(Kandahar Air Base, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan-American Air Base)
As we approach the “supposed” end of the American presence in Afghanistan it is useful to examine what might have been had the United States followed a somewhat different path. How did the war in Afghanistan go so terribly wrong? After a promising beginning with progress on Afghani infrastructure and some democratic improvements it has become a “Potemkin country” whereby health and educational improvements touted by the government are a sham. President Obama has promised that American troops would exit the Afghani Theater completely; however based on events in Iraq and the performance of Iraqi forces against ISIS (the Islamic State) the Pentagon is now going to leave a residual force of about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan. Based on the current situation on the ground Anand Gopal’s book, No Good Men among the Living is a timely reevaluation of the American mission to Afghanistan, and what is important about the book is that it tries to examine what seems to have gone wrong through Afghani eyes.
It is generally accepted that the first major error the United States made in Afghanistan was taking our eyes off our mission and redeploying American forces for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. An invasion that resulted in the removal of Saddam Hussein, but little else, based on the current plight of that country. Had the United States not turned away from Afghanistan and devoted its resources and talents to that country it is possible the situation we face today, the fear that once we withdraw the Taliban will continue its war on the Kabul government and eventually replace it might be different. As 2014 comes to a close the Taliban has resurrected itself in the south and it seems that only Kabul is under government control. Did events have to evolve as they have, perhaps not, as Gopal suggests.
(Former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai)
Anand Gopal, a journalist who has covered Afghanistan, Egypt and Syria for a number of important newspapers, and other news outlets attempts to explain what has gone wrong by following three people; a Taliban commander, an American supported warlord, and a village housewife who tries to remain neutral. By pursuing this approach Gopal provides the reader unique perspectives from which they can discern what the truth is concerning America’s attempt at nation building in Afghanistan. Gopal provides a brief history of Afghanistan dating back to 1972. He jumps to the Soviet invasion and summarizes the war conducted by the mujahedeen against Soviet troops. Gopal continues with greater depth in confronting events as the United States ignored the emerging civil war that took place between 1992 and 1996 and turned away from Afghanistan to pursue other interests. Gopal’s discussion of the Taliban’s refusal to turn over Osama Bin-Laden after 9/11 receives detailed treatment as does the American invasion and the evolution of the war in Afghanistan through 2013. Gopal’s historical treatment is insightful on its own, but what separates his approach from others is his concentration on the indigenous perspective.
The first individual we meet is Mullah Cable, whose real name is Akbar Gul, a Taliban disciplinarian before 9/11 who fought against the Northern Alliance. Gopal asks how such a person declared war against the United States. He goes on to say that “in his tale I found a history of America’s war on terror itself…a glimpse of how he and thousands like him came to…become our enemy.” (9-10) Gul witnessed the excesses of the Taliban and turned away from its leader Mullah Omar. He also witnessed the power of American air strikes and the devastation they caused. Unsure of what to do he would escape to Karachi, Pakistan. The second character Gopal concentrates on is Jan Muhammad who was imprisoned and beaten by the Taliban for over a year. A former mujahedeen commander against the Soviet Union, he emerged as the governor of Uruzgam province after the American invasion. He befriended Hamid Karzai and eventually grew to be a powerful war lord and ally of the United States. The third character, Heela, is perhaps the most important of Gopal’s choices. A woman who faced Taliban extremism, the murder of her husband, maintained her dignity throughout a tumultuous period and emerges as a member of the Afghani Senate in 2011. All three provide a different perspective that is integrated throughout the narrative as Gopal discusses events in a non-chronological fashion, and how they might have been different had the United States pursued a more enlightened policy.
Gopal’s central argument is very simple. American officials believed that jihadi terrorism could be defeated through the military occupation. In the wake of 9/11 that seemed feasible. But when one traveled through the southern Afghani countryside a different interpretation emerges. The contradiction is embodied in the sprawling jumble of what was Kandahar Airfield, the home of Burger King, barbed wire, and internment cages. It was the nerve center of American operations in southern Afghanistan. Gopal points out that “a military base in a country like Afghanistan is also a web of relationships, a hub for the local economy, and a key player in the political ecosystem.” (107) The US developed relationships with warlords throughout the region and began relying on them for intelligence. These were mostly the same warlords who were responsible for the atrocities during the 1990s. The problem emerged that these warlords cared more about their own power as it related to other warlords so they provided intelligence designed to get rid of their own enemies, not intelligence that would effective against the Taliban. What repeatedly occurred was that individuals and villages that were anti-Taliban and pro-American were arrested and bombed by the Americans. The internment cages and resulting torture that ensued resulted in little intelligence and at times the release of those individuals by the Americans with a slight apology. Instead of building relationship that could foster confidence, in the end the US and its allies drove people into the arms of the Taliban. A good example is Jan Muhammad, who used the United States to settle scores with tribal enemies and enrich himself and secure his own power by feeding the US false intelligence. The US would kill, arrest, torture Muhammad’s enemies, in a sense doing his dirty work, and as long as he was loyal he could carry on under the auspices of the United States. The US conducted raids against anyone it understood to have been remotely connected to the previous Taliban regime, even after they had put down their weapons and gone home.
(Afghani refugees outside Kabul)
Gopal describes in detail the American justice and prison system developed at the Kandahar and Bagram air bases, and how they were linked to Guantanamo. Interrogators made little attempt to reconcile existing intelligence with any fresh information that was obtained. If you entered this system your jailers became further and further removed from the battlefield as you would be taken from place to place. Some of the charges bordered on the absurd, i.e., being accused of supporting the Northern Alliance, an American ally. Poor intelligence, poor coordination between different commands, and basic bureaucratic incompetence plagued American administration of the region. This was exacerbated by being manipulated by certain “warlord types” resulting in the arrest, torture, and imprisonment of many who were actually pro-American and working for the Karzai government. It was no wonder that by 2005 the Taliban experienced resurgence as the American presence was seen as an occupation and the Karzai government, a venal and vicious puppet of Washington.
By 2007 the United Nations “estimated that the Taliban had reclaimed control of more than half of rural Pashtun territory countrywide. By year’s end, officials had logged more than five thousand security incidents-roadside bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, ambushes.” (207) As we approached 2009, following his election, President Obama launched a mini-surge that was somewhat effective, but as we approach the end of the American commitment we must ask was it worth it. For years we have known that the Karzai government was extremely corrupt and a road block for our mission, even though as we have seen, American patronage was ultimately responsible for the mess. Gopal finds that we are repeating our errors as we try and circumvent the central government “and deal with local power brokers, unwittingly cultivating a new generation of strongmen,” who have their own agendas. (274) By 2013 there were roughly 60-80,000 armed private security employees in the country, “almost all of them working for Afghan strongmen. Add to this 135,000 Afghan army soldiers, 110,000 police, and tens of thousands of private militiamen working for the Afghan government, the US Special Forces, or the CIA, and you have more than 300,000 armed Afghan men all depending on US patronage. You can’t help but wonder: What happens when the troops leave, the bases close, and the money dries up?” (276) You should also ask: What would have happened had the US understood the provincial culture of the Afghan countryside better and made different decisions?
The major criticisms of Gopal’s book do not take away from its overall importance. He spends little time on the role of Pakistan and ISI, its intelligence service that fostered Taliban terror as it pursued its own agenda in Afghanistan, while at the same time publicly supporting its ally, the United States. The recent Taliban massacre of the school house in Peshawar shows that their double game can often bite them. Next, the Taliban, at times comes across as a virtuous movement of oppressed ethnic Pashtuns, who are fighting a just cause against a corrupt government and an invading force. As Kim Barker points out in her New York Times review of the book on April 25, 2014, “the sole serious Taliban massacre comes nearly three-quarters of the way through, in an account of how Talibs slaughtered a busload of Afghans on their way to find work in Iran.”
You may not agree with all of Gopal’s findings and analysis, however he presents a unique approach to his research and is well worth a read for those still trying to figure out what went wrong, and what the future of Afghanistan might be.