Rory Stewart on Afghanistan

There are ideas to quibble with in Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, but on the whole, Stewart's book is a sensitive and engaged portrait of a portion of an Afghanistan seen on foot. It's been a while since I last read Stewart's account, but I happened to stumble across his thoughtful and articulate critique of our current policies and politics in Afganistan.

As he reads it, there are two visions of Afghanistan: the dystopic potential narco-state threatened by the Taliban that justifies our military presence; and then what Stewart calls the "implausibly optimistic" vision of Afghanistan as a Western-style democracy. He continues:
Obama and Brown rely on a hypnotising policy language which can – and perhaps will – be applied as easily to Somalia or Yemen as Afghanistan. It misleads us in several respects simultaneously: minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals. All these attitudes are aspects of a single worldview and create an almost irresistible illusion.
Stewart's critique is - in part - framed through his knowledge of Afghanistan's history. He suggests that even our present conflict (its protagonists, its small dramas) could not have been imagined 20 years ago, and it's irresponsible to suggest that we can finally imagine a future for Afghanistan. His point: That we just can't know. But how have we come to be able to imagine Afghanistan's future?
Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’
(As a brief aside, the geographer in me finds the notion of "ungoverned space" particularly suggestive. The equation of those kinds of spaces with terrorism even more so.) He continues:
We claim to be engaged in a neutral, technocratic, universal project of ‘state-building’ but we don’t know exactly what that means. Those who see Afghanistan as reverting to the Taliban or becoming a traditional autocratic state are referring to situations that existed there in 1972 and 1994. But the international community’s ambition appears to be to create something that has not existed before. Obama calls it ‘a more capable and accountable Afghan government’. The US White Paper calls it ‘effective local governance’ and speaks of ‘legitimacy’. The US, the UK and their allies agreed unanimously at the Nato 60th anniversary summit in April to create ‘a stronger democratic state’ in Afghanistan. In the new UK strategy for Afghanistan, certain combinations of adjective and noun appear again and again in the 32 pages: separated by a few pages, you will find ‘legitimate, accountable state’, ‘legitimate and accountable government’, ‘effective and accountable state’ and ‘effective and accountable governance’. Gordon Brown says that ‘just as the Afghans need to take control of their own security, they need to build legitimate governance.’
One of the themes of my teaching this past spring - by way of John May - was what we assume to be the "neutrality of technology": guns don't kill people, people kill people. To rephrase Stewart's critique: "state-building" is not and cannot be a neutral project. It assumes certain things about everything from the nature and role of the state to a conception of history. In the end, Stewart's suggests that for all the rhetorical brilliance of our philosopher-in-chief, both Obama and American policy remain hamstrung by a certain way of thinking about politics, history, and progress; a way of thinking established and situated within a very different set of cultural, social, economic, and political conditions than currently exist in Afghanistan. A fascinating critique, and well worth a look.


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