To the casual observer, despite the military successes achieved during the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2011 – in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks – state- and nation-building have been lacklustre. And with persistent political networks and weak institutions, hostilities between the Afghan government and the Taliban have continued. Yet these are observations from afar, away from the gunfire and the skirmishes. Hence in Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes”, he traced the stories of an insurgent Taliban commander, a member of the United States-backed Afghan government, and a village housewife, three people who have lived through the conflict and its uncertainties. After all, by the end of the book, two of them are either dead or thrown into prison.
The premise of telling these three stories – which Gopal gathered through three years of interviews, as he explained in his epilogue – is to detail the difficult experience of living amidst the turmoil:
“At its core, the argument [that the American invasion of Iraq became a crucial distraction from stabilisation efforts in Afghanistan] rests upon a key premise: that jihadi terrorism could be defeated through the military occupation of a country. That formulation seemed natural enough to many of us in the wake of 9/11. But travel through the southern Afghan countryside, and you will hear quite a different interpretation of what happened. It comes in snippets and flashes, in the stories people tell and their memories of the time, and it points to a contradiction buried deep in the war’s basic premise.”
What the casual observer knows, and what is explored in greater depth in “No Good Men among the Living”, is that even though the Taliban was overthrown in 2001 after it held power from 1996 to 2001, it has continued to use terrorism to further its ideological and political goals. The outcome today, however, it is argued, could have been much different. Gopal explained how strongmen or warlords took advantage of American support, using these troops to get rid of rivals and to benefit financially. On the other hand the Taliban – those who were prepared to lay down their arms, and even those who had pledged their allegiance to the new Afghan government – were unfairly targeted by American troops. In his words, “I began to wonder whether the root of the conflict was Afghans’ stubborn refusal to conform to the classifications that Washington had set forth, and America’s insistence on clinging to those divisions”. In other words:
“Across the country, in one village after the next, the story repeated itself. In a way, the mood of retribution should have been expected. After all, the Taliban’s human rights record and their sorry attempt at governance inspired no sympathy. The problem was not so much that the Taliban were targeted but that they were uniquely targeted: the men now allied with the United States harboured similarly deplorable records from the civil war era, yet their crimes went unpunished. A true reconciliation process would have required either bringing to justice people from across the entire political spectrum, or else pardoning them all. To the Taliban, justice unequally applied felt like no justice at all.”
The accounts are largely chronological, though as far as possible meaningful connections were drawn between the three individuals. In particular the remarkable story of Heela Achakzai, who was caught in-between the strongmen and the Taliban – going through disruption in Kabul, overcoming tragedy and her own insecurities, and ultimately making it on her own terms – is testament to her resilience, and the resilience of many other Afghans caught in the crossfire. Tracing her narrative one develops a better understanding of what civilians go through, what women go through. That is, a more human side to the war.
The only shortcoming of Gopal’s book – which is perhaps beyond the scope of “No Good Men among the Living” – is the absence of counter-narratives. That is, the views of the aggressors, such as the American soldiers and officials of both the Bush and Obama administrations, and the views of neutrals, such as the non-profit organisations who work on the ground. What did they make of the chaos since 2001, and how did they manage the interests of the strongmen, the Taliban, and the United States? Do the three narratives necessarily stand up to scrutiny? And above all, what is made of the way forward for Afghanistan?