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Driving off the Cliff

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A couple of years ago, when I read Rory Stewart’s account (The Places in Between) of his 2002 walk across Afghanistan, I came to appreciate the futility of our efforts at Afghani state-building. Stewart is now on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the director of their Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The Financial Times had a column about him last week in which the writer, Emily Stokes, gives an account of a lunchtime conversation with him. (Hat tip: Eric Martin at Obsidian Wings.)

Stokes quotes one part of the conversation in which he gives a rather bleak assessment of the value of providing advice to government officials:

Since arriving at Harvard in June last year, he has been consultant to several members of Barack Obama’s administration, including Hillary Clinton, and is a member of Richard Holbrooke’s special committee for Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. “I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having?” he asks, pronging a mussel out of its shell.

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …’”

And his assessment of state-building is bleak as well:

On the day we meet, the New York Times reports that it looks as if Obama’s policy of increasing troops in Afghanistan will work. Stewart has a different take. “The policy of troop increases will look ridiculous in 30 years,” he says. “They’re not going to make America safer from al-Qaeda. The theory of state-building is suspect. I’m not sure that the state they aim for is conceivable, let alone achievable. We should be pursuing a much more conventional development strategy in Afghanistan. And, if you want to combine that with a Special Forces unit that would make things uncomfortable for Osama bin Laden, then so be it.” He sighs. “But you can’t say that sort of thing to the policymakers. They’re grand, intelligent, busy people who have no interest in this kind of abstraction. They’re not interested in values, virtue, outlook … ” He pushes away a barely touched plate of mussels.

I hope Obama listens sooner rather than later.

Categories: Government, Politics
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