If you’ve lost Rory Stewart, you’ve lost the war. Rory Stewart is a young British conservative, who once walked Afghanistan and later governed the Iraqi province of Maysan in 2003-2004 under Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Government. He is now a Tory Member of Parliament and a junior member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in that body. Stewart ran a charity for years while residing in Kabul. He long expressed skepticism about a troop escalation in Afghanistan, but he is now in a position to influence British Prime Minister David Cameron. Stewart has vocally and publicly come out against the troop escalation or ‘surge’. And he wants a rapid reduction, though not complete withdrawal, beginning next summer (something that sounds to me sort of like the Biden/Eikenberry limited counter-terrorism strategy as opposed to McChrystal’s broad counter-insurgency campaign).
Stewart says, “I do not believe we can win a counterinsurgency campaign. We are never going to have the time or the troop numbers. Even if you put 600,000 troops on the ground, I can’t see a credible, effective, legitimate Afghan Government emerging . . . If you keep going like this the backlash that will build up, the spectres of Vietnam that will emerge in the minds of the British public will mean that we will end up leaving entirely and the country will be much worse off.”
He adds that after the draw-down of troops, “You would have a few planes around but you would no longer do counter-insurgency. You would no longer be in the game of trying to hold huge swathes of rural Afghanistan.”
Some 64% of the British public believes the Afghanistan war is frankly unwinnable, such that they are substantially more pessimistic than the American public (see below). And, almost as many Britons want their troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2010 as think the war cannot be won.
Rory Stewart may be the single Western politician who knows Afghanistan best, and he is talking sense. if President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, and Gen. Petraeus are looking for a voice of experience and someone who can see the forest, not just the trees, Stewart is their man. But to tell you the truth, I think anyone who knew anything serious about Afghanistan would say the same thing. The ‘counter-insurgency’ vision of US troops essentially conquering (“taking”) great tracts of Pashtun territory and even whole Pashtun cities such as Qandahar, and then pacifying them (clearing, holding, building) only has a 10 percent chance of succeeding. It is moreover risky, since it could create vast resentments among the divided Pashtuns and push more of them into opposition to the Karzai government and to the foreign troop presence.
The whole American public is moving in Stewart’s direction, after a period of relative optimism in which they gave incoming President Obama the benefit of the doubt with regard to his insistence that he could turn Afghanistan around. Americans are returning to the pessimistic mood on the war that they were in during the last years of the Bush administration. In a new Rasmussen opinion poll, nearly 60% of likely American voters say either that the US cannot win in Afghanistan or that they are not sure it can (but only 36% say flatly that the US cannot win). Nearly half say it is more important to end the war than to win it.
This Rasmussen poll shows a mood even more pessimistic than another recent sounding by ABC & the Washington Post, which found that 53% of Americans think the war is not worth its cost.
Nearly half in the Rasmussen poll also say that they think Afghanistan is very important to US security and over 80% think it is at least somewhat important. It is hard to understand how the fifth poorest country in the world, a virtual failed state, can pose a security threat to the United States. I presume this sentiment is the long arm of the September 11 attacks, though that operation was carried out by a small transnational terrorist group consisting of non-Afghans, not by the country of Afghanistan.
As usual, party politics skews these results. Rasmussen says that over two-thirds of Democrats think President Obama is doing a good job with his Afghanistan policy, whereas only 15% of Republicans agree.
This ‘two-party epistemology’ in the US (as I called it early in the Iraq War) produces odd outcomes, such as that 60% of Republicans think it is more important to win the war than to end it, but they don’t like Obama’s efforts to do just that. Whereas most Democrats want out, the opposite of Obama’s policy of escalation–but a super-majority of Democrats thinks Obama is doing a dandy job in running the war. This odd set of contradictory attitudes is what allows the war to go marching vigorously on. Democrats do not wish to undermine their own president, who is committed to prosecuting the war, and while Republicans don’t like Obama, they support the war effort.
Some 15% of respondents admitted that they aren’t following the war, while 41% say they are following it very closely. But 83% claim to be following the news about the Afghanistan war at least somewhat closely. This set of responses proves again that people tell pollsters what they they think they ought to be doing, rather than what they do do. Afghanistan news is almost never in the top 15 “favorite” news stories at google.news or Blogpulse or at CNN, and often doesn’t even make “world news” at google. The McChrystal saga was an exception, because it was in a way a domestic story. But about this issue, the respondents are just lying. Few are actually paying attention.
For another take on the Rasmussen poll, the CSM.