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Rory Stewart on Quitting Iraq

Stewart treading Asian shadows

Rory Stewart is the author of ‘The Places in Between,” a book that resulted from his 6,000 mile walk across Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Nepal from 2000 to 2002. He’s now chief executive of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a non-profit organization in Kabul devoted to social and urban redevelopment in Afghanistan and jointly led by Britain’s Prince Charles (whose sons Stewart tutored in the 1990s) and Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan. Stewart, who is Scottish, served as deputy governor of two southern Iraqi provinces from 2003 to 2004, as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority. That experience led to his second book, “The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq ” (2006). On April 20, 2007 , at the Asia Society in New York , he had a discussion with ABC’s Dan Harris in front of an audience, then took questions. (You can hear the full interview here.) Naturally, the questions focused on Iraq —what to do next, how to go about it, and so on. Stewart was able to distill in a few words the essence of a lost cause. Here are the relevant excerpts.

A woman in the audience asked him what he would do in Iraq next: “What would I do in Iraq now? I am not an expert, but I believe that the time has come to withdraw, that our presence is infantilizing the Iraqi political system. That we’re like an inadequate antibiotic. […] I think that Iraqi politicians are considerably more competent, canny, and capable of compromise than we acknowledge. Iraqi nationalism, in my view, can trump the Shiite–Sunni divisions. Our continuing presence is encouraging Iraqi politicians to play hard-ball with each other. Were we to leave, they would be weaker and under more pressure to compromise. […] Despite some claims to the contrary, there is not a single indicator of significant, overall improvement I know of over the last four years, neither in electricity, nor in education, nor in police training, nor in the military. You might be able to achieve a temporary blitz, a temporary numerical drop in the number of security incidents, through deploying 20,000 troops into Baghdad, but this is not sustainable. There is no evidence I have seen that either the Iraqi police or army is prepared to take over our role, so long as we stay. In this situation there is simply no point hanging around. It would seem to me that starting to leave tomorrow, as opposed to in two years’ time or six years’ time, would make no difference; the situation would be the same. And there cannot be a justification for continuing, day by day, to kill Iraqis and to have our own soldiers killed in this kind of war.”

He was asked about the consequences of leaving: What if civil war escalated to the point where the West would have to intervene again, this time for humanitarian reasons? “But an intervention in Iraq for humanitarian reasons and in order to stop the civil war would differ significantly from the situation we’re in at the moment. We’re not perceived on the ground as a neutral peacekeeping force there to stop a civil war. We’re perceived by many people as a foreign military occupation. A lot of the popularity and power of the various forces of insurgency comes from people’s ability to present themselves as fighting for Islam and Iraq against that foreign military occupation, and this makes it almost impossible for us to sustain security or deliver economic development. […] The problems in Iraq are now so deep, complex, and intractable that they cannot be solved by surges or new tactics. They can only be solved by Iraqi political leadership and Iraqi political processes. We can provide diplomatic and economic support. We can continue to protect ourselves against terrorist attacks on our home soil through intelligence and special forces operations in Iraq. But we cannot win through an indefinite blanket occupation because we lack the will, the resources, the legitimacy, and also the consent necessary to play such a role. My instinct is that Iraqis can overcome their problems and create a functioning nation. But even if I’m wrong, I believe that what good we can do we have done. We should leave now.”

“What would I do in Iraq now? I am not an expert, but I believe that the time has come to withdraw, that our presence is infantilizing the Iraqi political system. That we’re like an inadequate antibiotic.” Rory Stewart, author of “The Places in between” and former deputy governor of two Iraqi provinces, explains why there’s nothing left for Americans and coalition soldiers to do in Iraq—and that waiting a year, six months or two to leave is bloody futility.


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