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CNN Exchange: Commentary

Chayes: Too dangerous to tread without a turban

By Sarah Chayes
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Sarah Chayes covered the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan for National Public Radio in late 2001. She left journalism to run a major aid organization and is author of a new book, "The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban."

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- "Sarah, I really think it would be better if you wore a turban when you drive around," Abd al-Ahad, one of the members of my cooperative, said earnestly over supper.

The next day, he took a regulation 6-yard-long white silk turban home with him to cut it down, so it would not be so unwieldy for me to wear. He felt it was becoming just too dangerous for me not to blend in.

I live and work in Kandahar, Afghanistan, fabled former capital of the Taliban regime and site of a rising insurgency. And I do drive around in a battered red pickup truck, which itself was Taliban booty in its day.

But I can't drive everywhere I used to any more. I don't go to Panjwayi, for example, even though our cooperative has planted plots of roses there. Earlier this year, we attended district council meetings in Panjwayi all the time. But Panjwayi is now the frontline in what many dub a startling resurgence of the Taliban or their progeny. Since April, savage battles have pitted Taliban fighters against Afghan government forces backed by American or Canadian troops.

For the ordinary people, the weathered greybeards, the extended families of 20 souls or more who tend serried ranks of grapevines leaning on mud walls, this struggle is between two factions, neither of which represents them. "The Taliban prey on us at night, and the government preys on us by day," said another member of my cooperative. "We don't know which way to turn."

Her cousin's family had just left their land. Like hundreds of other village households on the outskirts of Kandahar, they abandoned their precious vineyards and moved to the relative safety of the city.

Panjwayi district elders recently offered an arrangement to Taliban leaders.

"We don't have a dog in this fight. If you want to fight the government, that's your business," the district council president said to me, paraphrasing the elders' message. "We'll evacuate any village to serve as your battlefield. We'll empty the people out of it for as long as you want. But then, do your fighting there, don't come and hide among civilians."

The salient point is this -- these villagers' fundamental concerns are not ideological; they are utterly practical. Afghans want from their government very much what we want from ours -- schools for their children, roads for bringing their produce to market, accountability, and some kind of say in their collective destiny.

But the government the United States ushered into power after the fall of the Taliban has not delivered. This Afghan government -- in the form of soldiers who shake down passers-by for money or cell phones or judges who extract exorbitant bribes for doing their job or governors who arrogate land or natural resources for their personal use -- has disgusted Afghans with the very notion of "democracy," if this chaos they are experiencing is called democracy.

For those of us who have been living in Kandahar since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the current insurgency is not surprising at all. We have been watching it develop for the past four years. It is the inevitable consequence of recruiting unsavory allies in the war on terror. It is the inevitable consequence of ignoring ordinary people's desire to be governed with dignity. Ironically, in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the so-called war on terror, as it has been conducted, has arguably expanded terrorism, not defeated it.

What is your take on this commentary? E-mail us

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer. This article is part of a series of occasional opinion pieces on CNN.com that offer a broad range of perspectives that express a variety of thoughts and points of view.

Your responses

CNN.com asked readers for their thoughts on this commentary. We received a lot of excellent responses. Below you will find a small selection of those e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling.

When will the U.S. government ever learn? When you sleep with dogs, you end up with fleas. How can our government possibly justify putting criminals into power in Afghanistan and calling it democracy? We are very lucky to have people like those in NGOs around the world so that the people of war-torn nations don't think Americans are all like our so-called leaders.
M. O'Connor, Hartford, Connecticut

Wow, what an article. It pointed out how hard democracy can be to attain. The U.S quick fix is not that at all. Our country's push for democracy is like the missionaries' push for Christianity. They go in and make changes and leave or leave poorly trained people in authority. The missionaries disrupted culture, ways of everyday life, and left confused angry people whose beliefs they once had are now ... wrong? They now have nothing to fall back on. The United States left behind a democracy? Not quite. The Taliban regime, corrupt and harsh. Now they try to build a democracy, but it turns out that too is corrupt and bringing hardships to everyday life.
Jo Gallagher, Colmar, Pennsylvania

I am surprised that this commentary does not reference the recent data from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime that just reported a 59 percent increase in opium cultivation from the previous year and an overall record. This largely is the economy of the Taliban and undermining any success of the struggling Afghanistan government.
Peter Fasano, Atlanta, Georgia

We are also a fair way down the road to losing Afghanistan without making any permanent difference. Thugs still rule in Afghanistan, ordinary Afghanis are still oppressed, and the opium trade is worse than before. The only thing that's changed about Afghanistan is the identity of the thugs.
Bonnie Wendorff, McFarland, Wisconsin

You made the comment "Ironically, in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the so-called war on terror, as it has been conducted, has arguably expanded terrorism, not defeated it." However, your article does not support that conclusion. Everything you described about Afghanistan was true throughout its history. Could you please provide more concrete examples from your personal experience that shows how the ranks of Islamic extremists have grown and the number of terror acts have increased? Also, how do you recommend reducing the localized violence and corruption, as well as dealing with those who plot international terror?
R. Technuf, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

I understand that the U.S. has commitment to the world, but if the Taliban can run freely within Afghanistan, then the U.S. can run out of Afghanistan. We need to stop all aid, withdraw our troops, pack it up and come home. Let the civil war begin.
David Figueroa, Chicago, Illinois

I think that the author wrote a fine article. Welcome to reality. Should anyone not expect a certain amount of corruption within government appointments? The fact that the villagers feel squeezed by two groups of armed thugs should come to no surprise. Politics and corruption go hand in hand. Corrupt judges, police, politicians are nothing new to any part of the world. The amount of corruption will depend on the culture along with the economic stability of the region. I applaud the author for telling the story of the frustrations felt by the Afghan people.
Ian Gumby, Chicago, Illinois


Sarah Chayes

Sarah Chayes, leader of an NGO, has personally witnessed the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan.

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