures at home. To keep domestic consent for a long engagement we need to limit troop numbers and in particular limit our casualties. The surge is a Mephistophelian bargain, in which the President has gained force but lost time.

What can now be done to salvage the administration’s position? Obama has acquired leverage over the generals and some support from the public by making it clear that he will not increase troop strength further. He has gained leverage over Karzai by showing that he has options other than investing in Afghanistan. Now he needs to regain leverage over the Taliban by showing them that he is not about to abandon Afghanistan and that their best option is to negotiate. In short, he needs to follow his argument for a call strategy to its conclusion. The date of withdrawal should be recast as a time for reduction to a lighter, more sustainable, and more permanent presence. This is what the administration began to do in the days following the speech. As National Security Adviser General James Jones said, “That date is a ‘ramp’ rather than a cliff.” And as Hillary Clinton said in her congressional testimony on December 3, their real aim should be to “develop a long-term sustainable relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, primarily our abandonment of that region.”

A more realistic, affordable, and therefore sustainable presence would not make Afghanistan stable or predictable. It would be merely a small if necessary part of an Afghan political strategy. The US and its allies would only moderate, influence, and fund a strategy shaped and led by Afghans themselves. The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to regain their trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government.

What would this look like in practice? Probably a mess. It might involve a tricky coalition of people we refer to, respectively, as Islamists, progressive civil society, terrorists, warlords, learned technocrats, and village chiefs. Under a notionally democratic constitutional structure, it could be a rickety experiment with systems that might, like Afghanistan’s neighbors, include strong elements of religious or military rule. There is no way to predict what the Taliban might become or what authority a national government in Kabul could regain. Civil war would remain a possibility. But an intelligent, long-term, and tolerant partnership with the United States could reduce the likelihood of civil war and increase the likelihood of a political settlement. This is hardly the stuff of sound bites and political slogans. But it would be better for everyone than boom and bust, surge and flight. With the right patient leadership, a political strategy could leave Afghanistan in twenty years’ time more prosperous, stable, and humane than it is today. That would be excellent for Afghans and good for the world.

Meanwhile, Obama’s broader strategic argument must not be lost. He has grasped that the foreign policy of the president should not consist in a series of extravagant, brief, Manichaean battles, driven by exaggerated fears, grandiloquent promises, and fragile edifices of doctrine. Instead the foreign policy of a great power should be the responsible exercise of limited power and knowledge in concurrent situations of radical uncertainty. Obama, we may hope, will develop this elusive insight. And then it might become possible to find the right places in which to deploy the wealth, the courage, and the political capital of the United States. We might hope in South Asia, for example, for a lighter involvement in Afghanistan but a much greater focus on Kashmir.*

I began by saying that “calling” in poker was childish and that grownups raise or fold. But there is another category of people who raise or fold: those who are anxious to leave the table. They go all in to exit, hoping to get lucky but if not then at least to finish. They do not do this on the basis of their cards or the pot. They do it because they lack the patience, the interest, the focus, or the confidence to pace themselves carefully through the long and exhausting hours. They no longer care enough about the game. Obama is a famously keen poker player. He should never be in a hurry to leave the table.

Regenerating Afghanistan: saving part of historic Kabul by establishing a craft school.

At the beginning of 2006 I found myself sitting in the front room of a tailoring shop in Kabul containing a frayed pink Bokhara carpet, a safe, a feather duster, six glasses and a Thermos of green tea. A laminated brochure on the safe promised that I would conserve a section of the medieval city, improve living conditions, restore ancient buildings and create an academy for traditional crafts. I was listed as the chief executive of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation. There was, however, no other employee and I was not quite sure what I was doing.

My life to date had been more institutional: a brief period as an infantry officer in the Black Watch, and then service with the Foreign Office in Indonesia, the Balkans and as the coalition deputy governor of two provinces in southern Iraq. The only two years that I had spent outside government were from 2000 to 2002, when I took unpaid leave to walk from Turkey to Bangladesh. I had fallen in love with Afghanistan on that journey, and written a book about it.

When I returned in 2003 to work for the coalition in Iraq I often dreamt, while dodging mortars or emails from Washington, of moving back to a mud fortress in the Afghan mountains. In Iraq I had been given $10 million a month to spend, delivered in vacuum-sealed packets. Every day Iraqis had demanded to know what we had done for them.

‘We have restored 240 schools.’ ‘Apart from that, what have you done?’ ‘All the clinics and hospitals.’ ‘Apart from that…’

I had become used to crowds carrying banners that said death to the deputy governor. In 2004 the Prince of Wales had written to me suggesting that I establish a carpentry school to train street children and find them jobs. It was the only project I did that really appealed to Iraqi imaginations. Suddenly, we had the mayor and the police chief competing to give speeches to the students and all the Arab television stations filming the school.


The following year the Prince had suggested that I go to Afghanistan to establish a school to train Afghans in traditional crafts. I thought I could combine his interest in craft training with my own desire to save a poor community in Kabul. The Prince had raised seed money for the first six months of operations. Thereafter, I would largely be on my own. My first act had been to rent the room in the tailoring shop, and buy the Thermos and feather duster. Now I needed to start work.The area I hoped to save was called Murad Khane and the man whom I had first met there was called Kaka (Uncle) Khalil. I called on him, the day after my arrival. He was wearing an old dark shalwar kameez, muddy white gym-shoes and a tweed jacket and, because he was a pigeon-master, his hands were scarred by beak marks and by the sharp thread with which he pinioned his birds’ wings.


Khalil was from the Qizilbash Shia minority, which had been persecuted for centuries, but like most of his neighbours he was a house-owner. All but one of the houses in the district had been passed down, father to son, for more than 100 years. This was the northern edge of the old city, the houses were built of mud brick and their courtyard walls were panelled in carved cedar wood. It was impossible to tell how many centuries people had lived in Murad Khane but Kabul was around before the visit of Alexander the Great.   We followed some children chasing a dog through the wasteland that formed the centre of Murad Khane. Two old men squatted in the open to relieve themselves. Nearby, three cooks were peeling onions. I watched a woman in a burqa clamber over a heap of rubbish into her courtyard because the garbage had submerged her entrance. Four acres of Murad Khane were covered in rubbish. There was no electricity, no water, no sewerage. One in five children died before they were five; most of the population could not read or write and life expectancy was about 40. Around the edge of the central landfill site ran a narrow bazaar, a couple of mosques, some bath-houses and about 60 mud-brick courtyard houses, crammed between the river and shabby six-storey 1970s shopping arcades.

In the bazaar I was introduced to Abdul-Hadi, one of the greatest carpenters in Afghanistan. He was 76 years old and had been selling fruit in the market for 15 years. War, material costs, declining quality and lack of contact with the outside world had all combined to destroy the market for Afghan woodwork. He had no students to whom he could pass on his skills. I explained to Khalil that my dream was to build a craft school in the centre of Murad Khane and use it as a catalyst to regenerate the neighbourhood. He suggested that I talk to the government and try to get international support.


It was now four years since the US-led invasion. The coalition was angry at the corruption, the heroin production, the violence in rural areas and the lack of economic growth and governmental control. They had decided to send more troops. Three thousand British soldiers were deploying to Helmand to replace 200 American soldiers. Soon, there would be more than 7,000. Meanwhile, the Taliban were re-emerging. It was already too dangerous to travel on the main road to the south. Kidnapping was increasing, bombs were beginning to go off in Kabul itself. The international community had prepared a $20 billion aid package. The military wanted it to go to the unstable areas of the south and east, the European Community wanted programmes only in ‘gender, rural development and governance’, and the Afghan government demanded that all funds be placed in the central budget of the ministry of finance. Kabul was in ruins and its population had ballooned from a million to more than five million in four years, but no one wanted to support projects such as ours.


Officials from seven Afghan ministries, eight foreign embassies and four charities told me that my plans were unwise and possibly illegal. It was illegal to demolish a building in the old city; it was also illegal to rebuild there. Only charities could export tax-free traditional crafts, but charities were not permitted an export licence. The best craftsmen were semi-literate descendants of traditional craft families, but vocational qualifications could be given only to people who had graduated in Persian literature from high school. There was demand abroad for carved cedar and replicas of Afghan jewellery but the interior ministry banned the purchase of cedar and the culture ministry banned replicas.


A senior Pashtun lawyer confided that the real problem with Murad Khane was the inhabitants: ‘dirty, illiterate, superstitious Shia criminals, who would be better pushed out’. He called them foreigners, because ‘they only moved to Kabul in the early 18th century’. The new mayor had also been the mayor of Kabul in the 1970s. He had spent 15 years in Canada but had not learnt English. One of his first initiatives was to try to stop the women’s hour at the municipal swimming-pool on the grounds that women could not swim. When I mentioned Murad Khane he pointed to a map behind his desk, inscribed in Cyrillic master plan for kabul 1976. This 30-year-old scheme, drawn up by Soviet and East German planners, remained his dream for the old city. He wanted to demolish the ancient streets and courtyard mansions and replace them with concrete blocks.


The next official I met was equally determined to flatten the historic site. His resolve was apparently strengthened by understandings with property developers eager to launder their new, often heroin-derived wealth through the construction of skyscrapers. But Kaka Khalil and the people of Murad Khane still seemed to share my belief that traditional Afghan art and architecture were beautiful, worthy of international admiration and could create jobs. I was determined to continue, even if the project seemed contrary to public policy, private interest and municipal regulations. The only way to do so was to rely on the community, make rapid improvements, and dare the government to demolish what we were rebuilding.


Many charities are founded with feasibility studies and seminars, strategy papers and grant proposals. Ours really began with a wrestler. Aziz had won the Afghan national wrestling championship in 1963, gaining a broken nose, cauliflower ears, damaged knees and the title ‘Pahlawan’ or ‘wrestler’. When I was not making much progress with the government, Khalil suggested I should talk to Wrestler Aziz. ‘I am the sub-district chief, the keeper of the shrine,’ Aziz roared on our first encounter. ‘I defend this area with my arms. I will make your project work. I challenge anyone to say I have ever taken a bribe.’ He paused and added in a stage whisper, ‘But I am a bandit.’


I had seen a 200-year-old mud-brick mansion, where three goats browsed a courtyard littered with crates of bananas. The wooden shutters were carved with Mughal stars and floral arabesques, framed with delicate latticework. The wood was unpainted, and the plaster patterns lightly washed with lime. I explained that I wanted to rent the mansion and to restore it as our craft school. Aziz told me instead that I should rent two other houses. ‘I will place you – the foreigner – at each corner, so the government will not send in the bulldozers. If you take the centre, the government will demolish the edges.’ The owner of the mansion would not rent to me, without agreement from the wrestler, so I had to follow the wrestler’s plan.   Next, I recruited staff. Even an uneducated Afghan who had attended a development training course and could speak passable English could earn $1,000 a month in Kabul. I could not afford those salaries.


My first employee, also called Aziz, had worked as a salesman in a Pakistani carpet shop and in the ‘informal export sector’ during the Taliban period, which seemed to involve carrying semi-precious stones across mountain passes. But an old friend had employed him as a driver and said that he had once risked his life to save her from kidnapping. Within a week I had added an Afghan woman, a young radio operator from the north, a 50-year-old white-bearded engineer, a one-legged horseman, a high school literature teacher, a woodworker and a physically disabled academic administrator. Thus, respectively, I had appointed my logistics manager, office administrator, finance director, chief engineer, guard, calligraphy master, woodwork master and office manager.


One of them explained that he was working for me because ‘other charities tell us we live in the wrong kind of houses, have the wrong breed of sheep, are unhealthy and uneducated; your project says traditional Afghan art and architecture is beautiful, worth preserving, will find admirers around the world and can generate incomes.’ Another confessed he just wanted a job.


None had had senior jobs in an international organisation; none spoke fluent English; the majority had not completed a high school education and I suspect they would not have been employed in any formal recruitment process. But I believed I could trust them.   Each employee built their own team. Within three weeks we had 40 staff and could no longer fit in the tailoring shop. An English businessman called David suggested that I could occupy and restore a 19th-century fortress, set above two acres of gardens. The owner now lived in Delhi, and David and his friends lived in the only occupied wing. We replaced ceilings, installed lavatories and repaired the underfloor heating system of the 19th-century bath-house so that we could bathe in the winter. In the garden we set up the first campus of our Institute of Afghan Arts, to train craftsmen, find them jobs and sell their products. This was a temporary home, while we were restoring the two houses recommended by the wrestler.   The early staff came from different social classes and from ethnic groups that had recently been at war. Each favoured their own: the manager from the persecuted Hazara minority hired a Hazara cook and translator, while Panshiri Tajiks came to dominate the driving pool. My personal relations with each, stretching back from my time walking across Afghanistan or through mutual friends, made it almost impossible for me to fire anyone.   I had to spend a great deal of time at weddings, lending money, trying to help their relatives and paying medical bills from my own pocket. But it proved a wonderful team: each was bound to me by some form of personal loyalty. Their eight separate origins meant that they kept an often jealous eye on each other, ensuring that as the organisation grew it could never be dominated by a single cabal.


I had reservations about appointing my landlord the tailor’s brother, Engineer Hidayat, to oversee restoration work, not only because he had little formal education or knowledge of architectural conservation but also because he came from a different ethnic group and a different sect of Islam from that of the community of Murad Khane. But when he walked over the rutted mud lanes of Murad Khane and met Pahlawan Aziz he seized him by the biceps and began a mock re-enactment of a wrestling match, laced with jokes and elaborate compliments. It was he who negotiated with the wrestler and who convinced me to follow the wrestler’s housing plans. We were rewarded with a petition signed by the 50 most senior members of the community asking us to work in the area. Henceforth, community support was our greatest defence against the municipality and the mayor, international policy shifts and greedy developers.


We decided it would be strategic to begin by shifting rubbish. The engineer conjured up a work-force and began. At this point the municipality director, wearing a lilac suit, appeared with police and a document ordering us to stop. Here then was the first test of our model. The police advanced with Kalashnikovs; the labourers fell back; I rummaged for dog-eared registration documents and the municipality director wrote in bold strokes on a clipboard. Behind me, I sensed a gathering crowd. An old man, whom I had not met before, stepped forward and shouted, ‘How dare you stop these men? I remember when you last cleared the garbage: I was 10 years old and it was 1947.’ The wrestler shook the hands of the now-smiling police. The engineer put his arm around the lilac-clad director’s shoulders and walked him out of Murad Khane. The next day we received a letter from the municipality authorising us to proceed.


Foreigners had told me that Afghans were slow and inefficient. That was not my experience. Over the next 18 months, the engineer cleared more than 15,000 trucks of rubbish, dropping the street level by over seven feet and creating near-total employment. Then he levelled the streets, dug drainage and wells and laid paving, and began emergency repairs on 50 houses, making them watertight, propping walls, installing lavatories. This was not expensive work, since the materials were recycled mud – all the cost was in the labour – and I could initially cover that from the seed-funding money raised by the Prince of Wales.Afghan shoppers began to come back into the area and the drug peddlers, who had long made Murad Khane one of their central markets, moved elsewhere, perhaps because clean, well-lit and populated streets were not a fitting environment for their customers. But the engineer’s real genius was political, in defusing the conflicts over jobs for relatives, wages and which properties should be repaired first. He dealt with things in his own style, grabbing an angry mullah by the beard after we had accidentally brought down the mosque wall. Astonishingly, the mullah laughed and forgave us.


Meanwhile, in order to cope with demands, our lack of funding and the shortage of professionals, I brought in more than 100 international volunteers, who came for a few months at a time, over a period of two years. A 22-year-old Dari-speaking American and a Dutch ceramicist in his seventies worked with a curator from the Tate and a Cuban urban planner. Many lived three to a room and we all ate at a common table. Sometimes we were woken by gunfire; a volunteer was walking 50 yards from a bomb that scattered body parts across the pavement; gunmen broke into a hotel and shot men in a locker-room that many of us used. But we were able to travel by yak in the High Pamirs, ski in the Hindu Kush and listen to old men hold forth in tea-houses in the old city.


Where we had no expertise we had to make things up. I had started with a few prejudices: in the absence of conservation architects on our team, I wanted the repairs to buildings to be visible but not too obvious. But that was hardly a coherent conservation philosophy. I thought the high temperatures in electric kilns eliminated all that was intriguing in the low-fired pots, but that didn’t help us win contracts from Trust House Forte, which wanted less fragile glazes. I didn’t think we should pay too much for international volunteers, but what about providing life insurance? Should the financial year start in January or April? Should we have a substantial document detailing our plans for urban regeneration and who should lead it: an architect? A planner? A property developer? Me?


It was clear that we needed to work quickly to prove to the government that the area and crafts were worth saving and to the community that we were serious, competent and helpful to them. Our initiatives multiplied, responding to sudden crises or the shifting expertise of our volunteers or the community’s demands.


Within a year we produced a traffic plan for Murad Khane, largely to placate the ministry; took an exhibition of calligraphy to a museum in Bahrain; built different designs of self-composting lavatories (one under a Nubian vault); and fitted earth buildings with new types of mud brick, solar panels and elaborately carved calligraphic doors. We created factory management systems around new carpentry equipment; launched IT and business courses for students; developed partnerships with Pakistani art schools; opened a rural museum for potters; and sold an Afghan carved suite to a client in London. Anna, our extraordinary young American development director, who had been working with Coventry Cathedral, recorded the recipes of the old city and designed a restaurant in a historic building that would provide employment and draw Afghan visitors back to the old city with good, affordable food. We wanted to start with Afghan tourists, since the security situation would not attract foreigners.


Some of the best ideas came from the community itself – such as the primary school, which we opened last year. Education is bad in Afghanistan: perhaps a quarter of teachers are illiterate and as recently as 2001 girls were not permitted to attend. There was no school and a great deal of domestic violence and drug abuse in some of the poor homes in Murad Khane, and a school would provide children not only with education but also with a safe haven during the day. But we were over-stretched and I was reluctant to launch something new. We argued and then we compromised: the community providing the land and the building while we focused on the teaching.


Within an hour of opening the doors we had 160 boys and girls, most of whom had never been to school before. Their smiles alone made me feel our project was worthwhile. Yet it was no easier than anything else in Afghanistan. The school would have remained second-rate if we had not hired better teachers, negotiated with the ministry of education, built new classrooms and introduced local history and art classes, city tours, adult literacy classes and extra mathematics. And much of this depended on foreign staff. The curriculum was reformed and the teachers were trained, for example, by the head of science from an inner-city school in Boston, Massachusetts.


The Institute for Traditional Afghan Arts began as an apprentice workshop for carpenters, calligraphers and potters with people huddled on rough benches, watching Master Abdul Hadi. A year later, there was a full timetable for the students including IT, English, business studies, Islamic art history and design. Our new business development section, whose aim was to generate income to sustain the institute into the future, launched catalogues and websites, won commissions from embassies, represented us at international trade fairs, sold coasters in Canada and a wooden library to Japan. The fashion chain Monsoon gave us money to train women in embroidery to sell in its stores. We began to sell Turquoise Mountain products through our website, We planted trees to make our timber source sustainable. We built a girls’ school near the potters’ community of Istalif (in addition to the primary school) for a fraction of the cost of a concrete building. At the start of the second year we had 650 applicants for 33 places.


It was only after a year’s work and once we had shown visible results that the relevant Afghan ministries began to support us. A new minister of education recognised the degree certificates from our school and registered us as a national higher education institute. Two decrees were issued to register the area as a protected historical site. Our architects trained engineers from the ministry of urban development and they in turn worked with us on land-use plans. Flattering profiles appeared. We were often on the Afghan evening news.


I was the only person aware that we were dangerously short of cash. I needed to raise thousands of dollars a day. I was able to support myself from income from my book sales, and I began to lend more of my own money to try to keep things going. Many had trusted us: donating land for our schools, working long hours, enrolling to learn complex skills in traditional crafts and architecture. But we had to slow the building projects, which meant laying people off at the onset of winter. I began to wonder what might be raised by selling our minivan or carpets.


By November 2006 I was only two weeks from having to give everyone a month’s notice and shut the charity down. I woke at three in the morning and felt very afraid. No one was used to supporting a brand-new organisation that was operating on this scale. Most donors required two years of audited accounts. As I walked to work, I was greeted by people – the gate-guard who had lost his leg to a landmine; the receptionist who needed a heart operation; and the driver who had been the first to leave his job to join us – and when they thanked me, I felt like a fraud. An objective examination of the costs and probabilities suggested that we should close. I continued through stubbornness, not reason. I flew back to Britain and left behind the conversations and the crises that I had loved in the old courtyards of Kabul for a life of fundraising. I made it a rule to return every fortnight, but I was on almost 300 flights over the next two years.


In countries I had never visited I waited for meetings that never happened. Once, when I made it past a secretary in a Gulf state, I was accused of terrorist financing and shown the door. Some of the wealthy would support us only if we changed what we were doing: to advocacy for women, or schools for the blind. If by luck they would support something we were doing, they could change their mind and suggest something that we were not. One boasted to me that after an exhaustive analysis of proposals he had ignored us and instead allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to an Afghan woman who was running thousands of girls’ schools. I knew these schools did not exist.


I was hopeful about our chances with foundations created by young dotcom leaders and dedicated to ‘social entrepreneurs’. They should not have been bound by the paperwork of government aid bureaucracies; it was their own money and they should have been able to take risk. But they wanted synergies and income streams and compared us on cost-per-unit metrics. They did not want to be distracted from their ‘core mission’.


But we didn’t just do one core activity. We believed, for example, that to regenerate the bazaar we had to develop attractive sites for visitors; we had to train craftsmen to manufacture products to sell, teach the shopkeepers to read and write and count, give incomes to women, provide shelter, water and electricity. Our strength was our local knowledge: we had been in every house, employed someone from every family, worked alongside them, negotiated, shaped their aspirations and were shaped in turn. But there was no universal model: what worked for us might not work elsewhere.


The only way to convey our work is to get donors to visit because it is almost impossible to imagine the environment of the old city, or grasp how our many different activities come together without being on the ground. One of our best supporters was an 84-year-old American woman who immediately on arrival called on senior ministers and generals and forced them to act, establishing an orphanage, and bringing equipment to eliminate water-borne diseases. She clambered up stairs, over dangerous gaps in the roof, trudged through mud, interrogated our female students, and watched the customers buy the products that provided the income to sustain the project and listened to the community itself. But few people dared to come.


In the end we were saved by private generosity. An Afghan nightclub owner crossed a street in Washington, DC, to give me $1,000 because he had heard about us from his family in Kabul, a Swedish woman cycled up to our office to give us $50, our English volunteer did a skip-a-thon with an Afghan friend in Dorset. And the Prince of Wales was in touch weekly, writing to people on our behalf, arranging dinners and meetings, advocating Afghan government legislation and providing advice. It had been his idea in the first place, and it couldn’t have happened without his support.


Our largest donors gave from their private accounts, because their foundation bureaucracies were too restricted to be able to support us. Some had heard of us, others gave randomly with no prior contact. A lady talked to me about Afghanistan for 20 minutes over lunch in California, and later sent $1 million. Then she visited us and sent another million. The Canadian government became our first and most generous public donor. Finally, after three years and $12 million from donors, the Afghan government is now putting its own money behind us.


Last week, I stood in the central square of Murad Khane for the spring kite festival. For once I could move without sinking into the mud because the drainage and stone-paving has worked. We had grown in two years from one to 350 employees.


I noticed that the carving on the windows of the upper gallery of the great mansion needed to be redone: the Nubian vault had been removed from the lavatory of the jewellery school because of a rumour we were building a pagan temple. There was a new community donation box, outside the clinic that we had established for women who could not leave the area and did not want to see a male doctor. People had put in $30, which would cover prescriptions for the next two months. Three streets had agreed to take over the cost of rubbish clearance from us with each household contributing 30 cents a month; one had not. I noted that the students at the primary school had new uniforms.


The structures of government bureaucracies and philanthropic foundations often seem to exist to stop this kind of project. If it succeeds, it will not be a neat lesson in ‘social entrepreneurship’, in management, or a new model for international development. And it seems surreally distanced from the ambitions and priorities of my former colleagues in the Army or the Foreign Office.


Rather, it is a story of sudden expressions of faith, acts of grand generosity and amateur flair. Ours was a local project in a mud city spun by an ageing wrestler, teased by volunteers, tugged by a grey-bearded engineer, deconstructed in conversations around a table at mealtimes.


After three years in Afghanistan, I am now dividing my time between Kabul and teaching human rights at Harvard. My hope is that I will continue to steer the project until it is completed and that I will be able to return in 30 years to admire the old city’s arts and architecture, and encounter a community whose lives are more just, prosperous and humane. But I cannot guarantee we will succeed. I have never had a more satisfying job. But I am not sure whether I would have the energy to do something like this again.