Rory Stewart Makes the Case Against the Afghan War

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Afghan.forest.trees.jpeg
Rory Stewart, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard and author of The Places in Between, makes the case against escalating the war in Afghanistan in the pages of the London Review of Books.
In what I found to be a very entertaining and original piece, Stewart exposes the linguistic confusion, moral misunderstanding, and strategic contradictions surrounding the U.S./U.K approach to the “good war” in Afghanistan.
Here is the nut graph:

When we are not presented with a dystopian vision, we are encouraged to be implausibly optimistic. ‘There can be only one winner: democracy and a strong Afghan state,’ Gordon Brown predicted in his most recent speech on the subject. 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 analysis is one of the best reality checks that I’ve seen on this subject since the Obama administration decided to double down on Afghanistan earlier this year.
For the other side of the story, see Peter Bergen’s “Winning the Good War” in the current issue of The Washington Monthly.
– Ben Katcher

Comments

31 comments on “Rory Stewart Makes the Case Against the Afghan War

  1. arthurdecco says:

    Literal interpretations of our sometimes highly charged rhetorical responses to willful idiocy are not helpful or honest, David.
    Tell me how they advance the discussion…

    Reply

  2. David says:

    I wasn’t thinking about POA’s intention here, arthurdecco, I was taking the sentence at face value because of how pervasive that attitude, not POA’s facetiousness about it, is in our society.
    Actual informed intelligence probably carries much weight with most everyone here, with the exception of anyone so blinded by ideology that comprehensive facts and insight-yielding logic run into a brick wall.

    Reply

  3. arthurdecco says:

    To all: Do you really think POA distrusts or dismisses posters’ opinions because they’re intelligent? You couldn’t possibly think that.
    His “brains don’t impress me” line is almost certainly meant to suggest specious Sophists and other serial abusers of their own intelligence don’t impress him. (Insert “WigWag” or “Nadine” or “Kotzabasis” et al here.)

    Reply

  4. ... says:

    paul norheims july 29 12:43pm post is bang on..it was in response to this comment from poa.
    “Egads Kotz. You and Dan oughta compare egos. Its a circle jerk made in heaven.”
    it’s called picking fights and taking pot shots at others where it’s uncalled for and being unable to reflect on any of it… i like conviction too… i’m sticking with mine and backing up pauls 12:43pm comment once again..

    Reply

  5. Dan Kervick says:

    arthurdecco, I understand why many people might not approve of the convictions I have, or of the means I choose to promote them. And I can understand why some people would be confused or irritated by the fact that I appear to share some of their own personal convictions but not all of them. But I think you and others are very deluded if you think that the time I spend here writing comments is not born of conviction.
    If I didn’t have strong convictions about the things I write about I wouldn’t put so much sweat into writing them.

    Reply

  6. David says:

    Our posts hit TWN at the same time, so I did not see yours until after mine posted, POA. You post is priceless. I’m still chuckling.

    Reply

  7. David says:

    A caveat, arthurdecco: Character and conviction without a fully empowered brain = GWB. Brains do impress me. Intellectual dishonesty and/or selective intellect are what don’t impress me. The brain is humankind’s most valuable asset. Character and conviction must be informed by a fully engaged, comprehensively informed brain, of course. I think “knowledgeable conviction, not intellectual fabrication borne out of ego” is very well put, but “brains don’t impress me” undercuts it. And all too often it is brains constricted or confounded by conviction, even knowledgeable conviction, that can be problematic, especially when conviction leads the parade.
    That said, I’ll take POA’s intellect (and artistry with a camera) any day of the week.

    Reply

  8. PissedOffAmerican says:

    But ya gotta admit, Arthur, the vision of the Afghani impoverished pining sadly for democracy while watching “Sean Hannity” on their widescreens has a certain surreal appeal, doesn’t it?
    Ya gotta love this Kotz guy, doncha? An admirable pursuit, a TV in every hut. Now THERES a reason to invade and occupy! We’ll get Hollywood to sell ‘em democracy, by golly? We’ll have them nasty terrists just beggin’ for next week’s TV Guide.
    And of course, if theres nuthin’ good on TV, they can always go online. Any minute now I expect a post from Ahmed the goat herder telling us how much he likes his new Compaq.

    Reply

  9. arthurdecco says:

    I much prefer Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi’s opinion to WigWag’s, who seems stuck in the Vietnam era Amerikan Gangsta mindset, “We had to destroy the village to save it”. Bull Poo. We have to talk with and listen to those who oppose us.
    And while I’m taking sides, I think I’ll cast my vote for POA’s approach to that of those who prefer to lecture and scold here. I agree completely with “I prefer to read opinion based on knowledgeable conviction, not intellectual fabrication borne out of ego. Brains don’t impress me; but character and conviction does.”

    Reply

  10. PissedOffAmerican says:

    I’ve got some respect for Paul’s opinion.
    As far as you go, I couldn’t care less what you have to say. I wasn’t the antagonist on that thread, and I tried my damndest to keep it to the topic. But like a gnat joining a swarm, you just couldn’t stop buzzing. My sin on that thread? I told Dan that I might just find myself telling him “I told you so”. The comment was on topic, and non-adversarial.
    As far as Dan goes, that thread speaks for itself, and the quotes that Don provided, underscoring Dan’s schizo about-faces of opinion, pretty much defines how I see Dan. I prefer to read opinion based on knowledgeable conviction, not intellectual fabrication borne out of ego. Brains don’t impress me; but character and conviction does.
    And if you are one of those that goes whining to Steve, suffice to say that I remain in contact with Steve, and respect his opinion. I can’t speak for him, but I have a feeling that the complaining irritates him more than the heated conversations do.
    I’ll tone it down out of deference to Steve and Paul. And I’ll just ignore your incessant squeeking. Fair enough?
    Now, as far as Afghanistan goes. We have stopped taking an official accounting of Afghani casualties. What’s that tell us?
    Change you can believe in, right before it gets flushed down the crapper.

    Reply

  11. Paul Norheim says:

    Andrew Sullivan (born in 1963) was more than 18 years old when
    Bush and Cheney were elected and later invaded Iraq. He had
    some influence in the blogosphere. He supported them and he
    supported the invasion of iraq.
    Why should I read him?

    Reply

  12. John Waring says:

    Here’s another article on the hard slog that is and will be Afghanistan.
    http://www.counterpunch.org/spinney07142009.html

    Reply

  13. David says:

    There is no such thing as a military victory in Afghanistan, and thus the statement that the Afghan War can be one is sheer nonsense.
    The US can either make things worse, maybe help ameliorate things, or simply find a way to disengage with the least harm for the Afghans. But it cannot “win the war.” We had better be figuring out how to extricate ourselves without leaving behind a worse situation than the one Bush so ineptly inflicted on Afghanistan in his quest for revenge, one of the most ill-advised bases for any foreign policy decision that involves warfare, especially when it is followed up by an a.d.d. decision to abandon Afghanistan and invade Iraq.
    I will be pleasantly amazed if Obama can actually do anything constructive to extricate the US from the colossal blunders Team Bush and the rest of the neocons favored the United States and the rest of the world with.

    Reply

  14. ... says:

    lol paul! usa world supremacy is just around the corner!

    Reply

  15. Paul Norheim says:

    “As I’ve argued for a long time the war in Afghanistan can be
    won, as David Miliband too, the UK Secretary of Foreign Affairs,
    an aficionado of Steve Clemons, argues in a piece on the
    Australian and democracy can be established in the country, and
    even in countries such as Somalia and Yemen.”
    So, after Baghdad and Kabul, we take Mogadishu and Saana?
    Brilliant, Kotzabasis, Brilliant.

    Reply

  16. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    World knows that Talbanization is an ideology, yet to crush this ideology via war does not seem logical,ultimately some other tools are much important to use while fighting this kind of ideology and of course, having dialogue with the sane elements in the Taliban group is the only viable method to deal with it.

    Reply

  17. ... says:

    poa – you might not like me either, but paul is offering some kind words of wisdom you’d do well to consider… dans remarks hit the nail on the head.. you may not like to hear them, but they were necessary.. you continue to want to take pot shots at people and now you are going after dan again.. you need to stop it by reflecting on your own actions a bit more…

    Reply

  18. Paul Norheim says:

    Hey POA, take it easy!
    You may regard what Dan said a couple of days ago as unfair,
    and approach the whole issue as a clash of egos. I obviously
    like many of your comments more than Dan or WigWag do.
    However, Dan`s remarks about your frequent verbal abuses of
    fellow commenters are unfortunately to the point.
    This is your main problem, and you should really try to change
    your conduct when disagreeing with other commenters, instead
    of bragging and continuing to create a nasty atmosphere on the
    blog. Dan spoke for himself, but he gave voice to many people
    here who`ve been treated in ways beyond what even an online
    persona should be treated by another online persona.
    I`ll not go into Dan`s other points – whether someone from the
    American left should think in constructive, positive and
    instrumental terms right now, or speak from a place outside the
    influential players. I have great respect for Dan`s choices and
    his comments at TWN, but also for your comments. There is
    nobody here who can formulate things like you do some times.
    But please consider the fact that you often go to far in
    harassing people at TWN.

    Reply

  19. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Egads Kotz. You and Dan oughta compare egos. Its a circle jerk made in heaven.
    Take it from me, when its -18 degrees outside your hut, and you just want something, anything, to fill your stomach, God and tribe trumps technology everytime, and “democracy” is the farthest thing from your mind.
    And, uh, Kotz, what makes you think “poverty” in Afghanistan includes TV sets and computers through which the impoverished sadly watch the rest of the world gleefully enjoying prosperity and democracy?
    How do you people dream this shit up?

    Reply

  20. kotzabasis says:

    When we are presented with a pessimistic vision we are encouraged to be OPTIMISTIC pessimists. As I’ve argued for a long time the war in Afghanistan can be won, as David Miliband too, the UK Secretary of Foreign Affairs, an aficionado of Steve Clemons, argues in a piece on the Australian and democracy can be established in the country, and even in countries such as Somalia and Yemen.
    The ‘cultural obstructionists’ against democracy, like Rory Stewart, who use the intellectually barren and useless concept of “cultural differences” as the irrevocable impediment to the establishment of democracy in countries who have lived for ages under authoritarian and despotic regimes, are imaginatively and cognitively blind to the historical fact that the opening and clarity of telecommunications between all countries of the world has broken the barrier between cultures and indeed has thrown all Noachian cultures into the deluge of technological modernity. And all the people of the backward world are craving to ride this “third wave” of political and economic development through the heuristic device of democracy.
    Can any of the cultural obstructionists of democracy seriously contend that people who have been nurtured on the staples of backward cultures, whose chief characteristic is poverty, cannot make a distinction between the latter and affluence, an affluence that is depicted every day before their eyes on the screens of TV and computers which by a glaring contrast is the chief characteristic of Western modernity? That is, they would not be attracted and willing to grow the tree of economic prosperity through the instrument of democracy in their own countries because for years have lived in a culture of poverty?
    Alas, it’s by such poverty of thought that the propagators of cultural differentiation against democracy are building their intellectual reputation.

    Reply

  21. Dan Kervick says:

    I’d like to see Stewart and Bergen debate each other head to head. Perhaps Steve could invite them to an exchange posts here?

    Reply

  22. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “The NSA is still listening to you”
    One wonders how long Obama can ride his campaign promises before they completely run out of fuel. Sooner or later, even the staunchest Obamaphile will have to admit the guy is full of shit, and a huge disappointment.
    If any of Obama’s promises were truly sincere, than odds are, the guy is more dangerous than Bush or Cheney were, in the respect that Presidential power has so completely corrupted him in such short order. He seems to have discarded any intentions, or pretensions, about being loyal to his platform. If he can stray so far in such a short period, what can we expect from the next three years?

    Reply

  23. Outraged American says:

    Here’s another link to the Salon article on the NSA increasing its
    spying powers under the guise of the “War on Terror” i.e., Israel’s
    war on Islam that has now become ours.
    “The NSA is still listening to you” — the author, James Bamford,
    has written at least two great books that I would recommend
    highly:
    http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2009/07/22/eavesdroppin
    g/index.html

    Reply

  24. ... says:

    wigwag quote “The take home message is simple. The Americans (and their allies) created the Taliban; it’s the American’s responsibility to destroy the Taliban no matter how long it takes or how much it costs.”
    destruction is something the usa is pretty good at wigwag, my only concern is that in the usa’s zeal to as you say destroy the taliban, they destroy everything that they might have stood for in times past…. that is what i see happening here… destroy everything and be destroyed in the process…

    Reply

  25. easy e says:

    Posted by Outraged American, Jul 28 2009, 12:35PM
    >>>>>>>
    Excellent point OA. Do you have another link to article? NSA probably removed original one from Salon -:).

    Reply

  26. WigWag says:

    I must say that I am astonished that Ben Katcher finds the Rory Stewart article “entertaining” and “original.” In my opinion, the piece was poorly written, poorly thought out and substituted clichés for facts.
    First of all, Stewart gets the history of Great Britain’s experience in Afghanistan wrong. Anyone who wants to learn about the British experience in Afghanistan (and South and Central Asia in general) would be wise to read Piers Brendon’s book, “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.” It provides a far better and more accurate description than Stewart does, and it does something Stewart doesn’t do; it provides context.
    While I think that Peter Bergen is too much of an optimist (especially on Pakistan) he has the better argument here. And he is especially correct when he says,
    “Objections to Obama’s ramp-up in Afghanistan begin with the observation that Afghanistan has long been the “graveyard of empires”—as went the disastrous British expedition there in 1842 and the Soviet invasion in 1979, so too the current American occupation is doomed to follow. In fact, any number of empire builders, from Alexander the Great to the Mogul emperor Babur in the sixteenth century to the British in the Second Afghan War three decades after their infamous defeat, have won military victories in Afghanistan. The graveyard of empires metaphor belongs in the graveyard of clichés.”
    Of course, Stewart blithely repeats the canard that failure is predestined in Afghanistan but provides almost no facts to back up her grim assertion.
    Before the inception of the Iraq War, Colin Powell famously said to President Bush, “if you break it, you own it.”
    The simple reality is that the United States “broke” Afghanistan; or to put a finer point on it, Zbignew Brzezinski and Jimmy Carter “broke” Afghanistan. And what Carter never got a chance to complete because his incompetency led to an ignoble electoral defeat, his successor, Ronald Reagan finished; the destruction of a secular Afghan state.
    In their zeal to win the Cold War, Carter and Reagan sacrificed the Afghan people in precisely the same way that the U.S. sacrificed the Iranian people in Mossedeigh’s time or the Chilean people in Allende’s time. By supporting the Mujahideen, the United States helped replace a modernizing, mildly authoritarian regime with a group of thugs who believe women should be veiled whether they like it or not and that nothing could be more sinful than teaching women to read.
    The take home message is simple. The Americans (and their allies) created the Taliban; it’s the American’s responsibility to destroy the Taliban no matter how long it takes or how much it costs.
    The alternative, the enslavement of millions of innocent Afghan women, should not be an acceptable option for any decent person.
    To his credit, President Obama understands this. Why Rory Stewart can’t figure it out is a mystery.

    Reply

  27. Bart says:

    As Bill suggests, how sad that the case against our Land War in Asia appears in the London Review of Books.
    Who will publish here where it may be read by one and all?

    Reply

  28. Outraged American says:

    Bill B, because of 9/11 silly — it was The Day That Changed
    Everything, lest you forget ;-)
    Approximately 3000 people dead, only a portion of whom were
    Americans, and that’s an excuse to launch endless war and
    destroy the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus and spy on every single
    thing Americans do, write or say.
    The NSA is still listening to you (from Salon H/T antiwar.com)
    Bush went away, but domestic surveillance overreach didn’t. It’s
    now the law, and the ACLU is fighting back
    July 22, 2009 | This summer, on a remote stretch of desert in
    central Utah, the National Security Agency will begin work on a
    massive, 1 million-square-foot data warehouse. Costing more
    than $1.5 billion, the highly secret facility is designed to house
    upward of trillions of intercepted phone calls, e-mail messages,
    Internet searches and other communications intercepted by the
    agency as part of its expansive eavesdropping operations. The
    NSA is also completing work on another data warehouse, this
    one in San Antonio, Texas, which will be nearly the size of the
    Alamodome.
    The need for such extraordinary data storage capacity stems in
    part from the Bush administration’s decision to open the NSA’s
    surveillance floodgates following the 9/11 attacks.
    ENTIRE ARTICLE
    http://tinyurl.com/n9ckpc

    Reply

  29. Bill B says:

    Excellent post. Why are so few writing about this? It’s the Vietnam of our time.

    Reply

  30. ... says:

    thanks for the articles.. here is a direct link to the london review of books on the article by stewart. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n13/stew01_.html
    “There is almost no economic activity in the country, aside from international aid and the production of illegal narcotics.”
    there’s only one reason why the usa, britian other coalition countries are in afgan, and that is to indefinitely support a war machine…. war= money…. all other reasons are just masks hiding this basic truth on why these countries are in afgan…

    Reply

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