The Punishment of Virtue by Sarah Chayes, published by Portobello Books
Sarah Chayes is an unquiet American. The Punishment of Virtue is a gripping
account of post-Taliban Afghanistan driven by her investigation into the
assassination of the warrior-turned police chief, Muhammad Akrem Khazrewal.
Whether working as a public radio correspondent, aid-worker or entrepreneur,
Chayes remains a passionate champion of the murdered Khazrewal a man she
considers to have been worthy of the very highest trust.
Her attention is entirely focused on the old oasis-trading city of Kandahar.
And having been amongst the first to observe the mysterious nature by which
power was transferred from the Taliban to US-sponsored warlords, she
succeeds in building up an intimate portrait of the war-battered capital of
the south-west. Later she delves into the past in order to understand how
it was that the Pathan tribes around Kandahar who brought Mullah Omar, the
old royal Durrani dynasty and the current President, Karzai, to power. In
the process she reveals the iron rule of leadership within Afghan society,
which is the ability to bring wealth into the country from outside, be it by
trade, raid or negotiated largesse from a Great Power. We meet wise but
powerless Ambassadors, a stream of well-meaning US-Aid officials on their
three week-long hardshipı postings abroad and a busy enclave of house-bound
CIA agents who have unwittingly re-occupied Mullah Omarıs headquarters and
filled it with gym equipment rather than venture outside. We also observe
the more potent shadow of such quiet Americansı as Colonel David Fox
seemingly working in dependent alliance with Pakistanıs military
intelligence to dominate the region. We watch the careers of their chosen
clients and the steady return of exploitative warlord-ism which first
brought the Taliban to power.
Although The Punishment of Virtue might be considered a denunciation of the
failures (or the absence) of US foreign policy, it can also be read as
hawkish call for liberals to take-up arms, to engage with Afghanistan armed
with knowledge, money, grit and determination.
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by Barnaby Rogerson