Sarah Chayes: Not Your Average Activist

Sarah Chayes, Harvard-graduate and former National Public Radio (NPR) reporter, left her job to help rebuild war-torn Afghanistan. She speaks Pashto, occasionally dresses like an Afghan male, and has lived Kandahar City since the fall of the Taliban. Sarah launched a cooperative called Arghand in 2005 and has recently published The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban.

Why did you decide to settle in Kandahar?

In history, you have these watershed moments – the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, for example, marked the 20th century. And I think that 9/11, 2001 will prove to be that kind of watershed for the 21st century. And I believe Kandaharis a very symbolic place in terms of the direction the post-9/11 world will take. To me the issue isn't the clash of civilizations, as it's often been described. I actually think the real clash is that between those people, whichever side of the so-called divide they fall on, who believe in "with us or against us" thinking, on the one hand, and on the other hand, those of us who believe that the world is made up of complex, heterogeneous and inexplicably intertwined civilizations. It seems to me that Afghanistan - the other "Ground Zero" - was the place to fight the other kind of attitude. Within the Afghan context I chose Kandahar because it was clear to me that it was a pariah town, because of its Taliban past, and I knew it was going to get left behind. In these types of post-conflict situation, the capital always draws most of the attention and the resources that go along with that attention. I felt that if Kandahar slipped behind, it would endanger the new Afghanistan, which is obviously what is happening now.'

Are their many distinctions between Kandaharis and Afghans living in Kabul?

Absolutely! First of all, there's a major ethnic divide in the country between Pashtuns, who are mostly in the South and East, and Tajiks, who along with a couple other smaller ethnic groups are mostly in the North and West. There's a language difference and quite a considerable culture difference. When I go to Kabul, people laugh at me because I am a foreigner who speaks Pashto – already something of a – and I speak it with a strong Kandahari accent! Kandahar continues to suffer from quite a bad reputation, even within the Afghan context. Most Afghans are afraid of it; they're afraid of Kandaharis. They think they’re backward and grasping and tribal. But I love Kandahar. While the people are quite socially and culturally conservative, there's a winning straight-forwardness to them. Even if they lie, you can easily tell. There's a rough-and-tough frontier feeling about the place, but by the same token, an open-heartedness, and tremendous loyalty to those people who are willing to stick it out in Kandahar. If I couldn't live here, I'm sure I would leave Afghanistan altogether.

You have learned to speak Pashto; do you still dress in Afghan men's clothes?

Not all the time. But my cooperative members have asked me to start doing it again for security reasons, so that I don't stick out from a distance. When I'm driving around I usually do; when I'm working inside our compound, I don't.

You've been accepted into the local culture?

Most people are very welcoming to me. They know I’m not Afghan, yet I don't behave like the kind of foreigner they're used to. I'm much more integrated into the society, I carry myself in a way they consider to be brave, and that wins me respect and affection.

I imagine that you have much more access and privileges than most Afghan women?

For sure; Icon interact with men on a level of equality. The person you want to be in Afghanistan is a Western woman. As a female, I can interact with women and as a Westerner, I can interact with men and I may even be able to get their attention in ways that even an Afghan man wouldn't.

Do you think that the women you work with might resent you a little bit because they will likely never be able to achieve that kind of status?

The women I’m working with are extremely poor and vulnerable and I think that they see me more as a protector. The working conditions and the environment that we have created together are so safe and healthy compared to what they have experienced in the past that I think that they're just relieved to have a kind of haven. So I think that most of the women I have worked with closely have seen me more as a champion than as a rival.

Have security issues worsened in the Kandahar region since you've been there?

Very much so, yes.

The security issue is very important to Canadians, considering our troop presence in the region. Do you think they have inadvertently made matters worse?

Not at all. This has nothing to do with our calendar or timeline. The deterioration in conditions here is the result of a campaign that has been planned since 2001and patiently executed. I don't even think the recent upsurge in violence deliberately coincided with the Canadian and NATO takeover of the South. I expected it to get this bad in late 2003or early 2004. I think it got delayed by an extremely capable U.S commander who arrived in early 2004 and who really got it. He did a couple of things that really interrupted the program.

Many Canadians are uncomfortable seeing their troops operating in this capacity; actually fighting and not just peacekeeping, or digging wells.

I know it’s not a role you're accustomed to but it's a little bit naïve and irrelevant to do so-called humanitarian work in a country that's being invaded, and that’s what this is. It's an invasion. It's not a home grown local uprising. It’s orchestrated from across the border and so in that sense, I think you really have a role to play in protecting the civilians from the Taliban invasion. On the other hand, the corruption and predatory nature of the Afghan government has exacerbated the problem. 'The families of all my cooperative members live out in these districts where there’s been heavy fighting and they don't know what to do. The Taliban are shaking them down at night and the government is shaking them down in the daytime. You need to continue having a robust war fighting capacity there to fight these invaders. I have seen plenty of situations where local police were dying for reinforcements and actually there weren't enough troops to reinforce them. But at the same time, you need to call Afghan government officials to account, and demand that they become more responsive to the legitimate needs of the people.

What would you recommend to Canadian decision-makers about our role in Afghanistan?

One thing I would recommend, and I have mentioned to members of the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP that I met while in Canada, is that Afghans really need economic development. That’s a little bit harder to do than classic humanitarian or reconstruction assistance. However, for now, I don't think they need any more schools or clinics; these things are easy to build but much harder to properly staff and equip, so what you have are a lot of empty schools and clinics in Afghanistan. I would really really focus development assistance. Things like irrigation – start giving away solar-powered water pumps to farmers and start working with entrepreneurs on business projects. Bemire proactive in terms of going out to interact with people who could launch small businesses and actually help them design a viable business project, not just wait in offices for them to come in with a perfect proposal.

The other thing that I would love to see Canadian officials doing is really demanding accountability from Afghan government officials. There's a difference between supporting the government and writing it a blank cheque. I think we have had a tendency to say security trumps everything else, and argue that in the name of security, we need to "work with" corrupt officials. But the fact is that poor governance is what has really helped make this security situation deteriorate. People faced with this Taliban invasion are no longer willing to take risks in favour of this government because it's so corrupt. If we had insisted on good governance in the beginning, then people would be defending their government now, and you wouldn't have a Taliban problem.

How does on-going fighting and insecurity impact Afghan society?

It destroys the psychological and social structures. There is no trust between individuals. It's very, very challenging, even in cooperative like ours, to instil these bonds of trust. It's also very hard for people to project into the future so the result is people take everything they can get their hands on now, immediately. If you don't do that, there might be reversal of fortunes tomorrow. There is not much passion in this context for building a new society.

I'd like to talk about your cooperative, Arghand. What is Arghand meant to do?

The idea is to compete with opium industry by expanding the market for licit local agriculture. That's the long-term objective. Kandahar's fruit, especially pomegranates and grapes, are legendary. The problem with fruit is that it's heavy and perishable, so ideally it should be converted into something more stable, lighter and easier to export. So we're extracting oil from almonds, apricots, cumin seeds, pomegranate seeds and distilling essential oils from local varieties of flowers and herbs, and making soap. It's fantastic soap, quite honestly; people have been writing to me saying they're addicted to it. We've got some 40 shops in the United States and Canada waiting to stock our products, so there's enormous potential in this initiative.

What do you think of the idea of licensing opium production in Afghanistan?

I think it’s ridiculous and here's why: currently, only about 20% of Afghan land is in poppy cultivation. If you say you're going to buy the poppy, then 100% of Afghanistan’s landowners are going to want to grow it. If you arbitrarily limit who gets to grow licensed poppy, then the illicit growing and trafficking will only turn to the new people; people who weren't previously growing poppy. It’s quite misguided.

Is it your sense that the average farmer would rather produce traditional crops than harvest poppies?

If they can make a living at it, absolutely. They all know it's religious taboo to grow poppy. Two things are needed: one is the expansion of the market for licit crop at reasonable prices. The other really important thing is micro credit. Not just for businesses or entrepreneurs; micro credit for consumer loans as well because that's one of the major reasons why people get involved in growing opium. For example, a man has to borrow a huge amount of money to get married. Marrying off its boys is the single biggest expenditure for an average family. It can cost ten thousand dollars for everything related to the marriage; the bride price, the wedding itself, the addition to the house, and so on. People don't have this kind of money and without access to financial institutions, they turn to the traffickers for loans. Then they have to pay them back in opium. Then if the government comes around and eradicates their poppy, they've defaulted on their loan that year, and have to grow twice as much next year to pay it off.

Are there still dimensions of the culture that you just don't understand and maybe never will?

Doubtless, but it's hard to know what they are ahead of time. You usually have the epiphany afterwards. I would say one of the most difficult things for me to adjust to - I think I decided not to adjust to it - is the very curious relationship with the truth. People almost never tell the truth for its own sake and I think this is part of the survival mentality we discussed. You first find out what your interlocutor thinks. Nobody will give out their personal opinion to a stranger without first knowing what the stranger thinks. Secondly, almost everybody speaks with some kind of ulterior motive. So part of me tends to think that words used aren’t very important because they're manipulated to such a degree. Yet on the other hand, words count terribly: people are far more sensitive to insults than they are to the reality that may underlie the insult. In other words, it's okay to be a thief but it's not okay to be called a thief. That is an equation that sometimes I can grasp analytically and I can make those two sides of that equation add up, and other times it will lose me.

It's more than just a question of losing face?

That’s basically what it is but it has to do with the longevity of words. How one is spoken of after one has died is very important, so you have to be very careful about what you say about someone publicly, because people are so sensitive. Other people tend to be overly kind in how they describe people in public. They will be very nasty about them in private. It does have something to do with chronic war but also these honour based societies. I have tried but I just don't function that way. I have decided to take on the role which also has a place in the Islamic tradition: the kind of the royal fool. The one who, for whatever reason, is able to tell the truth to power, often by wrapping it up in a joke, but not entirely. That's kind of the role that I'm trying to play. I don't do it often – just when something is very important.

Thank you very much Sarah Chayes.

You're very welcome.