A tale of good guys and bad guys in the Wild West of Afghanistan—save that “good” and “bad” are strangely fluid notions.
Chayes, a onetime NPR correspondent, takes an anthropologist’s and historian’s view to explain how America got it so wrong following the post-9/11 invasion, and she is not shy of asking hard questions to make her point. For one, she asks, “Do we, as American citizens, wish to have the bulk of our foreign policy conducted by the Department of Defense?” United States military officers are doing just such work in Afghanistan, guided by supposed insiders who have axes to grind and enemies to dispatch—the very people, she adds, who convinced the Western press corps that U.S.-backed militias were fighting and winning desperate battles with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Sometimes they were; mostly they weren’t, though that didn’t keep dollars from flowing. Chayes served as a lecturer and informal advisor to American forces (“She’s like no journalist you’ve ever seen,” one soldier exclaims. “She’s a hawk!”), and in that capacity, she has urged them to do a better job of backing the right horses, such as an anti-Taliban friend of hers, a police commander killed by a suicide bomber for his troubles. But finding those horses is a challenge, for the convenient designations do not apply, and in all events, Chayes writes, the Taliban enemy were in essence a creation of Pakistan, meant to serve its narrow regional interests, “pressing into service ambitious petty commanders from the anti-Soviet period and uprooted, madrassa-inculcated youth from the refugee camps.” And indeed, some of the Taliban she meets surely seem preferable to some of their supposed opponents, including one corrupt governor who emerges from these pages as the worst of a very mixed lot.
Absorbing reading—necessary, even, for anyone posted to a place where our performance “will determine where a lot of people come down on the clash of civilizations.”