Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Dapper was the word to describe Alexandros Petersen. Whenever we met, he would be found sporting one of his uncountable number of elegant suits, perhaps navy but often tweed, sometimes with a waistcoat or even a notched lapel. He would usually carry a fine, full-size umbrella: talisman against the British weather and echo of a walking-cane that would not have been out of place in the Edwardian portrait from which he often appeared to have burst.
I last saw him two and a half or so years ago. He was then at the Henry Jackson Society, and on the hunt for writers to commission. The HJS’s politics had stopped being mine by then, so I offered some excuses and declined.
You find two kinds of people in his field: those for whom foreign affairs are a projection of their domestic politics, and those who love the regions and peoples to which they devote their work and study. Alex of course was one of the latter. He shared this with journalists and aid workers who would have disagreed with him most strongly.
Like all romantics they also travel in the service of ambition, excitement and freedom; of being seen to make a difference as well as going so; they lap up the attention that we gentlemen still abed bestow upon them during their too brief visits from Kabul to safe Western capitals. They enrich our lives as well as their own
Thirteen years of “intervention” in Afghanistan make it easy, and not altogether unfair, to draw a lesson of hubris. Overconfidence certainly played its part in the numberless mistakes we have made since 2001; but mere ignorance cannot even excuse the most basic of errors: taking six or seven years before making a serious attempt to build up state institutions; having tens of thousands of troops under separate command and rules of engagement bound to infuriate the people subject to their raids; wasting effort and impoverishing farmers through opium eradication.
A moment’s reflection ought to have given those responsible pause. But the English-speaking world is cursed with a political culture that prizes speed over accuracy, prefers data to wisdom, privileges narrow expertise over judgement. It denies our leaders the time to think, the “bandwith” to focus on anything complex, and even the opportunity to put a sustained argument, rather than a series of soundbites, to voters.
Thus the original project in Afghanistan: to put a country that had suffered 25 years of war sufficiently back together so that warlords’ rivalry was channelled into semi-peaceable political competition, fundamentalists’ fanaticism dimmed so they no longer sheltered major terrorist organisations, and some progress could made on human rights and on the economy, had been boiled down to ‘kill the Taliban over there, so they don’t kill us over here.’ Always over-militarised, it became a mission all about us, instead of a project in which their cooperation was required. No longer a programme of serious international involvement, it has succumbed to what is really a more aggressive strain of isolationism: equally indifferent to people in faraway countries of which our political institutions have taken great pains to overlook what they know.
It is too late now to expect a anything other than military withdrawal from Afghanistan. It will be remain dangerous for a long time, as Afghan leaders and foreign diplomatic missions negotiate where power lies, and the people who depend on them try to make the compromises they need to survive.
The lecturers at the American University in Kabul, the human rights activists, the people who train police, civilian officials and journalists to keep an eye on them; the economists and hydrologists, who have stayed as the insurgency has gathered strength deserve better than the indefatigable indifference of political leaders transfixed by emerging markets farther east. So did Alex, who had just taken up a teaching post at the American University, and was killed in Friday’s attack on the Taverne du Liban restaurant.