Episode 60: Rory Stewart: Failure, and the Villains of the Western Campaign in Afghanistan


Politician, scholar, diplomat and sometime soldier Rory Stewart joins Peter Roberts for a post-mortem of the West's failed campaign in Afghanistan.

Rory laments the approach of Western leaders (political and military) in perpetuating untruths about the art of the possible, as well as the US-led withdrawal under the Biden administration. An extremely sobering analysis.

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  • Peter Roberts: Welcome to the Western Way of War, this is a weekly podcast that tries to understand the issues around how to fight and succeed against adversaries in the 2020s. I'm Peter Roberts, director of military sciences at the Royal United Service Institute on Whitehall. And every week I talk to a guest about the issues around the western way of war, national security, and approaches to war. As we record this in August 2021, Afghanistan is again in the headlines but one increasingly feels that Persia, Arabia, and associated parts of Asia are drifting further from the minds of political and military leaders as their focus shifts to the Asia pacific. Whether this is a function of political tasking or the challenge of China in the PLA, or just wanting to forget the experiences of two unsuccessful interventions over a period of nearly twenty years is less clear. What is true, however, is that the ideas and balance of grand strategy, domestic politics, and international relations have rarely been more important. Yet making these without detailed a knowledge of the lived experience of the world and conflict is fraught with the danger of yet more uninformed missions and unrealistic expectations. There is a requirement, an obligation perhaps for us to tackle such a topic. But finding the right guest to do so has been challenging. There are few people who have the requisite experience as scholar, politician, soldier, diplomat, traveller. But my guest today is someone who could rightly claim all those titles. Rory Stewart may be a familiar name to many of those listening but if you're not let me provide you with some background. As a traveller Rory Stewart walked across Asia, eighteen months yomping across Iran, Pakistan, the Himalayas, solo walk, across Afghanistan, as well as shorter treks across Western New Guinea and covering much of the United Kingdom.

     

    As a politician, he serves in the British Cabinet and on the National Security Council in various ministerial positions, eventually resigning and returning to Yale to teach politics, grand strategy and international relations. Rory did a short commission in the black watch, was rumoured to be a spy for Britain's secret intelligence service and worked with various military formations during his periods as diplomat in Iraq, notably during the siege of his compound in Nasiriyah Iraq in two thousand and four. I describe as a man with itchy feet, constantly travelling and in search of new challenges. Rory moved to Kabul in Afghanistan for three years, running a human development NGO, to restore the old city and has recently relocated to Jordan to work near the Golan Heights on a project to restore a Roman site. Whilst born in British Hong Kong, Rory's lived all over the world. Lived in its truest sense, with the people walking their roads, pathways and living their existence. Whether that is as a soldier, a farmer, a trader, or a fellow traveller. So against that background Rory lets start with the first, the only set question of this show, what does the Western Way of War mean to you?

     

    Rory Stewart: Its a great question. For me, I think at its best and this, of course, is me talking about the kind of warfare that I admire and am interested in, is about something that is genuinely attuned to politics that is thoughtful about history and context that works with communities. And of course, that's what has always seemed to me to be distinctive, about things that have worked well in Bosnia, or Sierra Leone and even those things seem to work best in Afghanistan or Iraq. I would like to see a way of war that integrates it much more powerfully with intelligence agencies, diplomats, AID agencies and soldiers and really make that work. And the missing key that is politics, usually people talk about integrated approaches but what they fail to take into account is politics in the sense of local power, really understanding how local power works and how to work through that.

     

    Peter Roberts: And you say at its best that's what you'd like it to be. But you've experienced quite a lot through your career in various ways, whether as a scholar, or as a traveller or as a soldier or as a politician, as diplomat, whatever that is. And actually we often fall short of that best right, and Afghanistan is one of those areas where we have perhaps fallen short, would you agree with that?

     

    Rory Stewart: Yes, so at its worst, the western way of war, is predicated on various, sort of, almost mental illness. It's incredibly binary. At its worst, it believes every problem has a solutions. Tries to fling astonishing amounts of money and troops at trying to overwhelm problems. And lurches from search to total withdrawal. And is fuelled by paranoia and megalomania. So if I just bring that down to earth in Afghanistan, if you look back at the way we talked about Afghanistan at our very worst which was, sort of, 2007, 2008, the paranoia was saying, 'Afghanistan is an existential threat to global security if Afghanistan falls, Pakistan will falls, mad mullers (ph 05.19) will get their hands on nuclear weapons.' The megalomania was, 'And we are going to fix this, we are going to turn this country into a gender sensitive, multi ethnic, centralised state based on democracy human rights, the rule of law.' And the great catchphrases which really reveal the madness of this particular western way of war, was the idea that failure was not an option. When failure was all around us, we kept reiterating failure is not an option, and every twelve months we would again have a senior figure saying, 'This is the decisive year, 2006, 2007, 2008, '09, '10, '11. I have all the generals on records saying their year is the decisive year.

     

    Peter Roberts: So we have a set of perhaps unrealistic approaches but that's not just politically, that's militarily, I mean it's the general saying this. But is that just simply because of a failure to appreciate local power megalomania, or is it something to do with domestic politics, both at home and abroad, I mean its just not a failure to understand the power relationships in Afghanistan, but also a failure to really be truthful about what we are trying to achieve at home.

     

    Rory Stewart: Absolutely. Failure to be truthful in every single way. Now of course, politicians quite rightly get a lot of the blame for this and they are often the villains of this piece. But it is surprising how often the generals are also to blame, and how often the analysts are to blame. How are they all to blame? They are all to blame because they're perpetrating different types of untruth. The politicians are saying things which aren't true because they want to sound generally positive. The generals are saying things that are untrue because they think it's vital for the morale of their soldiers, to claim that they're winning, and that it's all going well when its patently obviously that it isn't. The analysts have an incentive to tell untruths because they're employed not to point out problems but to present solutions, so the analysts are, sort of, snake oil salesmen who are encouraged to turn up, paid a thousand dollars a day to tell the politicians, the generals, that they have the magic bullet solution to fix these things. So these are all different types of lie. What nobody was prepared to say in Afghanistan is that with a great deal of patience and a great deal of luck, we may be able to make Afghanistan over 20 or 30 years feel a bit more like Pakistan and a bit less like the Congo. What we had was a series of people claiming to be realistic but actually producing nonsense, endless different forms of nonsense. And I realised there were two things going on there. The first thing of course is that most of these people knew nothing about Afghanistan so even if they were based on the ground they didn't speak a word of an Afghan language and security conditions meant they were locked and guarded compounds.

     

    And if they interacted with Afghans at all it was in a very, very odd way, through translators who are often not from the region they were in, so they simply didn't know very much. But secondly that the entire incentives of the military, the politicians, the diplomats, the AID workers, the analysts, was to placate an audience, could be the audience of the soldiers, it could be the voters at home. None of them had an incentive to try to accurately describe what the conditions were like in Afghanistan, and in fact they would have found it almost unbearable to try to provide an accurate description of what was going on, because it would have seemed impossible.

     

    Peter Roberts: Now, it strikes me that there were so many failures, at so many levels, whilst we were dishonest with ourselves perhaps for thinking about how we could reshape a country to be something that was an unrealistic proposition. As a coalition we didn't shirk from throwing money, people, studies, good will at it. So it can't simply have been just a case of money, materials and military force that failed, to enable us to make the country a slightly better place. Was it just our appreciation of power, was it local knowledge, what sits at the heart of this, if we took out the sort of megalomania, and the strangeness at policy at the top, is it simply a failure in grand strategy?

     

    Rory Stewart: It's that Afghanistan itself consisted of twenty thousand villages, it was one of the poorest countries in the world, you were recruiting in Helmand a police force in two thousand eleven, where (TC 00:10:00) 92% of your recruits were illiterate. Where there was no electricity between Herat and Kabul. Where the ethnic tensions between the different groups was intense, where there was support from the Taliban coming across the border from Pakistan, where there was no real functioning state. So, those things could never be overcome, it didn't matter how much money you spent or how many troops you put on the ground. Working with the grain of Afghan society, required what we were doing before 2005/06. The period from 2001 to 2005/06 when essentially the Afghan government had very little support from outside actors, and ran its own affairs, was infinitely preferable, to the situation that followed when the West tried to search first, the British went into Helmand and General McChrystal got us up over a 100,000 troops. The best thing that happened to Afghanistan was Iraq in 2002/03, because it distracted the politicians and soldiers away from Afghanistan, kept the footprint in Afghanistan light. Forced the Afghan government to take the lead. Now there was many things that were extremely disturbing about that period, 2001 to 2005/06, which is why people searched. There was, of course, random corruption. Many of these provinces were ran by corrupt warlords. There was a strong Taliban presence in rural areas. But we needed to recognise that we had no better alternative, that the idea that you could somehow replace power holders in Helmand or Herat with technocrats from Kabul, and try to run a centralised state, backed by foreign military forces and that would somehow be more effective, was madness. Incredibly costly in terms of lives and money and ultimately made the whole thing feel unmistakably to the Afghans as though they were living under foreign military occupation.

     

    Peter Roberts: Which they pretty much were, right? I mean, absolutely no way you could doubt that with the post surge levels or surge levels of troop commitment that was there. From everything that you are saying, it just strikes me that surely we can't have gone into this thinking that Afghanistan was like another western state with a centralised government that ran everything in a sophisticated infrastructure and the central policies that would be followed by the 200,000 villages. It feels like we just didn't understand the country at all and yet I find that quite hard to believe. The UK and FCO, now the FCDO has a long and illustrious history, not just in Afghanistan but of understanding local communities. Did we get it so badly wrong in our initial assessments about the country, is that what lies at the heart of our problems with western intervention.

     

    Rory Stewart: We got it unbelievably wrong, and remember that British diplomats are not people who are experts on the rural areas of countries. They operate from embassies, they deal with ministers, they live in capital cities. We are a long way away from the days of the British empire where you had district offices out in remote rural areas. And DFID staff are increasingly very, very few people managing enormous budgets out of central capitals. So they're really project management people who administer a £50 or £100 million budget. And again they are not people who understand the rural areas of Afghanistan well. And their targets from the start are totally unrealistic. Let me give you a tiny example, which is-, you know, sounds as if it's a long way away, but I'll try to link it. DFID in Afghanistan did a project on carpentry and I was running a carpentry shop in Kabul. Running the best carpentry school in Kabul right, we were training some very find carpenters over three years with a lot of investment. So I went to DFID and I said, 'Terrific, you have got a £50 million program for carpentry training, can we have some of the money?' 'No, no, because you are not training enough people, we want to train 10,000 people and we are going to put them through a two week course.' So I said, 'Well, look, this is mad. Nobody can learn carpentry in two weeks.' And they said, 'Yes, but if it is longer than a two week course, we can't train 10,000 people.' And when I questioned it-, I mean obviously it's a bright person I am talking to, he, sort of, gets the problem, but he feels part of the bureaucratic system, which has trapped them. Another example from DFID in 2004/05 when I said what we are doing is nonsense, they said, 'Oh no, it's not nonsense, we are doing is we are paying teachers salaries.' Who can possibly disagree with that? And Afghanistan NGO then did a study in Ghor province in central Afghanistan and found that three thousand teachers being paid by DFID didn't exist, they simply weren't there.

     

    They were just names collecting money and they were nowhere near a school. So the fact is that our civilians as much as our soldiers could not begin to take on board how extreme the situation was. They mirror image. Of course they understand it's a poor country but they haven't spent enough time in the rural areas to just start by saying, 'Is it likely that we can train 10,000 carpenters in Helmut? Is it likely that there are three thousand teachers in Ghor province receiving a salary?' No, so something must be wrong here. You know, for example here, General McMasters, not moving onto the military, he arrived as a sort of one star and his job was to eliminate corruption in Afghanistan. And I remember the conversation there where I essentially said, 'You can't eliminate corruption in Afghanistan, nobody has managed to do this in almost any country in the world. They haven't eliminated corruption in India, they haven't eliminated corruption in China, and those are much much wealthier, more developed countries, they haven't eliminated corruption in Saudi Arabia, what do you mean you are eliminating corruption in Afghanistan?' To which the military answer was, 'Well, okay, don't get me problems, give me a solution, how many troops do I need, how much money do I need? I'm going to crack this,' right. So he ended up setting up divisions of soldiers that were going to eliminate corruption. But it's insane, right? Somebody needed to say, 'This whole thing is insane, you are a one star general, you cannot eliminate corruption, stop asking me how many solders you need, how much money you need, you can't do this. You don't even understand what you are talking about. What are you imagining you're going to do?'

     

    Peter Roberts: It's incredible that we need that kind of challenge in many ways, because the problem often is not by those who have been deployed to the field who have been given a role, and they're go getters and their promotion's on the line, they might be in the country even for a couple of years, but they've got to deliver it. But it comes back to, sort of, systemic problems in the capitals, in the west, from what you're saying, that says we are driven by completely the wrong set of targets and metrics, that we think of deliverables in our own terms and not of the others. It feels like you're saying that we can't somehow appreciate the context, we must make everything about ourselves, and how we would like it to run, rather than the realities. Are we just not prepared to engage with the realities of situations on the ground?

     

    Rory Stewart: You're right, we can't. And I used to think is the problem-, so when I heard the President of Afghanistan say every Afghan is committed to a gender sensitive, multi ethnic, centralised state, based on democracy, human rights and real law. And I think, I literally cannot translate this into words that anyone in an Afghan village can understand, I don't know how to say that in Dari. And obviously it's not true. I've just been walking for thirty two days through villages which were at war with each other, and when I haven't seen a woman for thirty two days, what do you mean they are committed to a gender sensitive-, right? So I thought, 'Is this guy cynical or is he naïve? Is he lying or is he ignorant? And of course, it's not just him saying that, Gordon Brown is saying something similar, David Cameron will say similar things, Tony Blair will say similar things, George Bush will say similar things. And the generals will say similar things, maybe not quite as extreme but similar sorts of things about how they're going to sort out. But what I realised, is it's not that they are either lying or ignorant, it's that they're not really talking about Afghanistan at all, they would actually be a bit sort of shocked if I said, 'Wait a second this isn't a description of Afghanistan,' because what they're really doing is talking to some other audience, an audience at home.

     

    And if I said to them, 'Okay, try to describe Afghanistan,' so say this is a country which is on the edge of civil war where the Taliban have enormous country over rural areas where in most of central Afghanistan women don't leave their houses where the literacy rates are 8%, where there's no electricity. Where there's no allegiance to the central state and we're going to try over twenty or thirty years to make it a little more like Pakistan, a little less like the Congo. They would say, 'Well, we can't say that, Rory. It doesn't matter whether it's true or false. You simply can't.' I mean, how are you supposed to get the British public to put money and troops into that project? Let's take South Sudan which I've been thinking about as well. If you were to say in South Sudan, 'Look, we're not going to be able to create a functioning state. We might be able to get some humanitarian aid in to feed some starving children if we accept the fact that the militia's going to steal some of the food aid on the way in and we'll be able to keep a few people alive.' No politician is going to want to say that to their public. Nobody's going to put 100 million pounds a year of DFID money behind that. They have to keep or they feel they have to keep pretending that it's all going swimmingly. That there's a great sunlit future. That there's some great hope that they can offer. And that's in the structure I think of the way that the west thinks. It simply doesn't have the patience or the tolerance for saying, (TC 00:20:00) 'This is a deeply traditional society that's very challenged and we're going to very slowly work to try to improve things.'

     

    And that then leads me to my real sadness which is that this tendency leads them from surge, massive over deployment of troops to total withdrawal because they have attention deficit disorder. They go from total over optimism to complete pessimism because they have no sense of reality. I'm running an NGO on the ground in Kabul. Ironically, was more optimistic than the people that were spouting all this apparently optimistic nonsense because I actually had a sense of what Afghans were capable of. We were creating real markets. We were selling carpets. We were getting a clinic going, we were getting a school going. I had a real sense that we could get stuff done. What I realised is that the west talked an optimistic game but was actually basically profoundly pessimistic. The reason why they spun all this nonsense is they really, at some level of fear, didn't really believe they could do anything at all. They, sort of, despised Afghans rather to admire them.

     

    Peter Roberts: Is that because they couldn't make the leap of imagination? Is that because they just didn't have the experience on the ground or is that because they'd been set the unrealistic goals of previous administrations of creating this nirvana? It just feels like it couldn't possibly have happened and yet no one walked back from it. You know, surge then became binary. Surge didn't work, whole thing's going to a ball of cheese, get everyone out. The context again is just not being explained. In a new administration, you'd think, whether it's in the UK amongst allies or whether in the US, has the opportunity to break with the past. Every change of leadership that's happened and yet there's been none of that.

     

    Rory Stewart: Yes, it's very strange. Biden has just made the most reckless damaging and unnecessary decision imaginable. Right, he's pulled out and by doing so essentially handed the country to the Taliban in about two and a half months. It is extraordinary. Right, yesterday, they managed to take (inaudible 22.06). The entire road from Kabul North has now gone. It's incredible, the advances they've made. Right, district capital after district capital is falling. And he had absolutely no reason to do this. There have been no combat operations since 2016, they were containing the situation with relatively few troops. They were down at 2500 troops and a few planes. They were not suffering casualties. They could have remained there indefinitely in the way that we do in Germany, Japan, South Korea. Instead of which he asked this completely daft question which is, 'Well, when are we going to leave? And surely if we leave in ten or twenty years time the same things going to happen,' is, sort of, irrelevant. If it's not costing you an enormous amount and by remaining you are stopping the Taliban running over the country and remember that is stopping horror. I mean, it's stopping millions of refugees flooding out of the country. It's stopping suffering of millions of Afghans. It's stopping the total humiliation of the United States and its allies and potentially it's also stopping the re-emergence of a terrorist safe haven. Right, it's a pretty low cost investment. And what he has done is so beyond imagining reckless and irresponsible and such a betrayal of our Afghan partners. I mean, nobody there is responsibly and slowly trying to work out what we are going to do to unravel our programs.

     

    There's all this nonsense. 'We'll take the military out. We'll keep the aid programs going.' It's complete nonsense. The entire insurance system in Afghanistan has now collapsed, insurance companies have all withdrawn. How do you keep the aid programs going when all the foreign powers have just told all their foreign nationals they have to leave the country? All the civilians have been instructed to leave the country. The US government's announced a visa program which will mean hundreds of thousands of Afghans now-, almost every educated English speaking Afghan is going to be trying to leave the country now. And nobody has thought patiently about what do we do to try to manage a transition. They've literally just swept the rug out of the things, washed their hands of it and are pretending it's not their fault. I mean, it's extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary. I mean, it's as though-, in human terms, it's as though you'd decided to foster someone into your home, been working with them, developed their trust, developed a relationship over ten years, and then suddenly just kicked them out the house, locked the door on them and set up nothing for them to do. I mean, can you imagine the sense of disillusionment and rage from Afghans at this sort of treatment.

     

    Peter Roberts: It's also pretty embarrassing that western capital should behave like this. I mean, from everything you're saying and we've recognised so much of it, we might feel perhaps that we have a civil service that's run by targeting catchphrases, that's agnostic of the realities of the ground of the context in which they're operating. Certain that politicians have been shocked to realise this in such a serious way but the public surely must be shocked as well. Shouldn't we be expecting more depth, more candour, more reality, more detail, more expertise from our civil servants? Should we not be expecting the FCDO to understand this context to be explaining the impacts of the political decisions that they're making? Or do you think this is going on-, the politicians are just ignoring it?

     

    Rory Stewart: Well, one of the problems is the Foreign Office began to be cut so heavily from '97 onwards. The core central diplomatic stuff is about half the size of its French equivalent with an economy about the same size as France. Its language training was cut to pieces. It became very, very risk adverse. You know, when I was in foreign office we had 26 British diplomats in Zambia. By the time I was (inaudible 25.50) we had two, which was the ambassadors and an assistant. The incentive structures for promotion in the Foreign Office have nothing to do with developing deep expertise or learning languages. It's all about performing in Whitehall, demonstrating your management capacity. It's become very inward-focussed. People are rewarded for good corporate approaches, showing sensitive approaches to managing their own teams. They're not particularly rewarded for getting out of the embassy, spending hours developing contacts with foreign nationals or learning their languages and that's been going on now for 30 years so that somebody like me-, if you'd go back, when I first went to Afghanistan, the end of the Taliban period and I was on leave from the Foreign Office so obviously I returned to the Foreign Office after my walk and started saying, 'I think you've gone mad. You know, this is what I think Afghan villagers are like,' and the problem is the culture of the foreign office was incredibly dismissive. I mean, their sense was-, because what I was saying was uncomfortable. What I was saying is that a lot of what you're claiming you can do you can't do and a lot of what you're trying to do is simply impossible and it's going to waste lives.

     

    Their response was not to try to engage seriously with what I was saying but to attack me and other people like me and say that we were fantasists, we were romantic, we thought we were Lawrence of Arabia, we were living in the 19th century, we didn't get the modern world. Or if that didn't work they'd say, 'Oh, you know, he's a bit unreliable. He's a narcissist. He's self-promoting. He's only doing this to get media attention.' It became quite extreme. I mean when (inaudible 27.34) who was one of the most senior diplomats in the British government and was the ambassador to Kabul tried to say that the counter insurgency strategy was madness, they did the same to him. They effectively fired him, deprived him of his next posting and made him out as a mad man. The same happened to General Eikenberry. He came in as the US ambassador. Very distinguished American general. Deep expertise in Afghanistan. Three distinguished tours in Afghanistan before he become US Ambassador. As soon as he started saying the surge was a mistake, everybody said he was senile. He'd lost the plot. He had no idea what he was doing. The same actually happened to Biden in the days before he did his current madness. In 2008, he was the only person arguing for light long term footprint and the response from the national security establishment was to suggest that Biden was senile, inept, stupid and they never engaged seriously with this argument that actually we could've had a light footprint and relied more on air power.

     

    Peter Roberts: All those things you say I recognise across militaries as well as the FCO. The obsession with promotion based on budgetary performance, on narratives, on relationship with technology, the faddism of cyber open source intelligence, the human element has all but disappeared. The catering to mavericks, the understanding that deep expertise has enormous value disappeared in the 1990s and as a culture it has gone entirely. But what do you think we would need to do-, because I think we must want to be able to recapture a seriousness, a gravitas in our civil service, right across Whitehall, right across the military as well. You know, what might we do to start re-instilling some of those good practices right across Whitehall that allow us to get back to the best of the western way of war as you described it at the start?

     

    Rory Stewart: So, I think one thing is that we can learn from the best of the United States. The Americans have just done the most terrible thing. Biden's just done the most terrible thing but at their best, American politicians, American generals, American diplomats, in my experience in Afghanistan, were far more serious, far better informed. Took much more of a sense of responsibility. They were really prepared to spend the days going though the detail of the challenge, the counter-insurgency warfare (TC 00:30:00) doctrine. They were really prepared to invest in the anthropologists. They were really prepared to rethink their tactics. They were very open to outside advice. I remember back in 2008 I was spending time with John Kerry and being mesmerised by his willingness to talk about North Waziristan, South Waziristan, (inaudible 30.23) federation. Stuff that no British politician could do or was interested in doing. I was very impressed. Even though I disagreed with what they did with General (inaudible 30.32) and McChrystal. Right, they were seemed to me at a totally different level and so I think we can learn from the United States. I think right away across the board we can learn from the rangers and the US Marine Corps as good expeditionary formations. We can learn from the way that they send some of their best people off to universities. Their training is much better, but particularly we can learn from the fact that they have the budgets and the openness to open up to outside experts to take that challenge. Stanley McChrystal for example. As soon as he got that gathered people who profoundly disagreed with him and spent a lot of time listening to them and he wasn't doing it proforma.

     

    I feel when the British civil servants or politicians do it they're just going through the motions. They will, sort of, endure being forced to sit there with a critic and they'll be polite and then leave and not think about it again. Stanley McChrystal was wrestling with it. He really wanted to know whether he was right or wrong because he felt that he was carrying a responsibility for it in a way the British didn't. I would like us to be training up people. I would have liked to take Nick Carter's developments far further. I'd like to really lean into the idea of foreign area expertise but really lean into it and that means having the budgets to make sure that people can learn languages, can travel, can get out. I mean, one of the embarrassments as we increase the ministry defence budget is there still never seems to be any money for deployment. I mean, when I wanted to work with the military in Africa, it was a perpetual problem getting a few £100,000 together to get people on planes. So these structures would be created. The idea was meant to be there but there was just no flexibility to actually make anyone do anything. So we'd end up with these embarrassments of tiny, sort of, £9 million operations which we claimed were going to defeat Boko Haram or 250 engineers sitting in the inner circle of a UN base in South Sudan pretending that they were doing peace keeping. Yes. So there's a lot we could do and it probably begins by learning from the best of the Americans.

     

    Peter Roberts: So, as a final question, I wonder if I could ask you if people were thinking about trying to get serious about context, about future conflict, about the western way of war, about integrating approaches, what advice will you give them right at the start of their career? What should they be looking at? Is it a case of reading more? Is it a case of travelling? Is it a case of walking? What is the secret to us developing this group of people who will go out and reinvigorate our seriousness?

     

    Rory Stewart: I would think that the real secret is to make sure that people, after they've been in four five years as an officer and they have talent in this direction, I would give them unpaid leave to do very tough, extreme travel in remote rural areas. There's simply no substitute. I mean, sitting in a village in central Afghanistan or it could even be spending five, six weeks in a village in Western Nepal, changes everything, because just living that life with those people makes you understand who they are. And from then onwards for the whole of the rest of your career, when somebody says, 'Could we have a Facebook revolution in Western Nepal?' you think, 'Well, okay, let me think about this. We didn't have any electricity. Nobody was literate. How are we going to do a Facebook revolution, right?' So, I think that is the absolute key and it's not just the key for the military or the diplomats, the development workers. The development workers, I really believe every single DFID staff member deploying needs to spend time on language training who needs to spend two months in a remote village before they start their job in that country. Because if they don't know what a remote village in Kenya is like they can't run the program out of clarity. But nobody will let you do that. They never provide the budgets. That tiny investment seems to be beyond people because they pretend they live in a world in which everybody speaks English, everything can be done from a capital, everything can be done remotely. Increasingly, they question whether they need anyone in the field at all because it's much cheaper to base them in East Kilbride and hope they can run the Kenyan program from there.

     

    But I think that would apply actually to almost every westerner, whatever they're doing. One of the things that's missing with so many young people. Doesn't matter where they're going into business or they're becoming an academic or they're just thinking about what they want to do with their life. Is any exposure to how people live in poorer, remoter areas of the world.

     

    Peter Roberts: Rory, thank you very much indeed. A real pleasure talking to you. Two notices as we end. First, can I genuinely recommend Rory's books? Any of them and the list is pretty long but perhaps start with The Places In Between or, my favourite, The Marches: Border Walks with my Father. Also, his broadcast worth is looking up, both The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia and The Great Game, should be available on BBC's iPlayer. Second, I point out that all the research tells us how much writing improves our mental agility and capacity. Instead of just doing it as an exercise or to get through the latest professional military education course you're doing, you might consider entering RUCI's Trench Gascoigne essay competition for 2021. Entries can be up to 4,000 words and can cover any topic related to national or international defence and security. There are two prizes of £1,000 to be won. For more details, check out the link on the page for this podcast. Finally, I want to thank listeners for their feedback. Love the show or hate it, your engagement has placed us in the top two per cent of all podcast shows globally and that's more than two million of them. We love getting your suggestions for guests and themes and just banter about the show. Everything you send is read and digested, although whether we can make all of the demands happen is another thing. We're working on it. The show wouldn't happen without the production team of Peppi Vaananen <PeppiV@rusi.org> and Kieron Yates and the sponsorship of the good people at Raytheon UK. Kudos to you all. Thanks for listening.

     

    KEY: Unable to decipher = (inaudible + timecode), Phonetic spelling (ph) + timecode), Missed word = (mw + timecode), Talking over each other = (talking over each other + timecode).

Western Way of War Podcast Series

A collection of discussions with those in the Profession of Arms that tries to understand the issues around how to fight, and succeed, against adversaries in the 2020s. We pose the questions as whether a single Western Way of Warfare (how Western militaries fight) has been successful, whether it remains fit for task today, and how it might need to adapt in the future? It is complemented by the ‘Adversarial Studies’ project that looks at how adversaries fight.

2021 Trench Gascoigne Essay Prize

Submissions are now open to our annual competition for original writing on contemporary issues of national and international defence and security. Find out more details on the 2021 Trench Gascoigne Essay Prize and how to enter.


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PODCAST HOST

Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

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