RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When the weather heats up in southern Afghanistan, so does the battle between the Taliban and NATO and Afghan national forces. Earlier this month, the Taliban threatened to overrun the lush pomegranate groves along the Arghandab River in Kandahar. Arghandab was once a Taliban stronghold.
Then in nearby Kandahar City, hundreds of Taliban prisoners broke out of jail. The many villagers who fled are just now trickling home. The ebb and flow of fighting there is something Sarah Chayes knows well. In 2001, she went to Kandahar for NPR, and she quit journalism to start a cooperative business there. Describe for us the business that you run there.
Ms. SARAH CHAYES (Businesswoman, Afghanistan): We make soap. We're a soap factory in a shooting gallery, I like to say. We buy raw materials from farmers, agricultural products like almonds, like apricot kernels, anise - all of this wonderful fragrant stuff. And we have a range of eight different soaps that we produce by a rather labor-intensive process.
MONTAGNE: Part of your effort there in Kandahar is to wean farmers away from growing poppy and the opium trade. How has all of this affected it, or has it?
Ms. CHAYES: A lot, actually, a lot. I mean, it started out, the first major effect was in 2006, when we began the contract farming of roses. And unfortunately, the district that we chose to do this in became the battlefield for all of 2006. So those roses don't exist anymore.
MONTAGNE: One thing about this is the Taliban have not been able to hold this land. They managed to infiltrate, get in, put up a good fight and then be driven off. That seems like a good thing for the NATO forces there, but is it really?
Ms. CHAYES: Good question. And in fact if you look just north of Arghandab, the three or four northern districts of Kandahar Province are now entirely in Taliban hands. So although they haven't been able to hold Arghandab District, which is right up against the city, they are holding about a quarter or a third of the province.
There's quite a lot of Canadian NATO-force presence in that area, and yet plenty of Taliban presence also. So I think it's important to realize that from the perspective of ordinary people, there are some places where there's almost like a shadow government of Taliban under the surface of apparent Afghan government control.
So you'll see villages who will actually send delegations to the Taliban to request permission to, for example, repair an irrigation ditch and will ask the Taliban, please don't destroy the bulldozers that we're going to use this work. And this in districts that allegedly are under Afghan government control.
MONTAGNE: At the moment, NATO troops are patrolling villages outside Kandahar, but where, from your perspective, does everything stand?
Ms. CHAYES: On the surface, it looks as though international forces in the Afghan army have, you know, scored a great victory against the Taliban, who really came very, very close to Kandahar City. Basically what I would say is, in the short term, yes, the dust is settling and displaced people are moving back into Arghandab. But I certainly expect that there will be more attacks on this district.
MONTAGNE: You were, at one time, a supporter of Hamid Karzai's government, have changed your thinking about that. What is this government not doing, that both it could do, and that is going to hurt Afghanistan?
Ms. CHAYES: It has hurt Afghanistan, unfortunately. The Afghan population, as I've been experiencing it, is really looking for equity, competent officials, fair treatment, and some sort of say in their collective destiny. And unfortunately, the government that President Karzai has been presiding over has really treated the Afghan population like a goose to be plucked, in a sense. And so I actually think that a lot of what's going wrong in Afghanistan, it isn't ideological at all, it's that people are so frustrated with the behavior of government officials toward them, that they don't really see much difference between the Taliban and the government.
They see them as two factions bent on power and money. And so what I reproach President Karzai for is not really cracking down on the behavior of his government officials. He should not be putting up with this kind of behavior toward his own citizens.
MONTAGNE: Sarah Chayes is the author of "The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban." And she also runs Argon Cooperative - that's a venture that encourages local Afghan farmers to produce flowers and herbs instead of opium poppies, by buying their products and producing soaps and scented products to send overseas.
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