Few people have the unique insight into the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan that journalist Anand Gopal does. He’s done extensive research on the subject, and has spent a great deal of time on the ground in Afghanistan exploring the complicated reality of the country’s conflict with the U.S. In No Good Men Among the Living, Gopal tells the real stories of three Afghan individuals whose complicated day-to-day lives challenge the conventional understanding of the events in Afghanistan. Here, he talks with Bookish about his findings, why he chose to tell the stories he did, and what he thinks the future holds for Afghanistan.
Bookish: You spent years traveling through Taliban-held territories in Afghanistan, getting to know people on every side of the conflict. Did you ever feel your life was in imminent danger?
Anand Gopal: To be sure, there were some dicey moments. Once, when embedded with the Taliban, I was on the receiving end of a NATO airstrike. Another time, when embedded with U.S. forces, I was in a convoy that struck a roadside bomb and then came under an insurgent ambush.
Generally, though, I was able to rely on Afghans’ remarkably generous and hospitable spirit to stay safe. I once traveled by road from Kabul to Kandahar and then on to the war-torn province of Helmand, crossing burning fuel trucks, avoiding roadside gunfights, and sleeping in small villages heavy with insurgent presence. At every step of the way, Afghans—whom I’d befriended—took me into their homes, served as guides, and kept me safe.
Bookish: Though you traveled extensively for years, you don’t write much about your personal experience. Why is that?
AG: I’ve always benefited from knowing that I can leave any time and return to the safety of my home in the U.S. Afghans do not have this luxury. They are forced to find a way through a conflict that leaves few options for the neutral, and their struggle for survival can tell us far more about the war—and, indirectly, America—than my personal journey can. For this reason, and because we hear too often from Western journalists and too little from Afghans themselves, I chose to focus the book on their lives and not my own.
Bookish: In No Good Men Among the Living, you tell the stories of a Taliban leader who turned insurgent when the U.S. made it impossible to surrender; a local warlord who was using our military as his own mafia enforcement cabal; and a local housewife who overcomes shocking odds to achieve the impossible. How do they each typify the effect the U.S. presence has had in Afghanistan?
AG: Friend, foe, and neutral—these are the three categories that delineate any war, and the War on Terror, in particular, was prosecuted with the understanding that those categories have moral connotations. That is, the guiding assumption was that being an ally signifies something fundamental and unchanging about your character. In fact, as I learned through reporting this book, Afghan lives don’t fit our categorizations. So I decided to follow three Afghans who, on the surface, appear to be a friend, a foe, and a civilian, and describe the reality of their lives.
The Taliban leader was someone who tried to quit after 2001; in fact, he set up a cell phone shop and attempted a civilian life for a couple of years after the fall of the Taliban. But he was driven to join the insurgency when he felt that there was no space for people like him in the new government, a result of police harassment and the arrest of innocent tribal elders by the Americans.
The local warlord is someone with the opposite story: He was imprisoned and tortured under the Taliban. After his release in 2001, he managed to use that status and his friendship with Hamid Karzai to gain the trust of the Americans. He fed the U.S. false intelligence to rid his province of rivals, and he became extraordinarily wealthy and powerful in the process.
The housewife, Heela, spends her life navigating between these two forces: U.S.-backed warlords and the Taliban.
All three act in ways that don’t fit the neatly delineated idea of the war on terror, where you are either “with us or against us.” The Taliban fighter tried unsuccessfully to join the side of the U.S.-backed Afghan government, the warlord used American forces to his own ends, and a civilian was forced to make alliances with warlords and the Taliban at various points in her life just to survive.
Bookish: The warlord you profile is particularly disturbing—a child rapist who we continued to consider one of our most important intel assets over a crucial swath of the country. From the Americans you spoke to, how did they manage to accept this moral crisis?
AG: For ordinary soldiers, I believe their main goal was to finish their tour in one piece and come back home to their families. So, understandably, there was a premium on short-term results, and on privileging “security”—i.e., supporting those who were effective Taliban hunters, like the warlord I profiled—over long-term concepts like rule of law and accountability. If I were in their shoes, anxious to return home alive, I’m sure I would have made similar choices.
For senior officers and policy makers, I believe a different calculus was at work. In essence, there was a lot of cognitive dissonance, a tendency to look the other way so long as short-term goals were met. The cognitive dissonance was driven by the ideological underpinnings of the war on terror, which assumes that “ally” and “terrorist” are fixed categories. We tend to believe that those we ally with are good, when in fact, we consider those to be good simply because we’ve allied with them.
Bookish: In the picture you paint, most Talibs were quite ready to retire back to their villages and live as farmers, preachers, or whatever other work they could find once our forces moved in and proved so formidable. How did we make that impossible in so many cases?
AG: It is a tragedy for Afghans that the Taliban still exists today, and the U.S. had the opportunity to avert this back in 2001. But the idea of reconciliation was simply not on the table then. Talibs surrendered and attempted to switch sides in droves, not because they suddenly loved America, but because they had no other option. However, those who attempted to surrender were rebuffed, or arrested and sent to Guantanamo, or killed.
To make matters worse, Afghans who had no ties with the Taliban were also targeted in such a fashion, because our warlord allies would feed the U.S. false intelligence. Often, particular tribes or clans were heavily targeted, and we ended up with the haves and the have-nots. The haves were those communities with tribal elders or warlords who had the ear of the U.S. military. The have-nots were those communities lacking this. These latter communities would become the constituency for the resurgent Taliban.
Bookish: Many U.S. citizens believe that prisoner abuse was limited to the cases that were documented in the CIA “Torture Memos.” But almost everyone you write about who was detained was beaten, kicked, and worse by our people. Some were even threatened with sexual abuse by our Afghan “allies.” How consistently do you think we abused detainees? And why have our troops conducted themselves this way?
AG: Prisoner abuse was the norm in the years of 2002-2004. Kandahar Airfield, home to the main U.S. detention center in southern Afghanistan, was called “Camp Slappy” by U.S. soldiers serving there at the time. This was after 9-11, and there was a retributive mood in the air. And torture, which the administration euphemized as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” was part of policy at the time because it was believed it could deliver results.
By 2006, President Bush made moves to end prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, and since then there have been few reports of U.S. soldiers mistreating captives. Knowingly or otherwise, however, they have outsourced the abuse to their Afghan allies, including the Afghan police and spy agency. In their hands, the coercive techniques are not just a way to extract information, but a means of exercising dominion over parts of the population where insurgency is rife.
Bookish: What is the Afghan endgame?
AG: The U.S. endgame in Afghanistan is to outsource the war entirely to local actors, including the Afghan army, police, and an array of private strongmen and militias. This should be enough for the government to hold the cities and major highways, but not enough to dislodge the Taliban from enough villages to count as a total victory. This means, in effect, that we will likely see a continuation of the status quo—two entrenched sides, with rural Afghans caught in the middle. To make matters worse, the Afghan state exists only because of foreign aid, and there have been no plans to help it become self-sustaining. So, to put this all another way: There is no end game.
Anand Gopal is a freelance journalist covering Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and other international hotspots. He has served as an Afghanistan correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor, and his writing has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, Harper’s, and Foreign Policy, among other publications. Gopal is a fellow at the New America Foundation. No Good Men Among the Living is his first book.