He was certainly brave, but was he crazy? That's what I wondered when I picked up Rory Stewart's "The Places in Between," an account of the Scotsman's 2002 solo walk across Afghanistan. That's right, he walked. Many Afghans doubted he would survive the journey. Just weeks after the fall of the Taliban, in the dead of winter, in some of the most remote and difficult terrain in the inhabited world, he went from village to village on foot. Relying on the tradition of hospitality, Stewart found welcome, sustenance, and shelter (mostly, but not always) graciously offered by people who had very little to share.
Stewart, a British Foreign Service officer, (he served in southern Iraq after the Iraq War -- the subject of another good book, "The Prince of the Marshes") and a Harvard professor, relied upon his knowledge of Farsi and Urdu, his understanding of Afghan history and culture, and his own hardy constitution to get him through. The portrayal of Afghanistan that resulted was illuminating and honest. He was unsparing about the deception and cruelty he witnessed, as well as the warmth and fellowship. I recall in particular the vignette about local children throwing stones at a dog for fun. For several years, Stewart lived in Kabul, where he established a charitable foundation seeking to promote local crafts.
So when Stewart raises a yellow flag about our escalating commitment to Afghanistan, we should take notice.
The rationale that President Obama has offered for our ramped-up engagement in Afghanistan, Stewart argues in a piece for the London Review of Books, runs as follows: We cannot permit the Taliban to return to power or they will revive the alliance with al-Qaida and will plot more catastrophic attacks on the United States. In order to defeat the Taliban, we must create a functioning state in the country, and in order to create a functioning state, we must defeat the Taliban. Obama seems keen to increase our role in Afghanistan to highlight the contrast with his predecessor. Bush, Obama ceaselessly repeats, fought "a war of choice" whereas Obama will fight only "a war of necessity."