Promoting vice

I’ve just finished reading Sarah Chayes’ The Punishment of Virtue. It’s left me angered, saddened and despairing. It’s good.

Chayes spent six years living in Kandahar from 2001, first as a journalist then running a local non-governmental aid organisation, with rare access to the political scene there.

The Taliban had a Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Punishment of Vice. Chayes argues that the US and President Karzai have often been doing the opposite: supporting the warlords along with Pakistan, promoting vice.

OK, so it’s a whole lot more subtle than that, but she passionately takes on the double-standards and disconnections of US foreign and military policy, and the perverse prevarications and intrigue of the Afghan government.

I have mixed feelings about her position in Kandahar – an aid worker, with close ties to the US forces and the Karzai family – and her overtly political stance, an individual with a fair degree of influence and accountability to no one, ‘meddling’ in the affairs of others. But I also respect her for that.

There are a whole load of issues it’s raised for me I want to think through, but two main ones will suffice.

A while back I wrote something about Provincial Reconstruction Teams, commenting on what seemed to me, in one limited example, to be a lack of formal briefing on events and processes in Afghanistan before being deployed. That post generated a couple of good comments that almost, though not quite, made me feel slightly abashed.

I’ve been mulling those comments over since then, and so was interested to read about Chayes’ experience of accidentally being asked to brief a new deployment of US troops to the province.

No concerted effort was being made to educate the army about the radically new duties that had been thrust upon it. […] It seemed to me that as long as the Defence Department is conducting U.S. foreign policy, officers should be taught about the foreign land upon which their actions will have such a lasting impact. (285)

In 2004, the latest U.S. forces had no simple chart of the local tribes. Chayes supplied one to them, for the second time.

I feel slightly vindicated by her remarks, especially coming from a U.S. citizen described by one G.I. as a ‘hawk,’ and who is equally and perceptively critical of aid organisations.

Registan is well worth looking at on PRTs as well while I’m about it.

The second issue I thought I’d randomly throw out there is about security, and different approaches taken between the military and aid organisations.

Once or twice I’ve had to explain to civilian and military personnel of PRTs why I am, I believe, safer not having an armed guard with me every step of the way as they do. It’s about that whole idea of ‘humanitarianism’ again: my safety depends on my neutrality, on staying as far away from any weapon as possible, both physically and conceptually.

So anyways, Sarah Chayes’ thoughts on the matter:

The expatriates, I believe, misunderstood the nature of violence in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a place where mutually assured destruction remains a viable doctrine. It is a culture of retribution. […] Walls and barbed wire, I had learned, are not all that significant in Afghanistan, when it comes down to it. Preventing your own murder – once someone has resolved to commit it – would be almost impossible. But if you are seen to belong to a recognized group, a family or tribe that might retaliate, your chances of survival increase. The way to stay safe in Kandahar was to suggest the certainty of violent revenge should you be killed or dishonoured, so as to deter attack before it is undertaken. (236)

Thus there is safety in aid organisations being associated with the military. It’s an interesting point and while not one I agree with I think it does add another angle to the debate.

There are lots of other pages I’ve folded the corner of and want to go back to, but I’ll leave it at that.

So stop reading this; read this. It’s much more interesting than I’ve made it sound and it’s better than The Kite Runner.

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