The NYRB article, titled Afghanistan: What Could Work, was quite long, but the core of its argument was as follows:
The lighter, more political, and less but still robust militarized presence that [Obama’s] argument implies could facilitate a deal with the Taliban, if it appeared semi-permanent.
.. Obama should not have requested more troops because doing so intensifies opposition to the war in the US and Europe and accelerates the pace of withdrawal demanded by political pressures at home. To keep domestic consent for a long engagement we need to limit troop numbers and in particular limit our casualties.
.. [Obama] needs to regain leverage over the Taliban by showing them that he is not about to abandon Afghanistan and that their best option is to negotiate. In short, he needs to follow his argument for a call strategy to its conclusion. The date of withdrawal should be recast as a time for reduction to a lighter, more sustainable, and more permanent presence.
In making this argument, Rory Stewart wrote of “the trap of withdrawal”:
.. Obama opposes precipitate withdrawal. He acknowledges that although “our responsibility, our means, or our interests” are limited, they exist in Afghanistan. We have a certain responsibility to the Afghan people who would suffer a civil war if we withdrew. This would initially be between the Taliban and the Karzai government, but it could expand (as it did in the 1990s) into more fragmented local conflicts, fueled by neighboring countries, in which no faction is strong enough to win or weak enough to give up the fight, and in which Afghans are plunged back into anarchy, cruel conflict, and poverty. We have the means, however, to make a positive contribution and we have an interest in preventing a defeat that would wreck our hopes, humiliate the United States and NATO, embolden our enemies, and weaken our allies (and not only in Pakistan).
The very strange thing about all this is that now, two and a quarter years later, under the headline The West must get out of Afghanistan this year, Rory Stewart is calling for withdrawal:
The time has come for the US and its allies such as the UK to begin the process of withdrawal — clearly, orderly, with dignity, minimising the number of casualties as we do so, and leaving only a light footprint behind.
There’s an abrupt rejection of analysis in this short article, turning his back on the sort of lengthy discussion represented in his NYRB article, and going instead for tabloid simplicity:
Did our mission go wrong because Nato had too few troops; or because it sent too many? Could a different strategy have fixed the situation; or was it always impossible? The reason no longer matters. Whatever the explanation, things will not improve: Nato will not “solve the relationship with Pakistan”; it will never create “an effective, credible, legitimate Afghan government”; and in most parts of the country it has already lost “the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people.
It does make me wonder whether Rory Stewart would have preferred to argue for withdrawal in 2009 but thought the ‘light long presence’ argument more politically acceptable. Or maybe he really has completely changed his mind about everything in this short time, which should make one question how deep his comprehension was in the first place.
The reason I came to search out the NYRB article was a comment piece in The Hindu, Afghanistan as “Lost Cause”, found via Terry Glavin, in which Praveen Swami criticised an argument in Rory Stewart’s 2009 article as racist. Praveen Swami seemed to think the NYRB article was written more recently:
Last week [...] the influential British diplomat, scholar and Conservative politician Rory Stewart, made the most comprehensive “lost cause” case so far. He claimed that the pursuit of modern democratic values post-9/11 Afghanistan was founded on was “an Enlightenment faith that there is nothing intrinsically intractable about Afghan culture and society and that all men can be perfected [to a western ideal] through the application of reason.” Mr. Stewart doesn’t explain which Enlightenment faith he is referring to, since there was no one single Enlightenment dogma, nor what “intrinsically intractable” might mean - but his propositions underpin much recent writing.
“Lost cause” polemic draws, perhaps unconsciously, from Joseph Conrad’s brilliant but profoundly racist masterpiece, The Heart of Darkness. Afghanistan, in this narrative, is a place where the West’s efforts to promote its values will fail - and where those values themselves will become corroded from within.
The problem with this line of argument is this: there is nothing in recent Afghan political behaviour that suggests it is any different from that of peoples elsewhere. There are few places on the planet where the killings of innocents, such as those in Kandahar, do not have the potential to incite large-scale violence. Indeed, irrational scale violence has been a feature of the West’s political heritage, too.
No one in his right mind, however, would link race riots in the U.S. to the culture of black Americans. Nor could a reasonably literate commentator attribute the lynching of black people in the U.S.’ southern States in the 1960s to a traditional honour code - even if it was invoked by the killers. Political scientists and media know that tradition was invoked by political actors to sharpen group boundaries, and to scare white women from asserting their rights. In writing on Afghanistan, however, it remains perfectly acceptable to attribute political behaviour to a supposedly self-evident term called “Islam” or “tradition.”
Praveen Swami makes clear that this characterisation of ‘Western’ values as alien to the politics of countries like Afghanistan is not only to be found in Rory Stewart’s writing, but is widespread amongst commentators on Afghanistan. It wasn’t central to Rory Stewart’s argument in the NYRB article, but nonetheless it served to colour that argument, as it colours so much argument on international politics.
The question to ask is which of these beliefs is the more self-centered and pretentious one: belief in the promotion of so-called Western values, or belief in the idea that these values are intrinsically and solely Western?
As Terry Glavin says, Praveen Swami’s argument is much the same as the one made powerfully in his own book, Come From the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan. It’s a book that I recommend highly. And in it he even has good things to say about Rory Stewart!