Journalist Sarah Chayes Reflects On 20 Years Of Crisis In Afghanistan

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A military transport plane launches off while Afghans who cannot get into the airport to evacuate, watch and wonder while stranded outside, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A military transport plane launches off while Afghans who cannot get into the airport to evacuate, watch and wonder while stranded outside, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In late 2001, Sarah Chayes went to Afghanistan to cover the fall of the Taliban for NPR.

She lived with a local family and watched how they, and their nation, underwent a profound transformation.

With the Taliban back in power, we talk with Chayes about how Afghanistan really changed, and how it changed her.


Sarah Chayes, writer, journalist and former NPR correspondent. Author of "On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake" and "Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security." (@Sarah_Chayes)

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Sultana, she grew up in Afghanistan and returned from 2003 – 2015 to live and work.

Interview Highlights

As early as 2002, how much had Afghanistan and its people already changed you?

Sarah Chayes: “I felt at home there, there was an openness. There was a kind of people taking you at face value. I think over the years it changed me more than it had by 2002. But over the years, I came to understand much more, not only about certain Afghans and how they functioned, but also about the United States and how it functioned. So I have to say that over the 10 years, a disenchantment set in in waves. But not primarily about Afghanistan, I would say more about the United States.”

There's been so much focus on Kabul in the U.S. media over the past 14 days. Can you tell us about what's happening in Kandahar?

Sarah Chayes: “A little bit. It's quite quiet. I think that shops are open. People I've spoken to have not been disturbed in any way. However, there have been secret nighttime assassinations. That's what has been going on. So at midnight, people will come to the door. And it's usually specific people, often who worked in the former basically intelligence agency. Or their relatives, or people suspected of having worked, or in the police. And the problem here is ... the Kandahar police, particularly under a chief who's been assassinated, but who was one of the U.S. favorites down there, committed a lot of atrocities. I mean, they were using prisons as torture for ransom. So there may be some reason why scores are being settled.”

On how she witnessed women's lives in her years in Afghanistan 

Sarah Chayes: “I'm going to give a different picture. Because, again, I lived in the South, I lived in Kandahar. And there, I would say there was a bit of an opening in those early years. But the first serious attack north of Kandahar was in 2003. And I would say the changes I saw were all sliding backwards from a high point of about 2003. And so I had people in my co-operative again, these were villagers. I didn't have educated people, but they did have their daughters in school originally.

"And slowly they were pulling their daughters out of school. And you had fewer and fewer people really able to play the type of public roles that Sultana was talking about. So I think ... as we think about what did happen over those 20 years, just as we have to do when we're thinking about the United States, we have to make distinctions between the urban centers and the rural areas. And in this case, between the north and the west and the south. The south is a much more socially and culturally conservative part of the country.”

On how the government in Afghanistan operated, and the feelings of disenchantment that corruption created

Sarah Chayes: "One of the other distressing things I saw happening, apart from the increasing danger for people, was their increasing levels of disgust with their own government, which was the government that we were supporting. We, the United States, was supporting every way we could. And people in this government were shaking Afghans down at every street corner. You could not have an interaction with an Afghan government official at any level without being shaken down, and not politely.

"It wasn't like, look my salary is really low and I don't have sandals for my daughter. Afghans would have taken the shoes off their own daughters feet to give a police officer who said that. No, it was humiliating. It deprived them of dignity. They were paying in money, but they were paying in dignity. And the problem was that U.S. officials didn't really see that, didn't think it was important, didn't realize that when people get angry enough, when this has happened to them several times, they want to take some revenge. You know, I mean, it was difficult if you were a young man in Kandahar by 2008, 2009, 2010, not to join the Taliban.

"So after you've been, you know, harassed and shaken down by the police enough times, well, it becomes very tempting to pick up a gun, join the Taliban and start shooting the police. And I tried to make this clear to American officials. And as you pointed out, I got fairly high up in the food chain. And the reason I did was because this system was vertically integrated. And so there almost wasn't a small enough fish to get without President Karzai getting involved to protect the person. And that meant that it had to be high levels of the U.S. government that responded.

"But more to the point of your question, here's what I came to understand about Afghanistan. And here's what writing on corruption in America taught me about the United States. In Afghanistan, this corruption, as I said, was not just individual venal officials. It was a network. It was vertically integrated. Meaning money that came from the police was going up the line all the way to the interior minister. Protection was coming down the line and it was horizontally integrated.

"And what I mean by that is, the heads of the implementing partners that were getting all the development contracts were usually cousins or brothers in law of the governors, who were steering the contracts in their direction. And steering international money in their direction. And U.S. and other Western officials just never examined those connections. They couldn't see that it was one network that was getting all the benefits of our presence. Whereas Afghans sort of carry social network maps around in their heads. So they could see who was getting the benefit, and that was making them angry.

"And so, you know, in the international development world, there's this expression fragile or failing states. Surely you've heard people talk about that. And what I would often say is, yes, these states like Afghanistan, or like certain African countries or Central American countries that we might use that word for, or that expression for, they may be failing at being states. But they are run by incredibly sophisticated networks that are, in fact, quite successful at their own objective. Their objective isn't governing. Their objective is enriching themselves.”

On lessons for the United States 

Sarah Chayes: “In the United States, politics has become a team sport. I don't need to dwell on that. I also think that we tend to look at problems at the moment in terms of identity groups, be it gender, be it race, be it political party, be it part of the country that we live in. But I feel like above all of us regular American citizens, there is one of these networks. Or a number of networks. Because they are dynamic, and they're sometimes allied and sometimes rival. But you know, that do in a way span a lot of these identity divides, particularly the political one.

"That includes top executives, top decision makers. I mean, in Afghanistan, they included out-and-out criminals. And I think the opioid crisis in any case implies at least that there are connections between the ... folks in business and government, and the out-and-out transnational organized crime side of that crisis. But what I'm saying is these people are really dangerous. In fact, to me, they're more dangerous. The money maximizers, the people who are willing to promulgate any policy that will improve their financial standing at the expense of the American public. These people are way more dangerous than any terrorists.

"And we can bring it back to Afghanistan and get tactical, if you like. And say, what were we doing building a conventional army in an insurgency situation? Flat-footed conventional armies that are dependent on air support and dependent on expensive material and dependent on their headquarters, made of cinder blocks. And long supply lines don't usually do well against an insurgency.

"So why were we turning guerrilla fighters, which is what Afghans have been over a number of decades. Why were we turning them into a conventional army? Why would we be turning them into the redcoats? Well, one answer might be I mean, in part, it's that we ourselves have turned into the redcoats. That's how we know how to fight. But another answer is that there are a lot of defense contractors who had a lot of money to make. And they have made a lot of money in this spectacular failure. And so what I want to say is what I learned in Afghanistan is that what matters is a government of integrity, which puts the public interest first.

"If Afghans had been proud of their government, they could have fought the Taliban off easily. And so I want to say that about the United States. Beyond political party, what matters is ... do we have access to our government in order to make our views known? Is every vote truly weighted equally, or is the vote of people with money, is that a more important vote than the vote of people who don't have a lot of money? If we don't start getting this right in America, if we don't curb some of ... the wealth maximizers in our own society, I'm worried about what the future has in store for us.”

Was the war in Afghanistan a waste?

Sarah Chayes: "I hate to say this. I know there are servicemen and women who are listening to this. I know that there are a lot of civilians who get forgotten sometimes, who spent a lot of time downrange in very difficult situations. And who gave their all, you know, who gave it as good as they had. And so it's painful for me to say that those people, that everything they expended, was in vain. But I'm afraid that if you look at the results, it's just very hard to say anything else.

"And again, it is the senior decision-makers whom I hold responsible, civilian as well as military. And I wonder how are we as a nation going to hold them accountable? What answers will we ask of them? I mean, I was in bureaucratic battles over corruption with some people who are in position now. And I know which side of that they were on. And so, you know, the question is, What responsibility do we require of our own leadership?

"But let me say something else that's just a little bit less grim, which goes something like this. Sometimes it takes a calamity. You know, look back at our own history. Where did we get Social Security, the eight hour day, collective bargaining, you know, provisions, anti-trust provisions, things like that, that began putting some constraints on the wealth maximizers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It came after a series of calamities, World War I, a pandemic that dwarfs the current one, the Great Depression, World War II.

"Then we started getting much more of an ethos of solidarity. It was possible to try new things, because the prior system had just proven absolutely to have failed. Well, think about this young generation of Afghans that Sultana was talking about, these people who grew up in the wake of of the U.S. involvement. I don't think it was possible for them to reform this government concocted of aging war criminals and kleptocrats. Maybe now they can organize, they can start laying the foundations of an Afghanistan that they could be proud of.”

From The Reading List

"The Ides of August" — "I’ve been silent for a while. I’ve been silent about Afghanistan for longer. But too many things are going unsaid. I won’t try to evoke the emotions, somehow both swirling and yet leaden: the grief, the anger, the sense of futility. Instead, as so often before, I will use my mind to shield my heart."

"Ear to the Ground" — "Even before this this week, I had been pondering crisis — and how without it, transformation is rarely possible. Consider again recent events in the United States. Gradual change is not how the world moves. The world moves in pulses."

This program aired on August 30, 2021.


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Annie Sinsabaugh Freelance Producer, On Point
Annie Sinsabaugh was a freelance producer for On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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