The Irresistible Illusion

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Rory Stewart’s LRB article “the Irresistible Illusion,” analyzes the language current Western leaders use when speaking about Afghanistan. Then he compares it to similar speeches made by others since 1868.

Spoiler: Nothing new has been said in over 140 years.

If anything, according to Stewart, our rhetoric has gotten worse. Obama’s Cairo speech and others “mislead us in several respects simultaneously: minimizing differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandizing our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals.”

That’s not all.

“It papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy. It conceals the conflicts between our interests: between giving aid to Afghans and killing terrorists. It assumes that Afghanistan is predictable. Afghanistan, however, is the graveyard of predictions.”

For almost two centuries, our country and our allies have proclaimed to know what’s right for Afghanistan, and professed the power to make it happen. Obama and other Western leaders’ policy to “defeat the Taliban, to bring development and an effective legitimate state to Afghanistan, and to stabilize Pakistan” sounds like it confronts the issues at hand, but Stewart’s not buying it. Instead, he says, such assertions “rest on misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state.”

“None of the experts in 1988 predicted that the Russian-backed President Najibullah would survive for two and a half years after the Soviet withdrawal. And no one predicted at the beginning of 1994 that the famous commanders of the jihad, Hekmatyar and Masud, then fighting a civil war in the centre of Kabul, could be swept aside by an unknown group of madrassah students called the Taliban. Or that the Taliban would, in a few months, conquer 90 per cent of the country, eliminate much corruption, restore security on the roads and host al-Qaida.”

Read the full article.