'The Punishment of Virtue:' Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban

Posted: Friday, October 06, 2006

Five years after U.S. forces routed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and drove the al-Qaida movement into hiding, Americans might reasonably ask how it came to pass that a resurgent Taliban now terrorize the southern part of the country, and a combined U.S.-NATO military offensive to this day cannot dislodge them.

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What went wrong is the theme of this unusual narrative, "The Punishment of Virtue," by a former reporter for National Public Radio. Sarah Chayes covered the Taliban's departure from Kandahar in December 2001, but stayed on by starting up a humanitarian nonprofit that morphed, with backing from President Hamid Karzai, into a political campaign against the return of the warlords.

Other than Kabul, the capital, there was no more critical place for the Americans to get things right after the Taliban exit than in Kandahar. Instead, U.S. forces helped install Gul Agha Shirzai, a former warlord, as governor, a man Chayes describes as "arbitrary, predatory, brutal, if charismatic."

At the U.S. Army base, successive commanders wrapped themselves in a defensive cocoon rather than reach out to local leaders. It was Chayes who escorted disempowered tribal leaders to the base, to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, even to Hamid Karzai himself.

The most active player in this narrative is Chayes herself, who launched a campaign to combat warlordism She delivered her eight-point plan (point one: "Begin with Gul Agha Shirzai") to every top U.S. official as well as Hamid Karzai. Shirzai was indeed ousted, only to return to power. Then, after Khakrezwal's assassination, Chayes went to Karzai with the point-blank advice, "Stop dancing with these thugs." She gave him a list of five local officials who should be ousted, and he complied.

As the most plugged-in observer of the scene as well as the only person with top-level contacts in every power structure, Chayes was positioned to make a difference, and she did.

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