When Sarah Chayes arrived in Kabul in late 2001, she was reporter for National Public Radio intent on covering the fall of the Taliban. But Afghanistan changed her; within months, she laid down her microphone and enlisted in the Herculean effort of rebuilding a thoroughly broken nation. Few other relief workers though could boast of sharing her personal access to leaders, including Afghan president Hamid Karzai and tribal elders. In The Punishment of Virtue, she records her disillusionment with an Afghan government hopelessly infiltrated by its own worst enemies -- and ours. This book is both a powerful narrative and a historic document.
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. (Aug. 21) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Having reported on the conquest of Afghanistan for NPR, Chayes dropped reporting in 2002 to help the country by running a nonprofit-not, as she shows us, such an easy task with corruption all 'round. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
A tale of good guys and bad guys in the Wild West of Afghanistan-save that "good" and "bad" are strangely fluid notions. Chayes, a onetime NPR correspondent, takes an anthropologist's and historian's view to explain how America got it so wrong following the post-9/11 invasion, and she is not shy of asking hard questions to make her point. For one, she asks, "Do we, as American citizens, wish to have the bulk of our foreign policy conducted by the Department of Defense?" United States military officers are doing just such work in Afghanistan, guided by supposed insiders who have axes to grind and enemies to dispatch-the very people, she adds, who convinced the Western press corps that U.S.-backed militias were fighting and winning desperate battles with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Sometimes they were; mostly they weren't, though that didn't keep dollars from flowing. Chayes served as a lecturer and informal advisor to American forces ("She's like no journalist you've ever seen," one soldier exclaims. "She's a hawk!"), and in that capacity, she has urged them to do a better job of backing the right horses, such as an anti-Taliban friend of hers, a police commander killed by a suicide bomber for his troubles. But finding those horses is a challenge, for the convenient designations do not apply, and in all events, Chayes writes, the Taliban enemy were in essence a creation of Pakistan, meant to serve its narrow regional interests, "pressing into service ambitious petty commanders from the anti-Soviet period and uprooted, madrassa-inculcated youth from the refugee camps." And indeed, some of the Taliban she meets surely seem preferable to some of their supposed opponents, including onecorrupt governor who emerges from these pages as the worst of a very mixed lot. Absorbing reading-necessary, even, for anyone posted to a place where our performance "will determine where a lot of people come down on the clash of civilizations."