FORT POLK, La. -- "The mission you're going out on is one of the most important in Afghanistan. It's you and mentors like you that will provide the greatest good that we can do there."

With that statement, Sarah Chayes began her Feb. 13 visit with Soldiers from the 162nd Infantry Brigade and other units participating in rotational training at the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk prior to their deployment to Afghanistan as military advisor teams to the Afghan National Security Forces.

Chayes was asked to speak because of her vast cultural knowledge of the Afghan people. She is a special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and worked in the same job for two commanders of international troops in Afghanistan ---- Gen. David McKiernan and Gen. Stanley McCrystal. She was selected for these jobs due to her unique experience in Afghanistan, where she has lived for the bulk of the past decade. She entered Kandahar just days after the fall of the Taliban as a reporter for National Public Radio. Then, in 2002, at the invitation of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's uncle, she chose to leave journalism and move to Afghanistan to help its citizens rebuild after the fall of the Taliban regime.

"I felt like it was time to stop talking and do something," she told her Fort Polk audience.

In the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, she launched a non-profit organization in tandem with Qayum Karzai, the Afghanistan president's older brother. Then, in 2005, she founded a small manufacturing concern where men and women work together to produce fine skin-care products for export from the region's rich local agriculture.

Chayes said that living on the economy this way, among the local population, provided an "unbelievable perspective" from which to watch the unfolding war.

"My perspective is not filtered by layers of either the Afghan or the U.S. government," she said.

Chayes said the current habits and mindset of Afghanis is shaped by the repeated invasions they have suffered, most recently the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s. She said that the last 30 years in a state of constant combat has subjected them to a "wartime incentive" structure -- something that leaves deep scars.

"When you're in combat, you make do with what's at hand," she said, telling an anecdote about her workers pounding in nails with a pair of pliers. "The Afghan people aren't lazy, dirty or don't care; they've been living on a hair trigger for 30 years."

Another factor facing practically the entire Afghan population is post traumatic stress, Chayes said.

"In Afghanistan, an entire age group suffers combat trauma -- and has stayed armed," she said. "So many behaviors that we might ascribe to culture are in fact a product of that untreated PTS. For example, they've never come off of combat mode. Many take up a criminal career because it keeps the adrenaline pumping and it exercises the skills they gained in war."

Chayes also said Afghans don't think about the future that much, because in combat, you're not sure you have a future -- it's all about what's happening right now. "That's not necessarily Afghan culture, it's a way you adapt when you live in combat for 30 years," she said.

Because of the country's past, Chayes said the mentors preparing to assist ANSF face a daunting challenge.

"All of those years of bad incentives have really impacted society," she said. "And we have added 10 more years. We have basically let any government official or local strongman do anything if they said they would chase the Taliban, even if they were abusing the people. That's a big job you face: How to change that and how to reward positive behavior."

In her slides, Chayes drew comparisons between the anger many Afghans feel at the corrupt and abusive behavior they suffer at the hands of their government, and the kind of frustration that gave rise to the recent revolutions in the Arab world. Her slides included an unattributed quotation from a U.S. president: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

Col. Michael Kasales, commander, 3rd Infantry Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, at Fort Polk on rotation with Soldiers from his brigade, said Chayes' visit was enlightening.

"She is a recognized professional on Afghanistan," he said. "She offers another perspective on the complexity of problems in Afghanistan. It's great that we were able to get her here."

Sgt. Maj. Dennis Gerber, 3rd Inf Bde, 4th Inf Div, echoed his commander's comments.

"She's had a lot of interaction with the local population," Gerber said. "She gave us insight and logic behind the way the Afghan people think. She pointed out how NATO forces have tried to do the right thing, but because of bad timing, it may not have been the best thing. She's helped us to understand the impact of what we do."

Col. Matthew McKenna, commander, 162nd Inf Bde, said he and his Soldiers were fortunate to have Chayes' input.

"The unique experiences earned from the time she has spent living in -- and reporting from -- Afghanistan since 2001 make her insights particularly invaluable," he said. "She has seen the evolution of Afghanistan from the fall of the Taliban to the effects of the surge. She has also seen multiple military units from numerous countries rotate in and out of Afghanistan. She can give us eye-witness accounts of what's taking place on the ground in Afghanistan."

Chayes is the author of "The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban," and numerous news articles on Afghanistan, intelligence and the Arab Spring.

Page last updated Fri February 17th, 2012 at 00:00