Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014).
“There are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead.” In the simplest sense, this Pashtun proverb is similar to the common injunction not to speak ill of the departed. In the course of Afghanistan’s long civil war, Anand Gopal writes, the saying has acquired a metaphorical meaning as well: No one is to be trusted. All alliances are temporary. The sole imperative is survival.
It is easy to see, after reading this trenchant account of Afghan life since the 2001 US invasion, why Gopal chose such a grim phrase for his title. Gopal began reporting from Afghanistan for American newspapers and magazines in 2008. In his book, he avoids official or “expert” sources almost entirely, instead telling the story of the war through the memories of three main Afghan characters, none of whom produce the narrative that the war’s propagandists want Americans to hear. Rather than making progress, however stubborn, toward a goal, each protagonist takes a path of dizzying ups and downs that ends, at best, in precipitous uncertainty.
One subject, Mullah Cable, was a roaming Taliban enforcer who acquired his nickname for the cord he used to whip uncooperative locals. “You could sleep with the doors open,” he says in justification of the Taliban’s ruling techniques. When US bombs start to fall in 2001, Mullah Cable flees the front lines and, eventually, abroad. He works odd jobs in Karachi, Pakistan and carves marble figurines in Shiraz, Iran before making a cautious return to Kabul in 2002. There he finds chance success as a cell phone repairman, but runs afoul of the new Afghan police when they come demanding protection money. The police destroy his stall, and he rejoins the resurgent Taliban. By the end of the book, he is missing and presumed dead.
Readers meet Jan Muhammad, a former captain of mujahideen who battled the Soviets, languishing in a Taliban dungeon. News of the US invasion springs him from jail and, thanks to tribal ties with Hamid Karzai, soon to be elected president, he quickly becomes governor of his home province of Uruzgan. Jan Muhammad grows wealthy supplying land, workers and convoy guards to the US military—and opium to drug traffickers. He winds up deposed and assassinated.
The most sympathetic character is Heela, a brave, resourceful woman who grew up in Kabul under the communists. She majored in economics at the university, married a communist supportive of women’s rights and worked with the World Health Organization. Then, as Gopal puts it, “Heela’s world went black”—the Soviets left, their communist clients fell and rival bands of mujahideen squabbled viciously over the spoils. In the ambient chaos, Heela’s husband moved the family to distant Uruzgan, where she had to don the burqa. The next two decades bring one harrowing experience after another as meddling neighbors, the Taliban and shadowy ruffians thwart her efforts to employ her education. The last adversaries punish her by killing her husband and oldest son. With the aid of US helicopters and Jan Muhammad’s successor as provincial strongman, Heela escapes, eventually winning an elected position in the Afghan government.
Gopal writes with the ease and empathy of a natural storyteller. His dramatis personae come to startling, three-dimensional life through his novelistic lens, which captures both fine-grained detail and murky moral complexity. In its organizing themes, and for its literary merit, No Good Men Among the Living is reminiscent of the late Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near (2005) about Iraq after the US invasion.
The book advances a compelling analysis as well: In effect, the US military is simply the best-armed combatant in a melee with multiple and constantly shifting sides that, in many ways, is an extension of the civil war that began in 1979. The idea that US intervention is helping to build a central state is a myth. As Gopal notes, only 5.4 percent of the $557 billion in US expenditures in Afghanistan between 2001-2011 went to development or governance. Almost all of the remainder was spent on security—and much of that was paid to the private militias of Jan Muhammad and his ilk. In 2011, Jan Muhammad’s successor was charging $1,000 to $2,000 for the safe passage of every supply truck headed to the US base in Tirin Kot. He is also now dead. When, inevitably, the US abandons Afghanistan, and whether the Taliban endure or not, warlords are likely to jostle for advantage as the mujahideen did after the Red Army withdrew.
Heela’s story might seem to provide precisely the woman-friendly happy ending that Washington wishes for. As Gopal shows, however, the war in Afghanistan follows its own logic, one that resists “grand designs” and one that has not come close to running its course.