The Other War

The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban by Sarah Chayes (Penguin Press, 386 pages, $25.95)

Defeat in Iraq will be bad, but defeat in Afghanistan would be a catastrophe. If U.S. and NATO troops eventually leave and the Taliban return to power, it would mark the utter failure of American strategy in the country where the "war on terror" all began.
Outright defeat in Afghanistan still seems a long way off. But as Sarah Chayes' beautifully written, highly illuminating memoir makes clear, Afghanistan is at best "drifting sideways." Hamid Karzai remains little more than the mayor of Kabul, most of his government institutions are mere facades for looting, and the Taliban are gaining wider control of the Pashtun areas of the South and East.

In October, the British army negotiated an agreement with local tribal leaders in northern Helmand province whereby the British withdrew from a district in return for a promise that the tribes themselves would control the Taliban -- exactly the deal that the Pakistani government struck with Pashtun tribes in Waziristan during the summer, and for which it has been strongly criticized in the Western media. And the heroin trade continues to flourish. At this rate, given the Taliban's strength and the Afghan state's weakness, NATO may need to stay and fight in the country for decades to come. It is unclear whether the U.S and British electorates will have the stomach to persevere; it seems quite certain that our European allies will not.

To fail Afghanistan in this way would be not only a defeat but also a disgrace. It would mean that in effect the United States had abandoned Afghanistan twice. The first time was after 1989, when following the Soviet withdrawal, Washington lost all interest in Afghanistan, and made no attempt to prevent U.S.-armed Mujahedin from tearing the country apart. During the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, American officials and politicians vowed repeatedly that this would not happen again, and that the United States would help turn Afghanistan into a "beachhead of democracy and progress in the Muslim world," in the words of one U.S. senator with whom I spoke at that time. In fact, the betrayal of Afghanistan had begun even as she spoke, when early in 2002 the Bush administration started to pull special-operations troops out of Afghanistan in order to prepare them for the planned war in Iraq -- thereby allowing much of the Taliban and al-Qaeda to escape to Pakistan.

An even more damaging failure has been that of international development aid, which remains both vastly lower per capita and vastly less effective than in other countries where the international community has intervened. As Chayes makes clear, it is the West's immensely cumbersome, bureaucratic, corrupt, and state-directed development aid system that has been largely responsible for the failure.

Chayes describes her efforts to procure money for a handful of village wells and her gruesome encounters with U.S. officials who demanded the filling out of dozens of pages of forms, only to be rotated out after a matter of weeks and replaced by a completely unprepared successor, who had to begin everything from scratch -- only to be rotated out in turn as soon as he had begun to learn something about his work. She recounts what by now should be bitterly familiar stories of enormous sums siphoned off by Western analysts on bloated contracts while little or nothing reaches the people in need.

A key problem seems to be that Western development aid agencies -- as opposed to those dealing with humanitarian aid -- are geared to working with at least minimally functioning states. Where, as in Afghanistan, no real state exists across most of the country, they find themselves paralyzed. In these circumstances, as a former U.S. Special Forces officer told me, it would be better to train a small military cadre in development and send them out to villages with money to give to the local population to hire their own workers for specific local projects that can be managed by ancient local skills -- like restoring the underground irrigation channels (karezi). This has begun to some extent with the "provincial reconstruction teams," but their work remains limited. Furthermore, this money needs to be spent with an eye to the political-military situation, on projects that the Taliban cannot blow up -- at least, not without making themselves extremely unpopular with the local population, which is a tactical gain in itself.

Chayes has continuous experience of Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban. She first went there as a reporter for National Public Radio in the fall of 2001, as the Taliban regime crumbled. She headed in from the Pakistani city of Quetta to the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar, a city with which she has been associated ever since. She developed a deep personal commitment to Kandahar and Afghanistan in general, and when her assignment ended in 2002, she took over the running of a development organization founded by Karzai's brother. This connection gave her (for a non-official Westerner) unique access to the heart of the Karzai administration in both Kabul and Kandahar.

In vivid prose and with great humor and empathy, Chayes describes her experiences first as a journalist and then as a development worker. The cheerfulness and determination of her character make The Punishment of Virtue an inspiring book, but the tale she tells is not cheery. With biting detail, she delineates the failings of the Western approach, beginning with the media's combination of ignorance, hysteria, slavish following of official U.S. leads, and perhaps worst of all, overblown talk of Afghan progress with basic indifference to the views of ordinary Afghans or the fate of their country.

Chayes traces the problems of post-Taliban Afghanistan back to the U.S. decision to overthrow the Taliban quickly with the help of their Northern Alliance enemies, rather than waiting to create a broader coalition including fewer warlords and more Pashtuns. She paints a detailed picture of how this worked out on the ground in Kandahar, with utterly discredited figures from the period of Mujahedin rule in 1992-1996 brought back to power, to the dismay of the local population.

I have only two criticisms of Chayes' magnificent book. The first is that I rather doubt that her principal local hero, the assassinated Commander Muhammad Akrem Khakrezwai, was quite as good as she makes out, or her principal local villain, Gul Agha Shirzai, was quite as bad -- at least by the not very elevated standards of Afghan commanders and politicians.

The second is that to judge by my own experiences, she underplays the role of Pashtun ethnic sentiment (in both Afghanistan and Pakistan) in producing support for the Taliban, and exaggerates the role of the Pakistani state. After all, the Pakistani forces have lost considerably more men fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the Pashtun frontier areas of Pakistan than have the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Blaming Pakistan for the strength of the Taliban is one way for Western commanders to escape responsibility for their own errors, and for the Karzai administration to divert attention from its own weakness, and from the strength of popular support for the Taliban among the Pashtuns. Pakistan is undoubtedly playing a game with the Taliban that involves diplomacy as well as military pressure. But then, that is a game that the British Empire played in this region for 100 years and that the British -- and Americans -- may have to learn to play again.

On these issues, Chayes may have "gotten too close to the story," as journalists say. But then, getting close to the story in Afghanistan is what her whole book, and life since 2001, has been all about. Her close sympathy for her struggling Afghan hosts is what marks her out from so many Westerners who hop in and out of that country, and what gives her book its power, insight, and charm.

Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. His latest book, co-authored with John Hulsman, is Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World (Pantheon).