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Home > News > Interview

The Rediff Interview/Afghan expert Sarah Chayes

'I've distanced myself from the Karzais'

October 18, 2006


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In the fifth and final part of her interview, Sarah Chayes, author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban, explains the rationale behind her book to Managing Editor Aziz Haniffa. She also explains her moral dilemma over her relationship with the Karzai family, particularly President Hamid Karzai's brother Qayum, the founder of a nonprofit agency called Afghans for Civil Society, where Chayes worked for some time.

Part I: 'Osama is not in Pakistan'

Part II: 'India is Pakistan's fundamental concern'

Part III: 'India should just shut up'

Part IV: 'The US is really stupid'

Let me ask you something I should have asked you at the outset. What was the rationale behind your book? What were you really trying to achieve?

That's a very interesting question because when I pitched this book, I went to New York and went to publishing companies back in 2002, and I actually didn't know how the story was going to come out. It's not like the story happened and then I wrote the book. I actually suggested the book in the spring of 2002 and what I thought was going to happen was that everyone was going to immediately see that the US policy of backing warlords was wrong, including the US.

I thought it was going to be a really temporary thing that only lasted a couple of months, and then everyone was going to remove the warlords from power, and that's the story I suggested when I said I want to write a book. That everyone is going to gang up on the warlords and I am going to tell the story on how you end warlord government, and I wasn't going to be in it. I said, I am going to choose five to six people and I am going to follow their story through this removal of the warlords. So that's the book that I offered that was accepted.

And, then when I really got serious about writing it in 2004, the story was very different and I had also been in part of the story, and so I had to put myself in it. So, in a way, my objective was different from the book that ended up being written because the story was different.

It is about Afghanistan and it is very deeply about Kandahar, but it is also a metaphor, which is in this sort of international intervention, which the United States is inevitably going to get into again.

It is about this level of knowledge that you have to be willing to acquire in order to do a good job, and, its about continuity. I very deliberately included as much history as I did, which was hard. I had to browbeat my editors because to me that's part of the message. You have to expose yourself to where a country is coming from if you are going to take this kind of action.

Was the title yours?

The title is a joke on the old Taliban religious beliefs, you know, the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Punishment of Vice. So I said this government is the government for the Promotion of Vice. At first, I was going to call it the Promotion of Vice, not the Punishment of Virtue. Had I completed the book before my friend Muhammad Akrem Khakrezwal was killed, I would have called it the Promotion of Vice, about the warlords being promoted.

But then he got killed and I had to significantly change the book. I had to add the first chapter, about five at the end, and rearrange some of the middle. Then it was too frivolous to call it the Promotion of Vice, and so it became the Punishment of Virtue.

Are you still running Afghans for Civil Society?

No. I left that in January of 2004. I am running a small agro-business, a cooperative called Arghand, and what we do is actually similar to what India has become very good at: produce high-end products for exports. India does it beautifully with fabrics and also I believe with some soap, which is what we are doing. We are making high-end soap which is sold in the United States and Canada out of a lot of the agricultural products. We extract almond oil, apricot kernel oil, and rose oil, those essential oils and seed oil and from these things we make soap.

Earlier, when you ran Afghans for Civil Society, I believe you founded it with Hamid Karzai's brother?

Correct, with his older brother Qayum.

But now, have you had a falling out with the Karzai family or do you still get along with them?

I still get along with them and I am still deeply grateful to them on a personal level. I've been a member of the family really. But I certainly am critical of a number of the ways that, in particular the president, has run his country. I think he's a decent human being, but I have real policy differences with him and I think it's accurate to say that I have taken some distance from the whole family because I don't want to associate myself with a lot of the ways that they operate.

So it's a very emotionally difficult situation for me, because I love them as humans, and, as I said, I've had the privilege to kind of be a member of their family, and Ahmed Wali, who is the younger brother, has been a bulwark to me when I am there in Kandahar. If I need anything, I've always been able to call on him. But I really do feel on the level of political ethics actually, I've had to create a little bit of distance.

More reports from Afghanistan


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Number of User Comments: 2




Sub: American Dream of Afghanistan

All 5 parts of interview can be concluded with these phase "me me me". I don't know what rediff found in Sarah Chayes. But as ...


Posted by steeve





Sub: 'I love the Karzaia, but..'

This Chayes person seems the ultimate opportunist, willing to say and do anything to get her access to the Karzias and others in positions of ...


Posted by labrea




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