Iraq: The Question

Rory Stewart is chief executive of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a non-profit organization in Kabul devoted to social and urban redevelopment in Afghanistan. A former member of the British Foreign Office, he served, from 2003 to 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq as Deputy Governor of the southern provinces of Maysan and Dhi Qar, an experience he described in the book The Prince of the Marshes.* The following text is based on Stewart’s dialogue about Iraq with audience members, after his discussion with broadcast journalist Dan Harris, at the Asia Society in New York on April 20, 2007.

Woman in audience: I wanted to know since you were in Afghanistan in 2002, and then had left and gone to Iraq in 2003–2004, what made you want to go back and live there?

Rory Stewart: The experience that I had in Iraq was a disillusioning one. Originally I supported the invasion because I had served in Indonesia, the Balkans, and Afghanistan and I thought Iraq could be more stable and humane than it had been under Saddam. I realized in Iraq that I had been wrong. I was working for the British government as coalition deputy governor of the southern provinces of Maysan and Dhi Qar and I had by April 2004 $10 million a month delivered to me in vacuum-sealed packets which we were supposed to be dispensing in order to get programs going. And almost none of the programs caught the imagination of the local population; and then I was facing hundreds of people demonstrating outside my office day after day, saying, “What has the coalition ever done for us?” And we restored 240 out of 400 schools; we restored all the clinics and hospitals; but nobody seemed interested or remotely engaged with the process.

There were only two projects we did that I thought had some kind of impact: one of them was the restoration of the bazaar in al-Amara, the capital of Maysan province, and the other was the creation of a carpentry school for street children in Nasiriyah. The carpentry school took two hundred children and had them go through a pretty good training course in carpentry and then found them jobs. It was the one project where suddenly we had the Iraqi police chief and the Iraqi mayor of Nasiriyah visiting it, and Iraqi television stations and al-Jazeera covering it, and people seemed gripped by it.

So coming to Afghanistan again in 2005, I saw that a quarter of the historic city of Kabul was due to be demolished again. They had resurrected the 1976 East German master plan under which it was to be flattened and replaced with East German–style concrete blocks. And I discovered that people like Ustad Abdul Hadi, who had been among the most famous craftsmen in the country, were selling fruit in the marketplace, the historic buildings were collapsing, and the garbage was seven feet deep in the street. Afghans wanted jobs, incomes, and a renewed sense of national…

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