No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal, has just been selected for the initial list of 10 books to be considered for the 2014 National Book Award for non-fiction.
Truthout interviewed Gopal about his riveting book that offers an intimate portrait of Afghans as they see the US presence in their country – and how history and the most recent invasion of their nation impact their everyday lives.
Mark Karlin: The most startling assertion in your book is that the United States ignored the possibility of reaching an agreement with the Taliban early on that might have prevented much of the bloodshed of the past years. Can you expand on that?
Anand Gopal: In the span of two months in 2001, the Taliban crumbled under the power of overwhelming US airpower. In the face of such an abject defeat, members of the movement – from the rank-and-file to the senior leadership – sought to save themselves by surrendering or switching sides. This shouldn’t be as surprising as it may seem, when you consider that Afghanistan had been at war for over two decades, and people often switched allegiances as a way of surviving. Unfortunately, reconciliation was not the prevailing mood in the new Afghan government or Washington – where the ethos was that you are either “with us or against us.” So Taliban offers to cut deals were rebuffed, and many of those men who had attempted to reconcile would go on to lead the insurgency against the US presence.
Although that is a fascinating and troubling disclosure, your riveting narrative is ultimately about the people of Afghanistan caught up in a complex tragedy. How did you pick who you would focus on in the book and what incidents? You write captivating accounts of people who are rarely acknowledged in the military/political coverage of the US involvement in Afghanistan.
When the US launched the war on terror, we were told that the terrorists hate our way of life, and that an expansive, open-ended war would be needed to defeat them. Underlying this idea is the assumption that America’s enemies are irrevocably opposed to US interests, and that its allies are ipso facto morally superior. Talking to Afghans in the war-affected areas, though, I learned that reality isn’t so black and white. So I chose to follow three Afghans who, on the surface, appear to fit the categorizations of the war on terror – friends, foes, and civilians – and explore whether their lives actually lived up to this.
The “foe” is a Taliban leader who had attempted to surrender and return to civilian life after 2001. However, he was driven to join the insurgency after repeated police harassment and American night raids. The “friend” is a local warlord, who in many ways represents the opposite story: He was rescued from a Taliban jail after the US invasion of 2001, and he used his links with the US military to eliminate rivals and soar to heights of wealth and power. The civilian, Heela, is a rural housewife who is forced to navigate between these two forces, US-backed warlords and the Taliban, in order to protect her family.
At the end of the book, you have a page about your sources. How did you come to know these people and gain their confidence?
I interviewed and collected the life stories of many hundreds of Afghans, but these three stood out to me because they were gifted storytellers in their own right. And more importantly, they put up with the fact that I often asked the same question four or five different ways, and they worked with me – or at least did not obstruct me – as I tracked down witnesses to their stories and experiences.
At first, it was challenging to gain the confidence of my subjects – particularly the Taliban commander. However, in time he grew to enjoy recounting his life story and exploring aspects of his past that he had not visited in many years. It was the first time anyone had ever asked him his view of things, and I believe that he found the process cathartic. In most cases, a journalist has a very fleeting engagement with his or her subject, especially during the daily grind of news coverage. But the opportunity to have in-depth interviews over an extended period of time – two years in my case – did more to build trust between me and my interviewees than anything else.
Isn’t the Vietnam War, which began decades earlier, a foreshadowing of how the US military and foreign policy apparatus fail to understand non-European cultures?
Yes, and there are other parallels as well. Terrorism has replaced communism as the enemy du jour. Once, the US allied with a host of unsavory actors in the name of fighting communism; it engineered coups and undermined democratically elected governments, and funded proxy armies around the globe. Today, it allies with unsavory actors – such as Jan Muhammad, the strongman profiled in my book – and supports warlords, undermining the development of democracy in Afghanistan. All this is done in the name of fighting terror.
Isn’t the fiasco in Afghanistan also, like Vietnam, a rebuke of the notion that military might, along with some clumsy alignments with the wrong people, can conquer any nation or people?
Military occupation almost always engenders resistance or a reaction of some kind. Military might can sometimes be successful in defeating that resistance – there are numerous examples in Afghan history, such as the Islamic conquest of the ninth century – but it has rarely produced a just or democratic order. Furthermore, the US experience in Afghanistan undermines the idea that you can defeat “terrorism” – which, we should keep in mind, is a military tactic, not a political ideology – through the occupation of a country.
How do you feel about the Bush and Cheney assertion that we were spreading democracy in Afghanistan in light of the corrupt administration of the nation by the leaders that the US backed?
The US has undermined the development of democracy in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the US and its allies have worked with the Afghan government to conduct elections, build ministerial capacity, erect a judicial system, etc. Yet on the other hand, by supporting a network of warlords, and by fueling corruption through its contracts and private security companies, the US has helped create a culture of impunity and lawlessness. The extraordinary level of corruption that plagues the Afghan government is a direct result of the way the US and its allies have administered aid. A typical contract will be subcontracted a number of times, with US businesses, Afghan politicians and local warlords each taking a cut, before an ordinary Afghan sees a penny. Washington funds militias and strongmen who are the real authorities in the southern countryside, not the Afghan government. For these reasons, Afghan democracy exists mostly on paper.
You masterfully interweave the compelling personal history of an Afghan woman, Heela, through No Good Men Among the Living. She is a woman of infinite good will, with boundless love for her husband and family and a desire to improve her community, but she is trapped in a fateful intersection of corruption and killing. How does her story symbolize the average Afghan who wants a future for his or her family and is not interested in the politics or carnage of power and corruption?
In the war-affected parts of the country, very few people support the Taliban, and very few support the Afghan government or the US forces. Instead, political allegiances are thrust upon people, and they do what they can to survive – often with grace, compassion and courage. Heela’s story exemplifies this; at one point she works with US forces, and at another juncture she even aids the Taliban, yet at every step she goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her family. The future that Afghans like her might have had has been wrested from them by military occupation, warlordism and insurgency. Instead, they are left to make the best out of trying circumstances, which often means allying with one side or the other, or, when it’s an option, simply leaving the country altogether.
Clearly, as you illustrate, among the many deadly missteps of the US military, it was played for a deadly fool by rival warlords and other parties who called in strikes on alleged Taliban – who were really just rivals (including US allies in some cases) – for purposes of personal gain or retribution. Then you also can add the pervasive policy of night strikes that not infrequently killed noncombatant civilians. These tactics, and others like them, understandably alienated many in the civilian population who lost family members to US military action. Once again, it appears that the United States was tone deaf to capturing hearts and minds. Was there anyone in the US military or government who appeared to understand the complicated nature of the different groups competing for power in Afghanistan?
It has taken time, but I believe that there is now such an understanding among some sections of the military and the government. However, short-term interests continue to prevail. For instance, the police chief of Kandahar province, Abdul Raziq, is notorious for his use of torture and extrajudicial executions. Many in the government are well aware of this, but choose to look the other way because Raziq is as adept at killing Taliban as he is at killing innocent civilians. Whether consciously or not, this is a tradeoff the Pentagon is willing to make. This is because of the US’s need to demonstrate “progress,” both to an American audience and internally so that officers and politicians can further their careers. Counterterrorism reigns supreme in US policy, even if by pursuing such a strategy you ensure the creation of new terrorists.
You went into areas of Afghanistan that most journalists avoided – and you learned the language. As a result, your portrait of the people and the conflict is intimate and distinctive. On a day-to-day basis – while you were in Afghanistan – what drove your decisions in terms of your reporting that led to No Good Men Among the Living?
What struck me in nearly every conversation I had was how different the Afghan perspective of the war looked from my preconceived notions. In southern Afghanistan, where I did the bulk of my reporting, the explanation for why the Taliban had regrouped and why the American effort was failing was starkly different from any explanations I had heard back home. I learned a tremendous amount from speaking to farmers, tribal elders, mullahs and fighters, and I wanted to help other Americans gain this understanding the way I had – through the stories Afghans told.
You end the book with the bleak outlook that the best one can hope for on a day-to-day basis in Afghanistan is survival. Are there any opportunities to change that reality or is this a case for the foreseeable future?
Unfortunately, it does not look like peace is coming any time soon. US troops are departing, but they are leaving behind hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers, police, militias, gangs and warlords to fight in its place – in effect, a proxy army. At the same time, the Taliban remains unbeaten, and continues to enjoy backing from Pakistan – in effect, another proxy army. Add to this the fact that the Afghan government cannot raise revenue and is utterly reliant on foreign aid for its survival, and you have the makings of a perpetually weak state in a country with a never-ending war. Civilians will bear the brunt of this, and already we are seeing record levels of civilian casualties across the country.