A Voice in the Afghan Wilderness

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Shortly after the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, NPR correspondent Sarah Chayes found herself reporting a story she was sure had enormous implications for both that country and the United States.

She couldn't get it on the air.

Five years later, in her new book, "The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban," Chayes returns to this unheard story. It's a starting point for a detailed, highly personal exploration of the enormous price she believes the United States is paying for a mistake now so widely acknowledged it has become a cliche: intervening militarily with "no concept" of how to "create a working society after the intervention."

It goes like this:

In December 2001, Chayes rushed across the Pakistani border in the company of a young fighter affiliated with the forces of Gul Agha Shirzai, a local warlord. Shirzai's militiamen had just taken control of Kandahar, the fabled southern city that had been a key Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold. The takeover, Chayes knew, was in defiance of the orders of newly anointed Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had designated another group to hold Kandahar.

What Chayes didn't know was the role played by American Special Forces troops attached to Shirzai's militia. She imagined the Special Forces guys cursing the renegade warlord, then saying: "They're attacking, we'd better go along with them." But when she asked her militiaman escort, "This kid looked at me and said, 'The Americans? They told us to do it!' "

What a story, she thought: No sooner has the new central government taken power -- representing the promise of a better life for the long-suffering Afghan people -- than its authority is undermined by "American soldiers egging on a warlord to snatch Kandahar away from President Karzai."

For whatever reasons, her editors saw it differently. They told her it was nothing but "squabbling among the Afghans" and cut it from her "All Things Considered" report.

Chayes, who grew up in Cambridge, Mass., is a slim woman in her mid-forties with an intense gaze and a deeply bicultural life. She left NPR in 2002, after her reporting tour in Afghanistan ended, and accepted an invitation from Karzai's uncle to help run a fledgling nongovernmental organization called Afghans for Civil Society. At a recent book party in Bethesda, she kept tugging at the straps of her little black dress as though it were an unfamiliar foreign garment -- which, in a way, it is. In Afghanistan, she has long dressed like an Afghan man, the better to move around in a male-dominated society.

Earlier in the day, she'd been asked to appear on PBS's "NewsHour." There had been a horrific bombing in Kabul, and the question of the hour, she says, was "Why this uptick in violence now?"

Her answer: Actually, Afghan violence has been spiking higher and higher since late 2002. "You guys have just started to notice it."

Chayes's book represents a paradox of which its author is fully aware. She has used her years of non-journalistic experience to offer an intimate insider's tour through a complex universe Americans need to understand -- one in which warlordism, corruption and renewed Taliban activity have combined to undermine the "civil society" she was trying to nurture. Hers is the kind of fleshed-out portrait that even the best on-the-run journalism rarely provides.

Yet, in book form, her insights may come too late to influence the fate of her adopted home.

This is not to say she hasn't been trying in other ways. "I've been saying this stuff steadily since late 2002," she says: in op-eds, in speeches, in widely circulated e-mails and directly to every influential person she could collar. "Getting into these people's offices and bossing them around" is how she describes these efforts, with a laugh. To get a sense of what she means, you need only read the chapter in which she hands Karzai an unsolicited eight-point plan for ridding Afghanistan of warlords.

One of her Afghans for Civil Society colleagues, she says, believes "that I actually don't see obstacles," so when one appears, "I get all outraged: How dare there be an obstacle in my way!"

There's truth to this, but in the end, she's not so obtuse. Experience has taught her, over and over, how formidable the obstacles to Afghan progress are.

At the book party, she passed around a photograph of Muhammad Akrem Khakrezwal, who was chief of police in Kandahar for much of the time she's lived there. "Akrem won people over, and not just with words," she writes of the man who became a close friend and ally and whose spirit permeates her book. "Akrem won them over because he did something. He was effective. And he had vision."

In June 2005, he was assassinated. "The Punishment of Virtue" begins with a chapter on his funeral.

The Diplomatic Version

When John Brady Kiesling decided, in February 2003, that the looming United States invasion of Iraq would make it impossible for him, in good conscience, to remain in the U.S. Foreign Service, he carefully crafted a letter of resignation from his post as political counselor in the Athens embassy. Widely praised for its eloquence, the letter briefly made Kiesling semi-famous. Eventually, it helped earn him a tiny advance from Potomac Books.

Yet when he later reread the letter, says the author of the newly published "Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower," he was startled to find that it contained a gaping hole.

"It was so obvious to me that Iraq was going to be a disaster," Kiesling says, "that nowhere in my letter had I explained why it was going to be a disaster. . . . My knowledge that Iraq would be a disaster was intuitive."

One way of looking at his book is as a two-year effort "to figure out where that intuition came from."

The short answer is that it came from 20 years of diplomatic postings in places such as Morocco, Greece and Armenia, where he worked extremely hard -- motivated in part by what he calls his "intellectual vanity" -- to understand the way Moroccans, Greeks and Armenians thought and acted. That is a diplomat's fundamental job, he says, and "a resource for the United States of America."

The longer answer involves specific mistakes made and lessons learned.

In a chapter titled "Diplomatic Skepticism and the Lessons of Iraq," for example, he tells the story of his "failure to prevent a Florida con man from bilking the government of Romania out of $250,000." He then speculates pointedly as to whether this kind of humbling experience might have kept Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from falling so hard for Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, "an indicted embezzler who had already been written off by both the CIA and the State Department as a swindler."

Mainly, however, "Diplomacy Lessons" is a plea that Kiesling's old profession be taken more seriously.

"Diplomacy is not a miracle cure for anything," he says. "Diplomats bust their butts for years, and most of the time what they achieve is that the planet is still spinning around on its axis at about the same speed it was when they started. But that's actually an incredibly important task."

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