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Inside Afghanistan After The Taliban (2006 Foreign Press)

Sarah Chayes

Extended book review by Harry Rosenberg

What a marvelous book! Spellbinding in its intensity; history in novel form with real life characters--warts and all. Chayes does it all. As an NPR reporter and later as a political analyst and activist-on-the-ground developing the local business infrastructure she became arguable the foremost expert on Afghanistan. Fluent in the Pashtun language and observant of Ramadan, she quickly made friends of the powerful as well the many. Her even handedness and obvious will to further fortunes of the Afghanis and their various social sectors gave her the in other journalists lacked. She was protected by the Taliban as well as those who came to power with their defeat. As her network grew, so did her perspective. Chayes grew to love the Kandahar, and lived there some years. Read on for some of the highlights--confirmed over the last four years since her book was published.

Of Pashtun society Chayes has this to say:

    “Pashtun society--lacking the mechanisms of a strong state--tends to settle disputes among its members not by striving for some ideal of justice that would need enforcing, but by means of practical conflict-resolution techniques. The aim is to achieve a workable settlement that satisfies both parties sufficiently for it to stick, and not immediately spawn further conflict. … During these parlays, however the criminal is protected. The honor of both parties depends on it.”

This particular insight, and numerous others like it, gave Chayes insights into the many disparate behaviors of he various Afghani societies.

Along with education, Chayes also observed how misguided even the most benevolent foreign (read that mostly American) meddling in governance could be.

Chayes also spends considerable time at developing the historical perspectives of life and times in Afghanistan. In that rendition, the special place Kandahar occupies in history is illuminated. That history, in one example, gave rise to the myth that Afghanistan is not conquerable. This is an outsider’s projection. In truth, Afghanis only want to be left alone by the imperialists, the USSR and the US being only the last of a long list of would-be conquerors. When you live in an inhospitable land, it is both easy to trade space for time, for preserving their own heritage by setting traps for enemy patrols and even armies. Invader after invader fell into the same trap. Only Ghengis Khan was able to pacify Afghanistan--for times beyond one generation. In the end the Afghanis expelled even these most-successful of invaders.

Individual Americans can be respected, as Chayes proved. It is the system we imposed that is hated. Afghanistan has become just another tin-pot dictatorship supported by Uncle Sam. On the human side, the billions poured in to solve misunderstood problems mostly end up in the pockets of the Warlord-in-chief, his family and close collaborators. On the policy side, we emphasized rebuilding Kabul at the expense of the rest of the country. (The most immediate and compelling infrastructure element needed by far was a decent road connecting Kabul and Kandahar.) And on the action side, it was one opportunity missed after another. The wrong people were given power only because they were yes-men to American Interests, not proponents of the Afghanistan people. This only reinforced the local strong men with aspirations of their own.

The Afghanis want democracy as much as any other people--they turned our in droves at the first voting opportunity. Women began to feel free. It was not to last; blunder after blunder led to authoritarian government and returning women to the ignorant servile class to serve men--the real power brokers.

That decline led the resurgence of both Al Qa’ida and the Taliban. Although it is now unlikely that either group will reclaim their former position, America is still left with a unabated threat of terror from these sources--along with others, of course.

The decline was in part the doing of the media in Afghanistan, or rather the editors of those on the ground. These editor were much more interested in serving up what they thought the American public desired. That desire is embedded in a single phrase: “American Interests.” So the Pashtuns, and others, were dehumanized. Events on the ground were twisted to fit their editor’s view of what their listeners or readers would be interested in.

To recapitulate some of the many issues:

  • The actual events and media reports of the fall of Kandahar bore little resemblance to one another.
  • The Police Chief of Kandahar was a potential Saladin; all factions trusted him; he had few peers in his grasp of how to move forward with integrity; his insights seemed to know no bounds, and he was not self-serving. His assassination by a Claymore was covered up--Karzai blamed a suicide bomber--if it was even reported in the media. (Chayes herself led this private investigation.)
  • The US Defense and State Departments rarely worked from the same page.
  • In spite of assumptions and assurances to the contrary, military action was not, and still is not, an effective institution for nation building. Its vaunted new policy for fighting insurgencies was already obsolete when written. It was a marked improvement, but still failed as a policy for winning hearts and minds of people.
    • Rebuilding the infrastructures needed by the populace and doing it immediately was the first order of business.
    • So was finding a local Saladin. Neither happened so engrossed and obsessed our government had become in immediate American Interests for short-term political gain.

Knee-jerk reactions do not a future make

The warm regard the Afghanis had for America after the fall of the Taliban soon evaporated as the infrastructure deteriorated, as nation and society needs went unmet. Our tendency to throw money at problems with zero accountability on the part of those receiving cold cash only made things worse. Yes, Kandahar and Kabul were linked by a decent highway. But it was too late to stem the developing disregard for America.

Chayes does not dwell much on al Qa'ida, who were Arabs, and thus not all that welcome either. Today, though badly wounded, Bin Laden lives on. His legacy and resources have been thinned considerably, but his terror technology and spirit lives on in independent cells in too many parts of the world. There is no military solution that wins the hearts and minds of the humiliated. And the CIA is not all that effective either since it sets up dictator after dictator eager to receive cold cash in exchange their nation's resources--all under the guise of American Interests of course.

American culpability in the continuing problems runs deep. Post-America Afghanistan is unlikely to be Taliban. But it could well be something equally bad or even worse, no matter how long we stay.

Our behavior as a nation of the world seems designed to foster hatred more than regard.

By disenfranchising indigent peoples, we continue to play into the hands of those with terror mentalities.

Is this the way to spread democracy?
Will history be kind to American leadership during this era?

It is difficult to see how.


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