Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

Understanding Afghanistan and Iraq

Review by Colleen Mondor

In the wake of the November elections, although there is much talk of changes in Iraq (and little talk of Afghanistan as usual), the actual mechanics of making that change happen appear to be both complex and costly. One of the toughest things for the average American to understand about the U.S. involvement in both of these countries is what it is like to live there—what the actual situation is on the ground. We hear about U.S. soldiers and diplomats and civilians in NGOs, but what about Iraqis and Afghanis who are more similar to the American middle class then they are to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, or any terrorist or insurgent group?

What is life like for them?

Finding books that give a good local perspective can be difficult, as everyone seems to have an ax to grind when it comes to U.S. foreign policy and military deployments. While I certainly think these are worthy subjects, I also think that it is impossible to develop a clear picture about what is happening on the other side of the world in places like Baghdad and Kabul based only on American perspective. You have to find authors who will look beyond the American point of view if you want to know the complete picture. We have to be curious if we want to be smart. We have to be willing to learn whatever we can in the pursuit of peace.

Scotsman Rory Stewart arrived in Afghanistan in early 2002 as part of his plan to walk across a wide swath of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. He had already been across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal and had to skip Afghanistan due to the Taliban government's refusal to allow his entrance. (He served as a British diplomat in the past and this might have been the root of visa problems in several countries.) After the Taliban's fall, however, he was able to leave Nepal and return to Afghanistan, and thus complete his path on paper from Iran to Pakistan, traveling from Herat to Kabul. His determination to finish his plan is admirable and impressive to even the most jaded reader, and as outlined in his book, The Places in Between, his early assessment of the country he was about to enter is eerily prescient:

The country had been at war for twenty-five years; the new government had been in place for only two weeks; there was no electricity between Herat and Kabul, no television and no T-shirts. Villages combined medieval etiquette with new political ideologies. In many houses the only piece of foreign technology was a Kalashnikov, and the only global brand was Islam. All that had made Afghanistan seem backward, peripheral and irrelevant now made it the center of the world's attention.

Initially paired with a couple of "handlers," Stewart soon finds a fourth man, a relative of one of the others, as part of his party as well. One is mostly a soldier, the other a dealmaker, and the third the hapless foil of the others. They are the oddest of groups, and yet they do find a way to get along—to even become companions of sorts—although Stewart's plan and dedication continuously mystify the others. He finds a similar reaction to his journey from western journalists who visit him enroute. In the beginning, he tries to explain to "David" a reporter from The Los Angeles Times just what he is seeking:

I told him Afghanistan was the missing section of my walk, the place in between the deserts and the Himalayas, between Persian, Hellenic and Hindu culture, between Islam and Buddhism, between mystical and militant Islam. I wanted to see where these cultures merged into one another or touched the global world.

David, unfortunately missed the point.

But he wrote none of this down. Instead while Loomis, his photographer, shot pictures of me from a ditch, he apparently scribbled, "20-27 miles a day every day—living on bread—the hunger belt. Barbur loses men and horse in the snow. One change of clothes. Thin with a wispy beard." When Loomis gave me a plastic-wrapped hand warmer, I tried to explain that the physical side didn't matter to me, that it was more a way of looking at Afghanistan and being by myself.

Loomis nodded. "Have you read Into the Wild...that book about the wealthy young American who headed off into the Alaskan wilderness to find himself and then died on his own in the snow?... It's a great piece of journalism."

And that was the end of the interview.

Fortunately, Stewart was not doing this trip for anyone else—he wanted to go to the unknown and overlooked places, and he wanted to see what was there. Most importantly, he wanted to meet the people who lived there and see where they fit into the larger global conflict that was spiralling around them. What he found was the legendary Muslim hospitality, a trait that made his journey all that much easier to bear. In sharing the many stories of people who gave him and his fellow travelers food and drink and a place to stay, Stewart shows the side of Afghanistan that is so difficult for westerners to comprehend. Can you imagine what would happen to Stewart if he walked across America, introducing himself in each town as a traveler from a distant country, as someone who wanted to meet people and learn about their lives?

Would you trust him to sleep in your house?

But in Afghanistan he finds great success and innumerable stories. "Every night," he writes, "in over five hundred villages, I interviewed people about their possessions, communities and history. I was not in control of these conversations. I was often tired, and as I interviewed others I was also defending myself against suspicious questions and trying to be polite to my host."

The variety of things he learned is staggering, and his original record of the trip must be amazing to read. "I had made sketches of medieval mosques, accounts of previous visitors, lists of people's possessions and their incomes, copies of feudal genealogies and diagrams of arrow-making or weaving. I had recorded claims about recent killings, descriptions of possible Neolithic burial mounds, and short biographies. I had speculated on pre-Islamic or pre-Hindu religions suggested by a burial practice or a carving on a stone pillar." Two hours of writing every night after walking more than twenty miles. He might have started as a traveler, but he became a first class citizen of the world. Later, quoting Bruce Chatwin, Stewart writes, "...we would think and live better and be closer to our purposes as humans if we moved continually on foot across the surface of the earth." At the time, Stewart could not be sure that he was successful in Chatwin's lofty purpose, but in reading his book it becomes clear that his level of understanding of Afghanistan is much higher than any the rest of us will achieve. He has been there-on the ground-he has been there, and now he knows this place, knows it as it is and for whom it shelters.

About a quarter of the way into his trip Stewart was finally without his "handlers" and able to move on at his own pace. At this time he found himself also with a large (140 pounds or so) dog—an animal he took because he could not bear to leave it behind. "Afghan dogs are not pets," he writes. "They are for hunting, for protecting sheep from wolves, or dog fights." Babur stays with him until the end, a faithful companion who never fails to raise questions wherever they go.

A book like Stewart's raises all manner of questions for the reader—one wonders why he would embark on such a journey to begin with, how he even came up with the idea. But soon enough you realize that none of that matters, not to Stewart as he was walking and not to the reader immersed in the story. The New York Times selected it as one of its "100 Notable Books of the Year," and it rightly deserves that attention. Very few people will ever attempt a trip like Stewart's, and it is unlikely that any of them would be as adept at recounting it so well later. His is an exploration of the most important kind and a book that brings a distant country into the hearts of those who read it.

Journalist and women's rights activist Ann Jones went to Kabul in 2002, hoping to find a way to help. Her plan was to volunteer for an organization called Madar ("Mother"), which had been founded by an American woman and longtime Afghanistan resident to help the widows of Kabul. Jones basically signed on to do whatever she could and was quickly put to work. Her memoir of the years spent there, Kabul in Winter, portrays an author who is caustic, angry, and above all shocked and frustrated by the ineptness of Americans in Afghanistan. Reading it can be very difficult, not because of Jones' writing style, but because as an American you just can not believe that your tax dollars could be spent so inappropriately. It doesn't seem possible, and yet Jones quotes chapter and verse of budget statistics and accounting reports throughout her narrative. Here is just one example (statistics from a June 2005 report issued by the South African INGO, Action Aid):

To no one's surprise, the US easily outstrips other nations at a lot of these scams, making it second only to France as the world's biggest purveyor of phantom aid. Forty-seven percent of American development aid is lavished on overpriced technical assistance, while the percentage of annual Scandinavian budgets spent on technical assistance ranges from 12 (Norway) down to 4 (Sweden). Luxembourg and Ireland do even better at 2 percent. As for tying aid to the purchase of donor-made products, Sweden and Norway don't do it at all. Neither do Ireland and the UK. But 70 percent of American aid is contingent upon the recipient spending it on American stuff. The upshot is that eighty-six cents of every dollar of American aid is phantom aid. According to targets set years ago by the UN and agreed to by almost every country in the world, all the rich countries should give .7 percent of their national income in annual aid to the poor ones. So far, only Luxembourg (with real aid at .65 percent of its national income), the Scandinavian countries, and the Netherlands even come close. At the other end of the scale, the US spends a paltry .02 percent of nation income on real aid, which works out to a contribution of $8.00 from every citizen of "the wealthiest nation in the world"... It seems the Americans are being conned more than the Afghans.

Jones works on numerous projects during her stay in Kabul, from assisting inmates in a women's prison to trying to track down modernized text books that are no longer promoting the history of Saudi Arabia and coaching lessons around "If a man is fighting against the enemy of Islam, he is the person who makes happy his God. If a man gives his life for this purpose, he will have a high position with the God..." That's from a ten-year old's history textbook; it's printed in Pakistan and still used by Afghani children. Columbia University Teacher's College spent a couple of years studying curriculum and drafting new texts, but as Jones learns, even though many of them were at the printers in 2005, lack of funding held things up. A Columbia professor explained to her, "It's very difficult to get funding, unless you're tied into the US government, into USAID."

So if you're wondering where the next generation of suicide bombers is going to come from, it appears we are educating them on the art of ultimate sacrifice right now.

Jones remains undeterred as she tries to find ways to fund small programs and get more of her new friends self-sufficient. A program for refresher courses for female university students is shot down even though the logic behind getting former students quickly back to work teaching new generations can not be argued with. But it is not democratic apparently, to teach those who have already learned. "In a non literate culture," Jones learns, "the previously educated and the almost educated are the 'elite classes' and should not be eligible for aid." This means former teachers, who were forced to stay home under the Taliban, will not receive aid to get back to work now. The end result is a country with a third grade education: everyone reading and writing, but not much more. How will anyone ever get to college if the aid is only for the very young? How will any of them ever get beyond the need for a handout?

And that is what we want, isn't it? Jones can not help but become suspicious that perhaps it is not—perhaps if the Afghanis no longer need all those private companies to do their work for them, then that would be a bad thing for America, for American pockets in particular. And maybe that is what we should be thinking about more than anything when it comes to Afghanistan policy.

Just what the hell are our motivations for being there?

Along with her forays into American policy and NGOs in the country, Jones also reveals a copious amount of research on Afghani history. She goes beyond the recent wars and infighting to the history of the burqa and how long it has held an influence on Afghani society. Her book is a feminist one in that it is most interested in the lives of Afghani women. For Jones it is not enough to hear that Islam demands the veil or the Koran requires it. She is savvy enough to know that throughout history most rules designed to control women might have been coated in the words of religious text but are all too often only about man's laws. The requirement of the burqa, she finds, is no different, and her passages on Afghan politics in the 1920s and how they reverberate still today are some of the book's most gripping reading.

In the end Jones is very nearly heartbroken by what she has witnessed in Kabul, and most readers will share her sorrow. There are so many wasted opportunities here, so many chances to actually affect positive change that seem to be lost in dollars and political squabbling. After reading Kabul in Winter, I am certain that if Afghanistan falls to the Taliban again, it will be due in no small degree to American mismanagement and greed. We are blowing it over there, big time. And for people like Ann Jones who hoped to save this corner of the world, that potentiality is particularly sad. It is, in fact, devastating, and other than trying to enlighten us all with her book, there is very little she can do about it.

Canadian journalist Hadani Ditmars traveled to Iraq several times throughout the late 1990s and beyond, and in her book Dancing in the No-Fly zone she does a very interesting comparison between life in the country under Saddam Hussein and after the American invasion. Her book was published before the sectarian violence escalated into civil war, but she provides an excellent snapshot of the years leading up to that catastrophe and shows also how many people were struggling to prevent it, to live their own, normal, lives.

Ditmars is not sure why she is so captivated by Iraq and its people but is clearly in awe of the long cultural history it holds. "Cradle of civilization, birthplace of Abraham, capital of the Islamic world under the great caliph Haroun al-Rashid, and more recently a center of pan-Arabism and artistic and intellectual life, Iraq is not a place to be considered lightly. It is a place to read poetry, a place to study holy books, to ponder the meaning of civilization."

She intends no irony with that last statement, "to ponder the meaning of civilization," but in her last visit, late 2003, she sees glaring examples of the destruction of civilization all around her. Old friends have left their jobs as artists and musicians to find more lucrative work for the Americans, but the price they pay in abandoning their own creativity (not to mention their contribution to Iraqi society) is high. Teachers are drivers, professors are translators, and a cellist is... she's not quite sure what her cellist friend is doing, but it somehow involves one of those ubiquitous NGOs. The American sector of the Baghdad seesm secure and thriving with the best the city has to offer providing assistance, but the rest of the town is struggling on every level. Ditmars is shocked and appalled when she compares the degradation of society against even the darkest days under Hussein and the sanctions. "It seemed rather than liberation, the invasion brought only the chaos of a power vacuum, and an increase in self-censorship for survival's sake." The arts, which were so long the life of Iraqi culture, are dying before their eyes, and Ditmars seems determined to document every last aspect of it she can find.

In western visions of Iraq, there has been very little evidence of artistic life. We hear about politics and violence on nearly an hourly basis, but the idea of an Iraqi theater or symphony seems impossible to believe. But they were there, and they did amazing things. At one point, while talking to her cellist friend Karim, who now works for the NGO, Ditmar recalls the way things used to be:

I remember Karim's brilliant interpretation of Elgar's Cello Concerto, which he performed on the tenth anniversary of the Gulf War in Baghdad. Then he had considered himself an "ambassador for peace" and had told me, "Culture knows no borders. Here I am, an Iraqi who studied in America, playing a concerto written by an Englishman about a war that happened over eighty years ago in Europe." And yet the concerto had been a meaningful and relevant expression of Iraqi life. When I first heard the orchestra perform it, I felt as though the musicians were playing on their own heartstrings.

Now there is oddly a great deal of fear for doing anything that might draw too much attention. While talking to a playwright at the National Theater (which now is only open for daytime rehearsals—"It's dangerous to go to a mosque for Friday prayers," says the playwright, "imagine what it would be like going to the theater at night"), she learns that writing has become far more difficult in the present situation as well. "I'm not writing plays anymore," he tells her, and then,

"Let me tell you," he began, "that before, there was only one Saddam. Now there are at least twenty-five. So when we said something before, the regime may have taken offense, but now with all these different groups, I'm afraid to say anything. It could be dangerous for me."

Ditmars navigates her way all over Baghdad, visiting old friends and making new ones as she goes to churches, mosques, the Friday book market, where she learns that "faith is one of Iraq's few growth industries..." and "security is another," and even a press conference with Paul Bremer. Ditmars notes that she attended many press conferences during her 2003 stay and "as the situation went from bad to disastrous, there would be a progressive worsening case of American denial." One has to wonder what she thinks of our long official refusal to acknowledge a civil war when it is already happening.

In the end Ditmars finds herself visiting an abandoned aquatic center in a suburban Shia neighborhood where about three dozen people have found a home. The center is being run by a local who has established his own NGO and has raised enough funds to rent the pool complex as a "transitional shelter for homeless children and their families." The conditions are appalling, but they are better than the street and the only solution these people can find. One family in particular appeals to Ditmars, especially their twelve-year old daughter, Shada:

Shada was sharp and spoke frankly of her situation. "Life here is very bad, we don't feel comfortable. It's dirty, there's no electricity, no clean water, no safety or security. But it's better than nothing. Before things were better because we had a place to live—it was ours—and we had good security. Now there is kidnapping and thievery everywhere. I'm glad that the regime is gone, but things were better before." The sound of gunfire punctuated her last remark.

"Did you ever to school?" I asked.

"No," she replied. "I would like to study, but my family is too poor and I have to work to help them." Later, she told me that she wanted to be a doctor.

Ditmars leaves Baghdad because it has become too dangerous, and because the story she has to tell is simply being repeated by everyone she meets. On her last night she attends a fund-raising concert for the Garden of Peace project she initiated—a place for women and children to safely go and play and talk in the city. She listens to four children in particular sing "a rousing anthem whose lyrics combined nationalism, hope and a bit of John Lennon." Afterwards she learns the children do not attend school as they must work to help support their families. One little boy in particular, twelve-year old Assem, works twelve-hour shifts in a shoe factory to pay for his insulin. He is a boy with diabetes living in a war zone who must work to get the medicine he needs to stay alive. Ditmars gives him $20 to help pay for insulin, a gift he initially refuses but agrees to accept for his drugs. The next morning she gets on an airplane and leaves Baghdad behind but can not forget what she saw there, how the city has become the very definition of tragedy. And after reading her book, I can not forget Assem. What chance does a child like that have in a place that is falling apart; what chance do any of them have to survive in a city that the world seems determined to tear apart?

They are not all insurgents, Ditmars makes clear, echoing what Stewart and Jones have already proven true about Afghanistan. Just because it's easier for us say they are, they are not all insurgents.


The Places In Between
by Rory Stewart
Harcourt (2006) 297 pp.
ISBN 0-15-603156-6

Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan
by Ann Jones
Metropolitan Books (2006) 287 pp.
ISBN 0-8050-7884-3

Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman's Journey Through Iraq
by Hadani Ditmars
Olive Branch Press (2006) 261 pp.
ISBN 1-56656-634-7


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