Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

Bitter Lessons from Afghanistan

By John Lloyd Quillette

In his 2011 reflection on intervention, Rory Stewart offers a composite picture of a typical foreign adviser to Afghanistan before the Taliban swept back into Kabul’s Arg Palace: “James” is young, highly credentialed academically in the UK and the US, hard working, optimistic, with “no 19th century prejudices about race, or women, or class … a great improvement (in these senses) on his colonial equivalent.” But unlike that equivalent, who might have been trained in native languages over two years and remained in various posts abroad for 16 years or more, “James” has “little knowledge of Afghan archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, language, literature or theology.” He is, however, an expert in “fields that hardly existed in the 1950s, and which are hardly household names today: governance, gender, conflict resolution, civil society and public administration.” He might be there for a year—two at a stretch. Ever after, these years would be a notable mention in his CV, like a medal for bravery (and working in Kabul in the Taliban interregnum did indeed take courage).

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