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No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes Hardcover – April 29, 2014
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“Gopal's book is essential reading for anyone concerned about how America got Afghanistan so wrong. It is a devastating, well-honed prosecution detailing how our government bungled the initial salvo in the so-called war on terror, ignored attempts by top Taliban leaders to surrender, trusted the wrong people and backed a feckless and corrupt Afghan regime. . . . It is ultimately the most compelling account I've read of how Afghans themselves see the war.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“Astonishing stories. . . Such investigative reporting is very rare in Afghanistan, where foreign journalists have been targets since 2001. Gopal pursued his stories into the most active centers of the insurgency. He learned Dari and -- more difficult -- Pushtu. He won the trust of insurgent leaders. But his real genius lies in binding all these sources together and combining them with thousands of hours of interviews. . . . All this allows him to bring life to figures who have hitherto been caricatures.” ―The New York Review of Books
“A brilliant analysis of our military's dysfunction and a startlingly clear account of the consequences” ―Mother Jones
“Extraordinary . . . Brilliantly written . . . Gopal’s method of going deep into the lives of several Talibs, warlords, and ordinary Afghans―he includes an exhilarating portrait of one Afghan woman―demonstrates how different the Americans’ ‘mistakes’ feel when the dead, injured, and traumatized people have been amply humanized.” ―Bookforum
“With a plethora of policy-oriented works on Afghanistan having appeared in recent years, Anand Gopal wisely chooses to tell the war's story from the personal perspective of three characters. . . . Gopal displays a keen understanding of the levers of power in Afghan society and their sometimes devastating effect on individuals trying to make their way in the world.” ―Los Angeles Times
“Refreshingly complex and thought-provoking. . . Often reading like an adventure novel, No Good Men Among the Living is certain to appeal to Afghan-ophiles and casual readers alike. . . . Gopal offers a unique perspective, an essential examination of policy, and a rock-solid narrative that ensures this will be one of the few books people still read years from now when they want to understand America's war in Afghanistan.” ―The Christian Science Monitor
“The level of craftsmanship in this book is often awe-inspiring. . . . Provides unique insights into America's intervention in Afghanistan and makes important contributions to our understanding of the conflict there.” ―Foreign Policy
“Compelling. . .Gopal's chronology of how America's deadly incompetence and the predatory graft of Afghan authorities drove many Afghans to despair or rebellion is the product of sustained and impressive shoe-leather reporting. This is a valuable book.” ―Maclean’s
“Haunting . . . Presents a stirring critique of American forces who commanded overwhelming firepower, but lacked the situational knowledge to achieve their objectives . . . Gopal reveals the fragility of the tenuous connection between intention and destiny in a war-torn land.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Gopal puts the present Afghanistan in perspective . . . He presents his analysis of Afghanistan through three individuals: Mullah Cable, a Taliban commander; Jan Muhammad, a member of the U.S.-backed Afghan government; and Heela, a village housewife. His portraits of these three and their tumultuous lives are rich in detail, as are his descriptions of their stark and war-ravaged land.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“Original and stimulating . . . Policymakers and informed readers will benefit immensely from this illuminating book” ―Library Journal
“A brilliant, incisive work of storytelling and analysis. Of all the recent books on Afghanistan, this one stands out like a bright shining light, revealing the truth of the war from the ground up. Breathtaking and magnificent, this is a must read.” ―Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia
“If you read one book on Afghanistan today, make it this one. No Good Men Among the Living is a masterfully told narrative of how, after 9/11, the Americans defeated the Taliban only to revive them. An admirable achievement.” ―Jon Lee Anderson, author of The Fall of Baghdad and The Lion’s Grave
“Anand Gopal, known for his extraordinarily brave firsthand accounts of the Taliban, now tells the story of the Afghan war through stories of the Afghans themselves―whose voices have been notably absent from almost all coverage of the conflict. With its deep reporting and excellent writing, No Good Men Among the Living is destined to became a classic of war reportage.” ―Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad
About the Author
Anand Gopal has served as an Afghanistan correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor, and has reported on the Middle East and South Asia for Harper's, The Nation, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, and other publications. Gopal is a fellow at the New America Foundation.
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Top Customer Reviews
Gopal has obviously done his homework, researching these wars in depth, but more than that, he has spent hundreds of hours on the ground in Afghanistan just talking with the people there, including three in particular, a warlord, a Taliban commander, and a woman, Heela, widowed by the war and left to fend for herself and her children in a region where women have no rights or standing.
Perhaps the most shocking revelation comes early on in the book, when we learn that this whole war might not have happened at all if the U.S. had simply accepted Afghanistan's offer to bring Osama bin Laden to justice themselves. But no, the U.S. demanded his extradition for a U.S. trial and there was no middle ground. And then, Gopal, tells us, the Taliban leaders all attempted to surrender within the first few months of the American invasion, but that didn't work either, so most of them simply disappeared back into their home regions or decamped across the border into Pakistan. And so the U.S. forces were left without a visible enemy.
"How do you fight a war without an adversary? Enter Gul Agha Sherzai - and men like him around the country. Eager to survive and prosper, he and his commanders followed the logic of the American presence to its obvious conclusion. They would create enemies where there were none ... Sherzai's enemies became America's enemies, his battles its battles. His personal feuds and jealousies were repackaged as `counterterrorism,' his business interests as Washington's."
And in the power vacuum that had formed after years of war, the feuds and jealousies between tribal leaders, warlords and would-be government leaders and politicians were not in short supply. George W. Bush might have offhandedly explained that we were `spreadin' freedom, spreadin' democracy' in Afghanistan, but in fact we were the interlopers in an ancient and savage feudal society where revenge is a fact of life - a place where backstabbing, betrayals and sometimes outright bloody butchery had become common. Mullah Manan, a Taliban commander, gave Gopal this matter-of-fact, grisly account of a beheading, a reprisal against an Afghan who had collaborated with the U.S.-backed Karzai government -
"... and when he struggled, two of the men placed their weight on his arms and body and tied his hands behind his back. He began to scream, a deep madman's scream, and the Talibs looked on and waited. One of them lowered a butcher's knife onto Sidiqullah's neck as if measuring , and began to cut. It surprised Manan how long it took, how much work it was, to decapitate a man. Afterward, when they tossed the head aside, it looked to him like a deflated balloon."
The Mullah, in answer to Gopal's question of how often this happened, "answered in his shy and quiet voice: `We were doing this two, maybe three times a month.' "
But perhaps just as shocking as this casual butchery on the Afghan side is the way U.S. forces were so easily duped into targeting, killing and arresting innocent Afghans fingered by their personal enemies as terrorists or Taliban. And even then our troops often arrested the wrong man. These prisoners were then remanded to remote Field Detention Sites, and from these to the prisons in Bagram or Kandahar, or even shipped off to Guantanamo. And in all of these places they were often starved, beaten and tortured. These accounts often came from prisoners who had been subsequently released, sometimes after months or even years of incarceration. Many of these wrongfully accused and imprisoned came back hating the Americans, ripe for recruitment in the newly revived Taliban movement. Gopal recorded too many horror stories of alleged innocents, sometimes whole families shot and killed in raids by U.S. forces, based on so-called `intelligence from reliable sources.' U.S. officials would initially call the dead "mostly militants," and then much later cautiously say things like "there was some potential that some of those killed were civilians." And then compensation would be quietly paid - two thousand dollars to each of the victims' families. One such grieving and angry family member told 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 s*** about your roads and schools! I want safety for my family.
I have no doubt that Gopal's book will be controversial for many reasons, not the least of which will be the negative image painted of U.S. involvement there for the past twelve years. But the thought that kept bothering me most as I read these accounts was how could I trust the veracity of these stories offered by Afghans, many of whom have proved themselves to be masters of deceit and betrayal, often causing their fellow countrymen to suffer and even die. The one saving grace here in the Americans' favor is the way they helped the war-widowed Heela to escape her hopeless circumstances, save her children, and build a new life. But otherwise, I am afraid that Gopal's book will fall victim to an endless "they said, we said" vein of discussion. Do we believe the official U.S. version of how this war has been waged, or do we believe these many first-hand accounts from Afghans? While I believe that Gopal did everything he could to cross-check his stories, I still wonder. And I suspect I will not be the only one.
Yes, NO GOOD MEN AMONG THE LIVING will be controversial, but these are stories that needed to be told. Heartbreaking, disturbing stories. I applaud Gopal for gathering them and giving them a public forum in this well-written and compelling narrative. It is perhaps one of the most comprehensive look at the modern-day Afghan wars since Edward Girardet's excellent Killing the Cranes: A Reporter's Journey through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan. There is much to think about here. Highly recommended.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
We've had plenty of those. We weren't told the Taliban was willing to turn bin Laden over to a neutral nation to stand trial. We weren't told the Taliban was a reluctant tolerator of al Qaeda, and a completely distinct group. We weren't told the 911 attacks had also been planned in Germany and Maryland and various other places not marked for bombing. We weren't told that most of the people who would die in Afghanistan, many more than died on 911, not only didn't support 911 but never heard of it. We weren't told our government would kill large numbers of civilians, imprison people without trial, hang people by their feet and whip them until they were dead. We weren't told how this illegal war would advance the acceptability of illegal wars or how it would make the United States hated in much of the world. We weren't given the background of how the U.S. interfered in Afghanistan and provoked a Soviet invasion and armed resistance to the Soviets and left the people to the tender mercies of that armed resistance once the Soviets left. We weren't told that Tony Blair wanted Afghanistan first before he'd get the UK to help destroy Iraq. We certainly weren't told that bin Laden had been an ally of the U.S. government, that the 911 hijackers were mostly Saudi, or that there might be anything at all amiss with the government of Saudi Arabia. And nobody mentioned the trillions of dollars we'd waste or the civil liberties we'd have to lose at home or the severe damage that would be inflicted on the natural environment. Even birds don't go to Afghanistan anymore.
OK. That's all sort of par-for-the-course, war-marketing bulls---. People who pay attention know all of that. People who don't want to know any of that are the last great hope of military recruiters everywhere. And don't let the past tense fool you. The White House is trying to keep the occupation of Afghanistan going for TEN MORE YEARS ("and beyond"), and articles have been popping up this week about sending U.S. troops back into Iraq. But there's something more.
I've just read an excellent new book by Anand Gopal calledNo Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes. Gopal has spent years in Afghanistan, learned local languages, interviewed people in depth, researched their stories, and produced a true-crime book more gripping, as well as more accurate, than anything Truman Capote came up with. Gopal's book is like a novel that interweaves the stories of a number of characters -- stories that occasionally overlap. It's the kind of book that makes me worry I'll spoil it if I say too much about the fate of the characters, so I'll be careful not to.
The characters include Americans, Afghans allied with the U.S. occupation, Afghans fighting the U.S. occupation, and men and women trying to survive -- including by shifting their loyalties toward whichever party seems least likely in that moment to imprison or kill them. What we discover from this is not just that enemies, too, are human beings. We discover that the same human beings switch from one category to another quite easily. The blunder of the U.S. occupation's de-Baathification policy in Iraq has been widely discussed. Throwing all the skilled and armed killers out of work turned out not to be the most brilliant move. But think about what motivated it: the idea that whoever had supported the evil regime was irredeemably evil (even though Ronald Reagan and Donald Rumsfeld had supported the evil regime too -- OK, bad example, but you see what I mean). In Afghanistan the same cartoonish thinking, the same falling for one's own propaganda, went on.
People in Afghanistan whose personal stories are recounted here sided with or against Pakistan, with or against the USSR, with or against the Taliban, with or against the U.S. and NATO, as the tides of fortune turned. Some tried to make a living at peaceful employment when that possibility seemed to open up, including early-on in the U.S. occupation. The Taliban was very swiftly destroyed in 2001 through a combination of overwhelming killing power and desertion. The U.S. then began hunting for anyone who had once been a member of the Taliban. But these included many of the people now leading the support of the U.S. regime -- and many such allied leaders were killed and captured despite not having been Taliban as well, through sheer stupidity and corruption. We've often heard how dangling $5000 rewards in front of poor people produced false-accusations that landed their rivals in Bagram or Guantanamo. But Gopal's book recounts how the removal of these often key figures devastated communities, and turned communities against the United States that had previously been inclined to support it. Add to this the vicious and insulting abuse of whole families, including women and children captured and harassed by U.S. troops, and the revival of the Taliban under the U.S. occupation begins to become clear. The lie we've been told to explain it is that the U.S. became distracted by Iraq. Gopal documents, however, that the Taliban revived precisely where U.S. troops were imposing a rule of violence and not where other internationals were negotiating compromises using, you know, words.
We find here a story of a bumbling oblivious and uncomprehending foreign occupation torturing and murdering a lot of its own strongest allies, shipping some of them off to Gitmo -- even shipping to Gitmo young boys whose only offense had been being the sexual assault victims of U.S. allies. The danger in this type of narrative that dives deep into the crushing Kafkan horror of rule by brute ignorant force is that a reader will think: Let's do the next war better. If occupations can't work, let's just blow s--- up and leave. To which I respond: Yeah, how are things working out in Libya? The lesson for us to learn is not that wars are badly managed, but that human beings are not Good Guys or Bad Guys. And here's the hard part: That includes Russians.
Want to do something useful for Afghanistan? Go here. Or here.