Afghanistan, What Went Wrong?

In The Nation, Peter Bergen reviews some new books on the war in Afghanistan.

What went wrong? The books under review supply pieces of that puzzle. Former British diplomat Rory Stewart describes his epic walk across Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, American author Ann Jones recounts the time she spent living in Kabul as an aid worker following the overthrow of the Taliban and American journalist turned aid worker Sarah Chayes writes of the years she lived in Kandahar following the American invasion.

Chayes arrived in Afghanistan as an NPR reporter covering the war against the Taliban. She became disillusioned with the timidity of her editors and decided to embark on a new career as field director of an aid organization, Afghans for Civil Society. It was an often frustrating job: “The whole of Afghan society was suffering from collective PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).” The result, she says, was “an inability to plan for the future. Inability to think beyond one’s own needs, excessive guile.”

Settling in Kandahar, Chayes lived a critical part of the Afghan story often overlooked by international journalists and aid workers, who tend to have an insular, Kabul-centric view of the country. As Chayes explains, foreigners generally settle in the capital and “live apart from Afghans in guarded compounds. They do not walk about, but are driven by chauffeurs.” Chayes, by contrast, lived with a local family, learned Pashto, kept a Kalashnikov by her bed and “loved the place.” If this is cause for a smidgen of self-congratulation, Chayes is entitled to it. Kandahar, located in the middle of a desert that broils in summer and freezes in winter, is a deeply boring, ultraconservative Afghan city that is now quite dangerous for foreigners. For most of us a week’s visit would suffice. Chayes lived there for four years.