Posted by: Staff | 04.06.2009

Interview With Sarah Chayes


I had the great privilege of interviewing Sarah Chayes for my junior history paper on Afghanistan. Sarah is a former reporter for National Public Radio in Paris, the Balkans, North Africa, the Middle East and coverage of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Her work during the Kosovo crisis earned her the 1999 Foreign Press Club and Sigma Delta Chi award. Sarah received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in history and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University. She served in the Peace Corps in Morocco. Sarah left journalism in 2002 to live and work as a private citizen in Afghanistan helping to rebuild the country after the fall of the Taliban. She served in Kandahar as Field Director for Afghans for Civil Society (ACS), a non-profit group founded by Qayum Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother. She has negotiated with Afghan bureaucrats and warlords to rebuild a village. As part of her humanitarian work she organized a cooperative in Kandahar called Arghand ( to offer an alternative to working in the poppy trade. Arghand helps farmers earn a productive living and engage in collective decision. They produce soaps and skin-care products made from local fruits and botanicals. (These products can be purchased in Wellesley and Lexington.) In 2006, Sarah published a book on post-Taliban Afghanistan entitled: The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban (Penguin Press, August 2006). Through her extensive work in the region, Sarah has a unique perspective. I think you will find her insights fascinating. The following interview is published with the permission of Sarah Chayes.

My thesis is that Afghans are really autonomous and hate outside interference. I am arguing that they resisted the PDPA and the Soviets because they were both perceived as outside interference. Does this make sense to you based on your experience in Afghanistan?

I would say that Afghans are very resistant to outside interference when that interference is aimed at controlling the country to advance the aims of the outsiders, at the expense of Afghans. But in the initial period after the fall of the Taliban, the Afghans – even in Kandahar – were overjoyed at outside interference, thinking it would be to the benefit of the advancement of their country. 
Do you think the Soviet invasion led to the rise of the Taliban? (How, etc.)

Here’s how it helped lead in the direction of the Taliban. Religion has often been a rallying cry allowing Afghans to bind together against a foreign aggressor. So there was a fundamentalist anti-soviet leader, a kind of proto-talib, called Gulbuddin Hikmatyar. Pakistan was instrumental in the Afghan resistance to the Soviets for its own purposes – gaining power over Afghanistan. So it funneled a disproportionate amount of financial assistance coming from other countries, especially the US, to Gulbuddin. Interestingly, when the Soviets withdrew, Afghans did not want to be ruled by a fundamentalist extremist, and though Gulbuddin continued to enjoy huge Pakistani support in his effort to take over the country, he failed. This was the early 1990s civil war. Pakistan then realized this wasn’t going to work, and meanwhile, the Afghans got really, really exhausted with this chaotic violence and wanted almost anything that would look like a functioning state. So Pakistan created the Taliban (the ISI even did market research in the Kandahar area). By that time (1994), Kandaharis would accept anything that looked like an end to the chaos.

How did people feel about the Taliban at first? Did they perceive them as insiders or outsiders?

In the south, they felt ok at first. The Taliban seemed relatively local (though everyone remembers the Pakistani army officers with them), and were establishing some kind of order and security. Also, the draconian social controls didn’t start right away.

How did they feel about it in 2001? Was there a change in how people saw them?

Huge change. They were suffering under the oppression of the Taliban, even in the home base, Kandahar. I arrived in Kandahar a few days after the Taliban left, and I can’t describe to you the level of joy and anticipation experienced by the people at the end of that regime. They said it was the arrival of UBL and the Arabs that changed the Taliban, and made them more extreme in their efforts at social control. Afghans love music. They love pictures. It was cruel and unusual punishment to deprive them of those. We think about the burqa for women, but men, too, had their dress codes, and I know many who were beaten for not having long enough beards.

Did they welcome the US invasion? If yes, how does this fit with my thesis?

Yes they did welcome it, and that’s why your thesis is wrong. Another thing: human societies are not static. You have to look at historical circumstances in describing how societies behave. In general Afghans are suspicious of international interference, but there was no other way to get rid of the Taliban, whom they hated. The one concern they had with the US invasion was that it might bring back the warlords. That’s what everyone I interviewed at the time was afraid of. And they were right. And that explains the gradual disaffection of the Afghans with the post-Taliban regime.

How has the Taliban been able to regain their power since 2001?

Because we imposed criminals in government over the Afghans. Their refusal to accept this government is proof that they do know what democracy is, and we have failed to provide it. Instead, we have installed a posse of thugs over them, armed and financed it, and made it impossible for the people to object to it except by armed resistance via the Taliban. Also, we have refused to call Pakistan on its blatant orchestration, financing, training, and implementation of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

How do people in Kandahar feel about the Taliban now? Do they resent the US as outsiders and therefore support the Taliban?

The problem isn’t that we are outsiders. The problem is that we are outsiders who have imposed criminals on them in the way of a government. So the only way they can express their opposition to that government is by at least turning a blind eye to the Taliban. Everyone I know hates the Taliban and their tactics, thinks they are weak and cowardly mercenaries. But that’s about the same thing they feel about the government: a bunch of thieves, pillaging the people. So they see this whole thing as a factional fight between two hideous parties, with the people stuck, and suffering, in the middle.

I am also arguing that Afghanistan is a country more than a nation, in that people identify on local levels rather than on a national level. Does this ring true to you?

I think that like all human societies, Afghanistan has varied and sometimes conflicting strands or motivations. It has a very strong sub-national social structure, in its regional and tribal allegiances. But that’s not so very different from us. We are citizens of our states, and of the United States. We don’t see those as being mutually exclusive, and I don’t think Afghans do either. Every Afghan I know feels his or her national identity very strongly, and actually regrets the current emergence of the sub national structures – an emergence that has been a necessary result of the weakness and criminality of the state we created. But a state that arbitrated with equity amongst all of its people, which is what a state is supposed to do, would be welcomed by the Afghans.

What do you think Karzai or the next president should do in order to unify Afghanistan?

Call his subordinates to account. Demand decent standards of governance from all of his officials. Appoint honorable people to public office and supervise them. Quit selling public office. Quit allowing customs revenues to line the pockets of public officials including his brother. Quit requiring total control over all voices that speak publicly. I could go on and on. But it is not rocket science. What the Afghans want is true democracy. Not kleptocracy legitimized by a veneer of elections supervised by the international community. Sorry to speak forcefully.



  1. It’s indeed curious that most unalloyed heroes who aren’t in uniform are ladies.

    To another point, We have a current president of Afganistan who has promoted a warlord to a ministerial post and who is standing for election with another warlord as one of his running mates.

    The heroines will always prevail, however any standoff between them and the warlords will be interminally long and the setback into violence will be uinimaginably widespread.

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