Sarah Chayes.  The Punishment of Virtue. Penguin, New York: 2006.  This is a fantastic journalistic account of the first five years of the Afghan nation building effort . Chayes winds up in Afghanistan during the collapse of the Taliban, first as a reporter for NPR but then starts a local business manufacturing soap.  This is the background to her time mainly in the Pashtun stronghold of Kandahar, where she completely embeds herself in Afghan society, establishing contacts and making both friends and enemies of once-warring militia commanders.  She illustrates for the reader the tribal dynamics of Afghan society, which ensure a modicum of certainty with regards to her safety despite the fact she is female.      Between chapter-length asides on the history of Afghanistan and its would-be conquerors, Chayes describes the political rivalry between two Kandahari militia-leaders: Muhammad Akrem Khakrezwal and Gul Agha Shirzai.  She is explicitly partisan in both her actions and her description of both men, as she sees Khakrezwal as willing to put aside the years of Afghan civil strife in favor of order under national law, or qanun, and paints Shirzai as embodying the old era, a warlord out for himself and the interests consistent with his own (read, Pakistan).  The book is especially sharp in discussing the role of the American presence in Kandahar.  Her initial problems with the U.S. military begin early on.  As U.S. forces insert themselves into the region in late 2001 and the Taliban presence in the city of Kandahar disintigrated, she argues that the Americans were manipulated by Agha Shirzai to allow his militia to take the city instead of Akrem Khakrezwal, who had been appointed Kandahar chief of police by the Karzai administration.  This is only one example of how U.S. forces failed to work toward the national government’s centralization of power and unwittingly aided warlords like Shirzai who stood to lose the most if power were centralized in Kabul.  Another involves how Shirzai’s men guarded the outermost security perimeter of the American base on the outskirts, effectively controlling access to U.S. forces.  Because the mission itself (nation building) was yet to be understood by anyone in chain of command (civilian or military), the Americans never positioned themselves socially to be of any use in developing a new Afghanistan.  Effectively, Chayes demonstrates how their interactions with the population were negotiated and mediated by Shirzai, who ensured they saw only what he wanted them to see.  This is as stinging an indictment of Western attempts at nation building as Chandrasekran provides regarding Iraq. Not only does Chayes describe missteps, she also provides insight as to the problems inherent in nation building. This, in fact, is the core of the book’s contribution, found in deceptively simple-titled chapters such as Military Matters, Security, and Murder. It also demonstrates the necessity of ‘knowing’ the social context of conflict settings as to give meaning to the use and utility of power by social entities, whether local or foreign. Also check out her last article in the Atlantic Monthly, where she writes on starting that local soap business in spite of the American development community in-country.

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