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Transcript:

December 19, 2008

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.

On his victory tour of Iraq and Afghanistan last week President George Bush stopped in Kabul to tell President Karzai that he could count on us no matter who's in the White House. It's in our interest, he said, that Afghanistan's democracy flourish. What President Bush didn't say is that democracy is on life support there, bleeding slowly to death from internal wounds. Despite the $200 billion the United States has already spent in Afghanistan, this has been the deadliest year for our forces since the war began seven years ago. Despite the presence of 31,000 American troops in the country, Osama bin Laden is still on the loose. The Taliban insurgents control much of the territory. And Afghans supply the world with over 90 percent of its opium. If anything's flourishing in Afghanistan, it's the poppy.

And where in all this is the government installed in power by the United States and supported by our troops and taxpayers? There's the rub. In this article in the "Washington Post", Sarah Chayes says Afghanistan's government is corrupt and abusive and is driving its people back into the arms of the Taliban fundamentalists.

Sarah Chayes went to Afghanistan to report for National Public Radio just a few weeks after 9/11. She reported from some of the most dangerous areas and then decided to stay on as a private citizen. She's been running a co-op, employing Afghan men and women to produce skincare products. She also wrote this book, THE PUNISHMENT OF VIRTUE: INSIDE AFGHANISTAN AFTER THE TALIBAN."

Welcome back to the JOURNAL.

SARAH CHAYES: It's great to be here.

BILL MOYERS: Your article in the "Washington Post" paints a devastating picture. The Taliban insurgents are making headway again because the government we support is a gang of corrupt gunslingers, feared as much by everyday people as the Taliban themselves.

SARAH CHAYES: Yes. That's about the size of it.

BILL MOYERS: And this is what American soldiers are dying for there?

SARAH CHAYES: Our democracy is famous for one thing in particular, checks and balances. That was the genius of the American system.

BILL MOYERS: Rule of law.

SARAH CHAYES: Rule of law but also recourse. If one branch of government is abusing you, you've got other branches of government that you can turn to.

BILL MOYERS: And Afghanistan?

SARAH CHAYES: Doesn't. So what we've really done is set up a kind of monopoly on the exercise of power. I mean, it's the opposite of what everything that we consider to be democracy, we've allowed an abusive concentration of power in the hands of, in particular, the executives, be it, in particular, on a local level like the provincial governors and their acolytes. Because we've convinced ourselves and often we have to - by "we" I mean us and our NATO allies - convince our own public opinion that this is a democratically elected representative government of Afghanistan in order to justify the sacrifices in money and troops and things like that. But the Afghans see it differently. The Afghans say you brought these people in here. We repudiated-

BILL MOYERS: You mean the Afghans at the local level-

SARAH CHAYES: That's it.

BILL MOYERS: -people where you work, right?

SARAH CHAYES: Ordinary people.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah.

SARAH CHAYES: The ordinary population. The people I work with are villagers. They're semi-literate, illiterate, these are really ordinary men and women. And they all are telling me, "You brought these people back into Afghanistan. We had repudiated them in the early 1990s. We knew what these people are. They're"-

BILL MOYERS: Warlords, right?

SARAH CHAYES: Yes. Yes.

BILL MOYERS: The criminal class.

SARAH CHAYES: Exactly. So you brought them in and now you're backing them up. And you are making it impossible for us to make our voices heard and to have any leverage on the behavior of these people.

BILL MOYERS: This is what leaped out at me as I read your piece. The Pakistani military, you say, is using the Taliban from over the border to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. And the only reason it's succeeding is "the appalling behavior of Afghan officials."

SARAH CHAYES: The last time I saw President Karzai, I said, "Mr. President, I can't walk out my door without seeing a member of your government abusing one of your citizens." And it really is the case. You see a police officer kick out the back light of one of these little rickshaws, these putt-putt little rickshaws that are like the taxis in Kandahar. It stops at a restricted place. Instead of just saying, "Could you please move along," they go running behind it and kick out the back light.

Then you've got, for example, one of my cooperative members, her electricity was cut by a jealous family member so she needed a new electricity account. She needed to get a meter. She goes through the electricity department, is told there are no meters. "You can't - nobody can open a new account." But then she finds out from the little linesman, "Well, if you pay me $600, I can set up a meter for you." So then I go to the head of the electricity department and I say, "She needs a meter." She gets a meter. So it's, no recourse. It's no recourse.

BILL MOYERS: You quote a woman in your co-op, I think it's in your co-op, who talks about: It's like standing on a watermelon?

SARAH CHAYES: Two watermelons. One foot on one, and the other on the other. She says, the Taliban shake us down at night, but the government shakes us down in the daytime. And I was recently sitting with a group of tribal elders and they put it this way - these are, you know, dignified elderly gentlemen with their beards and turbans - and they started hitting themselves. "The Taliban hit us on this cheek. And the government hits us on this cheek." That's how they felt.

BILL MOYERS: We don't know if Barack Obama understands this is what is happening in Afghanistan. But we do know that the President-elect is talking about sending another 20,000 troops to Afghanistan on top of the 31,000 who are already there. Are troops going to make any difference?

SARAH CHAYES: We do need more troops. And let me just remind you that the number of troops on the ground per population is pretty much the lowest of any U.S. post-conflict involvement since World War II. And at this point the Taliban kind of military campaign plan is effective enough that, you know, you do need troops to prevent them from making military encroachments that are really dangerous.

You also need troops to protect the population from the Taliban. There are people who don't like the Taliban but may kind of knuckle under to them because, on the one hand, the government isn't doing anything better for them. And the Taliban are going to kill them if they don't visibly divide themselves away from the government.

So you need to be able to protect people from that kind of an intimidation campaign, and that takes troops. For example, a battalion commander in any province is interacting with the governor of that province on a probably weekly basis. If that battalion commander becomes more aware of some of the ways that that governor is abusing the population and brings it up to the governor, he can start using his leverage, and he's got a lot, to demand better behavior on the part of the governor. And so that's one way that I think that the military - and this is iconoclastic because people say, oh, the military shouldn't get involved in governance and things like that.

But the Afghans are actually looking to us to ask some questions, some accountability questions: "Why did you do this?" Or, "I hear that you are about to take a large slough of land that belongs to the so-and-so tribe and hand it out to your cronies. Why are you doing this?" See, the way it works now is if a military commander is only interacting with the governor about killing Taliban, he's got his arm around the governor. The governor helps him kill ten Taliban. But the governor's behavior is actually creating thirty Taliban over here. You're actually at a deficit. And that military commander would do better to ask the governor a little bit more about how he's governing and handle the killing the Taliban part himself.

BILL MOYERS: You know that there are a lot of respectable people in this country, in the military and in foreign affairs, who question the logic of our being there, period. I mean, that if Obama dials back our presence in Iraq while increasing our presence in Afghanistan, he's buying into the "global war of terror" mantra that the Bush administration has been pushing.

SARAH CHAYES: There is a direct link between Afghanistan and 9/11. I don't think Afghanistan is an isolated place. Afghanistan is very connected to its neighbors, in particular to Pakistan. I don't think that we can afford to leave this region alone to fester. I also-

BILL MOYERS: But isn't the Pakistan military supporting the Taliban?

SARAH CHAYES: Yes. Yes. And that's why-

BILL MOYERS: Our ally in Pakistan, we expect to fight the terrorists, are supporting the terrorists in-

SARAH CHAYES: Precisely. So we need to get the knots out of our foreign policy here. It's very perplexing to Afghans to understand that we are providing $1 billion a year to the Pakistani military which is creating the Taliban. That's the other thing they don't understand. And they say, "Wait a second, are you with them or against them?" This is something I've been beating my head against for the last seven years. It has been obvious to me that the Pakistani military intelligence agency has been basically creating, orchestrating this so-called Taliban resurgence for the last - since the end of 2001. So why are we paying Pakistan a billion dollars a year?

And they've been fooling us, you know, with the well-timed delivery of an al-Qaeda operative. And that really had us fooled for a number of years until incontrovertible intelligence demonstrated that the ISI was behind the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul a few months ago. And then it was, uh-oh, they really are doing this. And this is after years of U.S. military officers watching. I know somebody who was mentoring the Afghan National Army and was looking for where he can, you know, set up some operating posts or outposts for the Afghan National Army along the border, and he chose a couple of pieces of high ground. He goes outside with his field glasses and he finds the Pakistani Army in those pieces of high ground inside Afghanistan with Taliban training camps at the foot of the hills. These are things that have been going on for several years. And I think that we're finally copping to them. So we need to realign our policy, I think.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean realign? All right, let's play that game.

SARAH CHAYES: Okay.

BILL MOYERS: Suppose it's the 21st of January.

SARAH CHAYES: Right.

BILL MOYERS: And President Obama calls you.

SARAH CHAYES: Okay.

BILL MOYERS: You go to the White House. He says, "What's the first thing I should do about Afghanistan?"

SARAH CHAYES: Okay. So I think one thing I would tell President Obama to do is a full-court, serious press on governance. I would tell him to - and he's such an inspiring person. I think he could inspire-

BILL MOYERS: Obama?

SARAH CHAYES: Obama. Yeah. He could-

BILL MOYERS: They talk about him in Afghanistan?

SARAH CHAYES: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. They were very interested in this election, very delighted.

BILL MOYERS: So how does he use that?

SARAH CHAYES: Well, it's not just in Afghanistan. I think he needs to use it here and with our NATO allies. For example, rather than berating some of our NATO allies about how come you're not sending more combat troops? I would suggest that he tell, for example, Germany or Norway, some of our staunch NATO allies who have some difficulty sending combat troops to the south, instead of berating them, tell them, "I understand your capacity constraints. I understand your public opinion problems with this mission. If you can't send us combat troops, send us some retired mayors. Send us some water department officials. Send us some agriculture department officials. You guys know how to administer cities and regions and things like that. And we need"-

BILL MOYERS: Send in the Peace Corps, you're saying.

SARAH CHAYES: Yeah. But a senior Peace Corps. Senior Peace Corps. Experienced-

BILL MOYERS: People who know how to run things.

SARAH CHAYES: Yeah. And for them to come in and mentor. And that means rigorous mentoring of Afghan public officials. And I think this would both be tremendous for Afghanistan and it would help re-knit some of the somewhat frayed fabric of our friendships with our European allies that-

BILL MOYERS: I understand that. I hear you. But isn't there a basic need for real services? You know, electricity, sanitation, public hygiene? Isn't infrastructure really what you're talking about?

SARAH CHAYES: Yes. But you don't get infrastructure if you're passing it through corrupt channels. You don't get it. So you can build all of the power plants you want. But, you know, if the electricity department is still playing footsy with people's meters, it's not going to work out. So that's one track. The other track is the Pakistan track. What I would say is the really dangerous thing in Pakistan right now is the Pakistani Army and, in particular, its military intelligence agency.

And I think what you have in Pakistan is a fledgling civilian government that's kind of fighting for its life. And it's not in a position to be able to challenge this military intelligence agency very powerfully. We need to get with that government and figure out and scheme with it, how do we reign in this state-within-the-state that is the military intelligence agency, which has been manipulating and instrumentalizing religious extremism for the past twenty, thirty years to in a very myopic way, to forward its regional agenda both in Kashmir and in Afghanistan? And you start working on a really serious hard-hitting plan for how you clip the wings of the ISI.

BILL MOYERS: In the meantime, doesn't another American soldier have to die for a government run by the criminal class of Afghanistan?

SARAH CHAYES: I agree with the thrust of your question. If we are not willing to even begin challenge President Karzai on a manifestly corrupt removal of a perfectly upstanding governor, if we're not even willing to send our ambassador to sit down with him and say, "You don't get to do that," I agree. Then why are we sending people to die?

BILL MOYERS: Sarah Chayes, good luck when you go back to Afghanistan. And thank you for being on the Journal again. Come back.

SARAH CHAYES: Thanks for having me.

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