TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. As the Obama administration tries to end the war in Iraq, it's also trying to refocus American resources on the threats from the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The administration plans to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan over the next 18 months. My guest, Sarah Chayes, lives part time in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have made life terrifying and corrupt government officials are making society nonfunctional. Chayes has been working in Afghanistan since 2001, when she covered the fall of the Taliban for NPR. After the Taliban were defeated, she gave up journalism to help rebuild the country. She founded and runs the Arghand Cooperative, which makes soap and skin-care products using indigenous fruits and botanicals. Her goal is to provide jobs that are an alternative to the opium/poppy economy. She currently spends around two weeks a month in Afghanistan and, in the remaining time, has been making a lot of trips to Washington, where she is now.
Sarah Chayes, welcome back to Fresh Air. The last time we spoke, which was two years ago, there was a Taliban attack nearby and the people you work with were very worried about the advances of the Taliban. What's the situation where you are now? Explain where you're working in Afghanistan and how much the Taliban are encroaching there.
Ms. SARAH CHAYES (Founder and Director, Arghand Cooperative): We work in downtown Kandahar City, which is the - it was, you know, really, the capital of the Taliban regime. But it is the town, and so, it's a little bit safer than the countryside around us. But I would say that compared to two years ago, things have gotten pretty dramatically worse, actually. I would say that that area where the attack was two years ago, it's now pretty heavily populated, infiltrated, I'd like to say, by Taliban. And it's a complicated picture there, because that's just outside of town to the west, and there's pretty heavy international military presence there. The Canadians are lead country in Kandahar Province, and they've got, you know, outposts in the villages and things like that, but the villagers really are subject to almost two authorities at the same time.
It's very difficult for them because there is government authority there. There is a district chief and a district center and police and all these Canadians. And at the same time, the Taliban are able to do things like shut down the cell-phone towers at night so you can't communicate by cell phone at night. They, in fact, confiscate any cell phones. They've got checkpoints in the smaller, you know, dirt roads. They confiscate cell phones that take photographs, because they're against photographs, but also because photographs can be dangerous for them. In other words, they exert a lot of pressure on how people can behave. They frighten people a lot, and even to the point where - one of my cooperative members, his family land is out in that area. And that village is a very loyal village, and although it's flanked on either side by heavily Taliban-infiltrated villages, that one, for tribal reasons, is a loyal village. And recently, the Canadians ran an operation against Taliban using that village as a way in, but they were afraid of the mining of the dirt roads in that area, so they basically built a new road. And they built it through my cooperative member's land, meaning, they pulled up trees, they destroyed a building and things like this. And that wasn't the only farm that they wrecked...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CHAYES: By building this road. And so, they didn't, you know, do anything to offer compensation or anything like this. And now we're in a situation where you can't take pictures. So, even if this family wanted to ask for compensation, that would get them in trouble, because if they were seen to be receiving money from the Canadians, the local Taliban would, you know, would retaliate against them. And then, meanwhile, the older brother gets lifted by the Taliban and accused that it was him who gave the information that allowed for this operation. Thank God he was actually out of the country at the time and could prove that he had nothing to do with it; otherwise he would have probably been killed. So, you see a family like this in this little village is subject to real pain from both sides of this conflict, and that's really how everyone is feeling.
GROSS: You know, I was reading an article just a few weeks ago in the New York Times about how the Taliban have taken over, you know, part of Pakistan. In one of those areas, they now have these broadcasts on the radio that are intentionally about just terrifying people into compliance. Is anything similar happening in Afghanistan?
Ms. CHAYES: There are a lot of what we call night letters, which are also terrifying. And that is - it's a piece of paper that shows up on your door during the night that threatens you and often threatens you in very, very explicit and precise ways. And what you also see a lot of is they get people's phone numbers, and they call them directly and, you know, tell people exactly what they do. Anyone who works or has worked in any way with the government or with the international presence, you know, they start directly threatening them and telling them things like, you know, where their father's house is and that their father is outside of the house right now, and so that that person's mother is now alone in the house. I mean, it's extremely terrifying and granular, if you know what I mean, in the details of the threat.
GROSS: What about you? How are you seen by the Taliban? Do they know who you are? And have you had to modify your behavior?
Ms. CHAYES: Oh, I've definitely modified my behavior.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CHAYES: I move around a lot more than I used to. In other words, you know, I'm in Kandahar very frequently, you know, and things like that, but I don't stay for six months at a time the way I used to. I move around a lot. I don't tell people when I'm arriving, and we've actually even taken some precautions, like changing the appearance of, you know, some of our vehicles and things like that because we know we're being surveilled. We know our vehicles are being surveilled. Now, I don't really think that any of those measures would actually keep me from being killed, if you see what I mean, in that if I'm there, I can get killed. I mean, it's not that hard. And so, it becomes an issue of calculating their strategy, frankly. And this sounds very cold...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CHAYES: You know, but I think they do have a strategy in terms of who they target, particularly in a way I think would constitute a high-value target for them in that I would make - I'm relatively known there, and so it would have an impact. And I think that they're dosing this, in a way, in that, you know, and I've seen them do this from the beginning. They start small, you know? They kind of test the waters, start small, withdraw a little bit, you know, let things calm down a little bit. Then, they go a little bit further the next time, then they let things calm down a little bit. And I've seen this kind of fits-and-starts progression since 2002. And what was interesting to me is that no American or British or Canadian civilian was targeted until January of last year. And then, someone was kidnapped in Kandahar who has not yet been found or any really conclusive evidence about what happened to her. But she was a relatively unknown, very, very low-key humanitarian worker, and so it seems to me that they're kind of saving their targets, if you know what I mean.
GROSS: The elections in Afghanistan were just postponed from May until August. Hamid Karzai is expected to run for reelection. This will be the second election since the fall of the Taliban. The official reason for the postponement of the election is they need more time to get organized. Are there unofficial reasons that also explain it?
Ms. CHAYES: A lot of the Afghan population is enraged at this delay, and I think that what does underlie the delay is a sense on the part of President Karzai that it may not be so easy to get elected. And I think that if that is his analysis, it's the correct one. I mean, you know, you tend to hear in the press that the Karzai government has lost legitimacy, or it's losing its credibility. There's corruption problems. What I'd like to say is that that formulation is a real understatement.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CHAYES: I think it's closer to rage. I think the feeling on the part of the population is closer to rage.
Ms. CHAYES: Because of the behavior of Afghan government officials, who have been appointed, all of them, down even occasionally to the level of the mayors, by President Karzai himself. And so, he has actually put these people in their positions of power, and he's not asking any accounts from them, and he's not asking them to treat their population with any kind of, you know, just minimal dignity and responsiveness and things like that. And so, the Afghan population feels that they really supported him. I mean, I was there in, you know, at the very end of the Taliban regime, right when the regime fell. And the enthusiasm for the Karzai government was absolutely unanimous. The vote in 2004 that made President Karzai the official, and not just the transitional, you know, president of Afghanistan was a real vote. And he really won it because the people still had some faith.
In spite of the fact that he had not cracked down on the corruption and abuse of power on the part of his of his subordinates up until then, still, the population felt that, well, if we give him this mandate, you know, that will give him the power, then, to be able to move the warlords out of their key positions, to be able to crack down on their behavior and things like that. And he simply didn't do it. And so, the result now is just people are just beside themselves. And so, it is generally believed by the population that the delay in the elections is some kind of a trick so that he's going to be able to rig it somehow.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sarah Chayes, and she's been living and working in Kandahar, Afghanistan, since 2001, when she covered the fall of the Taliban for NPR. She now runs a cooperative that produces skin-care products made with indigenous fruits and nuts and botanicals. The goal of this is, in part, to provide jobs as an alternative to the opium economy. Can you give us an example of the kind of corruption that you've run into in your work?
Ms. CHAYES: Well, it's very pervasive. And so, for example, we were bringing some palm oil and coconut oil across the border.
GROSS: And this is for the products you make.
Ms. CHAYES: Right, for our soap. It's a base oil. It's the only two products that we actually import. Everything else we produce ourselves from local crops and things like that. And so, we needed to bring this across the border. Now, what's interesting is that I'm pals with the cross-border tribes. So, I actually don't need to go through customs because I get anything I want across the Afghan border.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CHAYES: But we decided this isn't right. We need to do this properly, according to the official way, and pay our customs dues. So, we bring them across, and there is this system in customs where the bureaucracy is so difficult to deal with that you have these agents, and they whisk your stuff through customs. And they charge you a certain amount of money that has nothing to with how much customs you actually owe. And so, they pocket some of it, and then they pay off the bribes for the customs officials and things like that. And we said, we're not doing that. We're going to do a straight customs thing. And so, our goods were impounded, and we were told that for health and safety reasons, this oil needed to be sent to Kabul for chemical testing to make sure that it is safe, although we don't use it for food; we use it for soap. And basically, we would never have gotten our oil without paying the bribe had I not had a special kind of access to Afghan government officials.
So, I went to the governor, and I said, you were looking for proof of corruption? Come on down to the customs house with me. And he, of course, he didn't. In other words, I was trying to use this as a - as an example to force him to focus on the systemic problem. But he's not interested in focusing on the systemic problem because a lot of those kickbacks go up to him. So, what he did was detail someone to me who would fix my problem so that I would shut up, and that's basically what happened so far.
Another one of my cooperative members, who is a former police officer himself, his brother was bringing, you know, car parts up from Pakistan also, because he has a shop. And he gets shaken down at police check posts pretty much every mile. I mean, he probably has to pay a day's wage for an unskilled laborer about 20 times on the road from the border to Kandahar, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive. When he reaches Kandahar, he is shaken down for five times that amount of money, and he balks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CHAYES: He says, you know, I've had it with you guys. I'm not paying this bribe. He gets hit and then is asked for $60, so it was about $2 at each check point, or $2 or $3, and now it's $60, which he turns over, and then makes a phone call and has his phone confiscated. And at the end of this process, my cooperative member told me, by God, if tomorrow I see a Taliban ambush and I see a police vehicle on its way into the ambush, I am not going to lift a finger. And this is from a former police officer himself. And...
GROSS: Wow, so...
Ms. CHAYES: So, what I'm saying is it's the rage.
GROSS: So, you're saying people are so angry with the government, they're about as angry with the government, the Karzai government, as they are with the Taliban?
Ms. CHAYES: That's exactly right.
GROSS: That really bad.
Ms. CHAYES: Yeah, yeah. And that's why when, you know, when I do try to talk to people about what shape, you know, the new administration's policies should take, I focus on governance. Because if you don't provide some immediate relief from this kind of abuse, nothing else is going to work, because you're going to put development assets through corrupt channels. That's going to make people more upset. You're going to do security. You might be able to kill some Taliban, but you know, the government is creating three Taliban for every one you can kill.
GROSS: But the thing is, you know, from a distance it often looks like, well, you know, with the help of the West, the Afghan people were able be free of the Taliban, have a democratic election, elect Hamid Karzai. And if Karzai blew it, that's his fault; it's the fault of the people in Afghanistan. What can we do to, you know, make that a democracy if the people in Afghanistan can't run a democracy?
Ms. CHAYES: I know that's how it looks like to us, but that's not how it happened at all. First of all, we were the ones who basically brought President Karzai to the fore. So, when he was elected, it was two years after he had already been in power. But part of why he was popular is because we were backing him, and the Afghans trusted us to bring them a properly functioning, responsive state, right? And then, what they say - and this is what's really accurate - is we actually imposed a lot of these warlord governors who have become the problem. And I watched this happen in Kandahar, where President Karzai actually appointed somebody else to be governor of Kandahar, and we brought a different person in and imposed him, and we imposed him by force of arms.
And I saw us doing this time and time again. We were using these warlords as our proxies in the fight against al-Qaeda, and we put them in positions of political power. And then, we never ever paid any attention to how they treated their population, to the point where I saw the guy that we imposed as governor of Kandahar, he had his own private militia. And that private militia was wearing U.S. Army fatigues, and they were abusing the population from the get-go. They were stealing stuff from people; they were kidnapping people; they were beating people up; they were doing whatever they wanted, and we never disciplined them in any way.
And so, the Afghans' answer to your point is, you know what? These are your dogs. You brought them here. It's up to you to bring them to heel. And once you bring them to heel a little bit, so that they're not such a danger to us, then we, the Afghan population, can reassert our own control. But right now, the deck is too heavily stacked against us for us to be able to retake control of this situation.
GROSS: President Obama has made Afghanistan and Pakistan a priority, and the Obama administration plans to send about 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan within the next year and a half. From your perspective, do you think that that's a productive approach?
Ms. CHAYES: Well, this may sound counterintuitive, but I think the simplest answer would be to say that more troops are a necessary but not a sufficient condition to make this turn out right. And the reason I say that is because it turns out that when you have too few troops, you sometimes are actually more destructive to the environment than if you had more troops, because your reactions are delayed, so they have to be much more forceful, or you have to call down, you know, let's say, a 500-pound bomb to break up a machine-gun nest that's only got five people in it, and that bomb then, you know, destroys a lot of houses nearby and things like that, because you don't have enough people. So, I actually think that we really do need more troops.
On the other hand, what's really important is how those troops behave once they're out there. And what I've experienced is that the U.S. Army has really improved a lot due to the punishing, frankly, that it's been taking over the last six or seven years. And there's been a lot of learning taking place in the U.S. Army, and it's been impressive to watch. The issue for me is going to be how that learning that's percolating up to the highest levels, how it gets brought back down so the soldiers who are on the ground really, really understand and take it in. And the fundamental change is a shift from seeing your job as to go and hunt and kill the bad guys to seeing your job as being one of protecting the population. That is a massive mental shift, and it implies a lot of different behaviors once you get on the ground.
GROSS: What would your advice be, if you were asked by the Obama administration, how to deal with the Taliban? Do you just fight them militarily? Do you negotiate with them and try to reach some sort of negotiated compromise so that they stop trying to take over the country and let people live freely?
Ms. CHAYES: I don't think there is a future in negotiating with the Taliban, certainly not the high level. I really think that's the wrong approach to the problem, because the problem - there were no Taliban in Afghanistan in 2002, and there was no indigenous support for them, right? And so, what has driven people into the arms of the Taliban has been this governance problem. And so, I don't see how bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table solves that problem. It doesn't address the problem.
So, what I think you need to do is really focus down on the day-to-day realities of government officials' behavior to Afghans. And then as the government becomes more responsive and respectful, the people of their own accord come back. And then, the Taliban - you know, and that means a lot of Taliban, in and of themselves, without being negotiated with, come back because the government is something they can bear to live under. And then, you're left with two irreducible cores. One are the ones who belong, basically, to the Pakistani military intelligence agency, which is a big player in this story and has reconstituted the Taliban. Those guys, all they want is power in Afghanistan as a proxy of the Pakistani military. So, negotiating with them is in effect negotiating with the Pakistani military to give it de facto control over part of Afghanistan, and I don't think that's a policy objective. And the other irreducible group are the real ideologues, and those are not people who want to share power with anyone who is interested in talking to any other country in the world.
GROSS: We've been talking about dealing with the threat of the Taliban and with corrupt government officials. When we left off, Chayes was saying that people are so frustrated with inefficiency and corruption within the government that some of them are siding with the Taliban. So, what do you think the United States could do to help the governance problems in Afghanistan?
Ms. CHAYES: For me to get into all the details of this would take too long, you know, for this interview. But what I think needs to happen is some immediate, first of all, immediate symbolic gestures. Like, there are some people who are very well known to be causing a lot of these problems, and I think pressure needs to put on President Karzai to get them out of the picture. And what's interesting is that this is what the Dutch and the British governments have done in the south. When they were deploying to the Afghan south, they made it a condition that the governors of the two provinces that they were deploying to be removed because they were flagrant criminals. And guess what. President Karzai did that. So, the fact is there is room for, you know, using our influence in constructive ways, but we have to remember that that we need to focus on the Afghan population, that it's on their behalf that we are applying this pressure.
Another thing that we could do is come up with some kind of a mechanism, like a commission, and I think it should be a mixed Afghan and international commission, on a provincial level that would go around basically collecting and vetting really substantial grievances of government abuse, right? And you need Afghans on the, you know, nongovernmental Afghans, on that commission, and you need some very powerful internationals, meaning military as well as civilian, because that's who Afghans listen to. And when they find a grievance that they really think is egregious, well, then, they start putting the kind of pressure on, let's say, the governor that I'm talking about. And if the governor calls President Karzai, well, then, it goes up the chain. And because this commission has adequately vetted the grievance, well, then, our ambassador, for example, knows that this is a legitimate grievance. And he goes to President Karzai and says, no, you know what? You can't let that governor get away that.
And so, you start putting pressure on the system in very concrete ways. Unfortunately, up 'til now, we've just been talking about corruption in real general terms, and that's pretty easy to get out from under. You can create all sorts of processes that convince us that you're working on it when - I mean, for example, President Karzai named a chief anticorruption officer who had done federal time for trying to sell cocaine to the DEA. You know, that's not serious.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So, do you see this as an important period, this transitional period, when the Obama administration is taking over from the Bush administration? And do you see it as a time when there might be policy change, a policy change that could have a significant effect, for better or worse, in Afghanistan?
Ms. CHAYES: Oh, I see it as absolutely critical. Because of this change of administration, there's a miraculous second chance in Afghanistan, because you just needed a new administration in order to review the policy. And Afghans feel it that way, too. They're very excited about this, because they see that, wow, there may actually be a change in direction. But I think that the window is extremely narrow, extremely narrow. We had about, I would say, two or three years the first time around. If we had approached it right in 2002, the window was much larger. Now, we've got about six months, I think. We need to really transform our approach, and that needs to be visible on the ground within this six months. And that's why I'm a little bit concerned about some of the analyses that I've heard coming out and things like that, you know, on the order of, well, these are really just a tribal people; they've never really been governed. Why were we even focusing on the issue of the government...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CHAYES: And things like that in the first place? And I think that's an inaccurate analysis. Afghanistan has been governed from the center for most of the last century. And that is what every single Afghan that I've interacted with harks back to with nostalgia and looked to us to help them recreate. And what's happened instead is, really, is almost a repeat of the total chaos of the early 1990s, which is what drove Afghans into the arms of the Taliban in the first place. They didn't accept the Taliban out of ideological affinity; it was the only functioning government on offer. And we don't want to force them in that direction again, not just because it's bad for them, but frankly, just on a pure, selfish, American security point of view, you know, we're going to get more terrorists in Afghanistan unless we help the Afghans, really, build the kind of government that they wanted in the first place.
GROSS: Sarah, whenever I talk with you about your life in Afghanistan, I always ask what you're wearing lately, because I figure that's some kind of sign.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: About what life is like there. So, let me ask you how you're dressing now in Afghanistan.
Ms. CHAYES: I am back to dressing in full Afghan male regalia, including turban and, to be honest, hardware. I don't travel...
GROSS: Hardware, means guns?
Ms. CHAYES: Yeah. I don't travel unarmed anymore.
GROSS: Are you carrying, or do you have bodyguards carrying for you?
Ms. CHAYES: I don't have bodyguards. It's my cooperative members, because that's how we function. We don't have separate bodyguards.
Ms. CHAYES: But they won't let me travel alone anymore. They refused to let me outside the cooperative without at least one, ideally two, of them coming with me. And the way we usually work it is that I drive, since I can operate an automobile better...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CHAYES: Than I can operate a firearm, whereas they're a little better at the latter. This isn't even so much a question of protecting oneself. I'm not convinced that we could fight our way out of an ambush. But this is Afghanistan, and honor is a really important part of this culture, and I can't ask my cooperative members to risk their lives without offering them the possibility to acquit themselves with honor. And so, it has something to do with bringing some of them with us, if we go. And that may sound very bloody, but that's the culture I'm in, and I am asking my cooperative members to take just - I mean, they are sure that either themselves or a member of their family is going to die in the next 48 hours. That's the level of anxiety that they're living under, and I can't make them go into that situation naked.
GROSS: Sarah Chayes, it's great to talk with you again. Good luck, be well, be safe, and thank you very much.
Ms. CHAYES: Thank you very much. It is always such a joy to be on your show.
GROSS: Sarah Chayes is a former NPR reporter who now runs the Arghand Cooperative in Afghanistan, which manufactures skin-care products using indigenous fruits and botanicals.