Waltzing With Warlords
What went wrong? The books under review supply pieces of that puzzle. Former British diplomat Rory Stewart describes his epic walk across Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, American author Ann Jones recounts the time she spent living in Kabul as an aid worker following the overthrow of the Taliban and American journalist turned aid worker Sarah Chayes writes of the years she lived in Kandahar following the American invasion.
Chayes arrived in Afghanistan as an NPR reporter covering the war against the Taliban. She became disillusioned with the timidity of her editors and decided to embark on a new career as field director of an aid organization, Afghans for Civil Society. It was an often frustrating job: "The whole of Afghan society was suffering from collective PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)." The result, she says, was "an inability to plan for the future. Inability to think beyond one's own needs, excessive guile."
Settling in Kandahar, Chayes lived a critical part of the Afghan story often overlooked by international journalists and aid workers, who tend to have an insular, Kabul-centric view of the country. As Chayes explains, foreigners generally settle in the capital and "live apart from Afghans in guarded compounds. They do not walk about, but are driven by chauffeurs." Chayes, by contrast, lived with a local family, learned Pashto, kept a Kalashnikov by her bed and "loved the place." If this is cause for a smidgen of self-congratulation, Chayes is entitled to it. Kandahar, located in the middle of a desert that broils in summer and freezes in winter, is a deeply boring, ultraconservative Afghan city that is now quite dangerous for foreigners. For most of us a week's visit would suffice. Chayes lived there for four years.
A key theme of Chayes's angry, very well-written book is her gradual disillusionment with President Karzai, who early in the narrative is portrayed as a possible savior of Afghanistan, "remarkably cultivated" and "uniquely devoid of brutality and arrogance." The villain of Chayes's story is the uncouth Gul Agha Shirzai, who became governor of Kandahar with US support in December 2001. Once in office Shirzai built his "personal power base" with no regard for anyone other than his own tribe, which received the choicest American contracts, and he would allegedly bump off perceived rivals on occasion. Yet much to Chayes's frustration, Karzai seemed unable or unwilling to rein in warlords like Shirzai. "Instead of protecting the people from the warlords, curbing them, or removing them from office, Karzai seemed to be waltzing with them." In January 2003 Chayes, who was close to the president's brother Qayum Karzai, hammered out a plan of action about how to rid Afghanistan of the warlords. Item one of Chayes's plan, which she submitted to President Karzai, was: "Begin with Gul Agha Shirzai." Nothing happened.
The Punishment of Virtue is bookended by the murder of Chayes's friend Muhammad Akrem Khakrezwal, a police official who was killed in Kandahar by a supposedly random suicide bombing in June 2005. For Chayes, Akrem's murder crystallized all that is wrong with the country. He was the polar opposite of the warlords, a police chief who had served in a number of major cities around Afghanistan, who tried to work for the common good and was "the most able public official I encountered." After conducting her own investigation of Akrem's murder, Chayes concludes that it was not a random suicide attack but a targeted assassination. The murder remains unsolved, and we have to take Chayes's word for it that Akrem was the selfless patriot she paints him to be. It is a bleak ending to a bleak story.