The Places in Between

I first posted the article below in 2011 and am reposting it now in light of fresh attacks in the country and the impending transition of national security back into the hands of Afghans.

The conflict in these places – Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Africa – is similar to what Philippines is experiencing in the sense that the layers to it are familiar: government vs. rebel forces (that are also divided into factions that oppose each other); rebel forces vs. the collective enemy which is supposedly the West led by the US; opportunists; and, borrowing Stewart’s term, in “the places in between” are the people who care nothing for war and just want to live life in peace and eventual prosperity.  It is the masses of people who bear the social, political, and psychological costs of internal strife.

The democratic ideal extols that power resides in the people but as it is the people are crippled with doubt as to the truth in that. Public money is prioritized for counter-insurgency, also necessary, but leaves huge gaps in the development of communities.  A truce must be declared if only for these people.

In this, there emerges the pivotal role of civil society to introduce change as it’s not expected, within the short to midterm at least, that governments and the rebel forces would suddenly lay down their weapons and differences in perspectives and hug each other.  But then even civil society, particularly the international community of aid and development organizations with their vast resources and capacity to move these about around the globe relatively quickly are also conflicted among themselves as to how to facilitate peace and development together (and that despite the enormity of aid poured in, development has been insignificant on the whole).  The military’s expertise is primarily not geared to that kind of service provision.  And to be fair, many in the governments in conflict areas are trying to contain the devil in their midst that seems to be transforming everyday if not by the minute.  Who then?  It is civil society.  But first it also needs to establish harmony of purpose and resources among it’s members.


The book is an autobiography of the author’s, Rory Stewart‘s, four-month journey made on foot through the central mountains of Afghanistan, specifically the route from Herat to Kabul.

The walk through Afghanistan was made at the start of 2002, immediately after the fall of the Taliban.  The new government had been in place only two weeks.  The US and British operations were still widely active.

Sixteen months before, Stewart had made a similar crossing in Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal.  In Afghanistan, he  intended to retrace the footsteps of Babur who after conquering Kabul traversed the same route at the start of 1500 around the same month that he did in order to conquer Delhi where he found the Mughal Dynasty.

I was particularly awed by the author’s account of the wilderness landscape of that route which according to him is rarely traversed.  It was where Genghis Khan and afterward Alexander the Great had entered to make their conquests.  It is where the Silk and Spices Roads meet.

The names of the towns and villages – Ghor, Khandahar, Yakawlang, Sang-i-zard – sounded old and mysterious, like those places in Lord of the Rings. The author’s description conjured up the grandeur of the country’s empires that are now only obscurely remembered by monuments that have withstood nature, such as the Minaret of Jam which directs visitors toward the lost City of Turquoise Mountain underneath it.  To add to the mystery, blood of the citizens of Ghazni, the City’s arch-enemy, were purportedly mixed in with the bricks that made up the Minaret’s column.

But also in this historical and diverse region, the author had observed “differences between groups” that are “deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome” which he doubts policy makers, that is, those in the embassies, think tanks, and international development agencies including the UN, understood.

But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi’s wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? Or Dr. Habibullah the vet who carried an automatic weapon in the way they (policy makers) carried briefcases? The villagers I had met were mostly illiterate, lived far from electricity or television, and knew very little about the outside world. Versions of Islam; views of ethnicity, government, politics, and the proper methods of dispute resolution (including armed conflict); and the experience of twenty-five years of war differed from region to region… Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts in some areas…

Policy makers did not have the time, structures, or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory.

In a seminar in Kabul, I heard Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, say, “Afghans have been fighting for their human rights for twenty-five years. We don’t need to tell them what their rights are.” Then the head of a major food agency added privately, “Villagers are not interested in human rights. They are like poor people all over the world. All they think about is where their next meal is coming from.” To which the head of an Afghan NGO providing counseling responded, “The only thing to know about these people is that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The differences between the policy makers and a Hazara such as Ali went much deeper than his lack of food. Ali rarely worried about his next meal. He was a peasant farmer and had a better idea than most about where his next meal was coming from. If he defined himself it was chiefly as a Muslim and a Hazara, not as a hungry Afghan. Without the time, imagination, and persistence needed to understand Afghans’ diverse experiences, policy makers would find it impossible to change Afghan society in the way they wished to change it.

Post-conflict experts’…implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility… neocolonialists have no…performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment, they…are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation and oppression. Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.

I think I understand what the author implies. One summer long ago a friend and I decided to explore what the so-called life of the common tao (the masses) was.  We were two years out of college and such things we didn’t quite have a full picture of yet.  We got on the back door route, beginning in Manila onward to Bicol and from there to the CARAGA Region.  In the areas, I discovered from among my fellow Filipinos what Stewart had observed of Afghans in his route: “differences between groups” that are “deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome.  I understood then the difficulty in the challenge placed on my country’s leaders, which is to unify Filipinos and still leave space for the celebration of diversity.

In the end, for Stewart, the experience is one of personal transformation and was grateful that

never in my twenty-one months of travel did they attempt to kidnap or kill me. I was alone and a stranger, walking in very remote areas; I represented a culture that many of them hated… In more than five hundred village houses, I was indulged, fed, nursed, and protected by people poorer, hungrier, sicker, and more vulnerable than me. Almost every group I met – Sunni Kurds, Shia Hazara, Punjabi Christians, Sikhs, Brahmins of Kedarnath, Garhwal Dalits, and Newari Buddhists – gave me hospitality without any thought of reward.


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