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Rory Stewart: “This is about the end of an age of intervention”

Former international development secretary Rory Stewart says the UK's response to Afghanistan evacuation efforts has been "brutal" [Photo credit: Alamy]

7 min read

Rory Stewart knows both Afghanistan and the British government well. After four harrowing weeks trying to get Afghans out of the country, he talks to Georgina Bailey about why the West’s failings are wider than just the current crisis

Rory Stewart is about to climb a mountain. 

He spins his laptop to show me the “quintessential American cabin”, all wood panelling, where his family is waiting for him on their holiday. He looks tired. The 48-year-old ex-solider and former MP, international development secretary and diplomat says he has spent the last four weeks “doing almost nothing else” other than trying to get hundreds of Afghans out of the country. 

Now a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs, Stewart has retained close ties to the region. After serving as a senior diplomat in Iraq, he walked across Afghanistan in 2002 and later co-founded and ran the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a heritage and culture charity, in Kabul between 2005 and 2008. His wife, Shoshana, is now the foundation’s CEO. 

The UK government’s response to his pleas for help was, he says, “brutal”. “The British government has a very, very narrow idea of what their obligations are. I've been to the British government to raise the issue of the former Afghan interior minister, who was responsible for running all the Afghan intelligence services, judges and police against the Taliban. He's running from house to house and the British government, for some reason, doesn't consider him to be their problem.” 

Stewart says those he did get out were all assisted by other governments. “Nothing I [managed to do] had anything to do with the British government or the British military. I was relying on my relationships with often quite poor fragile states, like North Macedonia or Iraq, to provide safe haven for people.”

This isn't just a question of who went on holiday when, or how we handled evacuations

While his immediate frustration at the US and the UK governments is clear, Stewart is more broadly concerned with what he sees as the lack of moral vision that has permeated politics.

“Fundamentally, this is about the end of an age of intervention,” Stewart says. “One of the sadnesses of British public life is that we don't seem to be able to have the energy, the imagination, the confidence anymore to actually see this in its real light. This isn't just a question of who went on holiday when, or how we handled evacuations.”

Stewart points to two decades worth of interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “The United States and its allies believed that it was possible to do military interventions in other people's countries and build states under fire,” he says. “It succeeded in Bosnia, and it failed in Iraq. 

“In Afghanistan, it had managed to get something very precious, a light footprint, which was extraordinary. It was costing us very little and it provided a model potentially for the rest of the world. It was a way of talking about how we could avoid two extremes: these huge trillion dollar forever wars where you put in 130,000 troops, spend $130bn dollars a year and end up making the situation significantly worse than when you found that on the one hand; and on the other hand, total withdrawal and isolation."

 A US Army CH-47 Chinook is loaded into a C-17 Globemaster III in support of the Resolute Support retrograde mission in Afghanistan, June 16, 2021 [Alamy]

Stewart continues: “It's a way of thinking about the way in which Britain, the US and others can say ‘we can't do everything, but we can be something’.”

As well as cuts to the Foreign Office budget and what he calls a “bureaucratic, risk averse, highly legalistic” approach to foreign policy, Stewart puts this loss of moral vision largely down to the growth of populism. “The most fundamental underlying problem in all of this is the collapse of political language. We seem to be able now only to talk in an unrealistic, exaggerated and hysterical way about other people… We lurch from saying these places are existential threats to global security that justify almost any amount of risk and investment, to saying we want to have nothing to do with them.”

“Nuance, detail, complexity, realism and honesty, all these things seem to be an anathema in modern political language. This is a problem because it's actually deeply corrosive for the politicians. In effect, we put on a simplistic, populist mask to campaign, and that mask has a flesh eating virus in it that gets into our brain and actually deprives us of the ability to think critically, or govern well.”

This problem is wider than foreign policy, Stewart says. “We have entered a world in which we just make endless declarative statements. Almost everything that we say about China, on the environment, biodiversity, poverty, levelling up, are declarative statements. The gap between the rhetoric and what we actually are doing is grotesque. And yet nobody's ever called out.”

I find people more concerned about the question of what's going to get them in newspapers. What can they sell as a press release?

Refocusing on Afghanistan, what future does Stewart see for the country? 

“Essentially, Afghanistan is going into a humanitarian crisis. The government has no money. It's very difficult to keep very basic things like water supply and electricity going. People will become hungry quite soon – incomes have collapsed, partly because many women are no longer able to go to work and many men don't feel safe going to work, but also because the international community is now imposing sanctions. They treat the Taliban as a terrorist group so it is almost impossible for any normal company to do business there. The banking system has collapsed. The country is going to rapidly go into an extraordinary economic recession and it was already quite a poor country to begin with. Many people are going to suffer and some people are going to die,” Stewart says matter of factly. 

He would like the UK government to provide written assurance to international NGOs, British charities and others working on the grounded that if they continue to engage in normal humanitarian development assistance, they won’t be prosecuted under terrorist financing legislation. The Turquoise Mountain Foundation is continuing its work in a limited fashion, he says, but there are obvious security and financial challenges to navigate. 

Later this year, Stewart and his family will be moving to Jordan for two years to work on a project with the foundation restoring a ruined Roman site in the Golan Heights. He will continue to commute monthly to Yale. However, Stewart hasn’t ruled out a return to politics - although more likely as a mayor (his plan to run for London mayor in 2020 as an independent was scuppered by the pandemic) than as an MP. “I don't have a political party. I'm an independent. And I've never felt independents have much impact in Parliament,” he says, saying he much preferred being a doer, working as a minister, to backbench life. In particular, he most loved his time as prisons minister under David Gauke, then justice secretary. 

Gauke (pictured left with Stewart in 2019), he says, “was an extraordinary example of somebody who genuinely did seek to sit down open-mindedly with civil servants and actually asked himself what the right thing to do was, and he did very brave things.” He names Michael Gove, Damian Hinds, Victoria Prentis, and Gillian Keegan as current members of the government who he admires for similar reasons. 

“But generally speaking, I find people more concerned about the question of what's going to get them in newspapers. What can they sell as a press release? How can they sound like they're being dynamic? How can they please No 10?” says Stewart.

His advice for them? “Asking themselves, if I were in charge of this department, which strangely enough, I actually am, what would I actually do to try to make this country a better place.”

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