11 February 2008

Rory Stewart - Occupational Hazards

Rory Stewart's cv reads like the ultimate establishment man - Eton and Oxford, British Army and Foreign Office, a route that has supplied for centuries the administrators of the British representation overseas. But Stewart is more in the line of his compatriot Fitzroy Maclean, as an explorer and individual rather than a career diplomat. At the turn of the century he spent two years walking across Asia, from Iran to Nepal, learning the local languages and staying in villages.

In mid 2003, when this book opens, he arrived in Baghdad offering his services to the occupying forces. Although he doesn't speak Arabic, he has Persian and experience of living in Muslim countries, and the Coalition is desperate for capable hands. He's appointed provisional deputy governor of the eastern province of Maysan, bordering Iran, at the age of 30.

He enters a dangerous world, where his responsibility, until the (American) provisional governor arrives, and then a local governor is elected, is to oversee reconstruction and regeneration projects, create local political structures, and maintain security and order alongside the military forces, which are British in Maysan. There is, at least initially, plenty of funding - in fact more than they can spend, which fosters corruption.

Stewart has an awkward role in Maysan, being supposedly in authority, but not in a position to control the forces, who he nominally outranks, and undermined by his status as provisional, and merely British. When his successor arrives, the fact of her nationality as an American gives her borrowed authority. But Stewart's awareness of the limits of his influence is his strength. Most of his job is politics - negotiating power structures with the various leaders, which include the 'Prince of the Marshes' (the original title of the book), a regional tribal leader with a daunting record of resistance to Saddam, Islamists who'd spent decades in Iran, and Sadrists, the most threatening oppositional group across Iraq.

Stewart's assets are his knowledge of Islamic culture, down to how offence might be given or avoided when offering coffee at a meeting, his flexibility under pressure, and his ability to improvise solutions. He also shows acute judgement of character, and a boldness to assert his limited authority and establish the share of responsibility for the problems of the region.

He's also a very good writer. His previous book, on his travels across Asia, was very well received, as has this been, deservedly. He opens each chapter with an apt quote from Machiavelli, and you feel that Stewart is exploring the nature of leadership as he attempts to exercise it. He's well aware of the historical context - at one point, when trying to arrange for guards to protect the archaeological sites in his region, he notes that a 4,000 year old tablet recently discovered records a leader having similar problems to those he's facing. all the clich├ęs about learning from history apply.

When Stewart is transferred to the neighbouring province of Nasiriyah, he finds conditions there very different. Few political contacts have been established, and he has to start from scratch what he'd already set up in Maysan. The military presence is provided by the Italians, who rarely leave their base and have a timidity encouraged by their Prime Minister, Berlusconi, wary of how casualties might be received in Italy. This leads to a crisis when the Coalition administration compound is besieged by Sadrists for several days, and the Italian 'Quick Reaction Force' is neither quick nor forceful. Stewart's military experience is critical - he's able to coordinate with the ex-soldier bodyguards who are the only force in the compound, and keep a clear head under mortar fire. This section is genuinely thrilling, as Stewart relates the adventure with wit and energy.

Stewart expresses no opinions on the morality of the war or occupation. This may be due to his respect and responsibilities to his erstwhile and possibly future employers, but his narrative is about the problems of being a foreign administrator in a chaotic environment, and his few complaints are aimed at the confused political messages from the Coalition.

There's a danger that a memoir, especially of recent high-profile activities, can be self-justifying, but this one appears to be honest. Stewart is candid about the mistakes he made - he recognises that his out of character brusqueness to one of many petitioners may have led to the riot that saw the governor's office ransacked, and defends the soldiers' unwillingness to intervene in this incident - should they risk their lives, or threaten those of the rioters, to protect an empty office building? But this incident led to a loss of respect for the Coalition, and increased boldness by the insurgents.

Stewart is currently working for a foundation in Kabul that is trying to restore the old commercial centre of the Afghan capital. He's plainly an administrator of uncommon ability, a good writer, and a man of independent mind, who wants to put his talents to the best humanitarian use. He'll have an interesting life, which no doubt we'll hear about.

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