Kandahar Calling

Sarah Chayes went to Afghanistan as a reporter, but stayed to rebuild a nation she sees as pivotal to our future.

By Gillian Steward

The voice on the telephone is strong, clear and emphatic as it rides the thousands of kilometres between Kandahar and Calgary.

“Definitely. Oh my god, definitely the Canadians should stay.”

Sarah Chayes, a former correspondent for national Public Radio in the United States, knows how to make a point in just a few words, especially when it comes to war. She covered the war in the Balkans and for the last five years has lived and worked in Afghanistan. She first arrived there in a battered taxi driven from Quetta, Pakistan. That was in November of 2001. The Americans and their allies were storming Afghanistan, determined to punish and eradicate the Taliban government for harbouring the terrorist masterminds behind the bold and deadly strike on new York’s twin towers. 9/11 had changed everything, and Chayes felt in her gut that Afghanistan had become a pivotal place, where the destiny of this century would be played out.

It’s a cold, dark December morning in Calgary when I call her. In Afghanistan, 12 times zones away, it’s a cold night. Even though I anticipated that the call would not go through when first dialed, that the line would crackle and sputter, Chayes picks up the phone after just two rings and asks if I could call her back in a few minutes. No problem, now that I’m sure the phone is as reliable as e-mail.

I have wanted to talk to her ever since reading her book The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban. There aren’t many women war correspondents. And war correspondents who give up reporting on a war in order to stay and work with people caught in the crossfire—they are even rarer. When Chayes first went to Kandahar—the de facto Taliban capital and the last place to fall to the Americans— she stayed in the same decrepit hotel as all the other foreign correspondents. But within a week she had moved in with a large Afghan family whose sprawling compound abutted the local graveyard. Living with Afghans, she felt, would give her a much better idea of what was really going on. She also made another important decision: she would dress like an Afghan man, complete with voluminous trousers, a flowing calf-length tunic and an embroidered shawl. In a country where women have virtually no status compared to men, this was indeed a bold decision. For Chayes it wasn’t about declaring herself equal to men, it was simply practical: in Western clothes she stuck out in a crowd. Besides, wearing cargo pants proved to be an open invitation to men wanting to pinch her butt. She had arrived in Afghanistan wearing Pakistani women’s clothes but soon realized they were so bright and colourful compared to what Afghan women wore, they too would draw attention. But no way was she going to mask herself completely by wearing a burka. Men’s clothes provided protection and camouflage.

A few months later she made another important decision: frustrated by producers and editors in the US who thought they knew more about what was going in Afghanistan than she did, Chayes quit NPR. But she didn’t quit Afghanistan.

We have been talking for almost 45 minutes when she emphatically declares that the Canadian troops based in Kandahar have to stay put. I have explained that Alberta is home to a significant military base. Soldiers, medics and support staff regularly ship out from CFB Edmonton for Afghanistan. Some have been killed, and others have been seriously injured; Canadians are somewhat divided about whether they should be there at all.

Canada is at war, but who is the enemy? Who is it that our soldiers want to kill? Who, exactly, wants Canadian soldiers dead? For the military and the news media, “the Taliban” has become the easy label that identifies the enemy. But didn’t the Americans rout the Taliban in 2001, send them packing? If you’re on the ground in Kandahar, as Chayes has been for several years, how would you describe the Taliban? Without hesitation, and with the clarity of a radio reporter, she answers:

“At the moment the Taliban are basically a militia that is being organized and supported across the border in Pakistan by the Pakistani government and intelligence services. It is not an indigenous insurrection at its root the way the insurgency in Iraq might be described. At its root it is more like a low-grade invasion. however, it has been benefiting from the increased protection of the Afghan population, who are dismayed by the actions of their own government.”

Chayes goes on to explain that, in the rush to consolidate power after they toppled the Taliban in 2001, the Americans gave discredited leaders positions of power throughout Afghanistan. Many of the new leaders had links to the Taliban and to Pakistan, a nuclear power anxious to extend its influence over Afghanistan, and a reluctant ally of the US. “Even that would have been okay if they [the American appointees] had only served as military proxies, but there was no clear planning done about what was going to happen after the Taliban fell, so these military proxies ended up taking over political power… Pakistan very strongly backed one of these commander types to be governor [of Kandahar] and it’s just an example of the sorts of people that unfortunately American shortsightedness ended up putting into power. So five years later these people proved to be extremely bad governors, extremely corrupt, essentially seeing their own population as a target for pillage. And the people are totally fed up with it.”

But, unfortunately, “the people who are being killed on the battlefield are young recruits… refugee camp kids from the border areas or villagers who have gone across the border to study at madrasas (religious schools). A large number of them are in their late teens or early twenties.”

This must be really confusing for Afghans, I say. The Taliban, who are mostly Afghans in exile, invade from Pakistan, and yet Pakistan is an ally of the United States and other countries with troops in Afghanistan. I can hear the frustration in her voice as it travels halfway around the world.

“Yes… this is a real conundrum. It’s the real contradiction in this whole policy. It’s as though the US is backing the very country that is creating insurgents that the United States is also fighting against. It’s the most perplexing policy that I can imagine. It’s very difficult for me to try to explain to Afghans. Afghans don’t understand it at all. Afghans think it is deliberate. Everyone in Kandahar thinks, literally, that the Americans are siding with the Taliban… everyone can see that Pakistan is creating this problem and you guys are giving Pakistan money, Pakistan is spending that money on the Taliban… so of course you are helping the Taliban. It’s pretty logical, no?”

What about Osama bin Laden and the rest of al Qaeda (or the “Arab Taliban,” as they are called in Afghanistan)? Chayes believes they are long gone, that Osama bin Laden escaped across the border with Iran well before the Americans arrived.

So that’s how the enemy looks when you’ve been on the ground in Kandahar for a few years. But how do the Canadians look? And why is it important that they not pull out of Afghanistan?

There are 2,500 Canadian forces personnel based in Kandahar and conducting operations in outlying regions of the province near the Pakistani border. The second-largest city in Afghanistan, Kandahar is a rough frontier town compared to Edmonton or Calgary. In her book, Chayes writes that Kandahar is “like some austere sand-fort city.” It’s home to about 250,000 people, most of whom have very little in the way of electricity, clean running water, paved roads or health care. Chayes keeps a Kalashnikov under her bed. She has had bombs and death threats sent her way because she is so outspoken about corrupt local leaders. She was once on good terms with President Hamid Karzai and his family. In fact, it was President Karzai’s uncle, Aziz Karzai, who convinced her to stay in Afghanistan and work for an ngo. But she became disillusioned with the Karzais, convinced that the president was turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s role in the armed insurgency and to the corruption among government officials that made the insurgents seem appealing to ordinary people.

There’s no question that Canadian forces are caught in a hornet’s nest. What happens in Kandahar could affect the en- tire region: Afghanistan sits right between Iran and Pakistan.

According to Chayes, the Canadians suffer by comparison to the US troops that preceded them, because they are “not tough enough where they ought to be tough.” Afghans need some “muscular peacekeeping,” she says. That means the Canadians must do more than engage the Taliban in battle. They must venture outside the protection of the base in Kandahar more often, conduct regular patrols in the rural districts so that when the Taliban show up, villagers know the Canadians are close at hand to protect them. Regular patrols would also make it harder for the Taliban to establish bases and contacts.

Chayes would also have the Canadians provide much more training to the Afghan national army, the Afghan police and the new auxiliary police, which is designed to be a local police force for the district. “They need to get more training, perhaps when they come in for their monthly salary… They have to be trained in the idea that they are at the service of their fellow citizens… They are out there to protect their fellow citizens. And that message hasn’t gotten through at all.”

Chayes is also critical of Canadian forces for driving recklessly through Kandahar streets. She acknowledges that Canadians need to be wary of suicide bombers. At the same time, she says, they have to be clear about what they want Afghan drivers to do when they see a convoy. often they give arm signals that local people don’t understand. Confused locals then drive their vehicles off the road, which renders them scrap because most people can’t afford to repair battered cars and trucks. not the best way to win hearts and minds. The Canadians also have a reputation, says Chayes, for calling in indiscriminate air strikes.

But, having said all that, Chayes is adamant that the Canadians should not pull out. Adjust their military tactics and strategies? Yes. get more involved in economic and social development? Yes. But certainly not pull out. Afghans “know that without the foreign presence here the place would completely fall apart, completely fall apart, they are very aware of that,” she says. I remind her that many Canadians at home would like to see us quit Afghanistan. “Then I think they really misunderstand the situation. I think they think the Taliban are an indigenous resistance or something like that and that is not the case,” she replies. She also cautions Canadians against making this kind of commitment and then expecting their soldiers to stay safe. “Once the government has made a decision to be here, once the political decision is made, then you can’t say we are going to be present in Afghanistan but we can’t take any casualties. You have to make yourself vulnerable.”

I’m still not sure why Canadians, and in particular Canadian soldiers, need to be giving up their lives halfway around the world in a country that seems so far removed from our everyday concerns. There’s no way the Taliban are going to invade Canada or the United States. Shouldn’t we just let the geopolitical forces of the region work themselves out? Aren’t we being imperialistic, just like the Americans, when we insert ourselves into the region and expect that the people there are going to see us as their saviours?

It’s so easy to say that war is bad, that any war is morally wrong. And besides, Canadians like to see themselves as peacekeepers, not warmongers. Perhaps examining why Sarah Chayes decided to stay in Afghanistan will put things in perspective. So I ask her what drove her to give up on journalism, to join the fight rather than simply watch it. She replies that even before 9/11 she was having to hold herself back from getting more involved with the people on the front lines rather than just report on them. “I just felt like I couldn’t have the direct effect on improving conditions that I wanted to have.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, NPR sent her to Quetta, Pakistan, the cradle of the Taliban movement. Even then Chayes instinctively knew she was being drawn into a conflict that could come to haunt the 21st century, much the same way the Spanish civil War came to haunt the 20th.

“I think 9/11 really changed things. It made me feel much clearer about what part of the world was going to be typical of the way the first part of the 21st century unfolded. At that time it really felt like Afghanistan. And even after the Iraq war I still feel that Afghanistan is one of the pivotal places where the destiny of this century is going to be played out. To me the major issue is not one of a major clash between Islam and the West. I think that is inaccurate. I think the problem is people on both sides of the divide who believe in the clash of civilizations. I would categorize Osama bin Laden and George Bush together. or maybe not George Bush, but Cheney and Rumsfeld and that crowd because they fundamentally believe in the clash of civilizations,” says Chayes. She knows this field well: before entering journalism, she earned a master’s degree from Harvard. her major was history and middle eastern studies; her specialty was the medieval Islamic period.

“And on the other side of what I believe to be the real divide are the people in the Islamic world and in the West and other cultures who believe we are a world of inextricably intertwined civilizations that are extremely rich and diverse and have plenty of things to learn from and teach each other. But above all they are going to have to figure out how to live together. That’s the side I am fighting on, and I believe that Afghanistan is the front line of that fight.”

I can’t help but think of another woman war correspondent who more than 70 years ago believed she was witnessing a war that would change everything. Martha Gellhorn was an American who found herself on the front lines of the Spanish civil War. She wrote dozens of articles about it for publications such as Collier’s and the New Yorker. She even went back to the US to raise support for the Republicans fighting against general Franco and his allies—Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany. She was often accused of abandoning objective journalism in favour of partisan crusading for the left. But, for Gellhorn, staying neutral in the face of fascism was itself immoral. She once wrote that Spain is “the affair of us all, who do not want a world whose Bible is Mein Kampf.” She was on the front lines during the Second World War as well, and was one of the first journalists to enter the concentration camp at Dachau after it was liberated by the Americans. Bitter irony for Gellhorn, who believed the fascists never would have advanced as quickly as they did in the rest of Europe if the English, French and US governments had intervened to help the Republicans in Spain. Perhaps we could have avoided the horrors of the Second World War if democratic countries had acted sooner. Interestingly, hundreds of Canadians did stand up for democratic values as volunteer soldiers in the International Brigades in Spain; half of them were killed on Spanish battlefields.

The morning sun glimmers weakly in the southeastern sky as we wind up our telephone conversation. Chayes will be going to sleep soon, then getting up early in the morning to work at the co-operative she and a group of Kandaharis have established. Using orchard fruits and wild plants, they have developed a line of skin care products for export. For Chayes, economic development is key: people need to be able to put food on the table so they are not vulnerable to warlords looking for new recruits. She obviously feels as attached and committed to the people of Afghanistan as Martha Gellhorn was to the people of Spain. And she’s determined to stay in Afghanistan. To do what she can to help build a productive, stable and democratic society. no more flitting from story to story. For Chayes, Afghanistan is the story and she sees herself as a player in the plot. Standing on the sidelines and simply watching is not an option. For me, Afghanistan doesn’t seem so far away anymore. And it seems much bigger and more complex than when it appears on my television screen.

I remember Martha Gellhorn and how prescient she was about the Spanish civil War. She was on the ground, on the front lines; history has proven that she knew what she was talking about. And so does Sarah Chayes.

Gillian Steward was the publisher of Alberta Views.


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