Monday, September 4, 2012
Several weeks ago I decided to focus my Labor Day musing on a documentary written some years ago by a young Scotsman, Rory Stewart, about his experiences in Afghanistan. Since then the following has come to my attention:August 10: 3 American special forces shot and killed at a dinner to which they were invited by an Afghan police commander at his command post, who flees.
August 11: An Afghan police officer shoots and kills 11 fellow Afghan officers.
August 17: 2 American special forces are shot and killed by an Afghan police recruit at his graduation ceremony. Two others wounded, attacker killed. Same day, another incident, an Afghan security force member shot and wounded two American soldiers.
August 19: Uniformed Afghan police officer shoots and kills a NATO soldier.
August 24; Seventeen Afghan civilians (2 women) are beheaded by Taliban for attending a dance party (or maybe for some other reasons)
So far this year, in 33 separate attacks, Afghan police or security forces have killed 42 members of the NATO forces, mostly Americans. U.S. investigators have concluded that only 4 of the killings were committed by Taliban infiltrators. The remainder were attributed mainly to disputes, perceived insults and cultural offenses. To anyone who has read Rory’s book, none of this should come as a surprise. Afghans have settled differences by killing each other and foreigners for centuries.
Rory Stewart was born in Hong Kong in 1973, spent his childhood years in Malaysia and was educated at Eton. Afterwards he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the British army at age 18 and served 9 months in the infantry before attending Oxford. Upon graduation he joined the British Foreign Office and served at its embassy in Indonesia from 1997 to 1999. He then took two years off, hiking nearly 6000 miles through Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Afghanistan and staying in about 500 village homes along the way. The book documents only his 600 mile, 36 day west to east walk across rural, central Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul and his observations of “The Places In Between.”
Rory had intended to walk across Afghanistan a year earlier after crossing Iran, but in December 2000 the Taliban stopped him at the border. He then leap-frogged the country and continued walking across Pakistan, India and into Nepal when he learned around Christmas 2001 that Al Qaeda had been expelled and the Taliban overthrown. He returned and walked into Herat in January without a visa but bearing letters of introduction from minor officials in Pakistan recommending that he be treated as a guest traveler – on a mission of anthropological and environmental research. A new government of sorts had been in place less than two weeks. Laws banning TV and female education had been dropped, political prisoners released, refugees were returning from Iran, and a few women were on the streets without veils. He met with the new provincial governor and was given a letter of introduction to the village chiefs he would meet in his walk across that province. He wanted to walk alone but was assigned two security guards toting AK-47s for the first two weeks of his trek. The final 360 miles he would walk alone. Herat, with a population of about 250,000 then, was Afghanistan’s second largest city in a country of about 20 million at the time, 85% illiterate. It was a shantytown of a few shabby concrete buildings, but mostly buildings of dried mud bricks. Donkeys slept in the town squares. He chose to walk due east to Kabul, which would take him into the mountains of the Hindu Kush, but it was two hundred miles shorter than an easier southern circular path still heavily infiltrated by Taliban fighters. His guards spoke no English, but Rory knew several Persian dialects and was able to communicate. In two instances he had prevented his guards from shooting village children who had thrown rocks at them. Stopping each night at a rural village, he presented his letter to the chief, or headman, most of whom had been war leaders, and he was generally treated to the hospitality afforded guest travelers in accordance with Muslin traditions. He slept on mats on the floors of mud huts, often 10 – 20 people in a room without any furniture. In 35 nights he was to see only one bed, which was not for him. Electricity did not exist except in one village where the police commander’s station had a generator and a TV. There was no plumbing or toilets. Villagers did not bathe in wintertime, nor did Rory. Some villages had rudimentary latrines. But in most, villagers relieved themselves in the streets or while squatting behind a bush. Rory, suffering from dysentery much of the time, had to join them frequently. The evening meals always consisted of tea and bread, often soup or rice, sometimes mutton. Generally served in a large mud house room, men were served in order of their importance. Women and children did not speak and were socially invisible. Everyone ate with their hands without talking until the meal was finished. The mud huts were heated by stoves using frozen sheep dung as fuel.
Rory crossed 5 of Afghanistan’s approximate 30 provinces, the first being the Herat of flat plains and small farms-mostly populated by Sunni Muslim Tajiks; the second being the foothills of Ghor, populated by the Aimaq, nomadic tribes that spoke Dari, which Rory understood reasonably well; the third was Bamiyan, the high valleys surrounding 14,000 foot mountains occupied by the Hazera, dangerous Shia Muslin Mongols, descendants from Genghis Khan’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1300s, also Dari speaking; the 4th being Wardak, populated by Pashtun, speaking their own native language, and from which most of the Taliban were recruited: and finally into Kabul, a rapidly growing city/suburban area of Pashtun and Tajiks. Every village, even if only a half dozen houses, had its Muslim mosque, usually a mud hut, and the five daily prayers and listening to someone read the Koran dominated village life. Rory was not allowed to enter the mosques by the Sunni Tajiks of Herat province. In Ghor and Bamiyan, he was required to sleep in the mosques.
Only a handful of villagers had ever heard of 9/11 or the World Trade Center. But they knew about war. The only piece of machinery that connected them with the modern age was the AK-47, a presence in almost every mud hut and on the shoulders of most travelers along the paths.
Where is this going? (to be cont’d)