Understanding Iraq and Afghanistan

Whatever your stand on the war in Iraq, many of us are trying to better understand that part of the world, and the current situation. I’ve read two books recently that I find illuminating, both by Rory Stewart, a Scot who has lived in Islamic countries for 10 years and worked for the British Foreign Office:

The Places in Between: Stewarts walks across Afghanistan, in the winter, alone except for a dog he picks up along the way (which saves his life at least once), taking the least-travelled (because least-accessible in winter) route, 3 months after the US invasion. I read a review that said that “If…you’re determined to do something as recklessly stupid as walk across a war zone, your surest bet to quash all the inevitable criticism is to write a flat-out masterpiece. Stewart did. Stewart has.”

His stories of his encounters with people, both friendly and hostile, are fascinating. He is threatened with death many times (and shot at at least once). But he also encounters traditional Muslim hospitality, wherein travellers are put up and fed, and escort to the the next town. Several times he would not have made it across snowy passes without such local escorts. We also learn a lot about Islam, as well as about a part of Afghanistan where village headmen run things, and loyalties and rivalries are complex, embracing a long history of local conflicts as well as shifting loyalties toward the Russians, the Taliban, and the US. He asks people along the way about the times under the Taliban, and often reports the number of people lined up and killed for what seems to be no reason.

It’s part of a much longer walk — from Nepal to Turkey — and I hope he writes about the rest of it.

His second book, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, is about his year in Iraq as an official of the Coalition Provisional Authority, beginning shortly after the invasion of Iraq. Again, his understanding of Islamic society helps us to see what is going on and how inevitably clueless the occupation forces often are.

The complexity of their task is overwhelming. He’s supposed to be starting a civilian authority in conjunction with the British military forces that have been there for several months, meaning that he has to establish his authority with both the military commanders and the locals. Early on, he is given $10 million in cash to spend in a month on rebuilding projects. (He has to give back $1.5 million that he just can’t spend.) Under Saddam, food was distributed by ration cards — and he and his colleagues have to convert this to a market economy. They try to put together a governing council of local leaders, when they don’t know the local groups and individuals and have to try to figure out who actually represents some sort of constituency, who are Iranian agents, and who is anti-Coalition.

When the local police chief is assassinated, a mullah is kidnapped, and the tribal rivalries threaten to erupt into violence, he calls the leaders of the various factions together to try to negotiate peace — working through an interpreter (he speaks Persian but not Arabic) who mis-translates him.

In both books, we learn less about Stewart than about the situations in which he finds himself. He both knows a lot about the local culture, and knows that there’s a lot that he doesn’t, cannot know. He knows that there are people he can trust, and people he cannot, and we are as mystified as he often is as to who’s who. He’s at times brave to the point of being fool-hardy, but we also see that often the only way to meet his challengers is to be tougher than they are. And we see his genuine affection for the people of both countries.


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