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An American Woman Entrepreneur In Afghanistan

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Jennie Green and Sarah Chayes are determined women. Instead of living a contented life in the glow of the Ivy Leagues or academia, they are entrepreneurs amid the chaos and violence of Kandahar. Since 2005, they have conducted business while braving death threats. Green and Chayes have gained a following among hawks, journalists, NGOs, expatriates and the military. They also appeal to garden variety peaceniks, whose outlook is questioned as Chayes and Green lay out the complexities of the situation in Afghanistan.

Green works with Chayes who founded the work co-op Arghand International. In November 2009, Green wrote an important eight-page "Note From The Field." Its straightforward manner is devoid of eye-glazing political-journalistic assumptions. Green conveys a shoes-on-the-ground point of view about the latest happenings in Kandahar. What Green noted in this field note last month was a precursor to war journalist Michael Yon's latest dispatch, which details a heavy battle for Kandahar.

Chayes is the former NPR reporter Arghand Sitewho grew disenchanted with the way the mainstream media wanted the war reported in 2002. She quit. Chayes wrote a book called The Punishment of Virtue, which chronicles her experiences in Kandahar where she learned the maze of power structures from the local war lords, to the  military system. Chayes is now highly sought for her opinions from journalists such as Charlie Rose to high ranking military leaders. While still involved in Arghand, Chayes is at ISAF headquarters in Kabul.

Arghand International is a co-op that provides jobs for 15 local Afghans from the Kandahar area. Chayes and Green founded Arghand to provide an alternate revenue source for men and women with few options. They use locally grown plants to produce oils that go into making creams and hand-formed soaps forKandahar Rose Soap by Arghand export. Their recent progress includes putting locals to work, installing the most powerful solar generator in Kandahar, and producing 1000 kilos of handmade soap for export to the U.S. That they do any of this is an example of fortitude and smarts for what's going on.  Their headaches include the Canadians, who abruptly decided not to let Arghand use an APO address earlier this year to ship merchandise inexpensively and safely in and out of the U.S.

But Arghand's most recent dilemma was when co-op members wanted to quit and shutter the business. The reason?  For an Afghan, being associated with the Americans had become too risky. Violence in Kandahar was on the rise, and retribution for working with the Green and Chayes gives the Taliban cause to murder or torture themselves or their families. In a Field Note written in March 2008, Chayes detailed the deteriorating conditions and risk.

One of our cooperative members has left Arghandab. His family
made it through the Jihad, the Mujahideen period, and Taliban rule, ensconced in the protective  enclave of their pomegranate thicket. He has had to move because two unknown men with guns were lying in wait on his path to work, early in the morning when only he is abroad.

Echoing this, Green tells readers that she and her sister have seen a jubilant atmosphere where the future seemed unlimited after liberation in 2001. However, these are "dark days of violence and paranoia."

Note From JennieShe takes the U.S. government to task for not calling out the corruption of the Karzai government. By avoiding this, the U.S. could never hope to gain the trust of the Afghan people. Several military bloggers, such as Free Range International  have said this as well.

  "Kerry and Clinton squandered much of the leverage they gained after the ECC and IEC election results were announced in a herculean effort to force Karzai into a run-off election from which they expected him to emerge as a credible leader –without acknowledging that this would not improve his standing with the Afghan people."

 Green writes that it's up to the Obama administration to not back down. While she wrote this before he decided to send in extra troops, she forcefully puts down some conditions for progress:

We must stop worrying about our reputation as a country that doesn't do "the foreign occupying thing" for long enough to demand compliance. We can make American guns and money conditional on Karzai's prioritization of accountable governance, protection of civilians and removal of the worst abusers of political power. We can, as Sarah suggests, force Karzai to report to a commission of Afghan and international statesman. We can and should stand firm when he tries to whip up anti-American sentiment by claiming foreign interference, knowing the Afghan people have been expecting us to interfere on their behalf since 2001.

How tough Obama is going to be is unknown. Sounding mechanical in his speech this month at West Point, Obama didn't show grits until his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether or not the Obama administration is willing to accept how unrelenting they will have to be, or whether it will be tossed aside for political expediency is anyone's bet.

As an American civilian entrepreneur working within the Afghan society, both Green and Chayes make a compelling argument to stay with the game despite the risks. It doesn't mean business as usual, but having an ear to the ground and the winds, changing the course when needed, and being smart and tough. For them and other expatriates in Afghanistan doing the same thing, running a business to provide cash for work projects isn't just a passing fancy. Giving people an opportunity to build their own country is something they deeply believe is essential. What Green, Chayes and others who share their shoes-and-boots-on-the-ground points of view are willing to do is lay out the conditions based on what they see, what they've experienced, and what has brought them success. Some military bloggers have expressed that both a change in tactics and an increase in troops smartly placed and activated can turn the war around. They know the stakes are high, and hope the American public, the President and his followers are reading.

To read the how Arghand International solved its dilemma, read the full text of her "Notes From The Field" available for download on the Arghand site. Click on "News" on the top. Then pull down "Notes From the Field."  From there, click on "Nov. 8 (Jennie) under 2009" on the left sidebar.  Arghand hand made, high quality, natural soaps may be purchased online from independent retailers throughout the U.S. Just search for "Arghand Soaps."

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About Kanani

  • Kahani, been meaning to get to your article, been very busy. And I “ditto” Ruvy, excellent article!

  • Hi Ruvy! I don’t think she makes any mention of it in her book. Sarah Chayes is really a fascinating individual. When I reviewed her book, the best description I could come up with is that if Indiana Jones had a girlfriend today, Sarah Chayes would be his new Marion.
    If you go onto the Charlie Rose site, you can watch interviews with her. She’s very forthright and cool.

  • Kanani,

    Excellent article. I remember reading about these women elsewhere, and wondering if Sarah Chayes, who has a Jewish name, at any rate, realizes that many of the Afghans she is helping with her efforts are fellow Children of Israel.

  • Here is Sarah Chayes’s latest speech given on 16 November 2009 at Dartmouth. You can listen to it there.

    She mythbusts many of the assumptions held by the international community about Afghanistan.

  • Glenn I do hope you’ll download the full contents of the Field Note, and also read Sarah’s book. In addition, all of the links in the article will take you to individuals who give a first hand account of what’s going on.

    Chayes is an advisor to General McChrystal.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Kanani –

    Wonderful article…and your first page is indicative of how positive results can be achieved with FAR less investment than the cost of a predator drone strike.

    However, I should point out that the Obama administration DID address the chronic corruption in the Karzai regime – Hillary spoke of it in a speech in Afghanistan, IIRC. The problem, however, is poverty. As long as there is widespread poverty, there is corruption. That is a fact of humanity…and anyone who wishes to deal with people in such an environment must first learn to work WITH the corruption. Why? To bring stability to the region.

    Once stability is achieved (even if with an iron hand), then work towards building infrastructure – education, technology, health care, etc. – and only then, as life improves for the people, can one truly work towards changing a culture built on corruption to one built on the rule of law.