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Kabul Press Interviews Sarah Chayse
Noted American author and NPR journalist turned Afghan political and economic development specialist speaks from her home in Kandahar
Thursday 2 October 2008, by
Sarah Chayse is best known in the U.S. for her nearly daily reports on America’s government-run National Public Radio network in the late 1990s. Beginning in 1996, she enjoyed reporting on generally calm stories about French food and culture as NPR’s Paris reporter. During the Kosovo crises, she became a steady and respected voice on the conflict with nearly daily reports on the horrors there. Her journalism career which began in 1991 took her to Algeria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Afghanistan. Growing up in New England, she earned a B.A. in History from Harvard, then served in the Peace Corps in Morocco for a year. She returned to Harvard for an M.A. in History and Middle Eastern Studies.
Following the terrorist acts on 9/11/2001, Sarah was moved to become more involved in global events, and asked NPR for a transfer to the Taliban-dominated city of Quetta, Pakistan to cover the inevitable attack on Afghanistan by the Western coalition. While there, she became disturbed by continuing stories of Afghan civilian casualties from American bombing. However, higher-ups at NPR wanted her to ignore negative events that might push back against American patriotic fervor.
As the Taliban collapsed, Sarah got into Kandahar, and filed her first story on the unique subject of how the local warlords, with U.S. complicity, were dividing up control of the region. The story of this crucial action, which would set Afghanistan on a dire course over the next seven years was cut by NPR as irrelevant to the main media narrative that stressed finding Osama bin Laden. Sara left NPR and it’s three-minute sound bites, but followed this story, which is outlined in great detail in her 2006 book, “The Punishment of Virtue.”
Hoping to do more for the Afghan people, Sarah became the Field Director of “Afghans for a Civil Society,” a non-profit group founded by Qayum Karzai, President Karzai’s older brother. It turned out that ACS was not much more than window dressing to mask the on-going power struggle that pitted old guard warlords against the village elders. The warlords were supported by the U.S. army, because they seemed to have a durable command and control structure and hordes of disciplined armed men. They pledged their loyalty to the naïve American military, spouting support of democratic ideals, but it was all a con.
According to Sarah, the warlords skimmed relief supplies meant for villagers; corruption, nepotism, cronyism ruled the day. Local people watched in disbelief as the Americans turned over the Afghan government to the same criminals who had abused them during the decade of civil war that had led to the Taliban in the first place. Sarah tried persistently to steer the government away from the warlords, through meetings with President Karzai, his family and other Afghan government representatives, through high-level U.S. military commanders, local civilian leaders, and the ACS, but with little result.
Sarah’s attempts to influence Afghanistan’s political future towards real democracy hit rock bottom, with the assassination in June, 2005 of her friend and supporter, Muhammad Akrem Khakrezwal. Akrem, Kandahar’s Chief of Police, was passed over by Karzai’s government for the governorship of Kandahar province in favor of the warlord Gul Agha Shirzai. The villagers and business people supported Akrem as an honest, hard-working leader, but he did not have the connections with the Karzai regime, and the U.S. military was either complicit or disinterested.
According to Chayse’s instincts and research, Akrem was such a thorn in the side of Shirzai, that the warlord finally dispatched him with an IED planted outside a Kandahari mosque. The murder was officially blamed on an Arab suicide bomber, thus implicating al-Qaeda and bin Laden, and deflecting speculation that it could have been an Afghan-on-Afghan act— with far reaching connections, perhaps even to the presidential palace in Kabul.
Afghan Soap Entrepreneur
Chayse then made another great turn in her path from journalist and political activist. She became an entrepreneur. Specifically, she developed Arghand, a cooperative that manufactures soap and other skin care products from Kandahar-grown flowers, herbs and fruits. In the rich agricultural land, it makes sense as an alternative to the opium crop that enriches an international drug mafia, and nothing for Afghan farmers and their families. Afghanistan has very few exports, and these sorts of high-valued products could have a world-wide demand both from their unique qualities and origin.
The Arghand villagers suggested using their fruits in a product that could enter the global marketplace and Sarah’s Western worldliness helped them develop a business plan. Unfortunately, though millions of dollars were being spent on multinational efforts to develop Afghanistan’s economy, adequate funding for Arghand’s small cooperative venture was repeatedly turned down by Afghan and international interests. Nevertheless, they persisted, and through a variety of grants and donations, and despite all the turmoil around Kandahar, its products are available in about fifty retail stores scattered across the U.S. and Canada. Demand exceeds the quantity of goods available, and capital for expansion is scarce.
This is the case with several other Afghan cooperatives I have found. Billions of international development dollars have been spent in Afghanistan on military, shoddy buildings, and “expert” studies. But these small coops cannot attract sufficient financing for their proven products, which could easily provide hundreds of jobs and skill-building opportunities for comparatively tiny investments.
Sarah chronicles the difficulties of engineering a co-op on its website, http://www.arghand.org/notes.htm. Obstacles presented are heart-breaking— mainly by roadblocks foisted by the Afghan national government. Lack of reliable electricity is a key element in the failure of Afghan development.
Consider this: Hurricane Ike wiped out electricity to more than 3 million homes and businesses in the Houston area recently. For sure, lights will be going on again in days, and you couldn’t imagine it taking more than a few months for 95% of the power to be restored. In contrast, the Kabul, a city of around a million receives only 3-4 hours a day of electricity—at best—seven years after the West’s entry.
As the Taliban become stronger in Afghanistan’s rural areas, life in Kandahar becomes more difficult. Coop workers are afraid to harvest their natural ingredients, and fear coming to the factory. They have seen a continuous downhill slide in security since December, 2001 when the Taliban were chased from Kandahar. Sarah can see the pessimism written in their faces, though their chatter is still optimistic. They have seen too many bad ends in the past thirty years; too many promises broken and hopes dashed.
Sarah’s most recent entry into her “Notes from the Field” was written in March of this year, just before the Taliban managed to re-capture Kandahar from the weak Afghan army post there. A big push by NATO troops forced the Taliban out, but the Taliban’s message was clear. They were there, and they could come and go as they pleased. Cooperation with the coalition would be severely punished, when its troops finally abandoned the area for good.
Sarah did spend some time in Paris in early summer—she still attends conferences, speaking and consulting engagements, but is back in Kandahar now. When her book was published in 2006, she was interviewed dozens of times by big Western media. For the most part, she, as well as most of Afghanistan’s problems has been swept aside by Iraq, American economic problems, and the elections.
Thanks to Obama’s repeated promises to take Afghanistan off the back burner and the U.S. military’s new commitment to send thousands of Marines for an Afghan surge, Afghanistan may attract more attention, and promoting a just and effective government will also emerge as an important goal.
On the Future of Afghanistan
To catch up with Sarah’s most recent activities, I asked her by e-mail in late August to update her thoughts about Afghanistan’s future.
What do you think about the resignation of Pakistan’s Musharraf?
I live in Afghanistan. At best I am an observer from afar of Pakistani developments, and one thing I have learned in this part of the world is that politics is local. If you’re not there, you probably don’t know all that much about what is going on.
With that caveat, I would offer the following personal and unsubstantiated reflections. The resignation of Pervez Musharraf could be a very hopeful sign. A sign that at last, after years of military dictatorship, the diverse, vibrant, culturally rich population of Pakistan is at last getting the say it deserves in its future. That would be good news for the entire region.
Based on observation of recent history, however, I think it is hard to imagine the Pakistani military, led by the ISI, giving up its stranglehold on power without a fight. I have begun to wonder if Musharraf was "pushed under the bus" to allow the military establishment to retain de facto power in Pakistan and over the Taliban it created. In any case, I think that if all goes well, Pakistan is in the paroxysm of a profound social and political transformation, one that will be worked through in a matter of years, not months.
Which leaves the issue of the Taliban. The Taliban were initially a creature of the ISI. The "resurgent" Taliban, who have been active in the Afghan south, are also a creature of the ISI. In some other areas, such as Waziristan, Taliban whom the ISI cultivated or allowed to flourish, have turned around to bite the hand that fed them. It amuses me to hear some Pakistanis imply that the anti-Taliban fight is an "American conflict,"
When the Taliban were created in the first place by members of the Pakistani government for cynical manipulation in regional conflicts, to whit, Afghanistan and Kashmir. You reap what you sow.
When you left Kandahar for Paris recently, was that because of the fighting?
No. I have never left Kandahar in response to an event on the ground here. I have numerous obligations outside of Afghanistan, especially participating in cultural training for incoming NATO officers. I also do some public speaking in the U.S. and Canada, fund-raising and consciousness-raising for Arghand, etc. So my schedule involves a lot of travel in and out of Afghanistan.
Is there any Afghan or US money to support Arghand?
We do receive generous support from private individuals and foundations in the U.S. and Canada, and have received one grant via the USAID funded alternative livelihoods program and one from the Canadian international development agency. A list of our Benefactors, in kind as well as in cash, is posted on our website, www.arghand.org.
(ed. Note: Arghand is supported substantially by Massachusetts based Arghand Trust, Inc., a U.S. registered 501-(c) 3 U.S. public charity. It accepts gifts in cash and in-kind. Gifts can be made on-line via Paypal from a link on the website.)
I know there is greater demand for your products than supply. Why is that?
Demand is high because our products are excellent. It causes me no shame to toot our horn, because it’s really true. Our soaps are the most aesthetically beautiful, silky- lathered, skin-softening soaps on the Western market. Most of our inquiries from new retailers come because their customers, who received Arghand soaps as gifts, asked them to carry them. We do essentially no marketing, no advertising. That’s the demand side. On the supply side, we have numerous difficulties impeding expansion. The first is electricity. Any one place in Kandahar only receives a couple of hours of electricity per day: 4-6, maximum. For the past week, those have been coming at night.
Valiant Arghand members have been running our seed oil press till 3 and 4 in the morning. This restricts our supply of raw materials, and thus production. Secondly, we need a larger facility. But we can no longer purchase relatively inexpensive land on the outskirts of town or in neighboring villages, because of the security situation.
It is too dangerous to transport 14 members of a manufacturing cooperative to a specific place at a specific time each day, they would become a target. So we have to buy land in town, at literally ten times the price — at best. 4000 square meters becomes a $200,000 prospect, money we don’t have to spend. Finally, indeed the security situation makes it very difficult to bring on new members without sliding into nepotism, something I ban at Arghand. For example, our across the street neighbor wanted us to hire his son. All my guys like the fellow. Only his father has started asking strange questions like, do they eat at the same table with me. (presumably because food eaten with me would become ritually unclean as I am a foreign female.) He cheers the Taliban on, and sometimes has them over as guests in his house. His son is not someone we want to bring on board, in these circumstances. So expansion is a very slow process.
If there isn’t an immediate, urgent, and energetic switch of priorities toward demanding — in the name of the Afghan people — a significant improvement in the behavior of government officials, it is a lost cause. If the government of the United States treated its citizens the way the Afghan government treats its citizens, I guarantee there would be violent opposition in America. You and I would probably join it.
Is there anyone who can put things back together?
There are no magic bullets or magic individuals. What is needed is a coordinated demand by all the international actors — military and civilian acting in concert and bolstering the silent scream of the Afghan citizens — for a radical improvement in the standards of governance throughout the Afghan administration.
I saw something today where U.S. Ambassador Brown told Karzai to crack down on corruption.
Generalized exhortations like that amount only to lip-service. In the southern region, the ISAF campaign plan states that governance is the first line of operation. Yet the Canadian 2-star general who is in command of the southern zone has only met with a governor on two or three occasions in the 7 months, so far, of his tour. What message does that send? Military and civilian officials should be reaching out to the people to hear their legitimate grievances with the government, and then taking up these issues, on a concrete, case-by-case, and persistent basis, and obtaining redress for the citizens. That doesn’t mean governing in place of Afghans. It means holding Afghan officials to decent standards of behavior that their population demands, rather than signing a blank check to them as we have thus far. We have not brought democracy to Afghanistan. We are obstructing democracy by blindly supporting a government that harbors a cancer of corruption, cronyism, money-grubbing and contempt for its own citizens.
Will the Marines save the day?
The problems I have described above are primarily political problems. There are aspects of the marines’ history that indicate they once had the know-how, on a local level, to participate positively in the creation of safe and responsive social structures. The combined action platoons in Viet Nam come to mind.
I recently spent a week on Okinawa briefing the 3rd Marine Division. What troubled me was almost no one there had even studied the pacs. That is, this thread in marine history has been lost, as the marines have more often been trained and used as a "blunt instrument" since then. We need more combat power in Afghanistan, there is no doubt of that whatsoever. But we need very intelligent and sensitive combat power. And for the marines to make a really positive difference, they are going to have to unlearn a lot of their recent training, and learn the complexities of fighting a war in amongst their potential friends and allies.
And even at that, there needs to be an insertion of military leverage into the political scene — on behalf of Afghan citizens, not on behalf of "our" concerns. That is, a corrupt and predatory governor can make all the right noises on the anti-Taliban fight, and we have the tendency to throw our arms around him, not realizing he is creating three times as many Taliban as he helps us fight by his depredations against the population. We’ve got to start seeing through this. And civilian actors have to realize that without the military conveying the anti-corruption message by their side, it is not going to be heard by Afghan officials. Civilians have got to understand that this is truly an integrated battle space.
Are there any hopeful signs?
Hopeful signs for me are that American officers, from battalion commanders right down to lieutenants whom I have met, are extremely committed to getting this right. They have learned a lot in the past six years of brutal rotations to Afghanistan and Iraq and back again, and, though they may not intuitively grasp some of crucial points, they are very streamlined and energetic about changing their approach when they hear a good argument to do so. Much more so now then when we first arrived in 2002. I just hope it’s not too late.
More information and links to articles about Sarah Chaise can be found on http://sarahchayes.net/ and www.arghand.org. Especially interesting is her “Comprehensive Action Plan for Afghanistan,” that is brief, but insightful.
Purchase Sarah Chayse’s book, "The Punishment of Virtue by clicking the link to Amazon.com on our front page.
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