Interview first published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty by Heather Maher on 18 August 2006.

In the winter of 2002, a 29-year-old Scotsman set out from Herat, in western Afghanistan, to walk 800 kilometers to Kabul. Rory Stewart — an Oxford-educated former British Foreign Service officer — was told to expect to meet death along the way — whether from cold, wolves, or a Kalashnikov. His book, “The Places In Between” is the story of that journey and of Afghanistan’s people and history. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher spoke with Stewart.

RFE/RL: Tell me about the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which you founded after you finished your walk and now run in Kabul.

Rory Stewart: The Turquoise Mountain foundation is a project to help a community in central Kabul work to preserve and restore the old city of Kabul, which was threatened with demolition. So we’re working on a section of the old city and we’re doing a range of activities, from improving infrastructure [and] clearing rubbish to restoring a series of very beautiful late 18th- and early 19th-century courtyard houses. We also run a school, which trains calligraphers, illumination painters, woodworkers, masons, and ceramicists.

Even without a government, without a police force, without a formal structure of rule of law, local political structures do provide security and people are generally kind to other humans.

RFE/RL: I noticed on the foundation’s website that you are asking for traditional craftspeople to come work with you?

Stewart: Yes, we’re hoping to encourage exchange programs to bring over international craftsmen to work in Kabul and work alongside Afghan craftsmen.

Cultural Identity

RFE/RL: In your book, you describe talking with villagers from the valley of Jam who are plundering ancient sites and showing little respect for the significance of the artifacts they find and are selling. You seem slightly horrified by their lack of recognition of the historical value of what they’re looting. Is that when you first had the idea to try and do something to protect what is left of ancient Afghanistan?

Stewart: Yes. I think one of the great casualties of these kinds of conflicts — in the case of Afghanistan it’s 25 years of war — is to a county’s cultural identity, and to its history. Because people have other priorities during a time of war. And I believe that in a generation’s time, Afghans will be very sorry to have lost the traces of their history — which once made them one of the real central civilizations of the world. So we’re hoping, through working with craftsmen and through working with historic buildings, to support Afghanistan’s traditional culture and use it to create economic opportunities for a new generation.

RFE/RL: How do people in Kabul feel about this kind of preservation work you’re doing?

Stewart: I feel that the community we work with is very supportive. They’re a very proud community, they’ve been living there for two or three-hundred years in this particular part of Kabul and they’re very keen to make sure these buildings — which they value and which their families have lived in for generations — are preserved. But at the same time there are very aggressive, new property developers who have very little interest in history and who want to send in the bulldozers and build a new generation of [what are] often East German-inspired tower blocks.

Final Leg

RFE/RL: When you began your walk in Herat in the middle of winter, many people warned you of a certain death — either from weather, war, or wolves. You seemed unafraid. What was it that let you think you could succeed in reaching Kabul?

Stewart: Partly because I had been walking for 18 months already across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal; and I’d heard similar warnings in parts of those countries, too, which had proved to be untrue.

Generally, my experience is that even in the most fragile, most traumatized, most war-torn countries, most people are extremely hospitable, dignified, generous, and welcoming. And that even without a government, without a police force, without a formal structure of rule of law, local political structures do provide security and people are generally kind to other humans.

RFE/RL: But in fact you did encounter hostility. You were beaten up once and another time came close to death at the hands of an angry crowd. Were you surprised to be attacked like this?

Stewart: Perhaps I should put it the other way around. Perhaps, in a sense, looking back, it was surprising that it didn’t happen more often. You’re right, on a couple of occasions — once I was beaten up by Hazara militiamen in Bamiyan and then, once, surrounded and threatened with death by a group of young Taliban men in Wardak. But given that this was a country in the throes of an invasion with no government or structures, perhaps what is notable is that it didn’t happen more often.

RFE/RL: You encountered so many different ethnic groups in your walks — each with different histories, different views of the West, different ways of greeting a traveler. Were there any commonalities?

Stewart: I think one of my real lessons was that villages are very different each from the other, that it’s dangerous to generalize. And one of the big mistakes that foreigners have made intervening in places like Afghanistan, or even Iraq, is to imagine that you can generalize about communities in remote areas who almost by definition because of the lack of communication and contact with the rest of the world are very, very isolated.

A single day’s walk — 25 kilometers — can take you from a place governed by an old, feudal family who are relaxed and friendly towards the West, into a community run by a radical Muslim cleric with connections to Iran, trying to stir the community up on a jihad.

Some communities want a very centralized government; others want a very strong degree of local autonomy. Some are interested in notions of human rights; others emphasize security.

If there was something in common between them, I think that most of the villages have a relatively conservative vision of Islam and talked to me predominantly about Islam — perhaps because it’s one of their great ways of reaching out and contacting the outside world.

Helping Afghanistan?

RFE/RL: That raises another point. Do you think the international community – by that I mean the Americans and British — understands how to help Afghanistan? You imply in your book that foreigners are somewhat misguided in their efforts to assist with development and social issues, and for all their well-meaning policy plans and projects, they’re really not making a real difference in people’s lives.

Stewart: I think that’s true. The international community has basically decided that in order to achieve sustainable development, economic development, and improvement in living standards in other people’s countries, it’s necessary to change governance structures.

In other words, the conclusion for the last 10-15 years has been that there’s no point just building dams and roads unless you have a clean, effective, accountable, and responsible government. These interventions are not sustainable. Now, they may or may not be right about that. Where I disagree with them is the notion that this is something that foreigners can actually deliver. Because by its very nature, political change — i.e., the kind of changes which the minister of finance in Afghanistan described when he said, ‘Every Afghan is committed to a gender-sensitive, multiethnic, centralized government committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law’ — is a type of change which is very difficult to explain to somebody in a remote rural community. I’d find it even difficult to translate into Dari.

And if we’re serious about bringing those kinds of changes – and those are very, very radical changes, philosophically, structurally, politically – we would have to have much, much more understanding of these countries than we’re ever likely to have and much more patience than we’re ever likely to have.

We tend to go for six months, or a one-year contract, do workshops, talk nicely about democracy, but don’t really engage in what would be a very long-term, very messy, and very uncomfortable business of really convincing Afghans, or Iraqis, to really believe in the vision that we hold, and to fight for that vision.

RFE/RL: Are you surprised at all by the resurgence of the Taliban, especially in the south of Afghanistan?

Stewart: I’m not so surprised, no. Because my experience was that many of the villagers I encountered were sympathetic towards the Taliban, or at least sympathetic towards their religious ideology.

A single day’s walk — 25 kilometers — can take you from a place governed by an old, feudal family who are relaxed and friendly towards the West, into a community run by a radical Muslim cleric with connections to Iran, trying to stir the community up on a jihad.

Generally, their objections to them were that the Taliban came from an alien ethnic group, or that the Taliban had killed them or stolen livestock, or property. But the south is a Pashto area, the Taliban are a Pashto ethnic-supported party and there is a lot of conservative Islamic sentiment there which provides quite a natural support base for a movement such as the Taliban.

‘Prince Of The Marshes’

RFE/RL: Switching to your time in Iraq and your posts as the deputy head of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s offices in Dhi Oar and Maysan. You accomplished quite a bit — obtaining funds for infrastructure repair, developing employment programs, the timely payment of local government employees, repairing schools. Yet in your book about that time — “The Prince Of The Marshes And Other Occupational Hazards Of A Year In Iraq” — it seems you were frustrated.

Stewart: In the end, the problem from my point of view was that Iraqis basically did not want American and British people in their country running their government. For very good reasons, very understandably. They were suspicious of outsiders, resistant to change, reluctant to cooperate and work together with the Coalition in these reconstruction projects. And that ultimately doomed the entire enterprise.

The enterprise couldn’t work because however many schools we repaired, however many roads we built, however many employment programs I launched, the political parties were conservative, Islamist parties who wished to impose conservative Islamic social code, that were opposed to foreigners, and whose entire ideology had very little to do with the ideology of the coalition.

So in the end, that failure to win consent, the failure to win the political debate, is what doomed the occupation.

RFE/RL: Can I ask where you learned Dari?

Stewart: I learned Dari initially in Tehran. I learned Farsi and then I worked on it more in Kabul, and then on my walk across Afghanistan.

‘Afghanistan The Most Appealing’

RFE/RL: Do you have any plans to make another walk?

Stewart: I’d very much like to travel more in the valleys between Bamiyan and Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan and explore some of the side valleys there, which people haven’t been into much.

RFE/RL: You’ve walked across Iran, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Which country did you enjoy crossing the most?

Stewart: Of them all, I think Afghanistan was the most appealing country. I found such generosity. Only in Afghanistan, of all the countries I’ve walked across, did people insist on accompanying me from one village to another; take a real interest in accommodating me, feeding me.

The beauty of the landscape, the astonishing complexity of the surviving pieces of historical culture — such as the Minaret of Jam, or the domes in Chist-e Sharif — the challenge, the physical challenge of crossing a landscape of that sort. The physical beauty of seeing tents on a hillside, or men on horses riding towards you, really made it, I think — and I’ve been to 67 countries — the most enticing, enthralling, exhilarating place to travel across.

Print Friendly and PDF