I remember once sitting in a cafe in a Sarajevo suburb (of sorts), chatting with a British Army officer about a brilliant piece of travel writing by a lunatic young Scotsman who’d got it into his head to walk across Afghanistan. Actually, he’d walked from Istanbul to Nepal, but what he wrote about and published in a wonderfully clear and austere narrative called The Places in Between, was the Afghanistan portion of the jaunt.
The really interesting fact about that was that he did it in the first half of 2002, when US and Allied forces were relatively new on the ground and still piledriving Al Qa’ida into near oblivion. My British Army colleague had served in Afghanistan around then, and had actually run into Stewart during his walk. There he was, he commented, "and he had this mangy old dog with him." Stewart had few accoutrements – a walking staff that could double as a latter-day mace, should the need arise for self-defence, and a tired and sorely abused fighting dog, Babur, that he picked up along the way.
For anyone interested in exploring the subtler nuances of refuge, The Places in Between is simply essential. Stewart’s books, too, represent something more substantial than first-hand accounts fit for war junkies and foolhardy romantics. After Afghanistan, Stewart has variously held an academic post at Harvard, served in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and established the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul. For all these accomplishments, it’s his writing that’s especially striking – offering frequently cynical insights into the local dynamics of foreign intervention and the value of cultural knowledge. I suppose the argument should be that it’s his experiences that elevate the writing, but I know the writing, so that’s what hooks my attention.
In this week’s issue of Time, Stewart takes a sensible poke at How to Save Afghanistan. It’s sure to draw fire. Perhaps this is his entree into the world of US public intellectual life, since the bio sketch appended to the article indicates that "He was recently appointed the Ryan Professor and the director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University." Nothing yet posted at the Carr Centre website about this, but if it’s true, then it’s a big deal. The Carr Centre is home to a certain impassioned, redheaded, Irish-American Pulitzer-winning writer, among other luminaries. It was also where David Petraeus took his incubating counterinsurgency doctrine for human rights vetting before officially releasing it in 2006.