As readers might’ve guessed, opponents of the campaign in Afghanistan are a nuisance of mine, from anti-war protestors who think because the country is hot and Muslim it must be like Iraq to more serious critics like Adam Holloway. The problem is not their position, which is valid, but the disingenuous arguments they use to support it. By misdescribing the conflict, they’re able to legitimise their position on withdrawal/drawdown and gather support from the public by appealing to instincts like defeatism and isolationism. This is annoying to those who try to see the conflict objectively, standing apart from both supporters and opponents.
One of the most effective advocates for military drawdown is Rory Stewart, who has challenged a lot of the assumptions underlying current policy in Afghanistan. He argues persuasively about the many problems we face, from corruption in the country to the political and economic challenges in building a viable state. There are serious flaws in Stewart’s critique, however, which makes the unquestioning faith some place in him worrying. He not only misdescribes the conflict but also views it through an orientalist perspective, particularly through an orientalist interpretation of Lawrence of Arabia. The way in which Stewart misdescribes the conflict has been touched on here, and others have also pointed out the false assumptions and impracticalities behind his recommendations for drawdown. I want to look at the way he creates a false distinction between himself and his opponents by imitating his hero T. E. Lawrence, even though both sides are guilty of military Orientalism. This should make us look more critically at his contribution to the debate about Afghanistan.
The theme which runs through all Stewart’s work is that our involvement in Central Asia and the Middle East is undermined because it is influenced by pseudo-intellectuals who want to impose abstract, doctrinal ideas on those regions. He criticizes the counterinsurgency doctrine on which our strategy in Afghanistan is based as too abstract to be a serious policy. ‘An incredibly impressive and elaborate intellectual edifice has been created by proponents of involvement in Afghanistan’, he notes dismissively. It minimises the differences between cultures, exaggerates our fears and aggrandises our ambitions. President Obama and policymakers generally are bamboozled by the beauty of counterinsurgency doctrine as interpreted by people like John Nagl and General Petraeus. ‘The path is broad enough to include Scandinavian humanitarians and American special forces; general enough to be applied to Botswana as easily as to Afghanistan; sinuous and sophisticated enough to draw in policymakers; suggestive enough of crude moral imperatives to attract the Daily Mail; and almost too abstract to be defined or refuted.’ But Stewart is sceptical because, unlike these people, he ‘knows’ the East. ‘Ten years in the Islamic world and in other places that had recently emerged from conflict had left me very suspicious of theories produced in seminars in Western capitals’, he wrote in Occupational Hazards. The case for our involvement in Afghanistan is ‘so buoyed by illusions, caulked in ambiguous language and encrusted with moral claims, analogies and political theories’, however, that it is almost futile to show how out-of-touch it is.
Stewart makes some legitimate points here. There are counterinsurgency experts who take doctrine and turn it into an ideology, unquestionable in its precepts and teaching. It contrasts with others like Andrew Exum and David Kilcullen, who accommodate doubt in their writing and acknowledge they could be wrong. But the overarching criticism is wide-of-the-mark because the latest counterinsurgency doctrine emphasises the importance of understanding ‘the East’ and its culture, which is partly the problem with it. ‘The “cultural turn” should be applauded for encouraging military actors to distance themselves from their own norms to imagine that of others’, writes Patrick Porter in Military Orientalism. If ‘knowing the enemy’ is to be a serious endeavour, however, then ‘there is much more to it than assuming behaviour is necessarily a linear continuum from pre-existing cultural systems.’ One can argue that Stewart sets-up the distinction between ‘abstract, doctrinal intellectuals’ and himself because he is trying to emulate T. E. Lawrence. The narrative which Lawrence spun after the First World War was that the Middle East was ruined because policymakers failed to listen to him, who ‘knew’ the region and what was good for it. It was a narrative that is heavily orientalist, making assumptions about ‘the East’ and its culture’s incompatibility with Western influence, and it informed Stewart’s recent documentary about Lawrence and is a theme throughout his work. But through aping the military Orientalism of T. E. Lawrence, Stewart makes the same fallacies as those he sets-up as his opponents, clinging to fixed ideas about culture in Afghanistan and ‘the East’ to support his arguments. ‘War is a power struggle, a deadly reactive dance,’ as Porter continues, ‘and culture is subject to its volatile nature.’
This post is not meant as a comprehensive study of Orientalism in Rory Stewart’s work or the presence of the Lawrence ‘myth’ in it, but is instead highlighting a new perspective with which to view his work more critically when it comes to arguing about Afghanistan.