Getting a Ground-Level View of Afghanistan British diplomat and journalist Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, and later wrote about the experience in a memoir. Stewart talks about the motivation for the perilous journey across the warn-torn nation, and also about his stint as a provincial governor in post-invasion Iraq.
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Getting a Ground-Level View of Afghanistan

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Getting a Ground-Level View of Afghanistan

Getting a Ground-Level View of Afghanistan

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. In Iraq, as many as 50 people died today, the result of a suicide bombing in Baghdad and fighting between Shiite militia members and Iraqi security forces outside the capital. And this follows a brutal weekend. At least 60 people were killed across the country, including eight American soldiers. These deaths appear to undercut Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's claim that his security plan is working.

BRAND: Scottish diplomat Rory Stewart is pessimistic that a strategy of increased security can work in the long run. Stewart ran a province in southern Iraq for a year. He wrote about that experience in his new book, The Prince of the Marshes. He has another book out now, too, called The Places In Between. It's about Afghanistan. After spending time in two Islamic hotspots, Stewart says military solutions are not the answer.

I spoke with him and he outlined a political solution for Afghanistan.

Mr. RORY STEWART (Diplomat and Author): And that basically would mean Karzai sending politicians out into these provinces and working out who the most representative, powerful and effective leaders are, and doing our best to bring them into a political process. There's simply no point just saying you're our enemy or you're our friend, and we're not going to deal with you because we don't like your ideology.

BRAND: Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan in 2002. That was just after the Taliban fell. It was the middle of winter, and it capped a nearly two year walk he took from Turkey, through Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. Stewart says he wanted to cross Afghanistan to understand the country up close.

Mr. STEWART: What struck me is that the villages were not very interested in who I was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I think I was assuming that they were going to think, wow, this mysterious stranger has walked into town, and they'd see me as sort of romantic figure. In fact, what they really tended to assume was that I was a very poor person, because nobody in Afghanistan walks alone, if they can avoid it. If they can have any money, they ride on a horse. And if they're traveling, they travel with a companion.

So I was usually treated almost as a kind of charity case, except on a couple of occasions when I was stopped by the Taliban. They were very aggressive and wanted to know whether I was British or American or - and threatened to kill me, and wanted to know who I preferred - Osama bin Laden or George Bush. But generally speaking, villagers were quite disengaged. They tended to talk about themselves rather than ask me about myself.

BRAND: Did they even know where Scotland was?

Mr. STEWART: No, and they had absolutely no idea about that sort of thing. I mean, I met basically no women at all on the walk, until in a small village I finally came across a 45-year-old woman and had a five-minute conversation with her and realized that she'd never been more than three hours walk from her village in her life, and that's the market town of Yakaolang, which I'd walked from that morning, was as distant (unintelligible) her as Paris. And therefore, you know, saying to them I'd walked from Turkey really didn't make much more sense than saying that I'd walked from Kabul.

BRAND: And did they have an understanding, or an opinion, on the U.S.-led invasion of their country?

Mr. STEWART: Yes. People did have views on that. And it was a mixture between some surprisingly detailed information on things like the 9/11 attacks combined with some very, very strange conspiracy theories. So they'd say things like, ah, yes, Britain, yes, that's a desert country, isn't it, with camels? And I'd say no, no, no, that's not Britain, it's quite green. And they'd say, ah yeah, it's like Mazandaran, but London looks like Dubai. And then they'd get on to their theories on why America or Britain were interested in Afghanistan or Iraq.

And it was a lot of slightly disturbing talk, particularly when they were talking about the United States. They tended to assume that there was some economic interest. People in remote villages tend to be very suspicious obviously of why someone would wish to invade their country, unless it was to make money.

BRAND: Well, what did they think about the Taliban and the efforts to get rid of the Taliban?

Mr. STEWART: Well, that's another interesting thing. I mean, many of these communities were very, very opposed to the Taliban because the Taliban had declared a Jihad against them because they were Shia. And I walked through Yakaolang, where 400 people had been executed against the village wall (unintelligible) the charred and smoldering remains of village houses that had been devastated by the Taliban.

But they tended to be angry with them because they were seen as a hostile ethnic group who were stealing their possessions and killing them. And you got the impression that many of them were recently sympathetic towards the conservative Islamic agenda of the Taliban.

BRAND: You come from a colonial family. Your grandfather was stationed in India and your father was, like you, a diplomat. Are you sensitive to the resentments perhaps that people in Afghanistan and Iraq feel towards the West, in terms of the history of colonialism? And how do you avoid repeating those mistakes?

Mr. STEWART: I think I'm very sensitive towards that, sometimes maybe too sensitive towards it. My basic belief is that the only option we have in somebody else's country really is to empower the local political processes and leadership, that it's a real mistake to go into Iraq and Afghanistan and try to micromanage and interfere in people's political cultures. For three reasons.

Firstly, because that's undermining people such as President Karzai, who's been elected. Secondly, because the local political leaders understand their own country much better than we ever can. And finally, because always however good our ideas are, the mere fact that they're coming from America or Britain is enough to discredit them in the eyes of many people in the Islamic world.

BRAND: And yet there is a grave necessity to bring basic services to these impoverished villages.

Mr. STEWART: Right. So I think people are very happy to accept technical assistance, but are very suspicious of all the attempts at governance reform of all the programs which I ran and southern Iraq, and that involved refurbishing 150 schools, we developed all the hospitals and clinics, we created thousands of jobs. But the only project which really seemed to grab the imagination of people in Nasiriyah was a carpentry school for street children, which we set up.

And that kind of project, which isn't political, which can't be accused of having a covert religious agenda, was something which not only attracted a lot of students who wanted to study and provided economic opportunities for them, but an enormous amount of enthusiasm from the local community.

And I'm finding again in Kabul that I'm enjoying doing a project which is very, very concrete. I mean, for example we've just cleared 1700 cubic meters of garbage out of this area and dropped the street level by a meter and a half. That's the kind of project which creates a lot of jobs, has a very highly visible impact, improves people's health, and is very popular.

BRAND: That's Rory Stewart. His book about his trek across Afghanistan is called The Places In Between. Rory is now living in Kabul, running a non-profit organization that's trying to preserve the historic parts of the city. Stewart is also starting a school that will educate young Afghans in traditional crafts.

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