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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 Œhardshipı 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 Œquiet 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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