Lawrence of Arabia offers lessons for Afghanistan | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 12.12.2009
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Lawrence of Arabia offers lessons for Afghanistan

After eight years of war, the US and Europe are scrambling to retool the Afghan mission. Instead of creating new concepts of nation building, leaders should read Lawrence of Arabia, argues a foreign policy expert.

Peter O'Toole as Lawrence and Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali in the classic Lawrence of Arabien

Lawrence of Arabia was a prolific writer on nation building

John Hulsman is the author of the recently released "To Begin the World Over Again: Lawrence of Arabia from Damascus to Baghdad." He is president of John Hulsman Enterprises, an international relations consulting firm, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is based in Germany.

Deutsche Welle: In your new book you argue that instead of trying to develop new strategies for counterinsurgency and nation building in Afghanistan, Western leaders should read T. E. Lawrence's "27 articles" written in 1917 during the so-called Arab Revolt as a guide for British officers. What can we learn from Lawrence of Arabia that would help us today in Afghanistan?

John Hulsman: The thing that was missing in Barack Obama's speech was of course the most important piece from a Lawrence point of view which is what are the locals going to do if you do these other things. The problem with modern nation building is that it's always about what's going on in Washington and other capitals, what the strategy should be for outsiders rather than what the strategy should be actually in these places that we are trying to nation build.

Lawrence realized that the key to success in the Arab Revolt wasn't him, wasn't the British, wasn't the Turks - it was the Arabs. Could he make the Arabs stakeholders in a settlement whereby he built a nation organically using the pieces there. And so rather than create a nation where none had existed he worked with tribal leaders building something from the bottom up, seeing them as the key to the story, making them stakeholders in the assessment, realizing how their culture worked.

In other words it was entirely different than the failed efforts in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq where we've done this exactly the wrong way with the wrong philosophy. If you are going to build a people you have to make sure you don't liberate them from themselves.

Probably the most famous advice given by T.E. Lawrence in his "27 articles" postulates "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly." Has the international community heeded that advice so far in its mission in Afghanistan?

One of the things people say is "Isn't it terrible that we're working with these warlords." Who do these people think has been running Afghanistan for the last 1,000 years? Not Thomas Jefferson and not James Madison. I wish that were the case, but it's just not. Better that they be given control in terms of money - of course we should account for it because there is a lot of corruption in Afghanistan - better they be given control over the building projects that they're doing rather than we tell them what to build.

And of course they won't do it as well if we would do it by Western standards. But the key isn't how well they do it, but that they will be made stakeholders in the process so that they see that they are rebuilding their nation, they are building their country, not that we are imposing some sort of diktat from outside.

I think that is actually the key piece of advice from the "27 articles," because it encapsulates what's wrong with what we are doing. What we are doing should be mainly psychological and political, and then only secondarily military. In the Arab Revolt in 1917, Lawrence figured out that if the Arabs were on his side he couldn't lose and if they weren't on his side that he couldn't win.

And that's what's missing from Obama's plan. There was precious little mention of local politics and working with localities. The problem with the Afghan constitution that we imposed on the country after installing Karzai is that it's centralized, that we've made Kabul the center of the political decision making when in Afghanistan the tribe and localism has been the center of the Afghan experience of a 1,000 years.

Lawrence would understand this in a heartbeat. And that's why in a sense what's happening in Afghanistan is so tragic and why I was really desperately impelled to write this book. It comes out of a practical experience of working in Washington on Iraq and Afghanistan and then I read this guy and I immediately said that's it, that's what's missing.

ISAF commander Stanley McChrystal during a meeting in Kandahar

ISAF commander Stanley McChrystal is trying to work closer with the Afghan people

Lawrence of Arabia, as the name and the popular movie about him suggest, was famous for his knowledge of and closeness to the Arabs that contributed to his success. Do the current military and civilian leaders in charge of the Afghan mission know enough about the country and its people?

No, I don't think they do. I give General McChrystal real credit, because he is aware that this is an area where they are falling behind. In Iraq, one of the most important things that explained to me why we failed there was when I read at the time that of the 200 senior staffers that viceroy Paul Bremer brought in under George W. Bush to look after Iraq, only one had an advanced degree in anything relating to Iraq or the Middle East.

And Lawrence would say you can't transform a society you don't know anything about, that's just common sense. I laud McChrystal for realizing that something is missing, but intellectually these guys don't know anything near what Lawrence did. Lawrence had worked before the war in an archeological dig with the Arabs in Karkemish, he spoke their language, he knew their tribal structure, he knew their feuds, he knew who liked whom and why. Cultural knowledge is far more important than military knowledge if you are going to do anything successful on counterinsurgency and nation building.

Of course Lawrence of Arabia is perhaps most well-known for his military achievements, i.e. the Arab Revolt, the Battle of Aqaba and the Fall of Damascus. What military lessons can the ISAF troops in Afghanistan learn from Lawrence?

What they can learn is actually an old German saying and they could read their Clausewitz again. Clausewitz got it right that military matters are only an extension of doing things politically. If we clear the Taliban somehow through a miracle from Afghanistan, which we of course can't do because they are locals and not some foreign outside force, but even if we could get rid of all the Taliban by some miracle we still wouldn't have stability in Afghanistan because there isn't anything political to build on. That is the key.

Despite his successes, Lawrence of Arabia's grand vision of Arab self-determination failed in the end when the British and the French decided to divide the Middle East between them. Isn't that a stark reminder that in Afghanistan, realpolitik ultimately might trump visionary politics?

Taliban fighters posing in Afghanistan

The Taliban have steadily gained ground in Afghanistan

Yes it definitely could. We need to go from bottom up rather than from top down. The British and French went top down. They said what matters most on the great power level. The reason why it is better to start with the micro level and then go to the macro level is really old-fashioned Burkean thinking. If you get the stuff on the ground locally right you can then build something.

If we get the various tribal leaders to buy into our settlement, then you can go to the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians and the Pakistanis and say, we can promise you stability, but only if we all don't intervene and meddle, including the United States. Going bottom up leads to that stability. Without that local component it won't work as was seen in the case of Lawrence, that is absolutely right.

Michael Knigge talked to John Hulsman
Editor: Rob Mudge

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