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The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban by Chayes, Sarah(June 26, 2007)

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Review Text

  • By M. D. lebeau on January 1, 2010

    I believe the publishers misrepresented the book. The cover and reviews portray the work as an analysis of post-2001 Afghanistan, and an indictment of the errors of the US military and the Afghan government. The book focuses on the governor and police chief of Kandahar from 2002-2005. The book does describe Ms. Chayes' experience working for an NGO, but never covers the political-military situation, and charges of U.S. government mismanagement that the publisher advertises. It seems an incomplete ramble on the injustices of political reality in Kandahar, and provides no new insight into what has always been perceived as a corrupt and ineffective Afghan government, and a meddlesome Pakistani government that is often at odds with U.S. goals.

  • By Jennifer E White on January 10, 2012

    The Punishment of Virtue is an excellent look at post-September 11th actions, and from a wider perspective the consequences that most foreign policy actions have to those on the ground. Sarah Chayes put herself in excellent position to analyze the rebuilding efforts of the new central government by spending nearly three years covering events as an NPR reporter and later as an aid worker. Her book is one of the better abridged histories of the region I have come across. Her heartfelt love for the country and people of Afghanistan comes to life in the way she and the populace interact. It's this intense love for the country and it's people that makes this an enjoyable read.There however three complaints that I have about this literary work.1) I'm a little disturbed at how little is cited, considering the vast amount of research that she obviously put into it. When she states that only the Feminist movement kept the US from formally recognizing the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, I need a source. Since I'm certain Human Rights and Religious groups in the US also played a significant role. As late as 2001 the Taliban were destroying schools and ancient Buddas across their region and the outcry for these actions was not coming from Feminist groups in the US.2) Unfortunately the second and third problems are much larger. Mrs. Chayes is a bit of a celebrity (coming from her NPR days) and this turns into a writing-style issue. She dances a fine line between historical timelines (which I can't praise highly enough) and first-person narratives. As a celebrity I can see the influence that her audience is having on her. People don't just want to know what post-2001 Afghanistan is like; they want to know "what was it like for you?" Much of what should have been, in my view, an impartial look at the actions and effects of the powerful characters and players in the Kandahar region instead turns into a travel diary of sorts. Her NPR editor is repeatedly referred to as an "ogre". The governor's staff members are introduced as "unscrupulous" and "venom-filled" factorum. These descriptions certainly paint a picture of Mrs. Chayes perspective and feelings, but they mask her journalistic background and ultimately do a disservice to the reader. The police chief is lionized and even President Karzai is heaped praise (for the first 2/3 of the book). By reducing the world of Kandahar to "good guys" and "baddies" Mrs. Shayes is resorting to the same simplistic stereotyping that led President Bush to invent the label "evil doers".3) Finally, I have to question Mrs. Chayes inability to grasp the policy decisions being made in Kandahar. She obviously cannot grasp why a regional and powerful Warlord has been given the governorship of Kanadar. She is dismissive of any logic behind this decision, while I think a rationale could be (and likely was) given and analyzed. For an example of what would have happened if we had fired Sherzai and his troops we only need to look back to 2003 in Iraq. When Paul Bremmer disbanded the Iraqi Army in an attempt to "De-Bathify" it he was roundly (and justifiably) criticized. When US troops in Iraq began to be killed from the same dismissed former-Iraqi Army personnel and weapons the media and people everywhere angrily denounced his decision as the wrong move to make. If Karzai decided to include the heavily armed, and currently employed, forces of Sherzai was he not making a concession that it was better to employ these forces in the near term rather than starting a civil war with an unprepared ANA and ANP? From the US policy perspective wouldn't it make sense to include the most powerful man in the region and change the system over time? She completely dismisses or outright ignores any legitimacy to these questions in favor of claims of `incompetence' and `cronyism'. It's at best an analysis that falls short and undermines the theme that carries us through much of the book. We justifyably can and should mourn any blood shed because Sherzai was put in charge, but is it not right to discuss how many lives were saved?I've been to Afghanistan and am heading back. It's a complex and colorful world...reducing it to black and white and pretending that there are 100% correct answers/decisions does the country and the situation a disservice. To speak as if all answers are obvious and all actions to the contrary are political/policy-suicide is extraordinarily near-sighted. When Mrs. Shayes stated that the books she found on Afghanistan (written by the British) were "shamelessly judgmental and soaked in superiority...but nothing I've found on the bookstalls seems a lot more reliable" she perfectly captures my thoughts on this work.

  • By Ronald Scheer on August 22, 2006

    This highly readable book is part memoir and part political analysis. The author, a former overseas NPR correspondent, describes her sojourn over the years 2001-2005 in Kandahar, the ancient capital of Afghanistan, where she worked for an Afghan-based NGO and, as an instinctive investigative reporter, formed her own assessment of the political forces at work in that post-Taliban city.Her conclusions are both alarming and disheartening. She comes to believe that Pakistan is the root cause of political instability in Afghanistan and that through its support of warlords it uses resurgent Taliban forces to manipulate and regain control of large parts of the country. More discouraging is the author's portrayal of President Hamid Karzai as an intelligent, gifted, and cultured man who is often ineffectual as a leader.The book is framed by the account of an assassination of the Kabul chief of police, a man of unusual integritiy and ability (hence the book's title) and its subsequent coverup as a suicide bombing. Set against him is the power-hungry and corrupt governor of Kandahar, who has won the confidence of the Americans while secretly amassing a fortune that he uses to fund a private army, meanwhile working deals with Pakistan to keep alive the threat of Taliban terrorism that makes the Americans even more dependent on him.There are large swathes of Afghan and Persian history woven into this modern-day accounting, which reveal patterns of political and cultural forces at play that go back to Alexander the Great. Vividly written, the book provides a disturbing portrayal of failed leadership on the part of both the U.S. and the current government in Kabul. Read it and weep.

  • By Joseph Palen on May 19, 2008

    Starting and ending with the death of an honest Afgan, his friend Sarah Chayes, NPR reporter-turned Afgan activist, gives a well written, often warm, and often shocking account of the warlords, friends of Pakistan, and some-time friends of the US that made up Afganistan after the Taliban fled and before they had fully returned. The fact that a woman reporter could become friend and advisor to so many people in power in Afganistan - including, the president, several governors, several warlords, a chief of police (the murdered one), AND US Military Officers-helped to show the depth of leadership vacuum that existed. Nobody knew what to do, really, except the Warlords, and their occupation was making themselves rich and getting rid of their enemies, often with the help of the conned US Military, and usually with the help of Pakistan, who played both ends against the middle - the most shocking revelation. Well worth reading, and if as true and well-supported as it seems, worth a Pulitzer!

  • By Coffeebob on September 17, 2006

    Chayes is a brilliant writer, and, more importantly, a trenchant observer of truths that are reported nowhere else. She has chosen to live in Kandahar, a much more dangerous place than Kabul, where other Western observers are clustered. She speaks and reads the language and is embedded with the Afghan people, not with the American military and derives her insights on the ground, not from diplomats.An amazing, fascinating read.

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