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The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban Paperback – June 26, 2007

4.6 out of 5 stars 45 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Afghanistan only uncovers itself with intimacy, and intimacy takes time," writes Chayes, a skilled but increasingly frustrated journalist, whose determination "to grasp the underlying pattern" during and after the toppling of the Taliban in late 2001 chafes against her editors' post-9/11 comfort zone. With keen sympathy for Afghanistan's indomitable people, Chayes eventually swaps NPR and its four-and-a-half-minute slots for an NGO, becoming "field director" of Afghans for Civil Society, spearheaded by Qayum Karzai, the president's brother. ACS's humanitarian work, which includes rebuilding a bombed-out village, brings Chayes into direct conflict with the warlords with whom U.S. policy remains disastrously entangled. This is the point of her engrossing narrative, which begins in Pakistan, inside the U.S.-backed Afghan resistance pushing northward to Kandahar, and is framed by the 2005 murder of police chief Zabit Akrem, a key ally in the fight against Kandahar's corrupt warlord-governor. Throughout, Chayes relies on exceptional access and a felicitous prose style, though she sacrifices some momentum to cover several centuries of Afghanistan's turbulent past in an account that adds little to those by Ahmed Rashid and others. However, her hands-on experience as a deeply immersed reporter and activist gives her lucid analysis and prescriptions a practical scope and persuasive authority. (Aug. 21)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

That "other war" in Afghanistan appears to be heating up as an apparently resurgent Taliban and their allies have stepped up attacks against Afghan and coalition forces. So this is both a timely and disturbing account of the post-Taliban struggle to build a viable and nonthreatening government and civil society in that tortured land. Chayes worked as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio and covered the fall of the Taliban. In 2002 she left NPR to work for a nongovernmental aid organization within Afghanistan. Chayes used her great access to President Hamid Karzai, provincial officials, tribal elders, and U.S. military and government officials to offer a strong indictment of American policies, which she asserts allowed the return of brutal warlords to power in local government. She maintains that American naivete allowed the reinfiltration of Taliban forces, often aided by sympathetic elements of the Pakistani military. This is not a balanced account, and Chayes may be unrealistic in suggesting how things could have turned out differently. However, given her knowledge and experience, she merits attention. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (June 26, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143112066
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143112068
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #950,776 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This highly readable book is part memoir and part political analysis. The author, a former overseas NPR correspondent, describes her sojourn over the years 2001-2005 in Kandahar, the ancient capital of Afghanistan, where she worked for an Afghan-based NGO and, as an instinctive investigative reporter, formed her own assessment of the political forces at work in that post-Taliban city.

Her conclusions are both alarming and disheartening. She comes to believe that Pakistan is the root cause of political instability in Afghanistan and that through its support of warlords it uses resurgent Taliban forces to manipulate and regain control of large parts of the country. More discouraging is the author's portrayal of President Hamid Karzai as an intelligent, gifted, and cultured man who is often ineffectual as a leader.

The book is framed by the account of an assassination of the Kabul chief of police, a man of unusual integritiy and ability (hence the book's title) and its subsequent coverup as a suicide bombing. Set against him is the power-hungry and corrupt governor of Kandahar, who has won the confidence of the Americans while secretly amassing a fortune that he uses to fund a private army, meanwhile working deals with Pakistan to keep alive the threat of Taliban terrorism that makes the Americans even more dependent on him.

There are large swathes of Afghan and Persian history woven into this modern-day accounting, which reveal patterns of political and cultural forces at play that go back to Alexander the Great. Vividly written, the book provides a disturbing portrayal of failed leadership on the part of both the U.S. and the current government in Kabul. Read it and weep.
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Format: Hardcover
This book, readable as a mystery, is fueled by passion. It is really well written: direct, engaging, never leaving behind the reader who, like me, knows little or nothing about Afghanistan. Chayes's story is in Kandahar in the southern part of the country, where she arrived as an NPR reporter in late 2001. With an almost fictional immediacy she describes the situation she found and how she dealt with it -- she declined, for instance, to live in a hotel with the other foreign journalists and instead boarded with a family. She takes us with her into an increasing understanding of the tangled history that underlies Afghanistan, and particularly Kandahar, today. And she is both anguished and unsparing in her recounting of American cluelessness and misjudgments, which she sees as born of an inability to coordinate or take advantage of acquired knowledge on the ground, as US officials and military commanders are rotated in and out.

The frame of the book is the assassination of her friend Akrem, the Kabul police chief, the single best official she met in Afghanistan. It is publicly announced as the work of a suicide bomber. Chayes, who has by this time left NPR and returned as head of a private aid effort, investigates and disagrees.

A really valuable book. I read it pretty much straight through.
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Format: Hardcover
If like me you are a fiction maven who is likely to read only a couple of nonfiction books each year, do yourself the favor of making this year's pick "The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban." Here's why: How often do you get to read a book by an author who is an accomplished historian, political analyst, humanitarian, philosopher, psychologist, and anthropologist - all rolled into one masterful storyteller? Indeed, Sarah Chayes is a gifted writer whose lucid and exciting prose radiates such originality that it simply could not have been crafted by anybody else.

Part memoir, part murder mystery, part history text, and part reportage with commentary on the politically charged process of nation building, this book invites readers along on a treacherous but extraordinary journey toward the creation of democracy in a country that for the past few decades has been ravaged by war, corruption, and brutal regimes. Ms. Chayes chose to remain in Kandahar after reporting for NPR on the fall of the Taliban there because she believed that the only way to reverse forces that conspired to create 9/11 and other similarly heinous events was to "get this right." And so, in an urgent act of faith and bravery, she traipsed across the globe, alone, to help run Afghans for Civil Society - an NGO founded by a previously exiled brother of the U.S. backed interim President Hammid Karzai.

After many months of tireless work under harsh conditions, the narrative tone shifts from idealistic and hopeful, to wary of a new government that relinquishes power to duplicitous warlords, to deep skepticism, to abject disillusionment, to a more personal and ultimate decision to persevere in the face of unyielding obstacles.
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Format: Hardcover
My wife and I were in Afghanistan in the early 1970s. We had just completed Rory Stewart's "The Places In Between" when we learned of Chayes' book.

Afghanistan is a mystery country to westerners. It houses beautiful mosques (look for Mazar-i-Sherif and the white doves/pigeons), photogenic people (think of the National Geographic picture of the young Afghan woman), and lost treasures (remember the Buddhist statutes destroyed by the Taliban in Banyan). Chayes goes beyond all this into the culture and soul of the country. She knows some of the languages of Afghanistan and can talk and, more importantly, listen to people. Chayes tells us the story of values, fate, and the mass of distinctions that the Mideast and Afghanistan force upon us.

This story of modern Afganistan after the Taliban helps the thinking reader see the variety in this desert landscape - the individual power cells, the memories, the hopes, the promises, the evasions, the frowns behind the smiles, the oasis in the wasteland.

Chayes finds good intentions everywhere, praise everywhere, lack of carry thru everywhere, and scorn everywhere. Everyone is everything! This is beyond current politicans. The Afghan situation requires vision and love and caring for the people.

Well written, well documented, and certainly passionate, "The Punishment of Virtue" captures a moment in time that is for all time. A good read that will become an essential read in the future.
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