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Former NPR Reporter Starts Afghan Cooperative

After former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes reported on the fall of the Taliban in 2001, she decided to stay in Afghanistan as the country was being rebuilt. In 2005, she established the Arghand Cooperative, a business that sells local products for use in perfumes, soaps and food. The author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban, Chayes wrote about her experiences starting the cooperative and selling beauty products in December's Atlantic Monthly.



DATE December 10, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes on the state of
Afghanistan over the past few years, the difficulty of running
an aid-based cooperative, and the future of Afghanistan

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Sarah Chayes woke to the sound of artillery a few weeks ago at her home in
Afghanistan's Kandahar province. The Afghan army was firing on the Taliban,
who were approaching. We invited Chayes to talk with us about how the Taliban
are using both persuasion and terror to expand their power in Afghanistan. As
you may remember, Chayes spent several years as an NPR reporter. In fact, she
reported on the American bombing of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban in
2001. She decided to stay in Afghanistan and help rebuild the country.

First she worked on a project with the mission of building democracy by
rebuilding villages. Now she runs a cooperative she founded in Kandahar that
manufactures soap and skin care products and exports them to the US and
Canada. It's a project designed to help create alternatives to the poppy
economy. Her article about that project is in the December issue of The
Atlantic. Chayes is also author of the memoir, "The Punishment of Virtue:
Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban," which recently came out in paperback.
This month she's in Paris, and that's where she joins us from.

Sarah Chayes, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Ms. SARAH CHAYES: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Last month, you awoke to the sound of artillery. Would you describe
that night, or that morning?

Ms. CHAYES: You know, it was such an incredibly tense period. For basically
two weeks, we were all on edge because a very senior and sort of historic
tribal elder had died, fortunately of a heart attack, in mid-October. And we
knew that this was a person who was very loyal to President Karzai and whose
tribe is an important tribe in the region, and we knew that his district was
going to come under attack. So already I would say that I hadn't been
sleeping. You know, your ears were cocked all night long to hear what was
happening. One night there would be helicopter traffic, you know, just for a
couple of hours, there would be helicopters circling and circling. And that
morning, I heard heavy guns. And it's really the first time I've ever in six
years in southern Afghanistan heard heavy artillery in action. And, you know,
by then, we knew what was going on, this district had come under attack. So
it wasn't a surprise, but it was sort of like a punctuation mark at the end of
a very difficult month.

GROSS: Why were you expecting a Taliban attack?

Ms. CHAYES: This district is a very sort of symbolic place. It's just to
the north of Kandahar City. It's absolutely beautiful. It has a river, this
sort of meandering river studded with stones, the river bed, and so it's where
most of the fruit that's cultivated in southern Afghanistan comes from. And
so the landscape around this is kind of arid moonscape, and you cross a ridge
of hills, and then suddenly it's this jungle of pomegranate trees, you know,
and it's the place that Kandahar goes to on Fridays for picnics, and there're
apricots and there're figs, and it's like the artery of the province in a way.
And significantly also, it was the place where the anti-Soviet resistance was
based in the 1980s, and this was the place from which they drove the Soviets
out of southern Afghanistan. And so it is thought of as a place that, once an
insurgency gets in there, you can't really drive them out.

And it was the sort of fiefdom of this tribal elder who was very widely
respected, had been the person who drove the Soviets out of southern
Afghanistan in the '80s and who was personally very loyal to President Karzai
and had continuously sort of exhorted his tribesmen to stay loyal to the
government in spite of their disaffection with it. And so once he died, I
mean, it was just clear that the Taliban were going to take advantage of that
and try to make some kind of move on his district.

GROSS: So how far did they get?

Ms. CHAYES: Really far. You know, I mean, there was about a week or 10 days
during which various friends of this elder had sort of sat around and thought
about where should there be a forward operating base to prevent this from
happening and how many NATO soldiers would have to be in it and how many
Afghan army, you know, troops would have to be in them to prevent this sort of
incursion. And then what was also interesting is word kind of leaked out just
a few days before the incursion to the effect that, well, actually they
weren't coming after all and they were going to, you know, wait it out and
maybe try next spring. And I found that really interesting after the fact
because, you know, for something that's supposed to be a hodgepodge little
insurgency, you know, full of rogue elements and things like that, to have
deliberately disseminated false information and manage to keep the truth quiet
was quite an indication of organization.

And, you know, they came into the district on a Monday morning, immediately
established themselves in the house of this tribal elder--which was, again, an
incredibly symbolic thing to say, like, you know, within two weeks of his
death, we're inside his house, and you can't stop us. And then there was a
big council of war on the NATO base that evening. So they basically were left
in possession of a large part of the district for the day. And then there was
a kind of NATO and Afghan counterattack, which lasted two or three days and
eventually drove the Taliban back.

Now, that left people at the international military base feeling quite happy
and proud of themselves.

GROSS: But you think this is still a victory of sorts for the Taliban?

Ms. CHAYES: I do. I actually don't really think that they were setting out
to occupy and own that district right then and there. I think it was a kind
of psychological operations, you know? They were trying to demonstrate that
they were there, that they could do what they wanted to do and execute a
fighting withdrawal, which is a relatively difficult thing to do, and let that
sort of psychological impact have its effect over the coming weeks and months.

And I suspect they'll be back in the spring. And I think that they really
succeeded. They lost a lot of people. They lost something like 50 people,
but sometimes a battle can actually be a psychological operations move. In
other words, psychological operations are usually thought of as, you know,
radio messages and leaflets and things like that. But sometimes, you can even
be willing to lose people in order to have a certain psychological impact, and
I actually think they were quite successful.

GROSS: So if you think the Taliban had a psychological impact in your area of
Afghanistan, how do you think they're now going to capitalize on that?

Ms. CHAYES: They've already started. For example, one of my cooperative
members is from this district of Arghandab, and a bomb was placed right on the
little dirt road right near his village, outside his village, I think it was
about two or three weeks ago, after this operation. In other words, I think
what you're going to see is a combination of quiet persuasion, where you'll
have Taliban coming to mosques on Fridays and sitting around with people after
dinner, you know, when people like to sit and drink tea and discuss and things
like that. And they'll try to persuade the people of Arghandab that, `Well,
you know, this government hasn't really done anything for you anyway, and we
don't have anything against you. We're not going to take any revenge on you
for having sided with the government. All we want is, you know, to fight
against the government and against the foreigners. So just let us set up shop
here.' That's going to be one side.

And then the other side is going to be a kind of negative persuasion through
terror operations like this bomb that was placed outside my cooperative
member's village, and occasional assassinations of people who are close to the
government or the foreigners who are present in Afghanistan.

And it's really devastating for ordinary Afghans. They've been through 30
years of combat, and they're traumatized. And so it doesn't take a lot to
actually cause them to change their behavior out of intimidation. So that my
cooperative member, for example, is, for the first time in his life, thinking
of leaving Arghandab and moving his family into town because it's becoming too
dangerous for him.

GROSS: When the Taliban say, `This government, the Karzai government, hasn't
done anything for you,' are they right? Is there an element of truth in that?

Ms. CHAYES: There really is. And it's not just a question of material
benefits like, you know, have roads been built or have schools been built or
has wheat been distributed or something like that. It is the rampant
corruption of this government. It is so painful to watch, quite frankly. You
can't have an interaction with a government official without having to pay a
bribe, and it means--I mean, for example, to pay your electricity bill, if you
have electricity, you have to actually go to seven different desks in two
different buildings, and you have to pay bribes at most of those desks in
order to pay your bill, you know? And whatever it is, if it's being shaken
down by police, a police check post on a street corner, if it's depositing
money in the national bank, if it's getting, you know, an official document
like a license or something like that, you always have to--and you're badly
treated. You're treated like some lower form of life, and money is extracted
from you.

And it's so bad that people basically feel like the Taliban and the government
are two factions fighting over whatever, you know, material benefits there may
be in Afghanistan, like humanitarian assistance and customs and, you know,
sources of money like that, not to mention drug money. So these two factions
are fighting, and both factions are preying upon the ordinary civilians. I
had somebody tell me it's like if you tried to balance on two watermelons, you
know, one foot on one watermelon and the other foot on the other watermelon,
we don't know which way to jump. The Taliban, you know, prey on us at night,
and the government preys on us in the daytime.

GROSS: Sarah, earlier in your life in Afghanistan you worked on a project, a
development project with one of Hamid Karzai's brothers. And I'm wondering if
you used to have faith in Hamid Karzai and his government and if you
subsequently lost it.

Ms. CHAYES: I did. I have tremendous faith. You know, I was reporting for
NPR during the US-led bombing campaign and during and right after the fall of
the Taliban, and I remember Hamid Karzai was inside Afghanistan for part of
that period and was giving radio interviews and really inspiring his
countrymen. And so my faith in them--I didn't know them prior to doing this
reporting--but my faith in them I got through the feelings of ordinary
Afghans. In other words, the kind of electrification of hope and of
inspiration that he was able to transmit to people. I thought, `Wow, you
know, if this isn't Nelson Mandela, it's at least, you know, our decade's
version of a real statesman.' And I was really inspired by the possibilities
that were opening up for Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

And I have become disillusioned because I really feel as though President
Karzai was brought to power on a just resounding mandate to clean up the
government; to provide respectful, responsive and accountable government to
his people; and in particular to get notorious warlords out of town that
everybody knew. I mean, these were people who were entirely repudiated by the
Afghan population and came back into Afghanistan more or less on the American
coattails. I mean, these were people who had been sort of put together as a
posse by American officials to help chase al-Qaeda, but who were in no way up
to the job of running Afghanistan after the Taliban were fully out.

And so, you know, when I would interview people, I would ask them, `How do you
feel about the coming fall of the Taliban?' And they would say, `We're
delighted. We're overjoyed. The only thing we're worried about is that the
warlords will come back and take power again.' And that's exactly what
happened. And President Karzai had a real mandate to clear them out of
government. And instead each stage has been a process of legitimization of
these individuals that the Afghan population did not want to be governed by.
And so I'm very disappointed. It's almost as though he's presiding over a
kind of free for all, a kind of gang rape of his country. And at some point,
that becomes his responsibility.

GROSS: My guest is Sarah Chayes. In 2001, she covered the fall of the
Taliban for NPR. She stayed on in Afghanistan to help rebuild the country and
now runs a cooperative in Kandahar. We'll talk more after a break. This is


GROSS: My guest is Sarah Chayes. She's a former NPR reporter who covered the
fall of the Taliban in 2001. When her assignment ended in Afghanistan in
2002, she stayed in the country to help rebuild it. Her memoir, "The
Punishment of Virtue," was recently published in paperback.

Sarah, now, we were talking about the Taliban attack last month and the part
of Kandahar where you've been living, and how you think that, although they
lost the particular battle, they won in terms of it being a psychological
operation. And now people in that area are really afraid. You also say in
the recent op-ed piece that you wrote in The Washington Post that there's been
these kind of drums beating for including the Taliban in a power-sharing
arrangement. Where are you hearing those drums coming from?

Ms. CHAYES: President Karzai was one of the first ones recently to bring it
to the fore when he, in a sort of rhetorical way, said, `You know, if I could
just have mullah Mohammed Omar's telephone number, I'd call him up and, you
know, we would offer a deputy ministership or something like that to the
Taliban if they would just stop fighting.' Which I found to be a pretty
extraordinary statement for him to make publicly.

You're hearing it in London. President Karzai was recently in London, and at
a press conference after meetings that he had with Gordon Brown, both men, you
know, made allusions to bringing all parties to the table, and political
activity that has to happen alongside the military activity. On the ground in
Afghanistan, there are a lot of sort of rumors about secret and very high
level talks going on between envoys of President Karzai and members of the
Taliban. So it's clear that this is in the air. And...

GROSS: What are your concerns about this? I mean, a power-sharing agreement
might stop the fighting in Afghanistan.

Ms. CHAYES: See, I don't actually believe that the Taliban are a homegrown
insurgency, ideologically-based insurgency. I actually think that,
particularly what we've seen active in southern Afghanistan, has been pretty
much ginned up by the Pakistani military intelligence agency, which is what
created the Taliban in the first place in 1994. The Taliban happened, kind of
emerged as a movement, not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan. And it was always
a kind of proxy through which the Pakistani military hoped to control
Afghanistan to the degree that it could. And I really don't think that that
policy has changed much.

And I have a lot of specific evidence including, you know, Pakistani army
officers teaching in these training camps, including a high level Taliban
driving around Quetta, Pakistan, in cars with license plates that are military
license plates. I mean, it's been really, really clear. And so if you bring
this group to the negotiating table, in a way what you're doing is saying,
`Well, then we will cede, in one way or another, control or partial control
over part of Afghanistan to Pakistan.' And I really don't think that's an
appropriate thing to do.

GROSS: If you see the Taliban as the proxy of Pakistan, what do you see
Pakistan's ambition as being in Afghanistan?

Ms. CHAYES: It's been really clear for more than 30 years now. They've
really been looking to exercise a kind of proxy control over Afghanistan. And
it was clear throughout the 1980s when it was through Pakistan that all the
international funding for the anti-Soviet resistance factions was funnelled.
And the Pakistani government, in particular military, carefully sent the bulk
of this money to one faction which was a kind of extremist faction, which
Pakistan hoped would then take over Afghanistan once the Soviets were through.

Interestingly, Afghanistan had absolutely no intention of being governed by an
extremist Islamist leadership, and so what you got was a civil war where all
the other groups were not interested in this extremist leader taking control
over the country, and so there was this very difficult to live with chaos.
And, I mean, parts of Kabul were leveled, and in Kandahar in the south, I
mean, people could hardly cross town without being shaken down by the gunmen
of different grips and things like that. And so at the end of that, by 1994,
Afghanistan was so exhausted that almost anything looked better than this
chaos that had been perpetrated on them. And the Pakistani government
realized that the guy that it was hoping to install in power in Afghanistan
was not going to win, it was not going to work, and so that's when you saw the
Taliban emerging, or created, as a kind of alternative.

So I really think that the Pakistani government has quite consistently tried
to exercise control by proxy over Afghanistan.

GROSS: Here's what doesn't make sense to me. The Taliban don't seem to like
Pakistan's President Musharraf. My impression is they want him out of power.
So I don't understand why he would want to use them as his proxy in

Ms. CHAYES: It's a case of the sorcerer's apprentice. You know, this is a
proxy that has been instrumentalized for a long time by the Pakistani
government, and now it is escaping control to some extent.

GROSS: So you're saying it's not Musharraf who initiated it?

Ms. CHAYES: No. I mean, it was, as I say, all through the 1980s.

GROSS: Mm. Right.

Ms. CHAYES: Extremists have been instrumentalized by the Pakistani
government, both in Kashmir and in Afghanistan, and I think what's happened is
that, in certain places, they're starting to take on a life of their own.

GROSS: Now, how has daily life changed in the part of Kandahar where you live
since the Taliban attacked?

Ms. CHAYES: It's just gotten more and more constrained. Basically everybody
I know is absolutely terrified. I just lost one of the women in my
cooperative who decided not to continue working with us because women in her
neighborhood had been intimidated, and so she's afraid to work for us. And so
everyone--what you feel is that people are reducing their movements, they
don't move around as much, and pretty much everyone calculates that either
themselves or a member of their immediate family will die in the next three

GROSS: Sarah Chayes will be back in the second half of the show. Her article
on the cooperative she runs in Kandahar is in the December issue of the
Atlantic. Her memoir about life in Afghanistan, "The Punishment of Virtue,"
was recently published in paperback. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Sarah Chayes. We're
talking about her life in Afghanistan where she's now witnessing the
resurgence of the Taliban. Chayes is a former NPR reporter who covered the
fall of the Taliban in 2001. After that she decided to stay in Afghanistan
and help the country rebuild. She's worked on several projects. She founded
and now runs a cooperative in Kandahar that makes soap and other skin care
products, providing jobs that offer an alternative to the poppy economy. Her
memoir about Afghanistan, "The Punishment of Virtue," was recently published
in paperback.

You've mentioned a couple of people who have been threatened in your soap
cooperative. Is there something that's considered subversive about the

Ms. CHAYES: Not specifically, but because I am a foreigner I'm seen as being
part of this whole post-Taliban construct, you know, and that's where it's
quite interesting, because many humanitarians try to draw these great
distinctions between them and the international military forces and the Afghan
government. But from the perspective of ordinary Afghans, as well as from the
perspective of these armed opponents, it's all part and parcel of the same
thing. So there's really not a lot of difference between me and, let's say, a
Canadian soldier.

GROSS: Well, in that case, you must be under quite a threat yourself if
you're seen as one of the infidels?

Ms. CHAYES: It's the first time that I'm actually really starting to feel a
bit nervous, I have to say. It's the first time in six years that I feel like
the situation has gotten enough out of control and that the threat has
diversified enough that I really have to be more careful than I have been in
the past. And so I myself reduced my movements a lot. For the first time--I
normally drive around town alone, and my cooperative members wouldn't let me
anymore. They said, `You will not leave here without somebody else in the car
with you.' And so I am taking more precautions than I have in the past.

GROSS: It seems to me you must really stand out there, you know, because how
many foreigners are in the part of Kandahar where you work, and how many women
foreigners are there heading up a project and being as, you know, assertive
and out there as you are? Doesn't your visibility really make you a target?

Ms. CHAYES: You know, in the past I think my visibility actually protected
me to some degree. Because, again, if you go back to the notion that this, up
until, let's say, a year ago was primarily orchestrated and run by the
Pakistani government, Washington provides Pakistan with a billion dollars a
year, you know, in military and other funding. And so my hypothesis was that
while the Pakistani military was doing what it could to keep the water very
warm in southern Afghanistan, it didn't really want the water to boil over,
and it didn't, you know, really want a bunch of dead American civilians to
cause Washington to maybe re-examine its policy.

Now things are getting a little bit more complicated because, as you pointed
out, there is a kind of radicalization of certain groups of the Taliban who
may not be in control of the ISI anymore. There are a lot of people who have
suffered casualties, whose family members have been killed by, you know, NATO
actions, and who have a kind of blood feud against internationals because of
that. In other words, you know, your brother gets killed and you kind of have
to extract revenge, and this American lady running around is just as good, you
know, a target of revenge as anybody else. And I've also irritated a number
of Afghan government officials. And the more chaotic the environment becomes,
the easier it is for, let's say, non-Taliban actions to be dressed up as
Taliban actions. So you're right. You're absolutely right. And that's why I
kind of feel like I have to dodge a little bit more than I have in the past.

GROSS: You know, you've said that you're worried not just about threats or
attacks by the Taliban, but it's possible for the government or for agents of
the government to attack people and make it look like it's really the Taliban.
How worried are you about that? Have you seen that happen?

Ms. CHAYES: Yeah. And, in fact, I've received two death threats and a IED,
these acronyms that we've all gotten used to, an improvised bomb placed
outside my house. And all of those things were from agents of the government.
They weren't the Taliban, but they were dressed up to look like the Taliban.
So in one case the threat was transmitted to me via the CIA who had heard
that, you know, there's an extremist operational cell that's targeting the CIA
agent who's dressed up to look like a journalist named Sarah who drives thus
and such a car around town. And it was really crazy. And it just didn't
smell right to me. And I suggested to them, `You don't think this might be
the governor?' And they dismissed that.

But when I got the second one some months later that very much echoed the
first in terminology, I sent some officials, both international and Afghan, to
the governor to basically tell him that if anything happened to me he would be
held responsible. And I never heard another word. It was clear to me that
that was coming from the governor. And it was quite clear to me that at least
the CIA at that time was totally taken in by the description of the threat as
a terrorist-type threat.

GROSS: What does the governor have against you?

Ms. CHAYES: Well, I was trying to get him removed. He was one of these
warlords. He has since been sent to another province, but I was very vocal
about--I didn't have anything against him personally, but he very much
represented the sort of warlord governance that Afghans were just desperate
about. And so I was quite vocal--both in public and in, you know,
interactions with President Karzai, for example--saying, you know, this is the
kind of guy you've got to get rid of. And so the governor got very upset and
told President Karzai that so long as, you know, this Sarah was in his
province he couldn't govern, and get rid of her and all of this kind of thing.

GROSS: Oh, it sounds scary.

Ms. CHAYES: It wasn't because I was pretty sure that he wasn't going to
follow up on it. He was trying to intimidate me, and I could kind of read it
in that context. And so, as I say, when the second one came, I felt--again I
wasn't scared--but I felt like, `OK, in local power politics what I have to do
is show him that I'm not intimidated.' And the way I did that was to ask--I
mean, the interior minister said something, the US embassy said something, and
some of the military folks at the base out in Kandahar said something to the
governor. And he got scared. It was really interesting. Now I'm much more
scared because now I don't feel as though the threats are as clearly
perceptible as they were then.

GROSS: And now you think threats really would be coming from the Taliban?

Ms. CHAYES: Yes, I do think the threat could come from Taliban. But I also
think that the situation is chaotic enough that it might be possible for
officials with a grievance to do something without it really clearly appearing
that it was them.

GROSS: My guest is Sarah Chayes. In 2001 she covered the fall of the Taliban
for NPR. She stayed on in Afghanistan to help rebuild the country and now
runs a cooperative in Kandahar. We'll talk some more after a break. This is


GROSS: My guest is Sarah Chayes. She's a former NPR reporter who covered the
fall of the Taliban in 2001. When her assignment ended in Afghanistan in
2002, she stayed in the country to help rebuild it. Her memoir "The
Punishment of Virtue" was recently published in paperback.

Sarah, one of the first projects that you worked on was a project to build
democracy by helping to physically rebuild villages.

Ms. CHAYES: Hm. Yeah.

GROSS: And now you're heading a cooperative that manufactures soap and other
skin care products and exports them to the United States and Canada. Now, the
idea behind that project--you know, soap isn't the ultimate goal. The
ultimate goal is self-sufficiency and jobs. But, you know, when I think of
the scope of rebuilding villages and homes, to rebuild democracy vs. making
soap and exporting it, the scope of the ideal there seems to be--having gotten
a lot more smaller and localized, and, you know, it's kind of scaled down.
Can you talk about that different change and scope of the projects and what's
behind that?

Ms. CHAYES: Yeah. Yeah, you're really on to something with that. And it's
not just that houses are bigger than bars of soap, but it's that, you know,
when I first went in I wanted to be part of a process of rebuilding
institutions and a whole kind of governance that would be responsive to the
needs of Afghans, of the ordinary Afghan population, where they felt that they
had input into their collective destiny. And, unfortunately, this, to me, has
been the real failure of the international presence in Afghanistan.

Because, you know, often I'm asked, for example, `Are we right to impose
democracy on people who just, you know, don't want it or aren't ready for it
or this or that?' And when you think about, let's see, what have we imposed?
Well, we brought in really hardened criminals and put them in positions of
political power. We presided over, at least, parliamentary elections that
were really, really deeply corrupt. There have been black sites, places where
torture has been undertaken at the behest of US officials. I don't really
think that's American democracy as I understand it. And so, in fact, rather
than bringing democracy to Afghanistan, what I experience that we've done is
actually to obstruct it.

And I think the only answer to the deterioration of the situation is to
radically change course in that regard. We have got to start holding to
account the government officials that we help bring to power. And so, while I
make soap, I also agitate for that to happen. I don't sort of only make soap.
But what's fascinating about making soap is that it brings you into contact
with a lot of the issues that are encountered by ordinary Afghans. And so
I've got concrete examples that, you know, I can bring to NATO and US
officials when I make my plea. But it's certainly true that in the current
kind of dire situation I have, you know, after this attack on Arghandab
district, I was thinking OK, well, what--you know, let's say there is a
negotiation with the Taliban and some kind of re-branded Taliban gets its
hands on, you know, five southern governships. Well, then what do I do?
Let's see, you know? And my feeling is that I can't condone that kind of an
Afghanistan by my deep involvement.

On the other hand, I've got 12 families that are surviving based on this
cooperative that I founded and there are all sorts of production, you know,
processes that we've developed and whole products that we've developed. And
so I started getting really adaptable and thinking, `Let's see, well, how
could I continue to run this at a distance if need be? Would we have to
separate the working space of women and men?' I mean, literally I started
thinking in those directions. And so it is interesting how you become
adaptable, just like Afghans.

GROSS: You become adaptable for survival.

Ms. CHAYES: Yeah.

GROSS: You want those families to survive. You want your work to survive.

Ms. CHAYES: Yeah.

GROSS: But on the other hand, do you want to make the kind of compromises
where your freedom as a woman would be close to nonexistent?

Ms. CHAYES: Not myself, no. For example, one of my cooperative members
said, you know, `You can't go out anymore except in a burka.' I said `no way.'
You know, I refuse to accept that kind of Afghanistan. And that's why I've
had to adapt to some extent, you know, the amount of time that I'm planning to
spend on the ground and things like that. And it's a pretty heavy
psychological transition, I have to say.

GROSS: Sarah, the last time we spoke--and this was in 2003--you said that you
dressed basically like an Afghan man when you were in Afghanistan because you
were more comfortable in a male's clothes--you know, pants and a loose fitting
top--than you would have been in a woman's clothes in Afghanistan, and you
certainly weren't going to, you know, veil yourself. What are you wearing

Ms. CHAYES: Same thing. And I actually stopped for a while. For a while I
was wearing loose fitting Western clothes. And now, because of the security
situation, I've gone back to, you know, turban and the whole thing because the
idea is to create an optical illusion, you know, so that I look like the man
people expect me to be. And, really, it's like not being a target of
opportunity. Let's say there's a guy who's wired up, you know, and he's been
waiting for a military convoy to drive past and it's not showing up and so he
decides to choose a target of opportunity. If I'm an obvious foreigner who
happens past him at that time, it can be fatal.

GROSS: What are some of the places you've been to in Afghanistan where you're
the only woman and it's very unusual, or perhaps impossible, for an Afghan
woman to be present at that situation?

Ms. CHAYES: Partly meetings with Afghan officials, you know, going to see
the governor. The governor will have a kind of--it's almost like office
hours, but it's a sort of--it's called a majlis, and it's when he hears
people's grievances and things like that, but in a public setting. And so
other people are listening in and will chime in and things like that, and it's
inconceivable that an Afghan woman would be part of that majlis.

And, more movingly, funerals. I've been to the funerals of two dear friends
who--one of whom was assassinated and then this tribal elder that we mentioned
earlier who died in the middle of October. And, I mean, somebody actually
asked--an American asked an Afghan when he heard about this as to, you know,
`Does this ever happen?' And the Afghan said, `Not only is this rare, it's
unheard of.'

And I think part of the reason is that I--the person you really want to be in
Afghanistan is a foreign female, because as a female you can interact with
women. But as a foreigner you kind of--it's like the third sex. You're
allowed to interact with men in ways that Afghan women never, never could.
And in this particular case these were friends of mine, and I was very moved
that their families and their, you know, close friends saw me as that and
accepted me in these assemblies.

GROSS: Do you think in any way your presence in these kinds of situations as
a woman--albeit as a foreign woman--makes people maybe question their feelings
about women, you know, that women are incapable of doing certain things and
don't belong in many places?

Ms. CHAYES: I doubt it. Because what they can say is, `Well, she's a
Westerner and they're different,' you know.? As though there's something
different in the water, you know, on the other side of the world. And I often
tell people, `There is no difference, you know, between me and an Afghan
woman, it's just the context that I grew up in and that my society offered me
certain advantages and opportunities and challenges that you refuse to offer
your women.' But it has a big impact on women. And sometimes I think the
impact may be very invisible, and it may be things like that, like when I go
to a girls' school and get out of my truck that I just drove into the
courtyard, and all the girls come running and they say, `Oh my goodness,
there's a woman driving a truck. Women don't drive in Kandahar.'

And so I'm hoping that just my presence may have some sort of ripple effect
that I can't discern, and that's different from whatever the direct impact of
what I'm doing with my cooperative or with my arguments with Afghan and
international officials.

GROSS: Do you have any Western friends in Afghanistan who you can talk to who
really understand your frame of reference?

Ms. CHAYES: That's a really good question. And the answer is, not really.
And I think that that's one of the most difficult things about living there,
is the kind of intellectual and psychological isolation. Because I'm very
close with my cooperative members and we talk, you know, a lot. And the guys
take turns spending the night so we always have dinner and I kind of
really--and in some ways I'm a friend to them in ways that they couldn't have
even among their males friends because, again, they can talk to me about their
intimate lives in ways that they can't with their male friends. But I don't
really have anyone that I can share my approach to the country because it's a
bit different from the typical approach of humanitarian workers.

GROSS: My guest is Sarah Chayes. In 2001 she covered the fall of the Taliban
for NPR. She stayed on in Afghanistan to help rebuild the country and now
runs a cooperative in Kandahar.

The soap cooperative that you founded and run, which provides income for 12
families now in Afghanistan, you created through private foundations, you
know, charities, I think like grants, individual donors, things like that.
You initially tried to go through the official aid channels, the groups that
give money as contractors through the US, USAID, the United States Agency for
International Development. You gave up on those channels because of the

Ms. CHAYES: Yeah. You know, what...

GROSS: Give us a sense of what you were expected to do and why you gave up
even trying.

Ms. CHAYES: Well, you know, what we're doing, it's not just that we provide
a livelihood for 12 families--and more, because we buy our raw materials from
local farmers. But in fact what it is is an anti-opium project. In other
words, our notion is that the best way to beat opium is compete with it. And
so if you can expand the market for licit local agriculture, then you're going
to make headway against opium. And there's a USAID-funded project, $119
million over five years, designed supposedly to support precisely this,
alternative livelihoods.

And it was just insane. I mean, I spent a year trying to climb through their
hoops before being turned down. We did then get a grant from them the second
year, and it was supposed to be a shoe-in to get a follow-on grant after that.
And we're really the only project in southern Afghanistan that is successfully
pulling this off because, as you mentioned, we export our soap and body oils
to the US and Canada. We are swamped in demand. We literally cannot keep up
with demand, you know. So there's plenty of room for expansion, for expansion
for us, for expansion of the model and things like that.

And I just found that it was almost as though they were putting you through
hoops for the fun of putting you through hoops. And I also think that there
is a tendency on the part of USAID to want to fund gargantuan projects, you
know. So they spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars doing a feasibility
study for a several million dollar dairy in the next province over from us.
And I had actually done dairy for a while in Kandahar. And I could have told
them for free why their idea was unfeasible and what kind of an idea would
have been feasible. And, you know, so the first time we got turned down we
were turned down in part because, you know, we weren't big enough. And I was
trying to tell them, `Look, this is a brand new product in a saturated market
and I'm working, I'm operating in an active theater of war. I cannot promise
you now that I'm going to have a factory with 100 people in it,' you know?
`Let me build this up step by step organically according to, you know, how
well the product is doing, how our working environment functions and things
like that and then we'll see where we get.' And they just weren't interested.

GROSS: Would it be going too far to say that, in your opinion, a lot of the
aid money going into Afghanistan benefits the contractors more than the people
it's intended to benefit?

Ms. CHAYES: That's absolutely clear. I mean, the people who were the, let's
say, program officers when we did get our USAID-funded contract, they were
making between 100 and--I think it's between 100 and $200,000 a year base pay
plus 35 percent for hazard pay, 35 percent because they don't live at home and
10 more percent because they had to work on Saturdays. So they were making,
let's say, two to $300,000 a year. And USAID was paying the contracting
company five to $600,000 per person. And, you know, I mean, that eats through
aid dollars really, really fast. Plus tens of thousands of dollars in rental
for their facilities; they all drive around in brand new, often armored, you
know, vehicles; they've got heavy security details. It costs a fortune. And
Afghans see it, and they're a little bit upset about it because they
understand that that was money that was earmarked for Afghanistan, and they
see it going back into the pockets of the contractors.

GROSS: You know, I recently had on the show somebody named Joel Hafvenstein,
who--his memoir "Opium Season" is about working for a contractor in
Afghanistan whose job was to create jobs for people in Afghanistan that would
be an alternative to the poppy economy. And he kind of gave up on that
project when security just got so bad and, you know, and several of his men
were killed. And he thought, like, you just really can't move forward with
these kinds of development projects until you have sufficient security, and
that security just didn't exist. That's basically what his book is about. So
I'm wondering, from your point of view now, how much security is an issue in
going forward with everything you think Afghanistan needs to do on the large
and small level to move forward?

Ms. CHAYES: It's a huge issue. I mean, that's the same contractor that I
interacted with, and I'm dying to read that book, which I haven't gotten my
hands on yet. But he's talking about an event that happened in 2005, and,
quite frankly, the security situation wasn't so bad that you couldn't operate
between 2005 and now. But it's definitely an issue. We distributed
solar-powered water pumps to three of our cooperative members who own land,
and they've had to take the panels down because it makes them a target. So
the issue isn't just security for the development workers, it's worse. It's
that recipients of development projects are now saying `thanks, but no thanks
because the situation is so bad that accepting your help is going to mark me
out and make me a target in the future.'

I still think that security would be vastly improved if there was an
improvement in governance because the other problem is that ordinary Afghan
citizens are not sticking up for their government because the government isn't
sticking up for them. And so they say, `Why should we stick our necks out for
a government that is preying upon us rather than, you know, providing some
services and supporting us?' Whereas, if the Afghans felt pride in their
government, you would see them start to stand up to defend it. And they
themselves would clear their areas of Taliban.

GROSS: Sarah, any observations or thoughts you want to leave us with?

Ms. CHAYES: You know, I feel as though we've been a bit pessimistic in the
course of this conversation, and I think that's accurate, but I do not believe
that Afghanistan is a lost cause. And I think if we turn our backs on
Afghanistan--I mean, the reason I stayed was not just because I liked the
country but because I really felt that what happens in Afghanistan is going to
have a big impact on what the 21st century is going to look like and whether
we're going to live in, you know, in a divided, bipolar world the way we did
through much of the 20th century.

And I actually think that the remedies for Afghanistan are not that difficult,
and it really has to--it's very practical. It's not an ideological or
cultural thing; it's practical. It's about creating, you know, government
systems that are responsive to the needs of the citizens. And I feel that
we've really neglected our duty in that regard, and if we were to really put
our efforts into that agenda, things would change rapidly for the better.

GROSS: Well, I wish you well and, you know, good luck with your project. And
thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. CHAYES: Thank you so much for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Sarah Chayes is a former NPR reporter who has lived in Afghanistan
since covering the fall of the Taliban. Her memoir is called "The Punishment
of Virtue." Her article about her soap cooperative is in the December edition
of The Atlantic. You can find a link to the article and a link to her slide
show of pictures from Afghanistan on our Web site,

And here's one more thing you can do on our Web site: You can download
podcasts of our show.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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