Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rory Stewart's Appearance on CNN's The Situation Room

Rory Stewart appeared on TSR yesterday to share his perspective on Afghanistan. Here is the transcript of Wolf's interview with Rory:

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: My next guest has a unique perspective on Afghanistan. Rory Stewart literally walked across the country as part of a 6,000-mile journey from turkey to Bangladesh. He served as a coalition deputy governor in Iraq. He's now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy school of government. Rory Stewart is joining us now. Rory, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: The president's been meeting today, as you know, on what to do next in Afghanistan. We expect a decision soon. "The New York Times" columnist this week Tom Friedman suggested maybe it's time to start getting out of Afghanistan. Tom Ricks, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer says it's time to build up and give it some more time. You've suggested, correct me if I'm wrong, maybe it's one option would be to muddle through. What does that mean?

STEWART: Of course I don't say that we should muddle through. What I'm saying though is we need to see Afghanistan in a strategic context which means we need to treat it as a very long-term venture. We need to understand that we have to protect U.S. national security. We should be doing things for the Afghan people, but we should be doing it in affordable and realistic fashion because the major threat that we're really going to face in Afghanistan over the next five to ten years is going to be that people will get fed up and withdraw and that's such a fragile traumatized country that if you were suddenly to go from troop increases to withdrawal and from engagement to isolation you'd probably leave the situation much worse than you found it.

BLITZER: So if you're President Obama right now or one of his top advisers, what do you do in the short term? He's got to make a decision pretty soon.

STEWART: I'm afraid that President Obama faces a massive political problem. He has boxed himself in. If he didn't intend to send more troops, he should not have allowed General McChrystal to write that report. So probably for political reasons I think President Obama will feel forced to send those troops, so we now need to think two to three years into the future because those troops won't remain forever, and we need to define what a long-term strategy would look like, and I would say it would involve saying there is a terrorist threat from Afghanistan, and we need to keep a few troops there to deal with it. We do have obligations to the Afghan people and we should be generous with our development side, but more broadly we should realize that Afghanistan is not the be all and end all. There are many more important countries in the world and we should have a generous flexible attitude towards Afghanistan and should not put all our eggs in one basket.

BLITZER: You're hearing there are 68,000 U.S. troops, part of a bigger NATO operation in Afghanistan right now, but he should accept General McChrystal's recommendation for political reasons to dispatch another 40,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, is that what you're saying?

STEWART: If I was the president I would not be sending those troops because I don't think it's good for the United States, and I don't think it's good for Afghanistan, so I'm very much hoping that he's not going to send those troops, but I fear that for political reasons he may feel that he's forced to.

BLITZER: Here's what one of your critics Andrew Exum from the Center for New American Security who participated in General McChrystal's review said in the new republic in an article that was just published. "I think the first 22 pages of the McChrystal assessment of the war in Afghanistan were more grounded in evidence- based reality than Rory's was. That's not to say he's delusional, just that he has a very limited view of Afghanistan and operations there." I don't know if you know Andrew Exum but I wonder if you want to respond.

STEWART: Yeah. My response is that what we need to bear in mind, and I have lived in Afghanistan and I don't want to get into a fight with Andrew about this, but I have spent the last three and a half years living on the ground there and as you've said I've walked across the country but it's not about expertise, it's about trying to understand what our limits are. We need to be realistic about what the U.S. military, what the state department, what developing nations can do in a country as poor and fragile and as traumatized as Afghanistan. My guess is that we tend to overestimate our own capacity, overestimate our ability to transform other people's countries, and my guess is that if we're going to look back at this in 20 years time we will realize that we made a mistake, that we tried to do things that we couldn't do. The problem with Andrew's argument and with all these arguments is not that they are not trying to do good things. It would great if we could create a wonderfully stable legitimate effective state in Afghanistan and if we could defeat the Taliban. The problem with it is that we can't and we've got to be more realistic about our own power and our own capacity.

BLITZER: Explain how your walk across Afghanistan, that 600-mile journey that took place back in 2002 or 2003 I believe, but explain how that informed your current decision-making, your current thinking on what to do in Afghanistan.

STEWART: It's more of an intuitive thing, but what I discovered on that journey, of course, is -- and I was sleeping in village houses night after night staying with different families is that those communities are very isolated. They are probably more conservative, more anti-foreign than we like to acknowledge, and their priorities are such that they don't like the Taliban very much, but they certainly don't like the Afghan police and in many ways they don't like foreign soldiers either. We're really fighting for the imaginations of Afghans. We're trying to get them to believe in the Afghan government, and those things are moral, they are political. They are religious. They are not things connected with how many boots you've got on the ground directly and they are not really connected with how much money we spend. In fact, unfortunately, they are connected with things over which the United States and its allies have relatively little influence.

BLITZER: So basically you agree with Tom Friedman as opposed to Tom Ricks? STEWART: I believe we should keep a light long-term footprint in the country. I think it would be very dangerous to follow Tom Friedman's recommendations of leaving entirely. I think we need a light long-term sustainable footprint.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Rory Stewart, for coming in.

STEWART: Thank you for your time.


mebz72 said...

Aw! I missed this. I was home and everything, I just wasn't watching the Sit room yesterday.
Thanks for the transcript, Maxie.
Anyone got the vid???
Take pity on me.

maxie1218 said...

I am sure Cyn has it recorded but I know she is incredibly busy. Perhaps CNN will post it on their site at some point or it will replay over the weekend edition of TSR. It could also appear on ATC ;)

I am just happy Rory is still making time to appear to talk about Afghanistan on CNN.