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Sarah Chayes
Sarah Chayes, photo by Robin Holland
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February 15, 2008
Recent official reports have touted many successes in Afghanistan, but the country still faces many problems. Back to back bombings in one week of February 2008 left over 140 dead — leading to calls from NATO leadership for troop increases. In addition, Afghanistan's government ranks high on indices of corruption and more and more Afghans are turning to opium production for money and the Taliban for security. According to the U.S. Department of State, "Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of illicit opiates."

For Sarah Chayes, who came to Afghanistan just after the fall of the Taliban as a reporter for National Public Radio, it's a frustrating turn of events. Chayes left NPR to stay and help rebuild the country, first working with Qayum Karzai, President Hamid Karzai's older brother to start Afghans for Civil Society, an organization designed to teach civics as a basis for sound economic development and later starting the Arghand Cooperative.

While Chayes agrees with many people that Afghanistan's hopes rest in part on its ability to develop some alternative to the poppy plant, she disagrees with many in the international aid community about the solution. Chayes notes that Afghan farmers are turning to opium not out of ideology or strong-arming by the Taliban, but as a business decision. As she explains to Bill Moyers on THE JOURNAL:

Afghans need credit, just as much as we do. They can't get it. And so, they borrow money. They need to marry off their sons, for example. It's gonna cost 'em $5,000 or $10,000. They have to pay a bride price. They have to have a feast for the entire village. They have to-- you know, where are they gonna get that money? So they turn to the opium trafficker, who lends them money. And he demands repayment in opium.
Despite Afghanistan's slide back into opium production, Chayes believes that with appropriate support, Afghans could build another export economy, based on desirable indigenous plants:
What exists down there is very valuable crops. Almonds, apricots. It's fruit crops mostly. To me, the way to attack opium is to compete with it. Like let's make it possible to make a living and not— you don't have to import some exotic new plant. They've got almonds, they've got apricots, they've got pomegranates. They've got Cumin, they've got anise seed. Wild pistachios. We're putting all this stuff in our soap. Why isn't there a fruit juice factory in Kandihar? It's the pomegranate capital of the world.
Sarah Chayes is now working with a small group of farmers and workers to build, on a small scale, her vision for a sustainable and licit economy in Afghanistan. As she wrote in THE ATLANTIC in December of 2007:
This is what we do: Eleven Afghan men and women and I scour this harried land for its (licit) bounties and turn them into beauty products. Our soaps, colored with local vegetable dyes and hand-molded and smoothed till they look like lumps of marble, and our oils, elixirs for polishing the skin, sell in boutiques that cater to the pampered in New York, Montreal, and San Francisco.The scale of the effort — we sell about $2,500 worth of soap per month — is tiny. Still, our business, the Arghand Cooperative, represents what reports and think tanks say places like Afghanistan need: sustainable economic development.
Even with the current high demand for pomegranates in the west, Afghanistan's indiginous fruits, nuts and oils can never compete with opium when it comes to money, but they may not have to. Chayes says most Afghans would prefer not to grow opium because of the religious taboos and legal restrictions. As one farmer explained to Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, a reporter with INSTITUTE FOR WAR AND PEACE REPORTING, why he chopped down his pomegranate trees to grow opium:
"I had 1,500 pomegranate trees five years ago," said Abdul Jabbar, a resident of Nawzad district. "They gave a very good yield. We loved the orchard, and I would never have destroyed it, but what else could I do? There was no market to sell the fruit. Birds would destroy the pomegranates on the branch, or else we'd pick them and they would rot at home."The government says it's against poppy, but drug traffickers go from house to house and buy our crop and give us a lot of money," he said. "Find me a market for my pomegranates. Everyone hates poppy cultivation."
Bribery and corruption affect every aspect of Afghanistan's economic life — from importing raw materials to obtaining a driver's license. War has left behind a crumbling and unreliable infrastructure and continued instability discourages foreign investment. But for Chayes, whether Afghanistan can find peace within itself and with the international community is a larger question about what kind of world we live in:
There are a lot of people, I think, both in the West and in the Muslim world, who believe in clash of civilizations. Who want to see the world as a place dominated by two irrevocably hostile blocs. I don't wanna live in that kinda world. I think that we live in an interconnected world full of rich, flawed, varied civilizations that are inextricably intertwined. And, so what I'm doing in Afghanistan is working for that intertwined world.

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After reporting for National Public Radio in the Balkans, North Africa, and the Middle East, as well as nearer her base in Paris, Sarah Chayes left journalism in 2002 to help rebuild Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime. She has launched a cooperative in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, producing fine skin-care products from local fruits, nuts, and botanicals. ( The aim is to discourage opium production by helping farmers earn a living from licit crops, as well as to encourage collective decision-making. From this position, deeply embedded in Kandahar's everyday life, Ms. Chayes has gained unparalleled insights into a troubled region.

Beginning in 2002, Ms. Chayes served in Kandahar as Field Director for Afghans for Civil Society, a non-profit group founded by Qayum Karzai, President Hamid Karzai's older brother. Under Ms. Chayes's leadership, ACS rebuilt a village destroyed during the anti-Taliban conflict, launched a successful income-generation project for Kandahar women, launched the most popular radio station in southern Afghanistan, and conducted a number of policy studies. Later, she ran a dairy cooperative.

From 1996, Ms. Chayes was Paris reporter for NPR. Her work during the Kosovo crisis earned her the 1999 Foreign Press Club and Sigma Delta Chi awards, together with other members of the NPR team. She has also reported from Algeria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Serbia and Bosnia, as well as covering the International War Crimes Tribunal and the European Union. Before that, Ms. Chayes free-lanced from Paris for a variety of radio and print outlets. She began her radio career in 1991 at Monitor Radio.

Ms. Chayes graduated in History from Harvard University in 1984, earning the Radcliffe College History Prize. She served in the Peace Corps in Morocco, then returned to Harvard to earn a master's degree in History and Middle Eastern Studies, specializing in the medieval Islamic period.

Ms. Chayes is recipient of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' inaugural Ruth Adams Award for writing on strategic issues. She has published articles in THE ATLANTIC, THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WASHINGTON POST, THE BOSTON GLOBE, THE MAIL ON SUNDAY, and the TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL. She is featured in the Sundance/Frontline World documentary "Life After War"/"A House for Haji Baba." She has lectured widely as well as participating in the training of incoming US and NATO military officers. Her book on post-Taliban Afghanistan, The PUNISHMENT OF VIRTUE: INSIDE AFGHANISTAN AFTER THE TALIBAN was published in 2006.

Guest photo by Robin Holland.

Published on February 15, 2008.

Related Media:
Christian ParentiChristian Parenti
Journalist Christian Parenti, just back from his fourth visit to the forgotten frontline, speaks to Moyers about the growing influence of warlords in government and the resurgence of the Taliban (June 8, 2007)

March in PakistanPakistan in Peril
Bill Moyers on the unrest in the streets of America's ally. (November 9, 2007)

References and Reading:
Sarah Chayes

The Arghand Cooperative
Visit the official website for the Arghand Cooperative.

Sarah Chaye's NEW YORK TIMES Blog
Read archived articles from the blog Sarah Chayes kept for the New York Times in 2006.

Scents and Sensibility
Sarah Chayes article about making soap and what is wrong with U.S. aid efforts in Afghanistan.

Sarah Chayes Web site
Learn more about Sarah Chayes work as a reporter on her professional Web site.

FRONTLINE/WORLD interview with Sarah Chayes
FRONTLINE/WORLD interviewed Sarah Chayes in 2003.


BBC News In Depth: One Day in Afghanistan
"The BBC News Web site reported in detail on events in Afghanistan throughout one entire day back on 2005, in order to try to convey the fullest picture we could of life there ahead of parliamentary and local elections."

UC Berkeley Library: Afghanistan and the US
The Library at UC Berkeley has compiled a large number of Internet resources regarding many aspects of life and politics in Afghanistan, including: political parties and groups, rebuilding Afghanistan, voices of peace, effects of the recent war and the Taliban.

"As President Bush pledges another $10 billion to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan, and a spring offensive is expected against a resurgent Taliban, FRONTLINE/World correspondent Sam Kiley reports from the frontlines of the conflict, where dual battles are being fought to win the trust of the Afghan people and combat the extremists living among them. In the film, Kiley and his crew are granted unprecedented access to the outgoing British NATO commander David Richards who led 37,000 troops from 37 countries."

Center for Strategic and International Studies: "The Uncertain Metrics of Afghanistan (and Iraq)" (pdf)
By Anthony Cordesman, May 18, 2007.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies is "a bipartisan, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C" that "seeks to advance global security and prosperity in an era of economic and political transformation."

"From Pomegranates to Poppies
By Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, November 27, 2007.
Read more about Afghans switching back to growing opium in this story written for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Also This Week:

The broadcast profiles SEATTLE TIMES reporters on the trail of how members of Congress have awarded federal dollars for questionable purposes to companies in local Congressional districts — often to companies whose executives, employees or PACs have made campaign contributions to the legislators.


SEATTLE TIMES reporter David Heath and EXPOSÉ Producer Marc Shaffer take questions on the blog.

Sarah Chayes, author and former journalist who has been helping rebuild Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime, with a look at the front lines of America's war there.

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April 16, 2007
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