Purchased a FORA.tv video on another website? Login here with the temporary account credentials included in your receipt.
Sign up today to receive our weekly newsletter and special announcements.
From 1997 to 2002, Sarah Chayes served as an overseas correspondent for National Public Radio, reporting primarily from Paris and the Balkins as well as covering conflicts in Algeria. Her work as a correspondent for NPR, during the Kosovo Crisis, earned her, together with members of her reporting NPR team, the 1999 Foreign Press Club and Sigma Delta Chai awards. When war broke out in Afghanistan in 2001, NPR sent Ms. Chayes to report, first from Pakistan, and then as the Taliban fell, from inside Afghanistan itself, where she was based in the southern city of Kandahar. In 2002, Ms. Chayes left NPR to direct a non-governmental aid organization called Afghans for Civil Society, which was founded by Qayum Karzai, who is actually an older brother of the current President of Afghanistan. In an effort to stimulate the emergent entrepreneurship, in Kandahar province, Ms. Chayes has since launched her own artisinal agri-business called "Arghand". In her new book, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban, Sarah Chayes provides an eyewitness account of the return of violence, corruption, and war-lord-ism to Afghanistan in the five years since the Taliban fell. So please join me in warmly welcoming this distinguished guest, Ms. Sarah Chayes. Thank you very much and thank you all for coming. It is a sign to me that the United States is not yet all the way down the tubes that so many of you are willing to come out on a, what is it, a Wednesday evening, when you doubtless have better things to do, and listen to somebody talk, and so it is very moving to me, and I really appreciate it. So indeed, I was a journalist, and I decided to stay behind, that was not just because I loved Afghanistan, although that's true, with all the complexity that love implies, and it's not just that I wanted to shut up already and do something, although that was also true, even if I do enjoy not shutting-up, like tonight, but here was what really was going through my mind at the time, which was, this was pretty shortly after 9/11, and that, I still believe, was our century's answer to the assassination of the Archduke, the event that launched the First World War, and in my view, the 20th Century. To me, 9/11 will still be looked back upon as the event that defined this century. It was as though the plate-tectonics of history were shifting, that's what it felt like. And I think they're still shifting, and I'm not sure we see yet what the landscape afterwards is really going to look like. A crossroads was before us as a nation, and since we're, I guess, the last Superpower kicking around, that meant that it was really a crossroads for the rest of the world. And it felt to me at that time as I'm sure it did to many of you that there were really distinctly different possibilities in terms of the course that this country could take, and unfortunately, one of them could be summed up by the words that we all heard at at that time, "With Us or Against Us." And I believe that it's natural we were attacked! - our brothers and sisters were killed, their friends and families, who were our friends and families, were suffering. But "with us or against us," in my view, is not a very sophisticated reaction. It's not a very civilized reaction. We were being told also about a clash of civilizations, and we are still being told that some people are against our civilization, and "with us or against us," I don't think is a particularly civilized way to respond to an event like that, and I don't actually believe in clash of civilizations, myself. In some epic fight to the death, between, you know, the West and Islam, I don't even, I'm not entirely convinced that those two entities exist as monolithic entities. I myself saw and still see the fight a little bit differently, which is kind of like, on one team, there are the people who no matter what their religion or nation of origin who believe in clash of civilizations, that's one team. And on the other team are the people who believe that this is a world made up of disparate, complex, rich, flawed and inextricably interconnected civilizations that are going to have to figure out some way to survive together on this globe of ours because they're not going away. None of them are going away. So that fight between those two teams seemed to me to be one that was worth fighting and worth taking risks for, frankly. Again, to use another metaphor from recent history, it felt like our generation's version of the Spanish Civil War. This was worth going someplace o be on the front lines. And that place, for me, was Afghanistan, and in particular, Kandahar, which, symbolically, it was like the Other Ground Zero. This was the place where the 9/11 attacks had been launched from, and it was the antipode in some way, and that seemed to be the place to stay, which I did, and so indeed I was bombarded as the French say, I was bombarded field directory of a non-existent NGO called Afghans for Civil Society, and that happened because one of my great kind of behind-the-scenes sources, when I was reporting on those very chaotic weeks in November of 2001 when Kabul was falling and then fell, and Kandahar didn't fall, and nobody really understood why that was happening. I would go over to a very quiet home of the Karzai family in a leafy neighborhood in Quentar Pakistan, and hang out with the elders, because in a society like that of Afghanistan in that region, elders are deeply respected. They've got a lot of experience and wisdom and they actually also tend to be more outspoken. It's as though they've reached a position that they're not in competition with anyone anymore. So I would sit with Uncle Aziz, who is President Karzai's paternal uncle, and learned a lot about not intelligence, not specifically where was his nephew at this particular moment, but much more about the cultural context in which the events that I was trying to cover were taking place, and that really helped me understand a lot, particularly the Pashton Tradition for Negotiated Settlements, and it's something that's often confusing to us, when we see people who are allegedly switching sides. He really helped put a lot of that into context. And so when I left the region at the end of my rotation I had dinner with Uncle Aziz, and we had a great time, a lovely dinner, he's a very elegant human being, very incisive, and I'm leaving. We discussed all the problems that Afghanistan was going to be facing, in particular, the sort of humanitarian free-for-all that was going to unfurl and how lots of people were going to be trying to pocket lots of pieces of that pie. But I put my coat on and I'm at the door, and this turns out to be a Karzai family device, which is, you are at the door and they drop the serious question: Wouldn't you come back and help us. Yes. I said yes before I even registered the formula. So that, I bring you through this whole story because it had two very ignificant impacts on the kind of work I ended up doing in Afghanistan. One is that I don't come from an international, humanitarian, or reconstruction background, and that is an industry now, and it has all of the rigidities that, for example, the Academy, or other well-established industries have. You're not supposed to for example, do shelter and also do education. You either do shelter or you do education. Well we were not only mixing and matching those things, we set up a radio station, and we rebuilt a village, and we launched a Women's Income Generation program and we did policy studies. This was where we really broke all the rules, which was to do concrete action on the ground, but then also speak out about it in a pretty vocal way. And that is very taboo in this business, and I have to say that I actually think it makes some sense because for example, we're rebuilding this village which had been destroyed in the American bombing. And we've surveyed the village, we've decided on the floor plan of the houses these are mud brick adobe houses, basically and then we start buying stones. Some of you may have seen, there was a documentary about this, so forgive me if I'm...But we, we're buying stone for the foundations of the houses and suddenly our tractor is held up at gunpoint by the governor's militia men. And I have to say hat I can speak a lot more cogently about war-lord-ism, now that it was my tractor held up at gunpoint, than I could if I were studying about it in a think-tank type situation. So that was one thing we did. And the other aspect of this is, here I am working for the big brother of the President of the country, and what that meant is that I had this preposterous degree of access to decision-makers, both in the Afghan government and the American officials who were coming through. Now this access was a little bit ad-hoc, but I was in a situation where I could call up the interior minister of the country and say, "Mr Gellali, I have to come and talk to you." And he would say, "Come at 4:30." And so that meant also that I was...let's say I had a different experience than most straight humanitarian workers would have had, and that is what's described in this book, whose title is a little bit of a downer, but I guarantee you and parts of the book are downers, but I guarantee you that it's a good read. I mean, I haven't written this as a policy walk type of book, it's a story. What I started seeing straightaway, I've kind of described some of it, with this interaction with the governor, is that good governance was taking a second-place to the so-called "war on terror." And that happened in a lot of ways and it happened very persistently and consistently throughout the five years that I've been there. The first problem, and this has become a clichÃƒÆ’Ã†â€™Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â© because of Iraq, but the first problem was, there was no plan, right? It was as though, we're going to topple the government of a profoundly traumatized country it's not just traumatized because of the Taliban government, which arguably did provide a degree of structure and predictability, even if it was extremely draconian but traumatized by a decade of war and half a decade of civil war. To some degree I think that the operating principle of our government, if we credit them with good faith, was one that I don't disagree with, which is that Afghans really wanted democracy, and I still believe that, and I'll get into that a little bit later. But it's not so easy I mean when you take somebody like this governor guy, who I just mentioned, we are the ones who installed him in his position as provincial governor or Kandahar, and we installed him with Special Forces soldiers on either side of him, and airplanes flying around over his head as he goes into Kandahar to take it by force not from the Taliban, who were already gone but from President Karzai, who we were also supporting. I mean, that was the first total paradox that I encountered. And you get this guy in there, with that kind of support, we gave his soldiers our togs, our camouflage, and that meant that whatever they were doing in the countryside, the Afghans thought that this was U.S. Policy, because they're wearing U.S. Army Army Combat fatigues. And we gave him a whole lot of money with no strings attached. So it's a little bit difficult to then expect Democracy to spring up in to expect a population that has been as traumatized as this one has and is confronted by a person who is imposed on them with those sorts of trappings of power, it's a little but much to expect the population to be able to handle it. And the problem was, there was no notion of a sequential process that would get us from a country without a government to a country with functioning democratic institutions, and there was no notion of the kind of really down-in-the-nitty-gritty kind of supervision that would be needed to help those institutions to develop on a local as well as a national level. So that was one thing. The other thing, as I've just explained, is lacking such a plan that's developed with a civilian period and civilian structures in mind, by default, we got the people that we signed up as military proxies ended up being the people who got power after the war was over. By default, because there was no, we didn't have any civilian presence on the ground, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul for the critical first six months of this process was like a revolving door. There was no ambassador, the average or typical duty rotation was two weeks, because it was considered to be a hardship rotation because people had to share bathrooms, and it wasn't considered proper to, you know. I mean, I don't want to come off as too cynical because that's not good for any of us but here was a gentleman who spoke Darie, which he had learned in the Peace Corps, which he had joined before he ever was part of the foreign service, was called up out of retirement to go to the Embassy on a six-month sorry, six-week... that was the longest rotation I ever saw, was a six-week rotation. So that meant there was nobody there except the soldiers. And so what are they supposed to do, they've hooked up with these guys for military reasons and sort of by default they usher them into positions of political power. I had a really interesting interaction with another one of my sources who was one of these militia thugs and he's in this book and he's a great guy and I really love him even though he lied to me absolutely shamelessly throughout the period that I was reporting, but in the summer of 2002 I go to see him. He becomes like a precinct captain in the Kandahar police, and he was a good buddy, and I would check in on him pretty much once a week to see what was happening and one day he says, "What are we war lords doing in power?" And I said, "Could you please repeat that?" And he said, "The Americans told us that anyone who took part in this invasion phase wasn't going to get to be in the government after the Loya Gerga, which was this first tribal council that instated President Karzai as transitional president, and he said you know, "I made an oath when I took part in this thing, I took an oath to turn the government over to competent and educated people. And that's not what's happened." And the guy left. He said, "This wasn't what I signed up to do, and I shouldn't be in this position," and now granted, there was also tension between him and the governor and things like that, so there might have been other reasons, but I found that to be a really outstanding thing for somebody to say and do. The guys that did end up being by default in positions of power preyed upon their countrymen. And the story of the stone is the classic. The one thing there's a lot of in Kandahar is rocks and sunshine. So you can't pillage the sunshine, you pillage the rocks. These were public property. And what the governor was doing was, his brother has a little gravel factory, and was breaking up-- I mean it's the same as corruption here, right, it's sewage, and I'm seeing you laughing, that's what you're thinking right, I know I'm from the East Coast and I know it's streets, is where the corruption is, it's in streets, and he was going to corner the market on providing gravel to the U.S. Base and to the road project, because they were going to build a road from Kandahar to Kabul, which is about 400 miles. So I also found out that he was selling this gravel to the U.S. Base for about a hundred dollars a tractor load when on the market, it's worth $8 a tractor load. So that was one way that they prey on their countrymen, but pretty much every other way that you could think of, they were doing it. It was, I mean I would have a kid tell me, "Oh my brother got shot in the leg because one of these soldiers wanted his bicycle," and I was trying very hard not to be partisan, so I wouldn't say "whose man was it," which is one way that you identify people, but I actually said, "What color uniform was he wearing?" U.S. Army fatigues. So that was the governor's guys. And this was happening all over town. And so it got to the point where, in 2002 and 2003, when you would talk to Afghans about security, and it was their #1 concern, and you almost couldn't talk about anything else, but the people who were causing insecurity were not Taliban insurgents or anything like that, it was their own government. Their own government was the cause of insecurity to them. So I got upset about this and in my role this policy role that we mandated ourselves to have at Afghans for Civil Society, I talked to just about everybody I could about it. People, military officers on the base in Kandahar, embassy officials, I got into this very wild relationship with President Karzai which was an epistolary relationship. The family was incredibly generous to me and invited me in really sight unseen to become a member of their family, and we would be talking about some of these issues, and members of the family were not happy with President Karzai's leniency with a lot of these war lord governors, and I would make some comment and one of the brothers would say, "I was just fighting with him about that yesterday, but he won't listen to me because I'm his little brother, would you write this up and I will deliver your letter?" So I would do that about once every six months, etc etc. And what I was often told by U.S. Officials in particular, was "Well we'll do governance later. We have to focus on security, and these guys are helping us in the war on terror." Well, as I just pointed out, I actually think that they were not helping. I mean they were clearly not helping in overall security as far as Afghans were concerned. I also discovered that they weren't helping in the war on terror because the war on terror was their reason for existing and is what gave them this incredibly lucrative and powerful relationship with the American military. And so you would have them kind of opening the door to insurgents on one hand, and then going off to fight them...I mean, I saw examples. There was a gruesome murder of an engineer who worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was the first really terrifying ambush-style, drag the guy out of the car, set him up against the car and shoot him, and the governor it took him, I think 24 hours to get I know that he knew that there had been an infiltration because I knew about it several days before, and I knew that that information had been communicated to him and that he said, "We'll worry about that next week." Well next week, this murder had taken place and then it took him close to 24 hours to get a force into the area where the ambush was, which was an hour and a half outside of Kandahar, which in local...Afghans read body language more than they read what people say, and so the body language there said, "You guys can skedaddle and we'll be there later" whereas he was fulminating on the radio and stuff like that and I was watching U.S. Officials kind of parse his sentences. And say "Oh wow, he's really making great statements," and stuff like that, and I'm saying, wait a second, look at what he did. So in fact, ignoring governance actually meant that we were supporting people who were playing two ends against the middle and finally the problem with ignoring governance is that after awhile people get really sick of being preyed upon by their government. And they lose their enthusiasm for it, they lose their sense of adherence to it, and that's really where we are now. Now is later. And here's the kind of things that I see in Kandahar. The Afghan National Army, which we've heard is such a wonderful institution that's supposed to drive out the terrorists and stuff like that, and is supposed to bring national unity and things like that...First of all, most of them who are posted in Kandahar don't speak the local language, which is Pashto. Most of them are from the north, and they speak Persian. And I have to say, that which is fine, but and I love Persian, and I love the idea that a nation can be a bilingual nation however, if they are posted in Kandahar, they ought to know the local language. And I even get irritated when I'm stopped at a checkpoint and asked where am I going in a language that I don't speak and I answer in the language of the region, nd I'm treated gruffly because I can't express myself in Persian. But worse than that, what they do is shake people down. Systematically. So in Pnjuiayee, which some of you may have been reading about, it's a district immediately west of Kandahar city immediately, we're talking five minutes outside of town which has been a battle zone, a war zone, since April. And there's been very heavy fighting there within the last two weeks and in some of the lulls in fighting, ANA (Afghan National Army) soldiers are deployed on the roads and they're supposed to stop people who are passing by and search their vehicles, and things like that. Well they systematically relieve those people that they are checking of their valuables. There's the bribery issue, and we are a cooperative, we wanted to register ourselves as a cooperative, and that meant that we had to deposit some money in the national bank. So, first of all, it took seven months to get ourselves registered as a cooperative. When people think back to the Taliban regime they do remember the draconian and very unpleasant social control that was exercised by the Taliban. On the other hand they remember that the Taliban didn't take bribes, at least not on a local level. They did sometimes, like the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or something like that, would take bribes, usually in capitol cases. But the everyday, meaning, if somebody was going to be executed, you might be able to buy your way out of that. But the every day, the place where ordinary people interface with their government was they weren't having to cough up money all the time, and stuff happened. When you wanted a license plate for your car there was a regular procedure which took place and then you got the license plate two or three days later. So we spent seven months trying to get registered as a cooperative. We would drive out, it's about two miles away from where our office is, we would drive out the guy wouldn't be there, or he would be busy, or he didn't have the paperwork, or - and we would do this on a two weekly basis for about seven months until finally I gave up on I was having my Afghan treasurer actually do this because I don't want to be the indispensable person in this process, but it was impossible, so I had to go out and kick and scream and stamp on the floor and stuff like that, and we finally got registered, and then we have to put money in the bank. So the treasurer comes back to me and says, you know, what they want, a bribe. So I said, okay let's go back tomorrow and I'll see if I can settle this. So we go back the next day and they wanted 500 Afghanis, the person who's filling in the forms, wanted 500 Afghanis, which is about $10. And I said, "I'd love to give it to you. I need a receipt because I have a board and I have to be accountable for the money that I spend." Well, he wasn't willing to give me a receipt, so we go to his superior, and I explain, "Here's the 500 Afghanis, anytime you want it, you just need to write me out a little piece of paper that says what I gave it for and then I can file that in our..." So the superior of course said, "She's right. If you can't give her a receipt, then..." So then we go back into the room, he guy is filling out his five pieces of paper that he has to do for five different things, and then he wants 20 Afghanis per piece of paper, so we have the same process. I pull out the hundred Afghani bill, I say "Here it is, just give me a receipt for it." "No, I can't give you a receipt." "Well then I can't give you the hundred Afghanis," he says, "Well I can't give you your paperwork until tomorrow morning." And I don't physically recall how this occurred, but next thing I know, I'm seated cross-legged on the top of his desk, amidst his papers and I said, "Well that's fine, then I'm not leaving here until tomorrow." And as you can imagine, the paperwork is finished immediately, but the point is that this is counter-intuitive, one of the first of many counter-intuitive things I'm going to tell you tonight. I'm actually safer in Kandahar than most Afghans are. I can get away with stuff like this because I'm a foreigner and they assume that I've got a predator flying around over my head and that it would be unhealthy for them to beat me up or put me in jail, but most Afghans cannot dare to be that obstreperous, and the other thing that's a little counter-intuitive is that Afghans are terrified. We are familiar with the image of Afghans as being these bloodthirsty and very hardy people, which they are not bloodthirsty but are very hardy, but they are also traumatized. We're looking at a country that's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that has a lot of ramifications, and so if turns out that it's not very hard to intimidate Afghans. The cinema of courage remains, but it's really cinema, and people can't take on this...and that's why I believe that although the level of violence is objectively less high than it is in Iraq at the moment, the impact on the population is just as bad. Let's see, one last example: the election. I wasn't there for the presidential election, but the parliamentary elections last Fall, I think September, just about a year ago now, were a free-for-all. It made Florida in 200 look like a model of, what is it, free and fair? And there's the dissent of the journalists. No one had been in Kandahar for the last two years and then suddenly everyone shows up for the election. I assume, hoping that there would be some kind of fireworks. And they come and do their setup pieces and then they cover the vote and then they go home. Now I can forgive the Europeans, but surely American journalists remember that the important period during an election is not the day the people cast the vote, but the day the votes are counted. But they didn't stay around to watch the count, which was a circus. I mean, you had ballot boxes coming in with all of the ballots had the same color ink and the same name written in the same...You had zeros that were for sale, because it's not only the question of what's in the ballot box, but then you actually have to transfer that number onto a piece of paper with a candidate's name and a number. Well, you could actually buy some extra zeros for your candidate, if you were a campaign worker. You had ballot boxes that went home to people's houses because, God forbid they send their women out to the polling place to vote, so this was the excuse: "Oh, I want my women to vote, and they have to do that at home." And you could imagine what happens to the ballot box when that's going on. So I'm asked often, is it right to impose democracy on people who may not want it, or they may not be ready for it, or something like that. And again, at the risk of being painfully and bitterly cynical, what I would submit to you this afternoon is, this may be American democracy as we are currently experiencing it...but I think that we have something more to offer. And so it's very difficult for me at this point. I have a lot of people saying, "Oh, this is hat you guys mean by democracy? We're not interested." And this is the context in which I would ask you to begin to think about what is being described as a Taliban resurgence, in Southern Afghanistan in particular. And what I find is that this is not a home-grown insurrection like Iraq. This is not - it is Afghans, but they are being basically ginned-up, and this is another radical thing I'm going to say that I'm sure we're going to discuss in the question and answer section, but it's essentially being concocted across the border in Pakistan. The Pakistani and it is the government, it's the military and military-intelligence establishment, of which the President is a product, is organizing this thing, and I know about camps, I know about military intelligence license plate numbers that have