From the steppes of Central Asia

What news of Hindoostan?

Britain has a long and impressive track record in producing people, often Scots, usually public school alumni, who undertake travel to unusual places, historically often associated with the empire, if not within it, and report back.

David Livingstone in Africa, the remarkable Fitzroy Maclean (Eton) – read his brilliant book Eastern Approaches –  and amongst others more recently, Rory Stewart (Eton)  and William Dalrymple (Ampleforth).

It is heartening that Dave is supposedly listening to Stewart on matters in Afghanistan.  He should be, given that Stewart’s opinion is sought across the western world on this,  from Obama to Der Spiegel.

What however, are he and Dalrymple saying?

Stewart’s original article one year ago,in the London Review of Books should be mandatory reading at the Foreign Office. He followed it up about 6  months later  in the New York Review of Books, with a piece enticingly entitled “Afghanistan: what could work“. Last week he offered a reprise in Der Spiegel, as a guest commentary. He certainly gets around.

Stewart is a very fine stylist, with a gift for building an argument, and elegant phraseology.  He carefully and thoroughly debunks current Afghan policy, and the flawed reasoning behind it:

“…Instead of trying to produce an alternative theory (on how to defeat the Taliban, create an effective, legitimate and stable Afghan state, stabilize Pakistan and ensure that al-Qaida could never again threaten the United States) we need to understand that however desirable such things might be, they are not things that we — as foreigners — can do.

We can do other things for Afghanistan but the West — in particular its armies, development agencies and diplomats — are not as powerful, knowledgeable or popular as we pretend. Our officials cannot hope to predict and control the intricate allegiances and loyalties of Afghan communities or the Afghan approach to government. But to acknowledge these limits and their implications would require not so much an anthropology of Afghanistan, but an anthropology of ourselves.

The cures for our predicament do not lie in increasingly detailed adjustments to our current strategy. The solution is to remind ourselves that politics cannot be reduced to a general scientific theory, that we must recognize the will of other peoples and acknowledge our own limits. Most importantly, we must remind our leaders that they always have a choice…”

Dalrymple has a slightly different perspective, as a traveller and historian with decades of Asian experience. He expertly reviews the history in an exceptional article in The New Statesman, and in the Guardian a few days ago, neatly summarises the current state of affairs:

The problem remains that we continue to view the situation in Afghanistan through western eyes, as a battle between the US and Nato against al-Qaida and the Taliban – an impression William Hague’s speech yesterday underlined. But this has long ceased to be the main issue, and British troops are now caught up in a complex local and regional conflict that has completely changed the nature of the war.

Internally, the war is viewed primarily as a Pashtun rebellion against a Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara-dominated regime, which has only a fig leaf of Pashtun window-dressing in the person of Karzai. For although Karzai is a Pashtun, under his watch Nato installed the Northern Alliance in Kabul and drove out of power Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority.

In this way we unwittingly took sides in the Afghan civil war that began in the 1970s – siding with the north against the south, the town against the country, secularism against Islam, and the Tajiks against the Pashtuns. We installed a government and trained up an army that in many ways discriminated against the Pashtun majority, and whose top-down constitution allowed for little federalism or regional representation. No matter how much western liberals may dislike the Taliban, they are in many ways the authentic voice of rural Pashtun conservatism, whose wishes are ignored by the government in Kabul and who are largely excluded from power.

Externally the war has now turned, like Kashmir, into an Indo-Pak proxy war in which Nato is really a bit player. Under Karzai, India has established increasing political and economic influence in Afghanistan, opened four regional consulates and provided reconstruction assistance amounting to about $662m. The Pakistani military establishment, already terrified of India turning into a new economic superpower, has always believed it would be suicide to accept an Indian presence in what they regard as their strategic Afghan backyard, and is completely paranoid about the still small Indian presence, rather as the British used to feel about Russians in Afghanistan in the days of the Great Game…”

When Basra was at its worst, one of The Knife’s Syrian colleagues perceptively observed that the British forces were actually unwittingly in the middle of an Iraqi civil war, with deep and twisted  roots.

Stewart again:

“Europe is simply in Afghanistan because America is there. America is there just because it is. And all our policy debates are scholastic dialectics to justify this singular but not entirely comprehensible fact.”

Here we are again. Time to go. Not as losers,  we just don’t have a dog in this fight any more.


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