Above: Author Sarah Chayes speaking at Politics and Prose bookstore and coffeehouse on Jan. 21 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Ali Follman.
A sharp group of Washingtonians met at Politics and Prose on Jan. 21 to pick the brain of author Sarah Chayes, a former international NPR correspondent and expert in anticorruption, civil-military relations and kleptocracy.
Former journalist, Peace Corps alum and American-turned-Afghan native, Chayes shared the culmination of her work in Afghanistan and her progress over the last two decades by promoting her new book, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. Chayes said her book straddles a variety of genres and gives a framework on how to address issues that threaten global security.
“We are buying the bullets that are killing our soldiers,” Chayes said. Right away, Chayes revealed her insiders opinion on the United State’s involvement in Afghanistan.
From her work inside the corrupt Afghan government with former President Karzai, she has learned the ways the organization takes aid money and funnels it elsewhere. She also touched on how the Taliban offered a government but it wasn’t what the country needed. This is why the country turned to the U.S. But from her point of view, the U.S. didn’t take the Afghan government in right direction whatsoever.
Chayes stood strong behind the podium in a grey dress, a shawl and matching grey hair. When she talked about Afghanistan, her smile lit up as if her mouth held thousands of stories that she wanted to tell from her adventurous career.
With a background in Islamic history from Harvard, Chayes took the opportunity to share her thoughts with the community on the current events in the Middle East. Politics and Prose was the first event for her new book so her speech was fast-paced to pack in as many details as possible about her background, time in the Middle East and current efforts.
Chayes, 52, spent 10 years in Afghanistan covering the Taliban for NPR in the mid 1990s. After NPR, she left journalism to focus on reconstructing the country starting with the government, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which she works for now as senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program and the South Asia Program.
“At some point, there weren’t any Americans who had been out there [in Afghanistan] that long,” Chayes said. She described “going native” in Afghanistan by wearing a turban, pretending to be a man in some cases, and blending into the culture to write stories to send home.
The problems Afghanistan faced in the early 2000s rooted in its government. The country couldn’t move forward because of corrupt leaders and systems. With no panacea in sight, Chayes is currently working on the link between the rise of military extremism and acute public corruption with the Carnegie Endowment.
“International assistance is a revenue stream…down to the opium trade,” Chayes said. Prompted by questions from an audience with ties to the topic of international affairs, Chayes said opium is a huge part of the Afghan economy. She said she participates in antinarcotics talks overseas and helps Afghans explore alternatives to the opium trade in their economy.
As a multilingual person who knows French and Pashto, Chayes also understands the language of money that many Afghan leaders abuse. She told many tales of so-called “governors” in Afghanistan who vanished with piles of cash that were meant to be put back into projects she was working on directly. “Money has overwhelmed every other social value,” Chayes said. “Money is being extracted upwards.”
Chayes said Afghanistan had a good, functioning government in the 1960s. But once the United States military and influence invaded, it hurt it more than it helped. “[The U.S.] Installed a government of thieves above us [the Afghan people],” Chayes said.
Chayes argues in her book that the U.S. loves corruption because it appointed corrupt leaders in the Middle East. She said the people of Afghanistan looked to the U.S. for a government by law and not by religion.
“You can’t talk to someone about corruption when they’re the one corrupting,” Chayes said. Religion, the deification of money, and the “tribalist” reputation of the Afghan people all add to the failure of their system.
She has a problem with the current U.S. government and how it tells Americans its plan to deal with these criminal government organizations. “There isn’t a military solution so you have to work on the non-military solutions,” Chayes said.
In President Obama’s speeches, Chayes said he has stated many times that there isn’t a military solution to end this corruption, but he only offers more solutions using the military instead of solutions using governance.
After leaving the audience feeling dejected that the U.S. hasn’t provided any solid assistance to Afghanistan since it’s occupation, Chayes offered some hope. She fielded a question from the audience about who specifically can help this corrupt government. Her answer: Peace Corps members, journalists, financial experts, people who are educated, have negotiation skills and are good at interacting with others who are different from themselves are all necessary to fix a corrupt criminal organization disguised as a government.
“We brought an elective dictatorship to Afghanistan,” Chayes said. As part of Chayes’ work in Afghanistan, she made a list of corrupt leaders, some she has worked with, who should be replaced because of their corruption. She sent these recommendations to the U.S. government to consider, but her work to end corruption she said will never end.