Waltzing With Warlords
Herat is where Rory Stewart began his walk across Afghanistan, a country that is "an unpredictable composite of etiquette, humor, and extreme brutality." Any British writer who writes about walking in Afghanistan does so in the shadow of the great British travel writer Eric Newby, who died in October and whose 1958 book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is a minor comic masterpiece, the foreword of which was written by Evelyn Waugh. A Short Walk describes how Newby, who toiled unhappily at a fashion house in London, left for Afghanistan to climb a 20,000-foot mountain in Nuristan after training for only four days by climbing rocks in Wales. Suffice to say that many things went wrong during his expedition.
Five decades later Stewart, a worthy successor to Newby, decided to walk across Afghanistan as the Taliban were falling during the winter of 2001. He chose to take a route across central Afghanistan, a region so inhospitable to outsiders, isolated and impassable that only one imperial power in history, the Ghorids in the twelfth century, seems to have bothered to secure the region. (At one point on his trip Stewart even stumbles across the remains of the lost Ghorid highland capital, the Turquoise Mountain, which was being systematically looted by locals.) Stewart takes a "long walk" in the Hindu Kush so fraught with danger that at one point he bumps into a contingent of British Special Forces who call him a "fucking nutter." Stewart, correctly, understands this to be their highest form of praise.
Although Stewart's beautifully written book is in a lighter vein than those of Chayes and Jones, underlying his picaresque stories of adventure on the road is a critical point that is often overlooked by Westerners with dreams of transforming Afghanistan into a place where women enjoy equal rights, "capacity building" creates viable stable government institutions and the power of warlords crumbles with the spread of "civil society." Such dreams rarely survive contact with the religiously conservative, tribal, rural, not infrequently xenophobic societies where most Afghans live.
Stewart, a former British diplomat who served as deputy governor of a southern province of Iraq following the US-led invasion of the country, is skeptical of Western efforts to transform countries like Afghanistan into societies in our own image, a principle espoused by neoconservatives and liberal internationalists alike:
Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 per cent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women's rights...and to speak of a people "who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government." But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi's wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years. Or Dr. Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon in the way they carried briefcases?
This is a pessimistic view of what the West can achieve in Afghanistan (not to mention Iraq), but it's a view that is informed by Stewart's erudite knowledge of Afghan history and his extensive travels in the country, and by what has actually taken place in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world; the government barely functions, local warlords have the run of the place and much of the country is racked by violence. The best that can be said of Afghanistan is: At least it's not as bad as Iraq. And even that could change.
The United States' experience in both countries calls to mind Kant's observation: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." Perhaps in coming years we will learn a little humility and patience about the efficacy of the wholesale export of Western democratic values and institutions into countries with very different social mores and political structures. Those Western exports have now beached on the shoals of reality from the Tigris to the Kabul River.