Book Review: No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal

Black and white thinking just doesn’t work in a gray labyrinth. That’s why America — and the Soviet Union earlier — struggled in seeking to fashion Afghanistan’s government and politics. Perhaps there should be a rule requiring Afghanistan be colored gray on any map as a warning about how gray and tangled it is. At least that’s my conclusion from reading Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes. Although attempting to tell the story of America’s military efforts in Afghanistan from the perspective of the Afghanis, it provides a much deeper insight.

Gopal, who was an Afghanistan correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor, spent a great deal of time traveling the country, seeking to meet and understand various elements of the society. With hundreds of hours of interviews and who knows how many dangerous miles, he uses the lives of enemy, ally and civilian to explore life there since 9/11. Although discussing numerous other fighters and tribal leaders, No Good Men Among the Living is built around a Taliban commander (who was among many who tried to surrender to the U.S.), a member of the U.S.-backed Afghan government (who was among many using that relationship to build wealth and power and extract revenge against rivals), and a Kabul University-educated woman (who ends up a burqa-clad housewife in a remote, conservative village).

no good menWhat do their lives tell us? That almost any alliance is subject to change when there is an advantage in doing so. That the clannish nature of the various ethnic groups creates fissures that greatly influence alliances and loyalties, fissures outsiders may not recognize and certainly may never understand. That urban and rural life are dramatically different worlds. That putting people and things into black and white categories is largely fatal to any attempt to create a “better” Afghanistan.

Take the Taliban commander, Mullah Cable, for example. Cable, a Pashtun whose given name is Akbar Gul, has no formal religious instruction. He ended up in the Taliban (largely-Pashtun based) when his brother and cousin were executed in Kabul by a Uzbek militia group that was part of the Northern Alliance. Still a teenager, Cable joined a Pashtun militia group and by 2001 was a leading frontline commander for the Taliban. It was during this time he became known as Mullah Cable — using a cable as a whip. Yet September 12, 2001, didn’t dawn with him seeking jihad against the United States, a place he can’t find on a map. Rather, he and many others intended to surrender and abandoned the Taliban all together. He made his way to Kabul for a while and then left for Pakistan, hoping to “piece together a Taliban-free future” and a “life at peace.” Gopal then details how the ethnic and political rivalries between and among the Northern Alliance, former Taliban and various ethnic groups led this new potential ally — or, at least, a neutral noncombatant — back to Pakistan and to becoming a member of a newly resurgent Taliban.

The flip side of the coin is Jan Muhammad, who rose from being a school janitor to a commander of the U.S.-backed mujahedeen fighting the Soviets to governing and leading thousands of fighters in Orzugan, a southern Afghanistan province. He lost that position when the Taliban came into power and joined an anti-Taliban group associated with Hamid Karzai, who would become the country’s president following the U.S. invasion. Muhammad, a longtime friend of Karzai’s, became a close adviser but was arrested by the Taliban and thrown into prison. His scheduled execution was averted by the U.S. invasion and Karzai made him governor of Orzugan the following year. Although an ally, Muhammad and others who governed various areas in the provinces had access to millions of U.S. dollars and the ear of the U.S. military. Frequently, they used that ear to solidify their control, identifying competitors and rivals as terrorists, resulting in arrests, detention, torture and U.S. raids and bombings that killed innocents.

Perhaps the most intriguing story is Heela’s, in part because of its seeming incongruity. She and her husband lived and worked in Kabul, where the restrictions on women were far less than in the countryside. After mujahedeen took Kabul and three years before the Taliban prevailed in the civil war, the Supreme Court issued a decree that the government dismiss female employees and close schools for girls because “schools are whorehouses and centers of adultery.” The decree also said women should not leave their homes unless absolutely necessary and only after asking their husbands’ permission and, if they did, “they are to cover themselves completely.”

The following summer, the civil war led Heela and her husband to escape to his home village in Orzugan, where such restrictive rules had existed for decades. Yet this college-educated woman took to her full body burqa and quickly adapted to the strictures on her activities. When her husband surreptitiously takes her and their children to the pharmacy he runs in a nearby village after the U.S. invasion, it is the only family outing she had while living in the province. Yet while Heela comports with the local views on the role of women, those in power recognize the potential of an educated woman in the provinces. The Taliban arrange for her to be trained in midwifery and nursing. The Karzai government selects her to supervise a vocational training center and help register woman voters. Yet the ongoing internecine conflicts lead to family tragedy and, ultimately, she would be elected to the National Assembly to represent those who frowned upon and opposed those activities and the modernity her pre-village life represented.

No Good Men Among the Living demonstrates how, from the era of Soviet control until today, every ally, enemy and citizen encountered and adapted to shifting alliances and governments. Gopal’s explanation of the historic background to these shifting camps and political situations is among the best I’ve read. The men in power did so in ways that would benefit them most. Women were far more constrained not just by the type of government but tradition and location. The bad guys might have been good guys. The good guys may have been little different from the bad guys. The book’s examples of how our “allies” exploited U.S. power are devastating and how U.S. policy would “create enemies where there were none.” Amidst all this, the population was left to deal with whomever was perceived as good or bad at the time — something that was not always congruent with the view of the U.S. military — and the results of the U.S. belief that the war on terror be a matter of black and white.

At times, No Good Men Among the Living seems to gloss over the actions of the Taliban and focus more on somewhat localized tribal and ethnic rivalries and power struggles. Likewise, little is said about the role of Pakistan in these events and the resurgence of the Taliban. Yet one point Gopal brings home is that the Taliban sprung from and thus represents a part of Afghan culture and politics. The U.S., like Russia and Britain before it, is, and always will be, an outside power whose own aims dramatically alter the balance of power and the lives of all Afghanis.

Living a war was different from fighting one; it mean keeping yourself somewhere in the gray area of survival.

Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living

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