This is the first in a series of conversations about Afghanistan.
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly called for a new focus on Afghanistan, where conditions have deteriorated dramatically and violence is on the rise.
Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who now runs a cooperative business in Kandahar, says in recent weeks, a civilian adviser to the U.S. military was set on fire, a suicide car bomb exploded downtown and men attacked schoolgirls with acid.
"As much as we might be more aware of attacks against foreigners, the real victims are the Afghan population," Chayes tells NPR's Melissa Block. "If [the attackers] kill a governor, that's disturbing and distressing, but a lot of ordinary people will continue to go about their lives, because they say, 'Well, that's an important person in the government and I'm just, you know, an ordinary guy.' Whereas as they reach deeper down into the population, it absolutely terrifies people. So I see a lot of people drawing back from any involvement with the current government or even development assistance — they don't want to receive it anymore because it makes targets out of them."
Chayes says the people's view of the government — both central and local — has been deteriorating markedly since late 2002. "It's not just because of the government's incapacity to protect them; it's that the government is so hostile to their interests — that is to say, shakes them down, brutalizes them, exercises arbitrary power ... at every level of government, and the people just can't stand it anymore," she says. "Sometimes people will deliberately turn a blind eye to Taliban activity; sometimes they'll help them out because they're so frustrated."
Obama has talked about sending as many as 15,000 troops into the country to supplement the 30,000 already stationed there. Chayes says more troops in Afghanistan are definitely needed.
"This shouldn't really be seen as a massive militarization of the situation in Afghanistan, because the number of troops on the ground is just pitifully low," she says.
"Now, I do think that more troops alone won't do the job — there have to be some changes in the way they approach their job. In other words, rather than seeing their objective as hunt and kill bad guys, they have to understand that primarily they need to be protecting the population, and that means a certain amount of redeployment of troops toward population centers rather than sending them way out in the middle of nowhere," Chayes says.
Some civilian approaches need to be stepped up, Chayes says, to supplement the military operations.
"One of those is mentoring civilian officials. The international community has been very successful in mentoring the Afghan army," she says, "and it seems interesting to me that it never occurred to anyone that 'Well, Afghans might need mentoring to become professional and effective soldiers or officers. But what about mentoring to become effective and responsive mayors or district commissioners or, you know, heads of public health departments?'"
Chayes thinks directly negotiating with the Taliban is "a really bad policy for President-elect Obama to get involved with." She says those negotiations wouldn't address the problem.
"I don't see any difficulties in eventually interacting with people who once were considered enemies. That's what maturity in politics is all about. But the point is that the Taliban do not represent the Afghan people — they are not an indigenous ... uprising. What we're looking at is not a people that rejects democracy or isn't ready for democracy, but rather a people that is actually unsatisfied with the amount of democracy that we have brought them and actually feels that we have obstructed the flourishing of democracy. ... I just don't see how bringing the Taliban to the table addresses the fundamental problem," she says.