My friend Manan Ahmed has a brilliant essay in The National, on the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s rejection of expertise:
Both [Rory] Stewart and [Greg] Mortenson illustrate one particular configuration of the relationship between knowledge and the American empire – the “non-expert” insider who can traverse that unknown terrain and, hence, become an “expert”.
Even a cursory examination of the archive dealing with the American efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan demonstrates that there has been no related growth in specific scholarly knowledge about those sites of conflict. The knowledge of Arabic, Urdu or Pashto remains at extremely low levels in official corridors. There is, one can surmise simply from reading the back and forth sway of military and political policy in Afghanistan, very little advancement in understanding of either the text or context of that nation.
In America’s imperial theatre, Stewart and Mortenson exemplify a singular notion of “expert”. We can build, based on the profiles of other specimens – Robert D Kaplan, Fareed Zakaria, Robert Kagan – a picture of what the ideal type looks like from the official point of view. Such an “expert” is usually one who has not studied the region, and especially not in any academic capacity. As a result, they do not possess any significant knowledge of its languages, histories or cultures. They are often vetted by the market, having produced a bestselling book or secured a job as a journalist with a major newspaper. They are not necessarily tied to the “official” narratives or understandings, and can even be portrayed as being “a critic” of the official policy. In other words, this profile fits one who doesn’t know enough.
At the same time there are greater claims, and greater efforts, towards satellite cameras and listening devices; drones which can hover for days; databases which can track all good Taliban and all bad Taliban. Yet who can decipher this data? When one considers the rise of “experts” such as Stewart or Mortenson against the growth of digitised data which remains elusive and overwhelming, one is left with a rather stark observation – that the American war effort prefers its human knowledge circumspect or circumscribed and its technical knowledge crudely totalised.
Read the whole thing in full. He is getting at something I’ve noticed within the government, which became so intently frustrating I had to seek employment outside of it: the quest for, and consumption of, knowledge not for its own sake, but merely for exploitation. It was the heart of my fundamental disagreement with the Intelligence Community’s attitude toward knowledge. Learning something without bias (or at least an honest attempt to avoid bias, in the sense of understanding a thing, place, people, or idea on its own merits) will reveal things you will never learn if you start, from day one, filtering for information you can exploit for action.
That is, at its heart, what is wrong with our policies in Afghanistan, and why we’re struggling to maintain the stalemate we’ve been able to achieve. The people in charge of Afghanistan never learned about Afghanistan the people—they only learned about Afghanistan the war zone. Stephen Tanner’s influential 2002 book, Afghanistan: A Military History From Alexander The Great To The Fall Of The Taliban, exemplifies this, for it sees Afghanistan as nothing but millenia of conflict and war and conquest. Seen through this lens, its people can never develop agency save as spoilers for tyrants and marauding kings; Afghanistan as a place filled with people can never have history, culture, customs, or self. It is only a vessel for war.
That mindset infects U.S. policy thinking utterly. And it is why you can still read government reports about exploiting tribes or pushing various inane ideas but never questioning what a tribe is, or if it matters, or if any of those ideas had been tried again. As Manan argues quite eloquently, it is based upon a rejection of expertise, and in many ways a rejection of knowledge. Which is precisely what I, too, angrily rail against routinely.