President David Mulroney at Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Excavation and Recovery

I recently revisited the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., which holds part of the Smithsonian’s remarkable collection of Asian Art. I had come to see a special exhibit celebrating the graceful transformation and rebirth of the Murad Khani quarter of the old city of Kabul.

I have a connection to the place and to the restoration project from my time working on Canada’s contribution to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Back in 2007 I was eagerly seeking out experts, Afghan and international, who could offer advice on options for a meaningful Canadian contribution to rebuilding the country. My investigations led me to Rory Stewart, the person at the heart of efforts to restore Murad Khani, a Kabul neighborhood once famous for its magnificent wooden buildings. The quarter, whose comfortable courtyard homes were renowned for their finely carved wood fronts, had suffered through the long years of violence and chaos that had so devastated Afghanistan. In time the district had become something of a modern Pompeii, covered, not by lava, but by a horrible accretion of mud and garbage.

Rory is a figure who seems to have stepped straight out of the 19th century. A former soldier and diplomat, his professional dossier includes service as the civilian administrator of a province of wartime Iraq (which he wrote about in his book The Prince of the Marshes). I had come to know him through The Places in Between, his wonderful account of walking across an only-partially pacified Afghanistan.

In 2007, Canada’s aid and development work was scattered across 100 or more projects, many of them administered by multilateral agencies. No doubt worthy in themselves, their very breadth and diversity and the arms-length nature of their delivery made it impossible to communicate to Afghans, to Canadians, and even to those of us in government, a compelling narrative of just what we were doing and why.

I got to know Rory and visited him at Murad Khani on several of my regular trips to Afghanistan. I was deeply impressed by what he had to say about western objectives and capabilities. Far from attempting to create what was often referred to as “Switzerland in the Hindu Kush,” a westernised, modernised and thoroughly unrealistic post-conflict Afghanistan, Rory argued for a much more modest definition of success. He thought that the very best we could hope for was to enable Afghans to restore basic order in their country, and to help them launch projects that they could themselves complete without long-term western assistance. He used the Kantian line that “ought implies can,” by which he meant that a morally correct engagement is one in which objectives are in line with capabilities.

It is one of the tragedies of the Afghanistan mission that the gap between objectives and capabilities, between Switzerland in the Hindu Kush and the modest actual impact of a time-limited western engagement, was never adequately addressed by NATO, by the UN or by any of the major western players engaged in that difficult theatre of operations.

Murad Khani was a perfect example of the Stewart doctrine in action. The effort was focused entirely on building Afghan capacity, not on replacing it with complicated and expensive western “expertise”. Afghan artists were quickly and carefully retrained in lost arts, and set to work restoring the old quarter.

But there was more to Rory’s thinking than this. The actual outcome was as important as the training process that made it possible. He argued that Afghans would never believe in a better future if the very heart of their capital was a garbage dump. Murad Khani showed Afghans something they could take pride in, a future that they could shape, quite literally, with their own hands.

I pitched Canada’s aid agency, CIDA, on the idea of providing a Canadian contribution to Turquoise Mountain, the NGO that Rory had set up to restore Murad Khani. But the agency, long used to deflecting ideas from well-intentioned but, in their eyes, amateurish Foreign Service Officers, turned me down. This lengthened my dismal record of success with CIDA to something like 0-37.

Afghan Pots displayed at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Undaunted, I arranged for Kevin Lynch, then Canada’s top public servant, to visit the project. He saw its potential immediately, enabling me to get CIDA to come on board when I got back to Ottawa. In addition to providing funds, the Canadian contribution included some brief but highly effective hands-on mentoring. I was pleased to see glaziers from Nova Scotia contributing to a renaissance among Murad Khani’s aspiring potters.

As I toured the exhibit in Washington, I must admit to feeling just slightly at sea. It was strange to see something that had been so real and urgent to me in my recent past now transformed into a museum exhibit.

But it occurred to me that Murad Khani offers larger lessons. Places and institutions can lose their outlines over time. The things that make them special and vital, that constitute their very essence and mission can become blurred and indistinct. Salt can lose its saltiness.

Correcting this is a recurring challenge in life, something that calls for constant vigilance,  for passion, and for dedication. It certainly calls for pragmatism. Ought does imply can–at least it does for those of us who aren’t saints. But this shouldn’t be an excuse for passivity. The strict equivalency between obligation and outcome calls us to be realistic, but it should also inspire us to be energetic and ambitious.

Excavation and recovery can take many forms.