This is another excellent TED talk from July of 2011, this time regarding western military intervention in Afghanistan. The closing of his talk is too good to miss, so I’ve transcribed it below for anyone who doesn’t want to watch. Besides it being an honest analysis of western involvement in the region from someone who’s spent a tremendous amount of time there, Stewart constructs a clear, well-reasoned, thought-provoking argument that should be a positive example of debate for anyone interested in engaging in public discourse about topics like this.
Rory Stewart: “When people talk about intervention, they imagine there is some scientific theory – the RAND Corporation goes around counting 43 previous insurgencies, producing mathematical formulas saying ‘You need one trained counter-insurgent for every 20 members of the population.’ – this is the wrong way of looking at it. You need to look at it in the way you look at mountain rescue.
When you’re doing mountain rescue, you don’t take a doctorate in ‘Mountain Rescue.’ You look for somebody who knows the terrain. It’s about context. You understand that you can prepare, but the amount of preparation you can do is limited. You can take some water, you can have a map, you can have a pack, but what really matters is two kinds of problems: problems that occur on the mountain which you couldn’t anticipate, such as, for example, ice on a slope, but which you can get around, and problems which you couldn’t anticipate and which you can’t get around, like a sudden blizzard, or an avalanche, or a change in the weather. And the key to this is a guide who has been on that mountain in every temperature, at every period; a guide who, above all, knows when to turn back, who doesn’t press on relentlessly when conditions turn against them.
What we look for in firemen, in climbers, in policemen, and what we should look for in intervention, is intelligent risk-takers. Not people who plunge blind off a cliff, who jump into a burning room, but who weigh their risks, weigh their responsibilities. Because the worst thing we’ve done in Afghanistan is this idea that failure is not an option. It makes failure invisible, inconceivable, and inevitable. And if we can resist this crazy slogan, we shall discover in Egypt, in Syria, in Lybia, and anywhere else we go in the world that if we can often do much less than we pretend, we can do much more than we fear.”