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The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Talibanby Sarah Chayes
Synopses & Reviews
A National Public Radio reporter covering the last stand of the Taliban in their home base of Kandahar in Afghanistan's southern borderland, Sarah Chayes became deeply immersed in the unfolding drama of the attempt to rebuild a broken nation at the crossroads of the world's destiny. Her NPR tour up in early 2002, she left reporting to help turn the country's fortunes, accepting a job running a nonprofit founded by President Hamid Karzai's brother. With remarkable access to leading players in the postwar government, Chayes witnessed a tragic story unfold-the perverse turn of events whereby the U.S. government and armed forces allowed and abetted the return to power of corrupt militia commanders to the country, as well as the reinfiltration of bands of Taliban forces supported by U.S. ally Pakistan. In this gripping and dramatic account of her four years on the ground, working with Afghanis in the battle to restore their country to order and establish democracy, Chayes opens Americans' eyes to the sobering realities of this vital front in the war on terror.
She forged unparalleled relationships with the Karzai family, tribal leaders, U.S. military and diplomatic brass, and such leading figures in the Kandahar government as the imposing and highly effective chief of police-an incorruptible supporter of the Karzai regime whose brutal assassination in June 2005 serves as the opening of the book. Chayes lived in an Afghan home, gaining rich insights into the country's culture and politics and researching the history of Afghanistan's legendary resistance to foreign interference. She takes us into meetings with Hamid Karzai and the corrupt Kandahar governor, Gul Agha Shirzai, into the homes of tribal elders and onto the U.S. military base. Unveiling the complexities and traumas of Afghanistan's postwar struggles, she reveals how the tribal strongmen who have regained power-after years of being displaced by the Taliban-have visited a renewed plague of corruption and violence on the Afghan people, under the complicit eyes of U.S. forces and officials.
The story Chayes tells is a powerful, disturbing revelation of misguided U.S. policy and of the deeply entrenched traditions of tribal warlordism that have ruled Afghanistan through the centuries.
"Afghanistan only uncovers itself with intimacy, and intimacy takes time,' writes Chayes, a skilled but increasingly frustrated journalist, whose determination 'to grasp the underlying pattern' during and after the toppling of the Taliban in late 2001 chafes against her editors' post-9/11 comfort zone. With keen sympathy for Afghanistan's indomitable people, Chayes eventually swaps NPR and its four-and-a-half-minute slots for an NGO, becoming 'field director' of Afghans for Civil Society, spearheaded by Qayum Karzai, the president's brother. ACS's humanitarian work, which includes rebuilding a bombed-out village, brings Chayes into direct conflict with the warlords with whom U.S. policy remains disastrously entangled. This is the point of her engrossing narrative, which begins in Pakistan, inside the U.S.-backed Afghan resistance pushing northward to Kandahar, and is framed by the 2005 murder of police chief Zabit Akrem, a key ally in the fight against Kandahar's corrupt warlord-governor. Throughout, Chayes relies on exceptional access and a felicitous prose style, though she sacrifices some momentum to cover several centuries of Afghanistan's turbulent past in an account that adds little to those by Ahmed Rashid and others. However, her hands-on experience as a deeply immersed reporter and activist gives her lucid analysis and prescriptions a practical scope and persuasive authority." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The first time I visited Afghanistan, in 2002, I found a country devastated after nearly a quarter-century of war. It lacked all the basics — schools, hospitals, roads and electricity. But by the time I returned for another reporting stint three and a half years later, that period had come to be known among American diplomats as 'the good old days.' Back then, in that first spring after... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the Taliban's fall in December 2001, the country exuded a palpable sense of optimism, even giddiness. By the time the winter of 2005 closed in, frustration had replaced hope. Kabul had Western-style malls and five-star hotels, but the life of the average Afghan seemed to be getting worse as a violent rebellion by the resurgent Taliban mounted and critical reconstruction projects stalled. So what went wrong in between? Some of the answers are supplied by the former National Public Radio reporter Sarah Chayes in her sharply observed, fearlessly told memoir of life in Afghanistan after the Taliban, 'The Punishment of Virtue.' Her instrument of choice in recounting this story is the microscope, not the telescope. This is not a sweeping history. Instead, she sticks to what she sees and hears from her perch living among Afghans in Kandahar, the deeply traditional city and former Taliban stronghold that is at the heart of the country's past, present and future. But what a perch it is. Unlike many Westerners in Afghanistan, Chayes throws herself into the culture, learning Pashto, living with a family of 21 and wearing down the already rutted roads as she drives herself around town. She also confronts mysterious death threats and ends up sleeping with a Kalashnikov rifle propped beside her bed. Chayes first enters Kandahar in the days after the Taliban's fall. She does so as a journalist, having volunteered to leave her cushy job as an NPR correspondent in Paris because the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks inspired her to do more than 'filing a seemingly endless series of food stories.' Though Chayes had covered war before, in the Balkans, she saw her assignment to Afghanistan as something bigger — a chance to do her part in mediating between the West and Islam even as others spoke ominously of an unavoidable clash of civilizations. What she found was a story infinitely more complex than the standard fare of American troops vs. Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists. Early on, she discovers that the United States had handed over control of Kandahar to a local thug named Gul Agha Shirzai. Shirzai had been governor before — during a period so anarchic and bloody that city residents actually welcomed the takeover by the puritanical Taliban. Now, he was governor again, despite the wishes of President Hamid Karzai, who had also been hand-picked by the United States. 'The Taliban have scarcely fallen,' Chayes writes, 'and already U.S. policy seems at cross-purposes with itself.' But her NPR editors aren't interested in that story. They want 'Mullah Omar sightseeing' (as she calls descriptions of the country's self-proclaimed emir's 'tacky' lair) and other tales from the Taliban's awful reign. So Chayes quits journalism but not Afghanistan. She stays in Kandahar as field director for Afghans for Civil Society, a nonprofit group set up by Karzai's brother Qayum. Her first project is rebuilding a small village on Kandahar's outskirts where U.S. bombing had pulverized a third of the houses. Through her efforts, she glimpses the dysfunction of the American-led reconstruction. U.S. officials endlessly rotate in and out of the country, never staying long enough to learn their way around. Plans are made and then scrapped. Rules are unbreakable, except when they're broken. Chayes writes that the inefficiencies become even more acute after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, when Afghanistan's reconstruction falls even further down the priority list. But she sees a more fundamental problem than bureaucratic bungling. U.S. support for Afghanistan flows through Afghan leaders, but when those leaders are warlords such as Shirzai, the aid is not just wasted but actually works against U.S. interests. He and his cronies get rich off U.S. funds and fool the Americans into thinking they are keeping the city safe. Meanwhile, Chayes contends, Kandahar's thugs are also taking money from Pakistan, which she sees as an ostensible U.S. ally that is deliberately undermining Afghan security. To the average Kandahar resident, America's presence became synonymous with the brutality and corruption of its local warlord proxy. 'American policy in Afghanistan was not imposing or even encouraging democracy, as the U.S. government claimed it was,' Chayes writes. 'Instead, it was standing in the way of democracy. It was institutionalizing violence.' That sense of outrage courses through the book, and by the time Chayes is done, many readers will feel the same way. She even directs her venom at the one man she had thought could lift Afghanistan from the ashes: President Karzai, whom she ultimately blames for lacking the spine to stand up to the warlords. Yet Chayes concludes that Afghanistan is not a lost cause. Her story has one true hero: the mighty police chief, Muhammad Akrem Khakrezwal, a man who actually uses his position to make the cities of Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif safer, not to profit personally. Unfortunately, he gets little support from the central government or the Americans. The book begins and ends with his assassination. For Afghanistan's sake, one can only hope there are more out there like him. Griff Witte is a Washington Post staff writer." Reviewed by Griff Witte, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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From a beloved former NPR "crisis jumper" reporter comes a news-breaking eyewitness account of how the U.S. government and armed forces allowed, and even abetted, the tragic return to violent warlordism in Afghanistan following the defeat of the Taliban.
As a former star reporter for NPR, Sarah Chayes developed a devoted listenership for her on-site reports on conflicts around the world. In The Punishment of Virtue, she reveals the misguided U.S. policy in Afghanistan in the wake of the defeat of the Taliban, which has severely undermined the effort to build democracy and allowed corrupt tribal warlords back into positions of power and the Taliban to re-infiltrate the country. This is an eyeopening chronicle that highlights the often infuriating realities of a vital front in the war on terror, exposing deeper, fundamental problems with current U.S. strategy.
About the Author
From 1997 to 2002, Sarah Chayes served as an overseas correspondent for NPR, reporting from Paris and the Balkans, as well as covering conflicts in Algeria. When war broke out in Afghanistan in 2001, NPR sent her to report from Quetta, Pakistan, and then from inside Afghanistan, based in the southern city of Kandahar, as the Taliban fell. In 2002, she left NPR to take a position running a nongovernmental aid organization, Afghans for Civil Society, founded by Qayum Karzai. Now she has launched her own artisanal agribusiness, called Arghand. Her work as a correspondent for NPR during the Kosovo crisis earned her, together with other members of the NPR team, the 1999 Foreign Press Club and Sigma Delta Chi awards.
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