August 18, 2009


Afghanistan The Imperial Way: British MP candidate Rory Stewart isn't as old-fashioned as he looks. (Melik Kaylan, 08.18.09, Forbes)

[L]ast week, [Rory Stewart] announced his intention to run for parliament as a Conservative member in Britain. Hence the Spectator article. Here is another extract from it:

"With Brad Pitt having already bought the movie rights to Stewart's life story, one would have thought that the Tories would be reveling in their new catch. Style and substance combined: what the modern Tory party so desperately wants. But instead Stewart's ambitions, announced in an interview in the London Evening Standard that took the party hierarchy by surprise, are causing heartburn."

Why so? Because Stewart doesn't support the war in Afghanistan. As the article goes on to say, he believes it to be "unwinnable." He thinks "the British presence there should be substantially reduced." This is not the old imperial spirit at all. He said as much to me about Iraq in the interview I did for the Journal; a pre-Petraeus viewpoint, I dubbed it. On Iraq, he surely proved wrong. A large number of people think that he's generally--and reprehensibly--"defeatist." In fact, Stewart's posture is more complex than that.

He represents a distinct strand of the British scholar-adventurer tradition as embodied in the likes of Sir Richard Burton and T.E. Lawrence. That is, he has a sneaking affection for the cultures of the other side. He likes Muslims as much as Brits and thinks that we shouldn't invest so much blood and money in trying to convert them to our way of life. Even with those Muslims living in Britain, as the Spectator goes on to say, "there are worries that he represents the 'empire comes home' approach to dealing with Muslim communities, which emphasizes squaring religious leaders rather than integration."

I don't agree with Stewart much on this, especially on the question of integration at home, but one can see his point of view. He gets exasperated at the exhausting effort we pour into Afghanistan to change the unchangeable: NGOs that want to bring family planning to women in the countryside; Western activists who insist on transparent government and lily-white uncorrupted processes in an opium-free and warlord-free landscape. He thinks that it won't work, that it will beggar us in the long run and that we have better things to do with our dwindling power both for ourselves and to help Muslim communities evolve along their own lines. Which is not to say that he has a rosy view of Islamic countries: His two books crackle with contempt for the dishonesty and brutishness he often encounters among Muslims, enough to make a politically correct liberal mind faint away in outrage. But as he once told me, he probably could not have made the same treks as easily across Western lands as he did across the Orient, where he was housed and fed in the remotest places with generous decency.

Anyway, all this represents only half his position. The other half he keeps muted, for obvious reasons. As a "realist" and contrarian, he thinks we can secure our own strategic needs from afar. Enough of revolution and occupation. There are other ways. I don't think I'm putting words in his mouth in saying that his approach would be stealthier and in some ways "dirtier." The Iranians do things this way pretty effectively, as indeed the West did against the Soviets in Afghanistan rather successfully--exactly what the British Empire finally did there by maintaining puppet monarchs.

What it amounts to is this: Use the indigenous system rather than change it. Fund warlords, arm sympathetic tribes, build modest waterworks and roadways and mosques even, use Predator drone strikes aplenty, but let the Afghans fight it out while keeping the scales tilted in our favor. Above all, do it all from a distance.

'Start With How Things Actually Are' (MELIK KAYLAN, 9/13/07, WSJ)

Looking at Rory Stewart's spare, deceptively waifish profile, you wonder what the Marsh Arabs of Iraq -- he administered virtually a million of them for a year -- made of this very distinctive product of the British tradition. Eton, Oxford, the British Army, the foreign service: He should be a clear enough type. Yet, in person, Mr. Stewart is a strangely elusive, estranged figure. With his accumulated fame and celebrated achievements, amplified by his two books about exploits in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, one expects to meet someone fully revealed, familiar even. But Mr. Stewart belongs to the more complicated tradition of British heroism: Still single at 34, slightly haunted and solitary-seeming even when happily dazzling a female fan, he gives you an inkling of how it might have felt to meet the likes of T.E. Lawrence -- epic adventurers with an urge to self-publicize who exude a sense of internal exile.

Mr. Stewart gives off a kind of quiet, complex discomfort, as would anyone who unites in himself the multiple strands of Britain's questing sensibility: the soldier with the artistic temperament, the colonial officer with the austere probity of a missionary who tells harsh truths simultaneously about his own side and the other. One senses the self-exacting conscience just beneath the surface that must cut across both ambition and convention. [...]

As we chatted, I told Mr. Stewart that he seemed always to be both loyalist and outsider, acting both within and against convention. He agreed, and began by explaining the treks that led to his first book: "I'd had a chattering life . . . very social school, university and foreign office work. I wanted to get out of secondhand experiences, perhaps learn to survive alone. I felt a bit of a fraud. The Scots have a long heritage of being abroad, and they often have a hardheaded, unsentimental view of what they see. My grandfather and father worked in India and in the colonial service, but my father was often impatient with Whitehall bureaucracy and yes men who were clueless about real events on the ground in a foreign country. That's perhaps why I had the urge to see countries on foot and at the village level.

"When it came to writing the book, I'd always been beguiled and irritated by the long tradition of travel writing from Robert Byron to Bruce Chatwin. I found their approach to be in some ways dishonest, because after days and days of boredom, which is never recorded, they would suddenly romanticize the entire experience based on one encounter with a ruin. They would romanticize the local people as embodiments of grand history. I wanted the book to reflect the real experience, at least mine: When you ask people the way, or where to find food, or the history of a place, mostly your questions don't get answered. Rather than being in a mystical trance, I'm usually just irritated. Instead of Alexander the Great's footprints everywhere, one is likely to see cheap cookie wrappers littering the ground. The locals aren't steeped in their own grand history. They usually reject it."

I asked Mr. Stewart if this dystopian view of things, when applied to war zones, gave him a more realistic perspective with a more practical sense of what to do. He said: "You have to start with how things actually are and work from there. In Afghanistan, for example, it's no good telling an opium farmer suddenly to stop -- in rural areas you earn $1.50 per day for a wheat harvest and $8 to $9 for opium. It adds up to half the national economy. Neither the populace nor the leadership considers it a priority to eradicate it. It's useless to demand or impose Western standards from afar.

"We also have illusions about the kind of government they should have. Afghanistan is a country run from the countryside, which is a highly varied population ranging from mullahs to warlords. It's not possible to run things from the center in a clean, transparent, efficient Western way. Toppling or changing regional power by fiat only creates chaos. In Afghanistan, in my view, you have a center versus region problem, rather than a Karzai versus Taliban problem."


Posted by Orrin Judd at August 18, 2009 9:08 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus