Book Launch/Live Webast--The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban

Sarah Chayes , former National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent

Sep 07, 2006

Sarah Chayes, former National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent who has been a resident of Kandahar, Afghanistan, for four years, spoke to a Washington audience for the launch of her book, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban. Her publication offers a gripping narrative of her experiences during four years in Afghanistan, and presents a critical analysis of this complex country. Chayes recounted how she made the pivotal decision to quit reporting a year later to assist in the international efforts to rebuild a shattered Afghanistan. She spent her first two and a half years as field director for Afghans for Civil Society, a non-profit organization founded by Qayum Karzai, the uncle of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. She then launched a village-level cooperative in Kandahar, called Arghand, which produces traditional crafts and specialty items for export. Chayes explained that having lived with a Kandahari family, she "feels like a member of the community," and does not fear the Afghani tribal leaders. "I am good friends with many tribal leaders," she said, "as my loyalty has won some hearts."

Chayes stated that Afghanistan represents the ultimate clash of Western versus Islamic civilizations. She illustrated the power that Afghan warlords wield over ordinary citizens, stating that "people are not willing to allow you to help them because of their deep allegiances to warlords." Clarifying that her comments are based on the situation she witnesses specifically in Kandahar, Chayes said that the people of Afghanistan feel that while the Taliban preys on them at night, the government preys on them by day. In the eyes of the Afghani people, their repressive government "is there under the aegis of the U.S. government and other foreign governments," and thus the Taliban takes advantage of the peoples' political disillusionment. She pointed out that the Taliban is carrying out "not so much an insurgency as a low-grade invasion, and the people of Afghanistan have to make space for these fighters in order to survive." According to Chayes, what Afghan citizens really seek are essential public goods and services, such as roads, schools, qualified doctors in health centers, and "some kind of substantive participation in their collective destiny."

During the question-and-answer session, Chayes answered a diverse array of questions through her personal experiences and opinions. Asked about provincial councils, she responded that the councils lack credibility due to being captured by power-brokers, many of whom are "war criminals." Answering on the dynamics of opium production, Chayes clarified that opium traffickers not only transport the opium but also provide critical loan services in the absence of a national banking system. It is a "bribe-country," she emphasized, where subsidies, or "gifts," are a culturally embedded form of extraction for building water wells, protecting cultivation, providing transport, and securing land titles from local officials, among several other services and resources. In order to address endemic corruption in Afghanistan, Chayes argued that traditional practices need to be transformed into effective taxation regimes as well as living wages for civil servants, among other such initiatives, as highly qualified people have no desire to accept government jobs.

On the current status of women in Afghanistan, Chayes explained that convincing parents to send their daughters to school and commit to educating them is a great challenge. Acknowledging the presence of women in the Loya Jirga as "salutary," Chayes nevertheless cautioned that many mullahs, or religious leaders, regularly condemn women's political participation claiming that "the Koran does not say women can be part of the government." She concluded by answering a question on her personal assessment of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, admitting that she is "extremely disappointed, as he has not done enough to remove warlords from power. If he had done so, he would have certainly had the support of the Afghani people."

Bhumika Muchhala, Program Associate, Asia Program, Tel: 202 691 4020
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program

Experts & Staff