Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Sarah Chayes on The Punishment of Virtue

Washington, D.C. – Sarah Chayes, the NPR foreign correspondent who quit her reporting job in 2002 to help rebuild Afghanistan after covering the fall of the Taliban, addressed an audience at the Wilson Center Thursday to discuss her experiences. Chayes authored the recently released account of her four years in Kandahar, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban, available here. She calls her relationship with the country a “complex love affair” and described to the crowd how she was moved to stay by President Karzai’s uncle, who implored her prior to her intended departure to come back and help. It was a request she could not refuse.

Through her firsthand knowledge of circumstances on the ground, Chayes has become a vocal critic of policymakers who emphasized a “security first, governance later” approach, thus entrenching warlords and giving them greater legitimacy. In reality, says Chayes, “the warlords are creating instability and disillusioning the Afghan public.” She says that in the first six months of the Afghanistan “experiment” following the fall of the Taliban, there was real hope among the people, who want the same things as Americans want from their government. What they’ve gotten, Chayes says, is “predatory behavior…whenever they interface with the government.” She points to “fantastically rigged elections” and “ludicrously un-transparent” public officials.” An Afghan acquaintance described the dilemma of the people this way: “It’s like a man standing on two watermelons. The Taliban is preying on us at night, and the government is preying on us during the daytime.”

Chayes adds that the current “insurgence” in southern Afghanistan, where she lived, is more of a “low grade invasion by Pakistan, with help from other neighbors.” She says that the regional power dynamics and opium industry have fueled an “ugly triangle” comprised of farmers trying to make a living, traffickers and Taliban members, and local officials.

When asked by a member of the audience where she found hope in what she painted as a bleak picture of the future, Chayes replied, “Even if you know you’re not going to succeed, you have to try.” She hopes to break down lines of social inclusion/exclusion and to end the perception that there is a clash of civilizations.


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