Sarah Chayes discusses life in Taliban-resurgent Afghanistan

Although Iraq dominates the headlines, the situation in Afghanistan may be more decisive to longterm international security, said Sarah Chayes, who has lived in the country since 2001 after covering the last stand of the Taliban for National Public Radio (NPR).

Chayes, an American who directs Arghand, a cooperative in Kandahar that produces soap from local plants and fruits as an alternative to opium production, spent Wednesday, Nov. 5, at Stanford. During several talks with CISAC faculty, staff, students and donors she discussed regional security, the future of democracy in Afghanistan and the stresses of everyday life in the ancient city of Kandahar, where she lives and where civilians must carry firearms to protect themselves. 

Chayes strongly criticized efforts to negotiate with the Taliban, which has fought a protracted guerilla war against the Afghan government since 2004. The extremist movement ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, when the Northern Alliance and NATO forces removed its leaders from power. "There is no intrinsic support from the population for the Taliban," Chayes said. "The Taliban want all, they understand they won't get all so they are trying to get what they can. Negotiating with the Taliban [offers] zero benefit."

Instead, according to Chayes, Afghanistan needs to experience the "real substance of democracy," not simply elections. It also needs a surge of non-military volunteers trained to mentor leaders working in civil society. "Thirty years of combat undoes a lot of structure" in society, she said. "People get things done as fast as possible because they might be shot in the next 50 seconds."

Chayes is the author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban. In 2006, she was awarded The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' inaugural Ruth Adams Award for her work explaining the impact of U.S. policy on Afghanistan after 9/11. The prize recognizes journalists who translate complex issues of peace and security into everyday language and images. Chayes left NPR in 2002 to help rebuild Afghanistan. Initially, she served as field director for Afghans for Civil Society, a non-profit founded by the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. She founded Arghand in May 2005.