Walking across Afghanistan

The media’s romance with Rory’s trek across Central Asia knows no bounds. Here’s Palash, quoted in The Scotsman:

An Eton friend, Palash Davé, said if anyone is equipped to deal with the dangers, is it Mr Stewart. He said: ” When it comes to the diplomacy of dealing with tough locals, I can’t imagine a better person. “He’s always had romantic ideas but he’s been very level-headed about dealing with them.”

They have another fine photo, too.

Palash reports another media sighting, this time in Sunday’s Observer.

Walking across Afghanistan

The world’s media is queuing up to write about Rory’s trek across Afghanistan. Here’s the opening few lines of the latest, from the Los Angeles Times (and they even have a photo!):

600-Mile Journey in Nowhere Land

Afghanistan: Scotsman sets off on foot through some of the Earth’s most forbidding terrain.

By DAVID ZUCCHINO, Times Staff Writer

HERAT, Afghanistan — For breakfast Sunday morning, Rory Stewart ate four fried eggs and a fistful of naan, the flat Afghan bread. Then he walked to the local bazaar and bought 20 tablets of the antibiotic Cipro, two dog-eared English-language books and a walking stick.

Now he was ready to walk across Afghanistan.

Stewart, an Oxford-educated Scotsman, set out Sunday afternoon on a 600-mile walk through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. He intends to hike from Herat, in western Afghanistan, to Kabul in the east, through snow and ice, past bandits and gunmen, wolves and guard dogs, famine and drought.

Stewart is fairly certain–and there are no known challengers–that he was the first tourist to enter Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime late last year. He is unquestionably the most unconventional foreigner in these parts, with his skeletal 126-pound frame and his dream of walking the path once taken by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane…

The LA Times does seem to have its finger on the pulse: they had the most detailed coverage of the American fad for Stoicism in 1999…

Thanks to Tim for drawing today’s article to the attention of the weblog.


Michaele wrote to the weblog the other day [3.12.2001]:

I just want to rant for a little while about how the Bush administration’s attitude about terrorism is currently being deployed to justify some horrendously incoherent foreign policy and the failure to take a morally brave and politically urgent stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Warning: this may be mildly incoherent, as I am a bit tired and angry.

We’ve all known since the W. administration first started talking about a “War on Terrorism” that the definition of terrorism and the list of terrorist organizations and their state sponsors was not based in any principled understanding of what counts as terror (versus, say, freedom fighting or legitimate acts of self-defense), but rather was based in political expediency: a combination of what our “allies” would tolerate, what was necessary to make “allies” of those governments in the first place, and what would justify only the sorts of military action that W. and his more hawkish advisors wanted to pursue anyway (that is, attacks on the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the Gulf War Redux, which is by all reports just around the corner). But until the past twenty-four hours, this peculiar understanding of who the enemy was did not seem to be wholly morally bankrupt (and has therefore had shocking credence among many of my friends and family, despite their varying degrees of distaste with the talk of war and revenge). Whatever objections one might have to war, however much W.’s frequent use of the term “evildoers” in public speeches made one think of a bad Saturday morning cartoon, it made some sense that people who have the capability and the desire to attack civilians across state borders need to be dealt with _in some manner_ because of the unpredictable threat that they pose to the security and stability of those who would be their intended targets.

Yet after W.’s speech in which he extended the moral authority of the U.S. to respond to the Taliban/al-Qaeda to Israel responding to yesterday’s horrific attacks, whatever slight moral promise that his administration’s understanding of terrorism held was completely betrayed. The administration has been flip-flopping since�January on its policy towards Israel, which has to make you wonder whether it is a matter of the much publicized conflicts between Powell and Rumsfeld/Cheney, or simply that no one with any authority in the W. administration has a clear idea of what to do in the Middle East (in part because they thought back in January that they could get away with a policy of selective American isolationism). Sometimes, the administration has condemned Israel’s ‘retaliatory’ attacks on Palestinians as going too far; sometimes it has justified Israel’s attacks. If you look carefully, there seems to be _some_ rhyme and reason to when the administration condemns Israel: when the attacks seem to be on Palestinians in general, involve a disproportionate use of military force, and result in Israeli occupation of�a particular area for some time. When the administration supports Israel, it is typically because the Israeli military has sought out specific targets and isolated them for attack (such as the Hamas leaders traveling by car a few weeks back).

However, last night’s speech by W. in essence authorizing Israel to respond forcefully to the “terrorist” attacks (in quotes because I recognize that who counts as a terrorist really does seem to be a matter of who those with the really big guns think is a terrorist, not because I do not personally condemn the attacks), combined with today’s utter _failure_ to condemn Israel’s attacks on the Palestinian Authority (which smack of war, and not war on terrorists) is a clear sign that the administration has finally abdicated any semblance of taking the moral high ground in its war on “terrorism”. One would think that W. would have learned from his father’s mistakes: taking a permissive ‘we support you-and we won’t interfere’ attitude towards how another state treats its minorities or the sovereignty of state boundaries only serves to firm up other states’ resolve in transgressing international norms. Iraq would not have invaded Kuwait without having the impression that the U.S. would not intervene. Sharon’s Israel could not have notched up the violence and the provocativeness of its attacks on Palestinians, Hamas, and now directly the Palestinian Authority without believing firmly that this would in no way jeopardize relations with its one true ally, the U.S. The absurdly self-congratulatory and self-interested definition of terror and terrorists that is sustaining U.S. actions in Afghanistan is now justifying Sharon’s brutal policy of trying to provoke Palestinians to become more and more violent, more and more politically extreme, so that he can sustain the popular support that keeps him in office, and pursue the policy of complete expulsion of the Palestinian people that he has clearly wanted from the beginning.

I don’t mean to downplay here how much we ought to be critical of how the U.S. attack on terrorism has been deployed to justify the specific way that the U.S. has responded to Sept. 11th. (As a U.S. citizen, I am deeply concerned about how the Justice Department and the executive branch are trying to increase their authority and the secrecy in which they might carry out their war). However, I think that the events of the past 24 hours call on us to be even more vigilant about how the justification of a war on terror is and can be deployed to justify the pursuit of violence over the pursuit of peace, the pursuit of relative homogeneity over the pursuit of pluralist political arrangements that aim at justice for all people living in and sharing a particular space. I originally was concerned about how the war on terror would justify the W. administration’s policies. It is clear that we also need to be concerned about how it divests the U.S. of any moral authority to condemn the clearly objectionable treatment of peoples like the Palestinians in the name of a war on terror.

I think that’s enough for now. Let the criticisms begin!

Thanks for this, and apologies for the delay in posting it on this page.

The Liberator of Kabul

From the BBC:

‘Excited’ Simpson regrets Kabul claims

The BBC’s John Simpson said he is “very, very, very embarrassed” after his widely-reported remarks that he liberated Kabul.

As he entered the Afghan capital he told viewers it was “extraordinarily exhilarating to be liberating a city”.

The Taleban had left the city and the veteran correspondent and other BBC staff arrived before the Northern Alliance column.

His remarks were pilloried by some commentators with even Home Secretary David Blunkett adding a note of sarcasm.

It was later emphasised that BBC correspondents Rageh Omar, William Reeve and Kate Clarke were already in Kabul.

Thanks to Jo for sending this to the weblog. She writes: “Not the story itself, you understand, but the fact that it appears in the “Entertainment” section of the BBC news site.”

Facial Hair

It’s time to address the issues that matter. From Online Pravda:

by Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey

“You can say a lot about a person from an analysis of his beard”, according to barber Nazirullah, in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Barber Nazirullah declares that “Osama Bin Laden is a leader and a fighter. He does not need luxury or comfort. He is a man who can lead a hard life for a long time. He is not worried about anything else”.

Barber Nazirullah says that a man’s beard, in his culture, can speak volumes about his character. “You can say a lot about someone from the way they grow their beard. Cuts depend on tribal custom and personal preference”. He states that his family have been barbers for three generations and that he understands intrinsically the psyche behind the beard.

“All Afghans have a beard. It is very important. You can only shave it off to go to a funeral or maybe for the first night with your wife”. Regarding Osama Bin Laden, barber Nazirullah is certain that “he is not worried about his beard like a young man. He lets it grow strongly and naturally. He is also greying, which shows a certain degree of wisdom”.

Concerning Taleban leader Mullah Omar, barber Nazirullah declares that “I have heard that he has a good beard. Some say that it grows a lot over his nose. Normally, religious people let it grow below the nose”.

Do you think that you understand — intrinsically or otherwise — the “psyche behind the beard”? There might, of course, be another reason as to why all Afghan men have a beard. Ahmed Rashid, in the fine book that Tony Blair’s supposed to be reading at the moment, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia reminds us (pp.114-5) that:

“The plight of Afghanistan’s women often hid the fact that urban males did not fare much better under the Taliban, especially non-Pashtuns. All Kabul males were give just six weeks to grow a full beard, even though some of the ethnic groups such as the Hazaras have very limited beard growth. Beards could not be trimmed shorter than a man’s fist, leading to jokes that Afghanistan’s biggest import-export business was male facial hair and that men did not need visas to travel to Afghanistan, they just needed a beard. The religious police stood at street corners cutting off long hair and often beating culprits…”

If the reindeer is the counter-giraffe (see below), is the eponymous hero of the magnificent Njal’s Saga, a wise Icelander, famous for his inability to grow a beard – and mocked on that account by his enemies, best understood as the counter-Osama-bin-Laden? It’s a fascinating thought.

Against War

The peace movement is coming together all around me, except on “govchat”, my graduate department’s email chatlist. So I’ve just sent it a message. I’ve suppressed the identities of other participants in the conversation, since I don’t think it’s a public group, and I don’t mention aspects of US foreign policy in the Middle East not because I don’t think these are very important, but because one participant in the conversation who used to serve in the US military said he didn’t like reading “email diatribe after email diatribe condemning the evil imperialistic policies of America while my friends are overseas in harm’s way defending American lives”. So I’ve spared his feelings on this occasion at least.

FIRST, the moral objection. All of us can construct arguments in our heads for why intervention in Afghanistan might be the “right thing to do”, all things considered, thinking especially of the issues which address our particular ethical concerns. All of us can (if we like to do this kind of thing) crunch the numbers in our own moral calculators and decide for ourselves how many civilian casualties are reasonable, defensible, inevitable or legitimate “collateral damage”. XX and YY have both mentioned, for example, the importance of “minimizing” civilian casualties. But this is a vague aspiration, like being “against sin” or “opposed to terrorism” — it’s one we all share. And it is a sad fact that the kind of war which _genuinely_ minimises civilian casualties is almost certainly not on offer. NATO spoke of the importance of minimizing civilian casualties during the Kosovo intervention, yet five hundred Yugoslav civilians were killed (this is the Human Rights Watch estimate), and Amnesty International’s report into the bombing concluded unambiguously that “civilian deaths could have been significantly reduced if NATO forces had fully adhered to the laws of war”. The NATO powers did not adhere to those laws during those eleven weeks (though they said they did), and I don’t think we have good reason to be confident that the Bush administration will during the present conflict, either. Those who think war is OK if civilian casualties are minimized should ask themselves whether they think the mechanisms are in place to secure this goal and whether they trust the US/NATO leaders to incorporate the strictest concern for civilian life into their military decisionmaking. Otherwise it will be a matter for _chance_ as to whether they get the kind of war they’d like to see, and this is obviously too important a matter to leave to this kind of chance. Six thousand-plus innocent people were blown to bits in last week’s atrocity; I don’t believe that any of us have enough assurance that the coming conflict won’t blow a few more to bits, and while I’m perfectly able to draw a distinction between the intended, foreseeable victims of terrorist attack and unintended, foreseeable victims of governmental response, this distinction doesn’t make me feel happy enough to sanction the blowing to bits of those who fall into the latter category.

SECOND, the political objection. We should be immensely suspicious of giving our backing to a war with such ill-defined parameters as this one. WW2 came to have clear war aims: Germany’s unconditional surrender; so did the Gulf War: the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait; so did the Kosovo intervention: the removal of Serb military forces from Kosovo. When our governments announce their “war on terrorism” it is entirely unclear as to quite what it is that we are being asked to support. This is, in fact, where we get very close to “1984” territory: Pakistan is our ally this week for putting pressure on the Taliban; next week it might become our enemy if the US administration chooses to remember that it was considered by Jane’s in 1997 as the “world’s leader in hosting international terrorist organisations”. Eastasia this week, Eurasia the next. Every move the administration makes on this front will be justified with reference to intelligence reports to which citizens don’t have access. Thus the governments say, and the media repeats, that OBL is the “prime suspect” for the 9/11 atrocity. Indeed, it may very well have been carried out on his instruction or by his minions — but we haven’t seen nearly enough evidence presented in the public sphere to persuade a sceptical citizen that this in fact is the case. Many of us much of the time are not wholly confident in the truth of the knowledge which national security organisations like the CIA, FBI, MI5 and MI6 help to generate — yet if this “war on terrorism” is allowed to get going and to escalate, we will repeatedly be asked to agree that acts of violence should be carried out in our names against up to sixty foreign regimes based on the selective leaking of state intelligence which will be almost impossible to verify. Our governments will almost certainly restrict our civil liberties and increase their surveillance over us as a part of this “war” which we are being told may go on for years. In short, we are being asked to put far too much of our trust in the most secretive, least accountable branches of government than is warranted as part of a war which the authorities are so far refusing to define with any precision, and which will therefore be defined as it unfolds entirely in accordance with their own short-term interests, which may very well not be ours.

THIRD, the practical objections. XX is obviously right that “organized elite groups are [not] mere reflections of mass experiences or attitudes”, but do people who favour “war” think that they will be able to break the terrorist networks apart irrevocably and reduce over the long term the likelihood of terrorist attacks on Western civilian targets? Remember that the British state failed to defeat the Provisional IRA in a twenty-year plus conflict despite being able (i) to keep Belfast and Derry under permanent military occupation, (ii) having a rather small local population counted at most in the low hundreds of thousands even passively supportive of the IRA’s activities and (iii) perpetrating a number of severe human rights abuses. Perhaps the Brits were just incompetent, but it seems to me that it is wildly optimistic to think that US military activity in the Middle East will secure the defeat over the long term of fundamentalist terror groups, especially since the specifically anti-US stance of such groups turns on their ability to exploit an already-existing distrust and dislike of US interference in the region, which is likely to increase. Sometimes the media discourse about this crisis focuses on the so-called “rogue” regimes of Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, as if they are the chief problem and the major culprits but it’s a very striking fact that most of the hijackers named by the US authorities were citizens of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. For those who preach “jihad” against America it can only be music to their ears when Mr. Bush announces a “crusade” in return. And to pursue the IRA analogy a little further, the British made the biggest inroads into the IRA in the late 1970s period when it treated IRA activity as chiefly _criminal_ rather than military in nature. This was a period when the death toll of the Northern Irish troubles fell sharply and when the number of terrorists being jailed rose substantially. The IRA was under a great deal of pressure, and in the end it was only something as drastic as the self-slaughter of the hunger strikers which enabled it to rally republican support for the armed struggle in the 1980s. I don’t think we’ve yet had a sensible debate as to whether the effort against terrorism should be treated primarily as a matter for international policing rather than military sabre-rattling and intervention: President Bush pre-empted that debate when he immediately branded this crisis a “war against America” and got Mr Blair to make equally foolish public declarations. Of course there would be problems in organising such an international investigation — the Taliban wouldn’t have handed OBL over if a request for extradition had come from a UN body, either — but in general this seems to me an immensely preferable route to go down in formulating anti-terrorist strategy. Strengthen the institutions for international policing, strengthen the International Criminal Court. Build genuinely multilateral institutions. And introduce better airline security and — crucially — a more transparent international banking system.

Each of these three sets of objections seems to me convincing. Together they are overwhelming.

FINALLY: I’m sure that a part of the reason why I feel so strongly opposed to war in Afghanistan this time around is that I made the mistake of thinking the NATO intervention in Kosovo was a reasonable one at the time, yet the arguments for that war still seem to me to be more persuasive than the arguments for this one. Back in 1999 I believed too much of what I was reading in the US/UK press and hearing from the politicians, and I judged there was more merit in the arguments of the various liberal humanitarian interventionists than I do now. Reflecting on and reading about that episode subsequently changed my opinion, and I now feel ashamed for having argued a pro-war position with friends and colleagues. (Relevant factors which changed my mind included my shifting evaluation of the West’s disregard for international law, NATO’s use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium weapons, the avoidable killing of civilians, the course of NATO diplomacy in the period of Rambouillet and the demands placed on Yugoslavia, together with my persistent disinclination to believe that the Chinese Embassy was attacked owing to out-of-date maps being used by US planners.) So some of you may feel that I am overcompensating this time around in confidently rejecting a conflict which I fear is about to start and throwing myself into the peace movement here in Britain, which is now, I am pleased to report, growing fast. I feel more scared about what Mr Bush’s war is going to do to the citizens of the Western democracies and to the peoples of the Middle East than I feel threatened by international terrorists (and yes, growing up in London, bomb scares were part of everyday life). There are a lot of us who share the same feeling. Given that this is supposed to be a war on terror, that’s not good.

The War on Terrorism is like the War on Drugs: the US Government isn’t going to win it, and it has the potential to do a vast amount of harm at home and abroad on the way to not being won.


Michaele writes [23.9.01]: I rather enjoyed reading this. I am hoping that the peace movement here in Seattle receives a well-needed boost when students get back to the UW [University of Washington] in a week. In the meantime, I have been rabble-rousing in email form, and pleasantly surprised that so far my friend Peter is the only one who thinks war is a sensible idea. (Of course, there’s also the parents – but I have long since�given up on trying to persuade them to change their politics). Thanks for speaking for peace on govchat – from previous email conversations I’ve participated in, I can imagine that your voice was well-needed!

Mourning and Organisation

Before being shot by a Utah firing squad in 1915 for a crime he did not commit, the legendary Swedish-American trade unionist and songwriter Joe Hill sent his famous last words off in a telegram to a friend, often remembered (with slight but not misleading inaccuacy) as “Don’t mourn, organise”. When five thousand people have been killed so suddenly, and in such a violent, criminal and spectacular fashion, many millions will mourn, both in America and around the world, and they are absolutely right to do so. But that doesn’t mean that “Mourn. Don’t organise” is the right imperative to adopt, as some people seem to think.

Those of us who think that W. is a dangerous idiot, who hate the Anglophone media’s relentless drumbeat of war, and who sympathise with Matthew Parris’s remark in yesterday’s Times that “Playing the world’s policeman is not the answer to that catastrophe in New York, playing the world’s policeman is what led to it” must not be seduced (or straightforwardly bullied) into thinking that they shouldn’t educate, agitate and organise against what they fear is about to happen. If the “war” we are being promised by the media and the politicians is anything like as ghastly as those who are baying for it want it to be, a peace movement will have to constitute itself very quickly indeed. The right-wing politicians in the Executive Branch are doing much to exploit these civilian deaths for their own political ends; for their critics to imagine that it is somehow “inappropriate” or “unpatriotic” at the moment to criticise the government, or to counter-mobilise for peace, or to continue to oppose the stupidities of National Missile Defense, or to ask the hard questions about why what happened happened, is the height of folly.