By Juan Cole
I guest-hosted a book salon over at Firedoglake on Sunday concentrating on Anand Gopal’s expose of the so-called ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan. Below is my review of the book. Do go to FDL to read the whole salon, where Mr. Gopal was kind enough to answer our questions about the book and the subject.
No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes
Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living is a deconstruction of the American “War on Terror” as it pertained to Afghanistan. It is an argument that the US military allowed itself to fall into chasing phantoms, put up to search and destroy missions by tribal allies mainly interested in using the Americans to settle feuds and deflect rivals. They got drawn into what anthropologists call the segmentary lineage political system of rural Afghanistan.
In short, as Gopal tells the story, there was no Taliban activity in Afghanistan to speak of by 2002, but the US military machine required an enemy, and its clients among the men on the make in Karzai’s Afghanistan were glad to supply alleged Taliban (sometimes even tagging as such men who had spent a decade fighting the puritanical seminarians). In the course of these betrayals and injustices, the US managed actually to create a growing Taliban resistance to its presence in the country. The book is a 21st century Catch-22, and as with the original, is leavened by episodes of dark humor and profound irony.
Gopal’s vehicle for this canny take-down of America’s master narrative during the past decade is the stories of Afghans who lived through America’s longest war, in Pashtun provinces such as Uruzgan, Helmand and Wardak. We have heard more about Kabul and some of the Dari Persian-speaking areas (which are safer) than we have about these towns and villages.
He is alive to the fluidity of politics and even religion in village Afghanistan. One of his characters, Musqinyar, begins as a Communist and ends up turning to religion, but is assassinated by a pro-American police chief for protesting corruption. His widow seeks refuge with American troops, but knows they won’t accept that their own ally is lawless so she tells them the Taliban killed her husband. At that time in that place, there probably were no Taliban, but the US troops were sent in to arrest the men of entire villages on bad intelligence from self-interested supposed allies. Some chieftains were summarily shipped off to Guantanamo where JAG staff were puzzled as to why they had been arrested in the first place. Sometimes people were picked up by US troops for having a name similar to a prominent member of the Taliban and some of those ended up in Guantanamo. Afghans often have no formal papers like birth certificates and go by a single name, multiplying the possibility of such errors. The unfolding story is a comedy of tragedies.
One of Gopal’s major characters, Akbar Gul, begins as a member of the Taliban, then leaves the movement after 2001 and becomes a guest worker in Pakistan and Iran, then returns when President Hamid Karzai offered amnesty. He builds a new life as a cell phone repairman in his town in Wardak, but police shakedowns and corruption cause him to help begin a new insurgency in 2008. He discovers that he is ultimately actually acting for the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, which used the neo-Taliban to gain a foothold in Afghanistan just as they had used the “old Taliban” of Mullah Omar.
Gopal conducted lengthy interviews with his subjects over the years, getting them to tell him the details of their lives. Most of them end up politically compromised or dead. It is a riveting set of stories, but dark.
The corruption of the new order erected by the Americans affects the lives of all Gopal’s interviewees. Even the more appealing characters often are drawn into it. The US pumped billions into the fourth-poorest country on earth. Most of it went to military and security operations, but it often was captured by rural security entrepreneurs promising intelligence on “Taliban” or pledging to keep provinces safe, or undertaking phony infrastructure and development projects. Gopal speaks of ghost schools dotting the rural landscape, reported by the government and US spokesmen as populated by millions of students who were actually probably tilling fields, or if girls, secluded until married off early.
The US mistakes included the old one from Vietnam days of search and destroy missions that turned the population against US troops. The American authorities also acted unfairly, stigmatizing members of the Taliban who had committed atrocities but exonerating the old Mujahidin warlords. (Mass murderers sat in parliament or ran for high office, if their worst deeds occurred before 1996). In fact, many “Taliban” had been Mujahidin. Lacking good language and cultural knowledge, the US military often could not make the fine distinctions necessary to enact a less invidious set of policies.
The US-backing for corrupt local leaders who were little more than bosses of organized crime (crime in which the police were often implicated) made Americans increasingly unpopular. Entire provinces, like Wardak, went into rebellion and rejected being constantly mulcted. American allies treated the odd US insistence on holding frequent elections with contempt and resorted to ballot stuffing. As Obama began winding down the war, the insurgency was stronger than ever. But perhaps it was not, on Gopal’s telling, an ideological insurgency but a form of popular protest or a rejection of the dominance of one lineage over another.
NATO officials explained the relative calm in the provinces of the north by the lack of US troops and the inability of feuding clans to deploy them against one another. If this explanation is true, it could well be that the US departure in late 2016 will not kick off a revolution so much as finally allow things to settle down among jockeying clans who will no longer have high-tech Gurkhas at their beck and call.
Mirrored from Firedoglake Book Salon
No Good Men among the Living is available at: