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US has lost battle for our hearts: Imran Khan

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Conservatives MP Rory Stewart who advises US Secretary of the State Hilary Clinton on Afghanistan and belongs to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s inner circle, said the American-led mission in Afghanistan was deluded and mistaken in its approach because it didn’t know how limited its reach and influence was, especially in the absence of a coherent focused policy towards negotiation and political settlement.

Hailed by Esquire magazine as one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century, the former diplomat is author of two best-selling books - The Prince of the Marshes (also published under the title Occupational Hazards) and The Places in Between (which was inspired by his solo walk across Asia including Pakistan and Afghanistan) - and at the age of 38 is well-versed in the politics of the Islamic world and can speak many languages, including fluent Urdu.

Speaking exclusively to The News/Geo in the House of Commons, the MP for Penrith and The Border said the West had been successful in building schools and clinics in the war-torn country but much less successful in imparting training to the police and eliminating rot from the heart of the Afghan government, beset by corruption.

He said the issue facing the western coalition fighting in Afghanistan was to get the balance right and to understand the limits of the international community, and legitimacy is one of those key issues.

Far from being a sanctuary to the people posing existential threat to the US and its western allies, said Stewart, Afghan problem fundamentally is a problem of a poor, fragile and traumatised country at the end of 30 years war, which needs to be seen in the context of poor countries like Nepal or any African country, rather than in the context of Al-Qaeda and Taleban base.

The former tutor of Princes William and Harry, who has also recently taught at the Harvard University, proposed that the solution to Afghan conundrum lies in a patient and purposeful 20-30 years engagement to make Afghanistan “a little wealthier and developed”. It should be treated more like rest of the South Asia and a little bit less like some civil war-torn African country.

Pressing further on the civilian effort to help Afghanistan find salvation, the MP said the role of the military must be reduced and made limited.

“There is a reason why you want to have troops so that Al-Qaeda doesn’t set up training camps and the Taleban are encouraged to come to a political settlement but that can be done through a few thousand soldiers - not 150,000 foreign troops and 150 billion dollars yearly expenditure.

“What you need is a patient, light approach, long-term engagement but not the electric shock.”

Rory advised the western policymakers to take it easy and don’t fall for the notion that Afghanistan can be fixed with military might. He says putting more boots on the ground and making it look like a foreign occupation created the Taleban phenomenon as the jihadists started telling their people they were engaged in a holy war against a foreign enemy.

MP Stewart is candid that he lost his pacifist arguments and the wars went ahead - and rage today unabated, killing well over a million in less than a decade and directly affecting millions more. But the MP says the Neo-cons or the hawkish elements are not ideologically driven and they happen to be the optimistic people who sincerely believe in state building and counter-insurgency. Their assumption is that NATO and US can do anything and if they are not successful that means they need more money and troops to engineer success.

“They are worried about terrorists, Taleban, Al-Qaeda, their credibility, the future of Pakistan and the regional stability. They are immensely confident in their power. Their instinct is to put more money if there is no success. My instincts are the opposite that Afghanistan is too complicated to be seen in simplistic terms. Fears are exaggerated too. This country has not posed any existential threat to global security and if we step back and see it as one of 30 or 40 developing countries than that’s better for us.”

Conservative Party has been a cheerleader to Labour when it played second fiddle to the US ambitions and launched wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. But Rory argues that when he opposes the war and military expansion on foreign lands, he actually speaks in line with the “strong conservative tradition, which is one of pragmatism and prudence”.

“If you look at the Conservative policy over 200 years, it’s conservative who say things like me which is to be careful, don’t overdo this, don’t exaggerate your fears and powers,” says Rory, aiding his thesis by quoting a war time British general who said in 1880 that ‘we have nothing to fear from Afghanistan and even if it is worrying for our pride we should leave because the less they see us the more they like us’.

Rory says Britain’s 2015 deadline to pull out from Afghanistan is an insurance policy because by then Britain will definitely realise that Afghanistan is too complicated to be sorted out.

He says for many of his parliamentary colleagues failure in Afghanistan is not an option and they disagree with his assessment of the threat Britain faces but he is sanguine that as years pass by his argument will be seen as more plausible and will win eventually.

He says the Afghan problem is like a Chinese puzzle and to point out exactly what the actual problem was problematic because of the deep complications involved in it. He says throwing money at tribal chiefs and drug barons and generally the way the money has been spent has distorted the society and contributed elements of instability.

The former diplomat calls for a whole-hog re-assessment and re-alignment of the western foreign policy to rebuild its confidence and rebuild a pragmatic, serious policy to re-engage with the Muslim world.

“It has to be an honest conversation about power and responsibility. Sometimes the western world treats the Muslim world as victims only and behaves as if Muslim world is just a victim, doesn’t have any will, and doesn’t have any responsibility.

“Admit that actually the Muslim world is getting wealthier in many parts, has enormous number of people, controls an enormous amount of resources and have a more equal conversation,” says the man, who won election from one of the safest seats in Britain.

His epic solo walk across some of the most volatile Asian regions won him plaudits on many levels but it was the treatment he received in Pakistan from Punjabi farmers and peasants that makes him so nostalgic about that journey. “I walked across Afghanistan after the fall of Taleban and walked from Multan to Lahore by foot for 28 days.”

The MP has fond memories of that solo adventure, especially of the Pakistan Punjab. “It was the most wonderful experience. People were so generous and kind. Every night I slept on a different charpoy, people gave me buffalo milk, staying in compounds. I had such a warm feeling, not from wealthy people, but from ordinary people living in village after village. It’s given me a lot of confidence in people. I believe in Pakistani and Afghan people, I believe they are much more confident and canny. They understand their societies and know how to fix their problems. So if we can give the right structures I really believe I am not pessimistic about these countries,” says the MP, adding that there is no comparison between the two countries as Pakistan has much more developed and functioning institutions.

Rory expressed strong support for the forces fighting for the restoration of democracy and the sacked judiciary and remains a staunch supporter of the country’s civil society. He is frustrated that some ill-informed elements in the West think Pakistan is like Afghanistan.

“Pakistani politics is very exciting. There is a really wonderful vigour in Pakistan. That’s why I hate it when you say Pakistan is a failed state and Taleban are only 60 miles from Islamabad. This stuff is crazy stuff. In reality Pakistan is an incredibly vigorous society, it has a wonderful media, campaigns against Hudood Ordinance and for the restoration of judiciary were exciting. This is a real civil society, a real educated population. Even small things such as the National College of Arts are a great institution. This all is very exciting. It’s nothing like Afghanistan. It’s much larger society but incredibly much more vigorous.”

Rory Stewart admits that being in the Westminster makes him excited and he finds politics refreshing. “This is a great job. It’s so exciting to be able to get actually involved in this. Now at last I feel I have a small possibility to take responsibility and have influence actually work out what can be done and not what ought to be done.”

Rory started his political career from the platform of Labour party but became a Conservative after working in Afghanistan through his charity Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a human development NGO he set up on the request of the Prince of Wales and Hamid Karzai.

He recalls how his ideology underwent a radical change. “Every single day of that project convinced me to a be a Conservative, every day of that project showed me the advantages of working with the local communities, listening to the local people and working with the traditional history and convinced me that Labour’s centralised model is not the way to get things done. I became a Conservative through the process of setting up my own charity, taking it from 1 to 160 people.”

By Murtaza Ali Shah

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