The Magazine

The Other War

One Afghan city and American foreign policy.

Jan 1, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 16 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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The Punishment of Virtue

Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban

by Sarah Chayes

Penguin, 320 pp., $25.95

There is no shortage of books about the war in Iraq. Journalistic "histories of the present," self-serving memoirs by former government officials, ideological hatchet jobs by Beltway pundits--the sheer tonnage of hardcovers generated by the U.S. invasion and its aftermath is enough to dam the Tigris and the Euphrates.

By contrast, the publishing industry has churned out almost nothing about postwar Afghanistan. The assorted policymakers who have served in Kabul have refrained from spilling their secrets after returning home, while none of the reporters dispatched there have produced anything resembling a definitive account of the country's trajectory since 2001.

Instead, the few individuals who have written books about Af ghanistan have tended to be mavericks: idiosyncratic, adventurous characters who defy easy categorization. There is Rory Stewart, the former British officer who, shortly after the Taliban fell, decided to walk across Afghanistan, trekking 500 miles from Herat to Kabul in the dead of winter. His account of this adventure, The Places in Between, is as extraordinary as it is improbable. Then there's Åsne Seierstad, the Norwegian journalist and author of The Bookseller of Kabul, who cloistered herself with an Afghan family for several months in 2002, using the personal histories of her hosts to tell the larger story of the postwar period.

Now comes Sarah Chayes, whose Punishment of Virtue is arguably the best book yet about politics and power in Afghanistan after the Taliban, and squarely in the maverick camp. Chayes was a National Public Radio correspondent who volunteered, in the aftermath of September 11, to go to Quetta, Pakistan, and then sneaked north across the border to Kandahar. Like the rest of the media horde that rushed into Afghanistan just as the Taliban were retreating from it, Chayes arrived knowing virtually nothing about the strange place in which she suddenly found herself. Unlike the rest, she stuck around, moving in with Afghans, learning Pashto, adopting local dress--going native, in other words, and to an extent few would dare.

This volume is the product of five years' worth of observations and insights in Kandahar, where Chayes eventually left her reporting career for a job running a nongovernmental organization. The result is a mix of personal memoir, investigative journalism, and political advocacy, with frequent digressions into Afghan history and culture.

To be clear, Kandahar is the sort of place that most Americans would sooner chew broken glass than set foot in, "a town with no banks, no commercial airport, little running water, precarious electricity, and hardly a paved road in sight." It was the stronghold of the Taliban regime, and its inhabitants are often reviled even among Afghans for being a violent, duplicitous lot. To Chayes's credit the portrait she draws of Kandahar is far more nuanced and interesting than just another postcard from hell. As it happens, she genuinely likes the city, "a way station for traders, warriors, immigrants and invaders," a crossroads of Indian, Iranian, and Central Asian cultures, and the place where the modern Afghan state first coalesced. There is something about Kandahar, she writes, "that goes right to the marrow of Afghanistan's bones."

Chayes captures the optimism that swept Kandahar following the Taliban's ouster, when policemen would stop traffic in order to shake her hand, and little girls celebrated the chance to attend school for the first time in their lives, "squealing and mimicking the act of writing with fingers on their miniature palms." It's precisely this fleeting image of Kandahar as something other than the heart of darkness--a place populated by decent human beings eager to live under the protection of a Pax Americana--that makes Chayes's story so poignant, especially as the shadow of the Taliban's resurgence begins to creep over it.

The Punishment of Virtue traces the arc of the Taliban's postwar guerrilla campaign, starting with the threats and "night letters . . . a folded slip of paper tucked into a crack in the door of the mosque," damning the Karzai government for apostasy, or a note warning parents to stop sending their daughters to school. Next came the first attacks--the execution of an aid worker here, an assault on a police garrison there--and then a wave of assassinations of political, civil, and religious leaders, including one of Chayes's best friends, whose June 2005 murder opens and closes the book.