I have (finally!) finished reading “The Punishment of Virtue; Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban,” by Sarah Chayes. It took as lot longer than I thought it would to finish it. I am both sorry and glad it is over.
This is an intriguing and complex look at warlordism in Afghanistan. It is at times thrilling, a true page turner, made even more exciting by the fact that it is a true insider’s account of post 9-11 Afghanistan. Sarah Chayes certainly knows Afghanistan like no one else – she has lived and worked there, researched elusive primary sources and intimately mingled with leaders throughout the country. She does an amazing job of explaining warlordism, its roots and current implications, though sometimes the purely historical chapter can be a bit of a laborious read.
That being said, I have a few complaints.
Ms. Chayes’s background is in radio- it was as a reporter for NPR that she first went to Afghanistan. There are times in this book that it seems written for radio, rather than print. Not a lot, but enough to make you reread a sentence here and there to make sure you understand. There were many times, too, when the descriptions got overly multisyllabic – lots of million dollar words – enough to detract from the setting she was trying so hard to describe. Its been a long time since I needed a dictionary so often while reading a book in English. Her command of vocabulary is impressive- just sometimes a little disruptive.
Beyond writing style, Ms. Chayes sets herself apart from other foreigners in country. She more than once looks down on aid workers, chastising them for their Thursday night parties and their lack of continuity (in this case not staying in country long enough). She also criticized aid organizations for “being played” by the Afghans, Pakistanis and Americans. That aid becomes political is to some degree inevitable in any country. She condemns them with an attitude of knowing better, when in fact in the end, she doesn’t.
Its absolutely beguiling how she places herself right in the middle of reconstruction politics. She is certainly well connected, working personally with local governors, police chiefs, and the president’s brother. She also holds company with US ambassadorial and military higher ups, Afghan cabinet members and President Karzai himself. Its difficult to tell sometimes, however, whether she is a trusted consult or an opinionated pest. She certainly has strong and well founded opinions of what needed to happen, but it felt like she shared them in such patronizing ways. For example, a memo she drafted for President Karzai was entitled, “How to Fire a Warlord in 8 Easy Steps.” Having never met President Karzai, I guess I can’t judge, but it seems like offering him something akin to “Running Afghanistan for Dummies” is a bit pompous.
All in all, it is a very good book. Ms. Chayes has left no stone unturned in this book. It makes me wish I had paid more attention to names and titles during the Afghan elections, and it certainly makes me more aware of the politics going on today. It is a must read for anyone interested in Afghan politics, development or history. You will learn a lot from this book. You will look at Afghanistan a little differently after reading it. It might take you a little longer than you might think (to get through the history chapters) but you’ll be glad you did.