While reading Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, I was reminded of the aphorism: “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his moccasins.”
That, in a modified form, would serve as wise council for stay-at-home columnists presumptuous enough to tell us what’s right or wrong with our military presence in Afghanistan.
When it comes to a region as fraught with overlapping cultures, hungers and layers of resentment as Afghanistan, surfing the ‘net for illumination just doesn’t cut it.
More trustworthy critics earn the right to spout about what the people of the chaotic, conflicted country need from us.
By the winter of 2002, Stewart had already served as a British army officer and diplomat. He had mastered an array of languages and dialects and had walked through much of the East and Far East.
In fact, for the young Scot, trekking across the mountains between Heart and Kabul was the last piece of a very grueling puzzle, a challenging final chapter, and a segment that threatened to defeat him from the get go.
“I had told the Security Service I was crossing Afghanistan in the footsteps of Babur, the first Emperor of Mughal India, but that was misleading,” he writes about a confrontation in Herat on the eve of his trek.
“Initially I decided to walk the central route from Heart to Kabul because it was shorter and because the Taliban were still fighting on the main southern route … It was only after I had made my decision that I discovered Babur had also traveled the central route in January and recorded the journey in his diary.”
Emperor Babur had endured a brutal trip. His men lost feet and hands to the winter cold. Others froze to death or were killed by angry mountain tribesmen.
But at least Babur was not forced to begin his journey with a confrontation with a couple hard-bitten secret police bent on preventing his trek, as Stewart was five centuries later.
“They did not care what I said or what I thought of them,” the author writes of the police. “They had watched people through hidden cameras in bedrooms, in torture cells, and on execution grounds. They knew that, however I presented myself, I could be reduced.”
Like many others the author met on his journey, those agents of confusing law and doubtful order were hard to read. Perhaps they were just throwing their armed weight around, or perhaps they truly cared about the safety of the foolhardy infidel.
“You are the first tourist in Afghanistan,” one of the police told him. “It is mid-winter — there are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is war. You will die, I can guarantee.”
Eventually, they allowed Stewart to proceed, but only in the dubiously protective company of a Mutt and Jeff pair of armed soldiers.
“It was possible (the secret police) had simply told Qasim and Abdul Haq to take me outside the city and kill me.”
The resentful soldiers appeared threatening, but Stewart eventually found other sides to them: “Qasim pulled his small legs up underneath him, carefully took my full bowl of yogurt, stuck in his small finger, and licked it before handing the bowl back to me. It seemed he was showing his concern for his guest by checking for poison.”
Eventually, the two soldiers turned back and left him to his own devices and fate.
Many of those Stewart subsequently met en route inspired both trust and caution — something we’d be wise to keep in mind while making plans for the region.
“In the hills of Ghor I was moving between Airmaq leaders who were barely speaking to each other and stumbling over differences only partly visible to me,” writes Stewart of one stage in his journey.
If such differences were only partly visible to a multilingual diplomat and former military man experienced in the life and thinking of the East and Far East, how confounding must they be to some Conservative politician from Alberta now
making decisions about the deployment of Canadian troops?
Everywhere Stewart went on his journey, he confronted evidence of past ravages, and the root causes for present resentments.
Babur’s men had brutalized the people they trekked among. The memory of the 19th-century battles against the British also lingered in the mountains.
And much bitterness remained from the bloody recent war against the Russians, when warlords changed sides with changes in the wind, and when the US and Taliban were allied against communism.
It might be tempting, even comforting, to conflate Taliban and al-Qaeda, lump them together as ‘just terrorists,’ but there are differences; the wise intervener should consider these, as it might help, at least for a moment, when it comes to deciding who our most pressing enemies are.
The bedeviling truths are in the details, as Stewart discovered while walking.
“More orthodox forms of Islam are very suspicious of saints’ shrines and the superstition associated with them … But the Taliban, who were never as close theologically to al-Qaeda as has been suggested, left the shrine of Ansari well alone.”
On another occasion, a proud host pointed to a water pump imported from India. The author quickly connected some disturbing dots.
“At first I was surprised he had gone to this expense with the Hari Rud River so close and with the village and fields lined with flowing irrigation canals. There was surely enough water for wheat. Opium poppies, however, will die if they go five days without water.”
His host, Jalil, admitted that he used to grow opium under the Taliban, but added that because the regional commander and supposed US ally Ismail Khan had banned their cultivation, he had stopped.
“He may not have been lying, but I assumed he was. Ismail Khan was not stricter than the Taliban on opium and heroin production.”
Which of our current allies are drug lords? What could the effects of their priorities have on us, and on their trustworthiness? Such questions come tumbling in the wake of Stewart’s many unsettling discoveries.
However, The Places In Between is more than a cautionary socio-political document. It’s an enthralling account of an adventure ordeal.
Stewart manages to evoke hunger and cold, exhaustion and fear, and his near defeat, with a sharp eye turned back toward himself, and with an honesty that makes much of today’s adventure writing read like accounts of yuppie picnics.
“My stomach had gone and I had a hacking cough. The zipper on my jacket was jammed; one of my bootlaces had snapped; the rice bag covering my backpack had fallen to pieces. I had bedbug bites and prickly heat; my nails were long; and my hair had not been cut in four months … I ran my filthy hands over my failure of a beard, my black eye, my blistered lips ….”
And, finally, though not least, this is the tale of a lonely young man who befriended a battered, brutalized 63-kilogram war dog, with whom he shared a cold quest.
For me that moving story within a story serves as a testament to the humanity of the author who risked his life for a bit of illumination among remnants of once-great cultures.
It’s the saga of a cross-species bond best left to Stewart’s deft telling.
The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart, Harcourt, Inc., 300 pages, $16.95, trade paper