Eyes Wide Open in Afghanistan

Combining first-rate investigative reporting and a mastery of New Journalism techniques, Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes” will help you understand the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan as well as introduce you to some of the people whose lives have been torn apart by American occupation. With the same kind of care that a gifted novelist devotes to character development, Gopal renders a Taliban fighter and a husband and wife victimized by Taliban violence in such finely grained detail and psychological depth that you feel as if you have walked in their shoes. This is the result of countless hours that he spent in Afghanistan interviewing his subjects at obvious risk to his life. So committed was Gopal to understanding the human drama in Afghanistan that he learned the Pashtun language before departing for an assignment that would last three years.

Unlike the average journalist who prefers being cocooned in a hotel room with other journalists or embedded with the state power’s military, Gopal has devoted himself to getting the story at the grass roots level, carrying out what might be described as “journalism from below”. I first encountered his reporting in an August 2012 Harper’s magazine article titled “Welcome to Free Syria” that described the flowering of democracy in a poor rural town called Taftanaz, where a farmer’s council had decided that “we have to give to each as he needs.” With all due respect to the Kurds in Rojova, many other Syrians had also been struggling for justice and equality until Baathist violence preempted such a possibility.

What you will learn from “No Good Men Among the Living” is that after the USA routed the Taliban in 2001, the term “Wars Of Choice, Wars Of Necessity” hardly applied to the facts on the ground. A more accurate description would be “Wars Of Insanity” for the simple reason that virtually the entire Taliban leadership had reconciled itself to living in peace with the government the USA had helped to install. With so much hysteria about Taliban fanaticism, it is a total revelation to discover how amenable the group was to a new regime:

On December 5 [2001], a Taliban delegation arrived at the US special forces camp north of Kandahar city to officially relinquish power. According to a participant, Karzai was asked that he allow Mullah Omar to “live in dignity” in exchange for his quiescence. The delegation members, which included Defense Minister Mullah Obaidullah, Omar’s trusted aide Tayeb Agha, and other key leaders, pledged to retire from politics and return to their home villages. Crucially, they also agreed that their movement would surrender arms, effectively ensuring that the Taliban could no longer function as a military entity. There would be no jihad, no resistance from the Taliban to the new order—even as leaders of al-Qaeda were escaping to Pakistan to continue their holy war. The differences between the two groups may have never been so apparent, but as Washington declared victory, they passed largely unnoticed.

Among the newly retired fighters was one Akbar Gul, who was nicknamed Mullah Cable during the time the Taliban wielded power because he brandished an electrical cable to whip petty thieves or those selling alcohol in the area he controlled.

He figures prominently in Gopal’s narrative as both a symbol of Taliban political practice and as a fully rendered character as memorable in his way as one from a Dostoyevsky novel. Neither devil nor angel, Gul was someone shaped by circumstance. As someone whose gopalnogoodresponse to foreign occupation was dictated both by patriotism of the sort that moved the Vietnamese peasant to resist the USA as well as religious zealotry and tribal loyalties that made Vietnamese-type universalism impossible, Gul is a tragic figure—one who symbolizes the defects of atavistic revolt even as his courage and honesty deserve respect. This is the Taliban that the American people never knew.

Akbar Gul grew up in a poor neighborhood in Kabul where a scarcity of jobs forced him to eke out a living selling drugs, a trade that often landed him in jail. The growth of militias in the 1990s in Kabul as a response to Soviet occupation had the unintended consequence of
pitting Afghan against Afghan. Militias based on tribal identity often became nothing more than criminal gangs punishing the outsiders, including Pashtuns, the ethnic group Gul belonged to. When an Uzbek-based militia killed his brother and cousin, he decided that he had no choice but to join the Taliban, a group committed to ending militia lawlessness. Paraphrasing Leon Trotsky, Gopal writes that before the killing of his relatives, “He wasn’t interested in this war, but the war seemed interested in him.” Afterwards, it became clear that he had to make a choice.

So hated were the militias that the Taliban were able to take power with relative ease. After September 11, 2001, they lost power just as easily as a result of American air power. Like the high-level Taliban officers who surrendered to the Americans in December, Gul felt that air power was insurmountable especially when you see its devastating effects with your own eyes.

At that moment, a jet shrieked past, turned sharply, and dropped a series of bombs just where they had gone. The explosions were massive and deafening. “My teeth shook, my bones shook, everything inside me shook,” he recalled. An enormous cloud of smoke rose above the mountains. All he could do was stand and watch.

He drove into the basin and turned the corner and then stepped out of the vehicle. Oh my God, he thought. There were severed limbs everywhere. He inched closer. There were headless torsos and torso-less arms, cooked slivers of scalp and flayed skin. The stones were crimson, the sand ocher from all the blood. Coal-black lumps of melted steel and plastic marked the remains of his friends’ vehicles.

Closing his eyes, he steadied himself. In five years of fighting he had seen his share of death, but never lives disposed of so easily, so completely, so mercilessly, in mere seconds.

While there are those on the left who have faith in the limitless capacity of a determined force on the ground to resist any air force, I am persuaded that American bombing had the desired effect in 2001.

Once the Taliban liquidated itself and al-Qaeda hightailed it to Pakistan, there was no reason for the American military to remain in Afghanistan. But so intoxicated as it was on the need for revenge, it developed a campaign that required an enemy even if it was not there. The same rogue elements that precipitated Taliban resistance in the first place were all too ready to serve as American agents in an unnecessary war. With bottomless coffers filled with American dollars, the same kinds of militia thugs that killed Gul’s family members were ready to go to work identifying and killing “terrorists” for a handsome fee even if the killing was more on-target than the identification.

Gopal poses the question, “How do you fight a war without an adversary?” The answer was simple: you made one up. With American airplanes dropping leaflets that read “Get Wealth and Power Beyond Your Dreams. Help Anti-Taliban Forces Rid Afghanistan of Murderers and Terrorists”, an endless supply of Ghostbusters would line up, including one Gul Agha Sherzai whose personal feuds with members of other clans and appetite for American payouts created a supply of “Taliban” that satisfied American demand. Men fingered by Sherzai ended up in American bases where they would be stripped naked, beaten, cursed and tortured—thus in the final analysis becoming Taliban without the scare quotes. Akbar Gul would become one of these men.

If scum like Sherzai were ready to sell out their country for a fast buck, there were others who tried their best to make a post-Taliban society conform to their ideals even if conditions militated against it. One of them was a woman named Heela that Gopal met in 2010 and who he described as the “embodiment of Afghanistan—troubled, tried, resilient, and ultimately beholden to a foreign power.”

When she was nineteen and in her junior year at the University of Kabul majoring in economics, her parents invited a man named Musqinyar over for tea in a ritual that took place in many Afghan households after a daughter reached marriageable age. He was there to size her up even if by background he was less interested in rituals than most Afghan man since he was a member of the Communist Party.

On one of their get-acquainted strolls, Heela asked him if would allow her to work if they got married. His answer: of course, that is a woman’s right. It was their commitment to equal rights, secularism (within reason) and progressive values that would lead them to clash with both the militias and the Taliban state power that would succeed them.

In the passages that describe Heela’s efforts to follow her dreams, Gopal’s prose and psychological insights achieve an artistry that sets “No Good Men Among the Living” apart from anything I have read in years, including works of fiction. The paragraphs below relate the growing conflict between Musqinyar and Heela over her determination to teach women how to sew in a rural and very backward region where women were never seen outside their home except clad in a burqa—including Heela. Despite his earlier Communist beliefs, Musqinyar had succumbed to the pressures of patriarchal society and beaten her for defying the established order by running a sewing school in the basement of their house.

For months Heela had been living in stolen moments, snatched from a social structure that yielded little to women of ambition. In the end, she realized, you surrender that which you have taken—at least in Khas Uruzgan. And for the first time in years, the tug was gone. She waited patiently but it did not return. In time, even waiting for it seemed foolish, reckless in fact, and she hated herself for having believed otherwise. She started skipping meals and letting housework go. Her slide into someplace dark was steady and perhaps irrevocable. Musqinyar, however, refused to accept it. One evening Heela went to bed and found new jewelry on her pillow. Another time, a Pakistani-type dress that had been all the rage in her Kabul life appeared in her wardrobe. Sometimes, a wife of one of Musqinyar’s friends would be brought to the house for “treatment.” Yet Heela could not brighten, no matter how she tried.

As always, Musqinyar, summoning a seemingly endless reserve of hope, refused to give in. Yet his optimism now faced challenges on multiple fronts: if life at home was trying, things around the district were not faring any better. It started in that summer of 2003, when a motorist was mysteriously gunned down not far from the village. Later, a farmer was kidnapped, and another was held up at gunpoint. Someone fired rockets at the nearby American base. Heela ordered the children to stop playing outside. Musqinyar ate his dinners in silence, brooding over things better left unsaid.

The war had returned.

After reading “No Good Men Among the Living”, I recalled what was said about the New Journalism that was in its infancy when I was young. Now over a half-century old, the conventions have become almost universal for journalists trying to place the character into the foreground of books about war, conflict, and social change.

If the passage above sounds like it might have been extracted from a novel, you have to remind yourself that with a few exceptions the novel eschews the big questions of our epoch, especially the harm that American imperialism does to people like Heela and Akbar Gul.

In an article on New Journalism that appeared in the December 1972 Esquire, Tom Wolfe—a journalist who along with Gay Talese is credited with inventing the genre—made the case for it as “a form that is not merely like a novel. It consumes devices that happen to have originated with the novel and mixes them with every other device known to prose. And all the while, quite beyond matters of technique, it enjoys an advantage so obvious, so built-in, one almost forgets what power it has: the simple fact that the reader knows all this actually happened.“

Just as the documentary is the medium for understanding social reality better than any narrative film, “No Good Men Among the Living” puts you in touch with Afghan realities in a way that the conventional work of nonfiction cannot. It is a painstakingly researched and vividly dramatic work of both art and reporting that deserves the widest possible audience, starting with CounterPunch readers who have been following events in Afghanistan since the brutal occupation of the country. Considering reports that stem from the area, it looks like Anand Gopal’s reportage is essential for understanding the unresolved conflicts that will continue to roil the nation for the foreseeable future as the N.Y. Times reported on March 18, 2015:

NY Times, Mar. 18 2015

Afghan Militia Leaders, Empowered by U.S. to Fight Taliban, Inspire Fear in Villages


KABUL, Afghanistan — Rahimullah used to be a farmer — just a “normal person living an ordinary life,” as he put it. Then he formed his own militia last year and found himself swept up in America’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.

With about 20 men loyal to him, Rahimullah, 56, soon discovered a patron in the United States Special Forces, who provided everything he needed: rifles, ammunition, cash, even sandbags for a guard post in Aghu Jan, a remote village in Ghazni Province.

Then the Americans pulled out, leaving Rahimullah behind as the local strongman, and as his village’s only defense against a Taliban takeover.

“We are shivering with fear,” said one resident, Abdul Ahad. Then he explained: He and his neighbors did not fear the Taliban nearly as much as they did their protectors, Rahimullah’s militiamen, who have turned to kidnappings and extortion.

Mr. Ahad ran afoul of them in January, he said in a telephone interview. Militiamen hauled him to a guard station and beat him so badly that neighbors had to use a wheelbarrow to get him home.

Scattered across Afghanistan, men like Rahimullah continue to hold ground and rule villages. They are a significant part of the legacy of the American war here, brought to power amid a Special Operations counterinsurgency strategy that mobilized anti-Taliban militias in areas beyond the grasp of the Afghan Army.

From the start, some Afghan officials, including former President Hamid Karzai, objected to the Americans’ practice of forming militias that did not answer directly to the Afghan government. They saw the militias as destabilizing forces that undermined the government’s authority and competed with efforts to build up large and professional military and police forces.

Now, many of those concerns have become a daily reality in Afghan villages.

“For God’s sake, take these people away from us,” Mr. Ahad, 36, said of Rahimullah’s militiamen. “We cannot stand their brutality.”

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.