Seeing the war through Afghan eyes

September 25, 2014

Journalist Anand Gopal's book on Afghanistan, No Good Men Among the Living, has been nominated for the National Book Award. In this review written for, Rory Fanning, a former U.S. Army Ranger and author of the forthcoming Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger's Journey Out of the Military and Across America, says that Gopal's new book helps make sense of the war that drove Fanning to become a conscientious objector.

IT HAS been more than a decade since I trudged through the mountains of Afghanistan, and drove over the country's broken roads for the 2nd U.S. Army Ranger battalion. I did two tours in the country. The first, in 2002, was willingly. The second, in 2004, was by force after declaring conscientious objector status. Leaving the Rangers as a CO was one of the most difficult challenges of my life. There are many reasons I left, some of which I am still coming to understand--Anand Gopal's book No Good Men Among the Living has helped me reconcile these reasons more than any of the many books I've read on Afghanistan.

Gopal's book answers the questions that haunted me both during and after my tours: What were the women who would peek out from second-floor windows in dusty clay homes feeling as we barreled down their streets in armored Humvees with 50-calibur machine guns at the ready? Were those who fired Cold War-era Russian rockets at our camps motivated by knowing we would respond in kind with 500-pound bombs dropped from jets? What went through the minds of Afghan men when we stormed into their homes, threw sandbags over their heads in night raids? Why did so many of our missions seem like we were little more than pawns in village disputes? Were we preventing another 9/11? Did they really hate us for our freedom? Was it Islam that was creating terrorists--or was it U.S. imperialism?

A US soldier training a military dog at a base in Helmand
A US soldier training a military dog at a base in Helmand (Mark Webster)

GOPAL MOVED to Afghanistan in 2008, and for more than two years found the answers to these questions. He wasn't part of the embedded press crew that is vetted for their allegiance to the U.S. mission. Gopal traveled to remote regions of the country on the most treacherous roads in the world to talk to those who were eyewitness to the Russian occupation in the '80s, the country's civil war in the '90s, and then the U.S. occupation after 9/11. Gopal gets in-depth with a U.S.-backed warlord, a Taliban fighter and a housewife.

Akbar Gul, aka Mullah Cable (a nickname he received for his brutal use of cable whips during the civil war), a Taliban commander and father, retreated to Pakistan as the Taliban fell. As a refugee, without work prospects, he returned to Afghanistan and opened a cell-phone repair shop--a highly valued profession in a place where cell phones are not easily replaced. Gul's attempt to live as a simple merchant proved impossible as shakedowns from U.S.-backed Afghan police, and U.S. military raids ended his business. When it came to supporting his family, his options became: fight the U.S. occupation as a part of the Taliban or starve.

Jan Mohammad Kahn, a close friend of Hamid Karzai, pedophile and vicious warlord, was appointed governor of Oruzgan Province, where he manipulated the U.S. military to pad his own pockets with millions of dollars by providing false claims that his political rivals were members of the Taliban. Gopal shows that the U.S. aligned with men like Mohammad because the system the U.S. put in place, as Gopal puts it, "did not reward stability legitimacy or popularity. Instead it rewarded those who could serve up enemies." We see that the U.S. was quite content to cast a wide and bloody net over the country. Gopal relates stories of many who did everything possible to align themselves with U.S. interests. But even these people found themselves imprisoned indefinitely without due process in Guantánamo and the like. The U.S. saw little difference between innocent Afghans and members of the Taliban. They just wanted blood--anyone's.

Heela, a college-educated housewife, is the most fascinating person in the book. Run out of Kabul during the civil war to an isolated village dominated by primitive religious rites, Heela was confined to her home under threat of death, with permission to leave only under the supervision of a blood-related male chaperone. These impossibly restrictive conditions did not prevent Heela from creating an underground educational system for other women in her village. These efforts, as well as the actions of her politically active husband made her a target of Jan Mohammad Kahn. She lost her husband to the warlord's henchmen and barely escaped from her village with her own and her children's lives.

GOPAL FRAMES these stories with the 10-year occupation of the country by the Russians, the U.S. financing of fundamentalists during the '80s, and the horrific civil war that befell the country. We learn why the Taliban came to rule following the power vacuum left by the Russians and the U.S. when both turned a blind eye to the country following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The most frustrating revelations of the book, for those of us who lost friends in Afghanistan, were the details of why the Taliban surrendered, and al-Qaeda fled to Pakistan within months of the U.S. invasion. Everything that happened--the U.S. casualties, the thousands of Afghan civilian deaths, the half a trillion dollars spent not on infrastructure but destruction--could have been avoided if the U.S. had accepted the surrender. But the Bush and then Obama administration demanded unending blood.

No Good Men Among the Living is not a self-serving adventure story about what it takes to get a report from a wartorn and exotic place like Afghanistan. For the most part, Gopal takes himself out of the book, and we are led by those we never hear from in the mainstream media. Despite not mentioning very much about his own story, Gopal should be commended and thanked for putting his life on the line to create such an important book.

Poverty, war and decades of occupation have made finding new and creative survival techniques a way of life for most Afghans. It is the pressing weight of uncertain future and the regular threat of loss that make allegiances so fickle for many. Anyone who understands this will see why the Taliban surrendered so quickly following the initial US invasion. And this is where we can begin to find the motivation for Gopal's title. "No good men among the living" is a Pashtun proverb that means, as Gopal writes:

There are no heroes, no saviors in this world. Neither side of the conflict offered much hope for a better future. The categories of the American war on terror--terrorists, fundamentalists and democrats--mattered little, not when [the] abiding goal was simply to finish each day.

Give this book to anyone you know who plans on joining the U.S. military or blames Islam for the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan--they are sure to rethink their position after reading it. There is hope, much humanity, and the power to end our unending wars in Gopal's magnificent work.

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