It’s Not an “Anthropology of Afghanistan” We Need, But of Us

At Armchair Generalist, Jason Sigger comments on an op-ed that a British member of Parliament wrote for Der Spiegel on July 1. But Scotsman Rory Stewart isn’t just any MP. He’s the man who wrote The Places in Between (Mariner Books, 2006), an astonishing account of trekking across Afghanistan in the wake of the initial post-9/11 U.S. attacks. Incidentally the danger to which he exposed himself was not only to an alternately hospitable and hostile people, but to winter storms while hiking in the mountains.

Stewart gained instant authority, beyond diplomats and military commanders, on the subject of Afghanistan and, while one might not always agree with him, he’s always worth reading.

“. . . everyone — politicians, generals, diplomats and journalists — feels trapped by our grand theories [such as counterinsurgency] and beset by the guilt of having already lost over a thousand NATO lives, spent a hundred billion dollars and made a number of promises to Afghans . . . which we are unlikely to be able to keep. [Thus] it is almost impossible to imagine the US or its allies halting the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan in the years to come. … And all our policy debates are scholastic dialectics to justify this singular but not entirely comprehensible fact. …

“The only way in which we could move beyond the counter-insurgency theory [is] to understand that however desirable [defeating the Taliban and creating a legitimate state in Afghanistan] might be, they are not things that we — as foreigners — can do. … But to acknowledge these limits and their implications would require not so much an anthropology of Afghanistan, but an anthropology of ourselves.”

Jason Sigger writes:

“It would be nice to have some articulate, moderate Democrat voice these words. It would be even nicer to imagine that Obama’s National Security Council has recognized these issues. … I am not sure if there’s a significant difference between the objectives of neocon ‘idealism’ and liberal internationalism right now, and I think that’s a major flaw in the Democratic party right now.”

Applied to neocons today, the term was once more commonly used to describe rebellious youth in the sixties, such as those who protested against Vietnam. As for that “anthropology of ourselves,” after that war, the United States, including the national security community, seemed to have done a national soul searching in hopes of inoculating ourselves to future such situations. But the Vietnam vaccine didn’t take — apparently our “work-up” of the body politic was flawed.