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A Former ISAF Adviser Speaks about the Way Forward in Afghanistan

Aired February 23, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, we talk to a woman at war in Afghanistan, where she's been a journalist, an aid worker, and adviser to the commander of U.S. and NATO forces.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to our program.

In 2001, right after 9/11, Sarah Chayes came to Afghanistan as a journalist, but she soon decided to do more, to give up journalism and try to help the Afghan people in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. It was an unusual choice. And as this documentary clip shows, she created quite a stir.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As she goes about her daily life here, Sarah always attracts attention.

SARAH CHAYES, FORMER ADVISER TO THE ISAF COMMAND: I kind of pile it on, right? I'm non-Afghan. I'm female. I'm wearing men's clothes, including a turban, and I'm driving a car. That does attract a lot of attention.

All the time people wonder if I'm a man or a woman. I'll hear kids say, "That's a woman!" You know, and then I'll turn around and say, "Yeah, yeah, it's a woman."


AMANPOUR: And that's a woman who helped local people rebuild a village that was destroyed in the war and encouraged farmers to give up opium production and grow ingredients for skincare products instead.

And then, in another unexpected turn, she took her experience living among the Afghan people right into NATO headquarters in Kabul, where she served as a special adviser to General Stanley McChrystal and his staff.

She recently completed her NATO service and now joins us here in the studio. Sarah Chayes, thank you for being with us.

CHAYES: It's an honor.

AMANPOUR: You have spent a lot of time helping, living with the Afghan people, the civilians in this war. I want to start right in on the news of the day, which has been the Marjah offensive and, despite General McChrystal's best efforts, the alarming number of civilians who have been killed. He's apologized. He's done it often and early. Is that going to be enough?

CHAYES: You know, I think everything that happens in Afghanistan has to be examined in a context. And it's been interesting to be to watch the tolerance for civilian casualties on the part of Afghan civilians go down, but it's gone down -- in other words, I remember early cases of civilian casualties where I was actually surprised at the level of tolerance for it on the part of the people I was living amongst, but it was because they felt that the international intervention was really doing something for them or they still held out the hope that it would.

So I think that it really depends on what people see the ultimate outcome of the Marjah operation to be.

AMANPOUR: But as you know, eventually, in the last few years, it's been the main cause of anti-American -- growing anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan. How badly do you think these civilian casualties will affect the offensive or what the offensive is trying to bring?

CHAYES: Yeah, see, again, I'd like to -- I'd like to put it back into that context. It is crystallized a disappointment with the international intervention that's been growing since, you know, about 2003. And so people have crystallized their frustration on this issue.

But I actually think the issue is broader. And so the impact on the Marjah operation is really going to depend on what else happens in that operation.

AMANPOUR: You're talking about the context. Now, the context is, according to the U.N. and others, that certainly over the last year or so the Taliban actually killed more Afghan civilians, whether it was through IEDs or explosives or whatever it is, than the NATO forces did. And yet one very rarely hears about that. I mean, does the Taliban simply go about its -- its business in a better way?

CHAYES: Well, they put pressure on journalists, for one thing. For example, I know a journalist who got a telephone call from the Taliban. He was doing a story on civilians being caught in the crossfire, that were being blown up in the improvised explosive devices, and they were also, you know, occasionally the victims of ISAF operations. And he was trying to explain how difficult it is to be in the crossfire.

He got a call from the Taliban saying, "You can talk about the second one, but don't you talk about the first one," and he was afraid. So I think there's part of that.

But when I talk about the context, I actually mean the context of everything else that's going on. Are people being governed by, you know, a responsive and respectful, you know, institution? Are they seeing any prospects for economic improvement and things like that? If they see those things, then the civilian casualties fades a little bit in importance.

AMANPOUR: We're going to get to that in a second.

CHAYES: Right.

AMANPOUR: But first of all, I want to ask you again about the highly telegraphed offensive, and they did that presumably to get as many civilians out of the harm's way as possible, correct?


AMANPOUR: I mean, it was publicly broadcast for weeks before it happened.


Now, there's been some pushback, including on General McChrystal's, you know, instructions on engagement, how -- where the bar has to be for engagement. I want to play a little snippet that was obtained by your former employer, NPR, and their journalist who's with the Marjah offensive, and it shows some Marines, and they're actually sarcastically describing themselves being pinned down and not able to fire back. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To shoot a guy that's shooting at you now, you need permission.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (inaudible) this guy shot at me, and I'm hit in three pieces, and he's still shooting at me, can I engage?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not anymore. He hid behind a wall.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, then there's (inaudible) ow, he just shot me again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm shot four times. Do I have permission to engage?


AMANPOUR: Well, he wasn't shot. Again, that was sarcastic, but it was obviously what they were feeling about their strict rules of engagement. What's your reaction when you hear that?

CHAYES: That's really tough. I mean, you know, for a military commander to say, "We need to think about assuming more risk in the immediate term," and that may mean, you know, lethal risk for individuals who are his men in the field, in order to reduce the risk to the mission in the long term, it's a huge mentality shift.

AMANPOUR: And do you think that the pendulum, as some critics now are saying, has swung too far, that the American forces are too far on the defensive in what's meant to be an offensive? And there was a comment by an intelligence analyst in the New York Times in which she says that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of avoiding the death of innocent civilians at all costs. General McChrystal's directive was well- intentioned, but the lofty ideal at its heart is a lie and an immoral one at that, because it pretends that war can be fair or humane.

Has it gone too far? Or is this absolutely what the U.S. has to do in order to win the peace?

CHAYES: Again, I think this is a piece of a larger approach. In other words, you say you need to protect the population and earn the population's trust.

AMANPOUR: Which is one (inaudible) central point of his plan.

CHAYES: Exactly. And to me, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not killing people, not killing innocent -- you know, OK, how do we start protecting the civilians in a situation like this? Well, first of all, let's stop bombing them. But that's only the beginning of it.

Then you say, OK, what about their property? I mean, I know situations where ISAF -- before I started working there -- but literally drove through one of my cooperative member's orchard, and there were 43 pomegranate trees and 218 grapevines that were destroyed.

So how do you handle that? How do you handle -- who do you protect the population from? Is it only from -- only from yourself and then next from the Taliban? What about the other people who your actions may be helping to abuse the population?

AMANPOUR: I want to talk to you about the people who you're talking about, the orchard, the farmers...

CHAYES: Yes. Yes.

AMANPOUR: ... and all those people. We've got some lovely pictures which we can show in this -- in this table. When you were in Afghanistan living in the Kandahar area, here's you. Now, you made a point of dressing up as far as possible as a man, wearing a turban. Here you are with these children. What were you doing there?

CHAYES: We were rebuilding this village. This village had actually been destroyed by the first American bombing against the Taliban, and so it seemed to me at that point that one of the obvious things to do was at least -- what's the word...

AMANPOUR: Try to figure out what the people wanted?

CHAYES: Well, not just that, but it was -- it was repair. That's the word I was looking for, repair the damage that had been done inadvertently to civilian -- to civilian property and things like that. And the issue here was very interesting, because Al Qaida probably was hiding out in this village, so it wasn't a case of -- the villagers had fled. It wasn't the case of we shouldn't have bombed the village. But having bombed it, was it the villagers' fault that Al Qaida had used their village?

And so we -- you know, we...

AMANPOUR: This was in your -- this was in your NGO time?

CHAYES: Yes, that's correct. This was the very first summer. This was the summer of 2002.

AMANPOUR: After you had stopped being a journalist and...

CHAYES: Correct, yeah.

AMANPOUR: OK. So here you are again, a woman with -- pictured here with male friends.

CHAYES: This is hilarious.

AMANPOUR: Tell me a little bit about what you learned from living with these ordinary people that led you to be able to advise the military.

CHAYES: One of the most interesting things -- you know, and I'm often asked to advise on cultural issues, and so it's like -- you know, oh, these cultural distinctions we have, but perhaps the most important thing that I've learned is that, OK, we look pretty different here, right? But -- but Afghans -- it's a cliche, but they're really similar. I mean, what they aspire to, what they want their government to deliver for them, what they aspire for their children is remarkably similar.

AMANPOUR: You're a woman, though, in a very traditional...

CHAYES: Correct.

AMANPOUR: ... conservative place, and this is in the -- in the Pashtun belt, even more conservative than the rest of the country.

CHAYES: Right.

AMANPOUR: How did they take to you as a woman?

CHAYES: You see, as an international, as a foreigner, I'm kind of off -- you know, I'm like a third gender.


AMANPOUR: You're an honorary man?

CHAYES: Exactly. It's better than being an honorary man because you can interact with women. You're the only person who can interact with both sides.

AMANPOUR: And what -- I mean, skincare products? I mean, where did that come from?

CHAYES: How do you make -- so -- so why does opium work in southern Afghanistan? Because since the time of the Sumerians, southern Afghanistan has been exporting high-value agricultural products. It is not a subsistence agriculture place. It's a place where you do very high-end things for cash.

And so what do you do to make -- you know, the problem with fruit is that it's heavy and perishable. So how can you do something with fruit that allows you to export it? And you transform it into, you know, face cream, right?

AMANPOUR: Did it work?

CHAYES: Yes, yes. I mean, you know, we could have a whole other half-an-hour interview on how you expand your business in an active theater of war. You know, it's -- it's...


AMANPOUR: Really vital, though. That is -- but that is the vital piece to rebuilding Afghanistan after the war.

CHAYES: Yes, you have to be, you know, a little bit...

AMANPOUR: Committed, at least. We're going to talk a little bit more about that, obviously, and about governance when we come back after a break. We will ask Sarah Chayes why she believes, also, that President Karzai's government is operating, as she said, like a criminal syndicate. More when we return.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The uncle introduced Sarah to the president's brother, Qayum Karzai, and he proposed that Sarah come back to help in the reconstruction of the country.

CHAYES: I wanted to make sure he meant what I thought he meant, and I said not as a journalist. And he said, yeah, not as a journalist. And I said, "Yeah."

As-Salamu Alaykum.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sarah gave up her job at NPR. On this trip, she was coming back not to report, but to rebuild.


AMANPOUR: But Sarah Chayes later became disillusioned with corruption in the Karzai government. She joins me here again.

What made you move away or leave the NGO that you were working for, Mr. Karzai's brother?

CHAYES: Partly I wasn't there to create a permanent employment for myself, and I felt that it had fledged itself and it could -- it could do very well without me and I could move on to other things.

But I do have to say that I was becoming a bit uneasy with some of the activities that President Karzai's older brother was trying to get us involved in.

AMANPOUR: Such as?

CHAYES: Well, in one case, for example, they were asking -- there's a housing development outside Kandahar that is actually built on Ministry of Defense land that was acquired at a rather low price. And there was an effort to get me to persuade USAID to provide funding for this housing development, which was in no way a humanitarian development type of project. It was -- you know, it was for rich people to buy houses. It was a profit-making venture.

That was one. There was another...

AMANPOUR: You've been quite critical of the Karzai government. I mean, you did say it's sort of running like a criminal syndicate. Do you think anything has got better since the election, since the inauguration?

CHAYES: I don't. I think that if you read carefully some of the statements made by President Karzai in his inaugural address and in response to some of the issues about corruption, if you listen to it carefully, he's actually not really promising any action.


He's saying, yes, corruption is a problem, but it's not an issue of removing individuals. It's an issue of changing the legal framework. It's not.

AMANPOUR: Let me...

CHAYES: People need to get punished, you know?

AMANPOUR: And they're not?


AMANPOUR: Let me read you -- or, rather play a little snippet of an interview I had with President Karzai on this issue. It was at the end of last year.


AMANPOUR: Do you accept that one of the main problems in Afghanistan right now and the resurgence of the insurgency and the disappointment from the Afghan people is because of this rampant, endemic corruption?

HAMID KARZAI, PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN: No, the issue of corruption has been politically overplayed by some of our partners in the international community. It is not the way they're talking about.


AMANPOUR: So he is very catagoric -- that was in December -- basically saying no. General McChrystal is trying to bring government in a box to the people, that term that's being bandied around. Is that going to work? I mean, obviously, the key plank to all of this is whether the people trust their government, the Afghan government.

CHAYES: Yes, absolutely.

AMANPOUR: Is it -- where do you think that's going right now?

CHAYES: Well, what's fascinating is General McChrystal has backed a real comprehensive approach to corruption on the part of ISAF, which is brand new. It's really part of his, you know...

AMANPOUR: Corruption, whose corruption?

CHAYES: Corruption in the Afghan government. In other words, the fact is that we are partnering -- ISAF is partnering with Afghan government officials all the way from himself and President Karzai down to a platoon leader and a district chief, you know, and so there's a lot of room both for leverage, but also for support of fledging Afghan legal institutions to start grappling with this.

The problem is, they get interfered with very often by President Karzai himself. He picks up the phone and calls, you know, the attorney general or he interferes with execution of a search warrant or, you know, all the way down.

AMANPOUR: Is there nothing that can be done?

CHAYES: Well, the point is, it's one of leverage. And so I think there are things that can be done, but it -- you know, where I really disagree with President Karzai in his clip with you is he says it's been over-politicized recently. The issue of corruption hasn't even been looked at for seven years.

AMANPOUR: And yet he...

CHAYES: And only now, only now is...


AMANPOUR: He went on to say that there's also -- and, in fact, even Ashraf Ghani, the distinguished former finance minister, has said that, yes, there is huge amount of corruption in the Afghan system, but also amongst the internationals.

CHAYES: Certainly. Certainly. However, what President Karzai always does is say, oh, the corruption is clustered around international activity. And I see four or five revenue streams. One is, you know, the development resources. One is the, quote, petty bribes that are taken, you know, by police officers or administrators in offices. The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crimes recently estimated $2.5 billion a year in petty -- in petty bribes.

Now, this is structured. Why I talk about criminal syndicate is because it's not just ad hoc, people making up their ends of the month. It's because their superiors purchase their office. So a police chief will purchase his position for between $50,000 and $200,000 down and then a monthly. And that means he then has to sell subordinate offices and on down until you get to, you know, the checkpoint chief who has to get his men to extort money.

So there's petty bribes. There's smuggling of natural resources. People think of Afghanistan as a poor country. It's poor in per capita revenue income.

AMANPOUR: But rich in minerals, right?


CHAYES: Rich in minerals, rich in customs. It's an incredibly strategic place for customs. So you've got the governor of a province who sits on a major customs crossing. He's taking $7 million to $10 million a year in stolen customs revenue. This is...

AMANPOUR: Why isn't that -- if you all know about it, why isn't it being addressed?

CHAYES: Well, first of all, it hasn't been acknowledged openly. Remember, we're going from a position where the United States government under President Bush was pretty much giving a blank check to the Afghan government, had a very close relationship with President Karzai, and wasn't really examining much of this. And we were going from an -- from an enemy- focused strategy, where if somebody could convince you -- a governor, for example -- could convince you that he was going to help you run a military operation against the bad guys, well, you didn't really care how he governed.

Now we're shifting approach. So that's, again, just to come back to what President Karzai said, it's inaccurate to say it's being overpoliticized. It's only now being exposed.

AMANPOUR: Let's get back to what you -- you just said, the bad guys. By and large, that's Al Qaida and the Taliban. President Karzai and other members of the international community are talking about reaching out to the Taliban. Is that going to work? How is -- how is that going to work? Is Pakistan's arrest of senior Taliban, is that helping or hurting?


CHAYES: I think that it's quite clear that this is the direction that events are moving. And what I'd say is, I think there are some questions that need to be asked. One is -- you just mentioned Pakistan arresting some senior officials. It's an open secret that the Pakistani military and intelligence agency is what both founded, launched the Taliban first in 1994 and also was behind their reconstitution after 2001.

So my point is that they're not doing this for free. They're not making that investment without hoping to reap some benefit. So...

AMANPOUR: To remain players?

CHAYES: If not to control the process.

AMANPOUR: But is there any process, is there any credible negotiation? We heard from Kai Eide, the outgoing head of the U.N. operation there, who's saying, as far as he knows, there's no real credible negotiating process going on with the Taliban.

CHAYES: Well, the ambassador of Afghanistan recently, you know -- I mean, it's a matter of open record that the Afghan government has been involved in talks for at least two years. I mean, you know...

AMANPOUR: But it's got them nowhere.

CHAYES: Well, what happens in a negotiation, everyone is trying to buck for the highest possible -- you know, the highest possible terms, the best possible terms. So for me, the issue is one of timing. And like most insurgencies, the Taliban are waiting until they can get as much as they can.

And what General McChrystal is doubtless trying to do is to both accelerate the process and try to reduce the terms.

AMANPOUR: You've said that Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan; it's about the whole region; it's about radical and extremist Islam. What is the vital reason for being in Afghanistan, do you think, right now?

CHAYES: It's a really interesting question, because I actually think it's been drawn a bit narrowly in, you know, recent U.S. debate. This isn't about, is there an Al Qaida base, you know, in Gardez or a few hundred miles to the east in Pakistan?

It's really about -- I think -- I think there's a debate going on internationally that's been going on, you know, since the '70s between radical Islam and others who are both Muslim and non-Muslims. And that debate takes place in different places at different times, Iran in the '70s, you know, Algeria in the '90s, Afghanistan in the '90s, and I think Afghanistan is the place where it's -- where it's happening.

And the point is how Afghanistan turns out is going to have a major impact on how a lot of people make up their minds about radical Islam.

AMANPOUR: Last question. Does it give you any hope when the latest poll at the end of the year showed that more than 90 percent of the Afghan people actually support the government and not the Taliban, not the extremists?

CHAYES: That's nonsense. That's nonsense. Well, if it's between the government and the extremists...

AMANPOUR: That's what I mean, yeah.

CHAYES: Well, I don't think that's an -- the point is, most Afghans dislike both. That's the reality in Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: Well, the forces in progress then, let's say.

CHAYES: Yeah, but that's not represented by the government, and that's the big mistake we've made, is that by not, you know, leveraging the government to respond to the needs of its people, we force them back into the arms of the Taliban.

AMANPOUR: All right. We'll see how this offensive goes and how the rest of it in the south goes. Sarah Chayes, thank you so much for joining us.

CHAYES: Thanks for having me.

AMANPOUR: And for a look at how tribal elders could tip the balance in the Afghan war, go to, where we have a report by our correspondent, Dan Rivers, on a pact that some say could be a model for the whole country.

And next, our "Post-Script." Village politics, Afghan-style, it's not as simple as it looks.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is decided at the shura that the villagers will provide the workers and Haji Baba (ph), the oldest of the village, will have his house built first. Everyone accepts the outcome.




AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script." Whoever said that all politics is local might have been talking about Afghanistan. Arguments there can be about something as simple as the size of a house or the size of a room, as Sarah Chayes discovered when she tried to mediate a dispute with one Afghan man.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sarah's learned that Haji Baba (ph) wants bigger rooms in his new house. He's insisting on seven meters, not five.

CHAYES: Look, we said in the shura that the rooms will all be five by three-and-a-half. What we can give them is five by three-and-a-half. He's getting five. And if he wants -- if he doesn't want five, then we won't build his house. It's that simple.


AMANPOUR: Sarah eventually convinced the gentleman to agree to five by three-and-a-half meter rooms in the spirit of compromise that's hard to find on other vital issues in Afghanistan.

And join us on We have a discussion about how the war there is portrayed in different parts of the world. Tell us what you think about your local news coverage of the war.

And that's it for now. We'll have a special webcast with Sarah Chayes soon on And we'll be back tomorrow with a look at the climate change debate and where it's heading, as the U.N.'s controversial top climate official leaves his job.

And you can catch our daily podcast on From all of us here, goodbye from New York.