Offering Advice To Top Brass On Afghanistan As international forces prepare to leave Afghanistan, deep questions remain about the country's security and its government. Former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes lives part of the year there. She has served as special adviser to two commanders of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Adm. Mike Mullen.

Offering Advice To Top Brass On Afghanistan

Offering Advice To Top Brass On Afghanistan

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As international forces prepare to leave Afghanistan, deep questions remain about the country's security and its government. Former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes lives part of the year there. She has served as special adviser to two commanders of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Adm. Mike Mullen.


As international forces prepare to leave Afghanistan, deep questions remain not only about the country's security, but also about its government. Former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes left journalism to start a small business in Kandahar. She now spends a good part of the year in Southern Afghanistan. She's also served as an adviser to commanders of NATO forces in Afghanistan and to a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

If you have questions for Sarah Chayes, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sarah Chayes, nice to have you here in Studio 3A.

SARAH CHAYES: Great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And what did you tell the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

CHAYES: Oh, boy. How long do we have?


CONAN: Not long enough, apparently.

CHAYES: It really has to do with governance, and it wasn't just him. I mean, I found from very early on that it was clear that Afghans were really looking forward, actually, in the early days, to the American intervention because they thought that we would help them re-establish a government that wasn't - that governed them, but not as a sort of religious extremist operation.

CONAN: The Taliban.

CHAYES: Correct. And we were quite interested in chasing Taliban and chasing al-Qaida and things like that, and that was our mission. And so we didn't pay very much attention to the other capacities and qualities of the people that we allied with in that mission. And so what we kind of did was played the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend kind of game.

And you know, the one thing the Taliban did that the Afghan population was really pleased with was kick out the warlords that had been making the place a chaotic mess and violent mess after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. And so of course these people were quite disgruntled at the Taliban for personal reasons, not because of how the Taliban governed, but because, you know, they didn't get their piece of the pie anymore. These were the folks that we allied with, and that might have made sense as a sort of short-term military expedience. But we then kind of ushered them into positions of power - in particular regional power. And then, all of a sudden, this became the Afghan government that we were here to support.

And in the first couple of years, it was interesting. I found most of the people that I interacted with kind of thought America must have a plan. So they were quite patient. I mean it was like, well, there must be a reason why they brought X, Y and Z back in to be our governors. And by about 2005, that patience was running out.

And I remember the only time I ever encountered a hostile interaction in Kandahar – right? - this the Taliban heartland, right? - was when we - it was, I think 2004 or '05, around that winter of 2004 to '05. We hadn't had electricity in about six months, and I had stopped to buy some vegetables. And this elderly gentleman came up to me positively shaking his fists. You know, I had never seen anybody shake their fists before. And he said, if you people can't turn on the electricity, what are you doing here?

And unfortunately, what's happened - in other words, it was very practical. And the frustration rose as practical grievances were not being addressed. But it wasn't primarily about stuff, like electricity. It was why is it that you are protecting people who are functioning increasingly like a mafia and are really treating Afghanistan as their private property and extracting resources for their personal gain? Why are you protecting them?

CONAN: Well, in Kandahar, you must have had experiences with the brother, the half-brother, of the president, who was Mr. Big there until he was murdered earlier this year.

CHAYES: Right. So in fact, I worked for his older half-brother, not the president, but the president's older full brother. So there was a period when I was in Ahmed Wali Karzai's house, you know, every night for dinner. And it took me a long time to catch on, I have to be honest. But within about two years - and so from about 2004 on, I really understood what was going on. And Mr. Big is exactly the right way to put it. In other words, there was quite a lot of publicity about his involvement in the narcotics industry, and I came to have enough evidence of that to convince myself by about 2005. But that's not the worst of it. I mean, on some level, the narcotics industry actually provide a livelihood for a lot of people. I know that sounds a bit, you know, utilitarian, but the problem was he was Mr. Big. Nothing could happen in the region that he didn't approve. And that meant land, it meant jobs, it meant business opportunities, it meant distribution of development resources, it meant everything. He got to pull those levers.

And what was interesting, was even as American officials began to understand this and try to at least interact with, quote, "tribal elders" and things like that, they nevertheless allowed him to filter those interactions. So you would have a senior American official, either military or civilian, go to Kandahar to meet some tribal elders. Well, they would ask Ahmed Wali to gather them a group of tribal elders. So they knew what they had to do. These tribal elders, they weren't free to actually speak their mind.

And it was interesting, one of the commanders that I worked for was going to have some meetings in Kandahar in 2009, late - early 2009. And he asked me to set them up. So I said - or I proposed that I would set them up. And so I actually spent a couple of weeks, you know, kind of going to ground to find out who were the real elders that people really trust and respect. And the effort that it took to organize these meetings without Ahmed Wali being present or being involved - and finally, he found out about one of them, and he sabotaged it by calling all the elders, or several of them, and telling them that the meeting had been transferred to his house.

And, you know, and he retaliated against some of them. It was really interesting. So we allowed him to monopolize, both the formal and informal structures of leadership in the area.

CONAN: Well, just as we sometimes make the mistake of thinking all Afghans are the same, obviously they're not, all Americans are not the same either. There were some Americans who were saying, wait a minute, we can't be supporting this guy. He's a bad guy. And there were other Americans saying, wait a minute, we need him because, A, he provides security in Kandahar. He keeps it calm. Also, we're running a CIA-sponsored militia through his houses.

CHAYES: Right. And so what I would say is that the number of Americans who thought that we ought to address him in a more...

CONAN: Law enforcement sort of way.

CHAYES: ...thank you - we're not very numerous. And they were overridden by these considerations, short - basically short-term considerations. And that was one of the things I really learned over this decade that I've been involved in the conflict, is that institutions like to conduct operations. And so whatever their immediate mission is, they tend to sort of throw off all other considerations in order to achieve that immediate goal. There was another really interesting example, which was the - I don't know if you remember the military operations around Kandahar last fall, that were, you know, the focus of a lot of attention, and...

CONAN: Marjah, we remember, yes.

CHAYES: Marjah was Helmand, and that was the previous year. And then there was - it was called Operation Hamkari or something like that.

CONAN: Oh, yes. Yeah.

CHAYES: Yeah. And so the guy who kind of led the charge is a corrupt, drug-dealing and murderous border police commander, who did a pretty good job with these operations. So we kind of turned him into a hero. This is a guy that I came across the border - not with him but with his men - back in 2001, so I've known the guy for a while. He stuffed the ballot boxes during the election. I mean, he was like the go-to guy for the Karzai mafia and doing a plenty of side work on his own.

And so we got into these situations where, wow, he was the man of the moment because he could conduct that immediate operation. But reinforcing him was reinforcing a system that overall is not something that the Afghan population is proud of, wants to live under or wants to defend. And for me, what was really interesting, having banged this drum for years to not a lot of - not no response, but not a lot of response - then suddenly in January, you get the Arab Spring.

And I actually traveled to North Africa for the month of March to, sort of, take a look at what was going on. The grievances in, you know, both revolution countries and countries that aren't yet revolution countries, like Morocco or Algeria - I didn't go to Libya - Tunisia, Egypt, were identical grievances. It was about state capture by what amounts to criminal enterprises that are often organized around family lines like the Ben Ali clan in Tunisia or whatever.

But it was state capture of the resources, of the judicial system, by what passed, or what was, sort of, masquerading as a government. And so I felt, wow, finally, you know, the American government is going to get it that this is the same thing that's infuriating the Afghan population. But I haven't really seen that connection get made.

CONAN: Sarah Chayes is with us, a former NPR reporter who's spent much of the past 10 years in Afghanistan. And if you would like to talk with her, 800-989-8255. Email: Jim's on the line, calling from Fort Collins in Colorado.

JIM: Yes, hi. Thank you for taking my call. Very interesting what you're talking about. My son is in Afghanistan with special operations. He is a civil affairs specialist. And he talks about a thing called VSO, Village Stability Operations. And I'm wondering if your guest can tell us a little bit more about what that is and how that works. Thank you very much.

CHAYES: Pleasure.

CONAN: Thanks for the call.

CHAYES: VSO is the latest iteration of an idea that NATO and the United States forces have tried to launch in Afghanistan for a number of years. And the notion is, we don't have the time or the personnel or the money, frankly, to properly train and equip the police and the army, as much police and army as we actually need to secure the country. There's also this notion that Afghans are really very independent people and don't actually want a government any way, which is an idea that I contest, incidentally. And so why don't we just give an abbreviated training and some oversight, particularly by Special Forces, to local village, basically militias, that allegedly will protect themselves.

I found this idea - for a long time, I have found this to be a dangerous idea, because what Afghanistan has suffered from since the withdrawal of the Soviet Union has been centrifugal force. It's been flying apart, and it has suffered from, you know, kind of infighting among poorly organized, disciplined, and supervised armed groups.

And so the notion that you - it's almost like injecting a recovering patient with the same virus of the, you know, or the same bacteria that he or she was suffering from. And I've had a chance to kind of follow some of the activities of Village Stability Operations around Kandahar. So, again, politics is local, and I can't speak for the whole country. But I've just seen it getting derailed all over the place.

For example, one that's famous for being a good one is in a district just north of Kandahar. And it's supposed to be, you know, the village itself. But because none of the other villages in the - or few other villages in the district actually want to participate in the program, what's happened is the armed guys, the militia guys from one village are now being deployed in other villages. Well, that was never supposed to happen, and the reason why not is because you're more likely to prey on people who are not your cousins and your in-laws and things like that. So they have started taking ad hoc taxes and stealing firewood and stealing fruit from the villages where they're now deployed. That's just one example of how it can go off the rails.

CONAN: Our guest is Sarah Chayes. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Email question from Matt, has your opinion of Sherzai changed since you wrote "Punishment of Virtue"?

CHAYES: Ah, gentle reader. To be honest, I haven't been in the same province with Governor Sherzai for a while, because he got moved from Kandahar to a - an eastern province, also on the border, called Nangarhar. What I do know is that he continues to make a killing off of customs revenues that belong to the Afghan state because what happens is there's your regular customs tax, and then there is something called a reconstruction tax, which goes into Governor Sherzai's pockets. Naturally, he's supposed to spend it on reconstruction of his province, and he does spend some of it on that. But there's no accountability mechanism, what is he bringing in and what is he spending - how much is he spending on what.

And then there is this other tax that he claimed that he had cancelled, but I went to the border to visit. This was two years ago. I went to the - his border to visit. And it's an overweight tax, which is basically you drive your truck onto a scale and depending on what you look like, your truck is overweight or not. So what I do know is that, you know, that's an example of him not really functioning as a productive member of the Afghan government.

CONAN: Let's get Dennis on the line. Dennis with us from Vail in Colorado.

DENNIS: Yes. I always remember seeing Sarah Chayes in a program a number of years ago that featured her after her reporting days donning male garb and dealing with male elders. And I felt this to be a dangerous thing to do in Afghanistan and have wondered ever since how you kept yourself safe.

CONAN: This is when you'd set up the co-op.

CHAYES: Yeah. Well, no. This was a documentary, and Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor that the previous question referred to, features in this documentary. And we were rebuilding a village, actually. This was an NGO prior to my skincare factory, which I think we'll talk about shortly. But - so I'm still alive...


CHAYES: ...and kicking. And I actually thought about this question a lot. You'll think that it took me a while to start thinking about it. I started thinking about it in late 2006 when another former Special Forces officer asked me very persistently about how I stayed alive. And he asked me persistently enough that he really obliged me to think about it.

And so I'm going to answer you in two parts. The dressing in male garb and interactions with ordinary Afghans, that was never a problem. And the person that you want to be in a place like Kandahar, Afghanistan is a foreign female because as such, you're kind of both genders. You get to play guys with the guys, and you are physically a female, so you actually get to sit down and talk to women, which men can't. As a matter of fact, I've had a woman during that period, when - that the caller is referring to, who actually stuck her hand down the front of my - of that garb you were talking about to make sure that I had two of those things in there.

But the more serious issue on safety that really took a while to figure out is that this is a retaliation society. It's like mutually assured destruction. And the point is you would think that as an American, I'd be at more risk. And I actually found when I looked at who was getting hit in Kandahar, it actually was people who were more neutral in more - from organizations that are seen to be more neutral, like the ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross, or Doctors Without Borders. But the notion, you know, what I felt was that people were afraid of potential retaliation. And so, in fact, my connection with America made me safer, not less safe.

CONAN: And you've left yourself 20 seconds to talk about your skincare factory.

CHAYES: You're kidding. So this is - it's a - alternative livelihood's projects that - look. Go on the website. It's It's skincare products from Southern Afghanistan, locally produced – licit, might I add - agriculture, and it's just great stuff. And this is the kind of thing that can conceivably represent a different type of development strategy.

CONAN: Sarah Chayes, thanks very much. Monday in this hour, P. J. O'Rourke. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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