No Good Men Among the Living does that rare thing: both supporters of the war and occupation of Afghanistan and those opposed to it have heaped praise on it. Two prominent backers of the war—journalists Ahmed Rashid and Rory Stewart—have glowing blurbs on the back cover. Rashid uses the words “brilliant,” “breathtaking,” and “magnificent.” Stewart writes, “His book should be a model for all our analysis of intervention, from Libya to Iraq.” Rory Fanning, who penned Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America and Tom Engelhardt, the editor of the left-wing website TomDispatch (and Gopal’s mentor) are implacable opponents of imperialism and have written similar reviews of the book.
How is it that Gopal—student of theoretical physics with no journalism training or long experience writing—crafts a book that rocks, redefines, and rips apart so much that has been written about Washington’s longest war?
One of the reasons Gopal can write with such expertise and empathy is because he moved to Afghanistan as a correspondent in 2008. He learned Dari, grew a beard, and traveled around the country for four years “like a local.” Gopal isn’t trapped in the “Kabubble” (Kabul), and he travels to the most dangerous, remote provinces. He has an insatiable curiosity to understand the conflict from all sides. Because Gopal is an independent rogue journalist, he doesn’t rewrite Department of Defense talking points. And crucially, Gopal has a deep respect and affection for ordinary Afghans, something that the vast majority of writers on Afghanistan do not.
Hazrat, an Afghan man, rails at Gopal, “When you go back to America, give Obama a message. You say you’ll give us roads and schools? I don’t give a shit about your roads and schools. I want safety for my family.” No Good Men Among the Living is his 276-page message to Obama, and it is one hell of a message.
The book follows the precarious lives of three Afghans: Mullah Cable, a Taliban commander; Jan Muhammad, a warlord on the American payroll; and Heela, a mother of four boys, who becomes a senator. They are all traumatized survivors of decades of bloody imperialist and civil wars that evoke images of the painting “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel. Gopal tells their stories in painstaking and lush detail, and weaves into the narrative a series of political lessons that challenge mainstream precepts of the so-called war on terror.
The opening chapter, “The Last Days of Vice and Virtue,” reads like a suspense thriller and feels like a Mad Max movie. The slaughter rained down on Mullah Cable and his men by massive American air power changes his life forever. Cable deserts the Taliban and attempts to go back to his village and live in peace. His journey to Kabul (much of it without shoes) to rejoin his family is a page-turner. Through Cable’s eyes we learn that thousands of Taliban tried to surrender to the Karzai government, including Mullah Omar. Instead they were killed, incarcerated, tortured, or carted off to Guantanamo Bay. Many decamped to Pakistan. Because reconciliation or surrender with honor was not on offer, Cable and thousands of former Taliban were set on a trajectory to rejoin the Taliban. The Bush administration opposed reconciliation and wanted revenge for 9/11 no matter what the cost in Afghan or American soldiers’ lives. Support for the punishment of the Taliban was widespread, but as Gopal convincingly explains, that response played a central role in the reconstitution of the Taliban into a formidable enemy of the American occupation. He writes, “The problem was not so much that the Taliban was targeted but that they were uniquely targeted: the men now allied with the United States harbored 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.”
The common reasons given for the American defeat in Afghanistan are “the ones you’ll hear from politicians, pundits and even scholars,” namely a “light footprint,” or conducting the war on the cheap, and that the war on Iraq was a distraction. Dead wrong. The argument that the US military couldn’t carry out a war on Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously is ludicrous. Billions of dollars in aid poured into Afghanistan, much of it controlled by American military commanders who were allegedly winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people while they raided their homes and dropped bombs on wedding parties. But as No Good Men Among the Living demonstrates in one infuriating example after another, the money put hated, corrupt, and misogynist warlords back in power who then built pyramids of patronage and invented new enemies in the war on terror. “How do you fight a war with no enemy?” Gopal asks. “Enter Gul Agha Sherzai and men like him around the country. . . . Sherzai’s enemies became America’s enemies, his battles, its battles. His personal feuds and jealousies were repackaged as ‘counterterrorism’. . . . Sherzai’s network fed intelligence which was almost all false.”
Jan Muhammad Khan (JMK) is a pedophile, anti-Taliban, and an old comrade of Hamid Karzai. Gopal tells the incredible story of their friendship, and in a series of taut and riveting passages, describes how both men cheat death. With his connections to Karzai and Kabul, JMK is able to reinvent himself as the governor of Uruzgan province. He embodies enormous contradictions. Burning for revenge, he goes on a killing spree of perceived rivals and stirs up tribal conflicts that contribute to the devolution in the south. His cruelty is legendary, but JMK champions the building of schools for girls and told Gopal, “Wherever women are educated, the country is strong.”
Heela’s story is epic, and I would have been satisfied if the entire book was built around her harrowing and heroic life. Gopal’s moving prose takes the reader right into Heela’s heart and soul. Born and educated in Kabul, she marries Musqinyar, a communist and supporter of women’s rights. She expected to work and to live a modern life in the capital, but the civil war intervenes and forces her to flee to Khas Uruzgan, a tiny, isolated village in the south. Gopal describes the dreaded life transition: “Staring out the window, Heela saw that they were in desert country now. . . . This was the land of cattle raiders and feuding clans. . . . Heela had never ventured far from Kabul, certainly not this deep into the countryside—not into the vastness, the emptiness that was now swallowing her.”
For the first time she is forced to wear a burqa. She spends the next nine years inside a mud-walled compound cooking, cleaning, and caring for her children and her mean mother-in-law. Gopal documents the toll the move takes on Heela’s marriage. On several occasions Musqinyar beats her, one time breaking her arm. But there are tender and loving moments too, like when they concoct ruses to get her out of the house to visit Musqinyar’s pharmacy and to work secretly in a female vocational center.
The chapter “The Far End of the Bazaar” is completely dedicated to Heela. In six pages Gopal distills the oppression of women in Afghanistan with so much emotion and anguish it’s almost unbearable to read. You will cry. What Heela pulls off to win her freedom is fierce, audacious, and driven by anger—an emotion Afghan women aren’t allowed to feel. In subsequent chapters, Heela’s journey to create a new life depends on both feminist imperialism and the personal support of murderous warlords. Through a series of setbacks and lucky breaks, she becomes “Senator Heela.”
In the prologue to his book, Gopal writes, “I began to wonder whether the root of the conflict was Afghan’s stubborn refusal to conform to the classifications that Washington had set forth, [terrorist, non-terrorist, ally, enemy] and America’s insistence on clinging to those divisions.”
The root of the conflict is a key question. The explanation is not adherence to rigid categories as Gopal alleges. The terrorist attack on 9/11 was used as a pretext to assert America’s economic and military power in the region, and the United States established a client state in Afghanistan that owes its entire existence to Washington largesse. Signed in 2012, the “Enduring Strategic Partnership” gave the United States the right to maintain a permanent military presence in the country, which is crucial to the US drone war against Pakistan, as well as countering the influence of regional powers like Iran. It is precisely because Gopal doesn’t offer this analysis and at the same time exposes how the war and occupation ran amuck in a bacchanalia of contractor greed, corruption, cultural incompetence, sheer idiocy, and gruesome violence that both supporters and detractors of the Afghan war and occupation can love his book.
No Good Men Among the Living is an essential and thought-provoking book, but to complement it and to provide a framework to understand the true aims of American foreign policy in Afghanistan, also peruse Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls, and The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan by Nick Turse.