For Someone Who’s Admitted He Knows Nothing about Afghanistan, He Sure Is Vocal About How We Should Abandon It

by Joshua Foust on 11/25/2008 · 2 comments

Rory Stewart—the new Ryan Professor of Human Rights at Harvard University and the Director of the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy—proclaims his belief in the New York Times (and Esquire) that the one thing Afghanistan is missing is a return to 1989:

President-elect Obama’s emphasis on Afghanistan and his desire to send more troops and money there is misguided. Overestimating its importance distracts us from higher priorities, creates an unhealthy dynamic with the government of Afghanistan and endangers the one thing it needs — the stability that might come from a patient, limited, long-term relationship with the international community.

We invaded intending to attack Al Qaeda and provide development assistance. We succeeded.

That’s funny—the people who spearheaded that development assistance would disagree, and quite vigorously. But that’s beside the point. What Stewart is arguing, in effect, is for a repeat of 1989, in which the U.S. largely relinquished any serious stake in Afghanistan—and, if we are to follow some other thinking about what 1989 really meant, that was a good decision (at least from a short-term cost-benefit analysis).

Of course, hindsight allows us to see plenty of reasons for the U.S. to have had greater concern over Afghanistan’s fate. Both Afghan-veteran journalists and U.S. intelligence officials were worried all the way back into the late 1980s about the growing signs of a transnational terrorist movement in the uncontrolled borderlands of Afghanistan—wholly separate, but encouraged by, the raging civil war. Now they may not have held sufficient sway or urgency at the time, but history has made itself rather clear on this fact: an unstable Afghanistan actually is—Stewart’s blithe assertion to the contrary notwithstanding—a rather serious threat.

Stewart does not make disagreeing with him difficult. In short, he confuses cause and effect, arguing there was no insurgency in 2005 (there clearly was) and that troop increases in Helmand caused more violence rather than the opposite. My guess is, people who were actually in Helmand in 2004 would disagree quite vigorously with that claim, especially considering they were evacuated after a massive spike in violence before any major troop increase.

Unless we were to forget the waves of Europe- and American-focused terrorism to have emanated from Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan over the last decade—and almost as egregiously, pretend there will never be repeats—policymakers should ignore Stewart’s empty accusations of colonialism and continue focusing on how to secure the country from terrorism and insurgency.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 2 comments }

The Golden November 25, 2008 at 8:29 pm

I await your commentary on the words of Mr. Greg Mitchell… http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003896090

Joshua Foust November 25, 2008 at 8:34 pm

Is his last name really Slaughter? Half these people I’ve already discusses before. And Mitchell doesn’t really speak from a position of knowledge (he quotes Galloway interviewing McCaffery’s week-long tour of Kabul? Really?).

I mean, I don’t get what’s there.

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