No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes

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9781250069269: No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes
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"Essential reading for anyone concerned about how America got Afghanistan so wrong. 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

In a breathtaking chronicle, acclaimed journalist Anand Gopal traces the lives of three Afghans caught in America's war on terror. He follows a Taliban commander, who rises from scrawny teenager to leading insurgent; a U.S.-backed warlord, who uses the American military to gain wealth and power; and a village housewife trapped between the two sides, who discovers the devastating cost of neutrality. Through their dramatic stories, No Good Men Among the Living stunningly lays bare the workings of America's longest war and the truth behind its prolonged agony.

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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. He is an INCITE fellow at Columbia University.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

— 1 —

The Last Days of Vice and Virtue

Early in the morning on September 11, 2001, deep amid the jagged heights of the Hindu Kush, something terrible took place. When teenager Noor Ahmed arrived that day in Gayawa to buy firewood, he knew it immediately: there was no call to prayer. Almost every village in Afghanistan has a mosque, and normally you can hear the muezzin’s tinny song just before dawn, signaling the start of a new day. But for the first time that he could remember, there was not a sound. The entire place seemed lifeless.

He walked down a narrow goat trail, toward low houses with enclosures of mud brick, and saw that the gates of many of them had been left open. The smell of burning rubber hung in the air. Near a creek, something brown lying in the yellow grass caught his eye, and he stopped to look at it. It was a disfigured body, caked in dried blood. Noor Ahmed took a few steps back and ran to the mosque, but it was empty. He knocked on the door of a neighboring home. It, too, was empty. He tried another one. Empty. Then he came upon an old mud schoolhouse, its front gate ajar, and stopped to listen. Stepping inside, he walked through a long yard strewn with disassembled auto parts and empty motor oil canisters. Finally, when he pushed his way through the front door, he saw them huddled in the corner: men and women, toddlers and teenagers, more than a dozen in total, clutching each other, crammed into a single room.

“Everyone else is dead,” one said. “If you don’t get out of here, they’ll kill you, too.”

In wartime Afghanistan, secrets are slippery things. The Taliban had planned a surprise attack on Gayawa, but the villagers had known for days that the raid was coming, and those who could had hired cars or donkeys and moved their families down into the valley. But this had been a hard, dry, unhappy summer. Times were not good and many villagers could not afford to leave, even though they knew what might await them. Of those who stayed, only the few hiding in the schoolhouse, where the Taliban soldiers never thought to look, escaped untouched. The rest met an unknown fate.

Back then, Gayawa was near the epicenter of a brutal, grinding war between the government of Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban, and a band of rebel warlords known as the Northern Alliance. In their drive to crush the resistance, government troops waged a Shermanesque campaign, burning down houses and schools, destroying lush grape fields that had for generations yielded raisins renowned throughout South Asia, and setting whole communities in flight. In the region surrounding Gayawa, the Taliban enforced a blockade, allowing neither food nor supplies to enter. Those who attempted to breach the cordon were shot.

America’s war had yet to begin, but on that September 11, Afghans had already been fighting for more than two decades. The troubles dated to 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded a largely peaceful country and ushered in a decadelong occupation that left it one of the most war-ravaged nations on Earth. The Russians withdrew in defeat in 1989, and in their wake scores of anti-Soviet resistance groups turned their guns on each other, unleashing a civil war that killed tens of thousands more and reduced to rubble what little infrastructure the country still had. Rival gangs robbed travelers at gunpoint and plucked women and boys off the streets with impunity.

In 1994, a fanatical band of religious students—the Taliban—emerged to sweep aside these warring factions and put an end to the civil war. On a fierce platform of law and order, they forcibly disarmed and disbanded many of the militias that had been terrorizing the populace and brought nearly 90 percent of the country under their control. For the first time in more than a decade, peace took root in much of the land. Criminality and warlordism vanished, and the streets became safe from rape and abduction.

In the process, however, the Taliban instituted a regime of draconian purity the likes of which the world had never witnessed. Moral and spiritual decay had dragged the country into civil war, the Taliban believed, and a puritanical version of Islamic law offered the only hope for salvation. All music, film, and photography—which the Taliban regarded as gateway drugs to pornography and licentiousness—were banned. They caged up women in their homes, executed adulterers, and whipped men of flagging faith. They prohibited, with only a few exceptions, all female education and employment. They outlawed the teaching of secular subjects in school. In many cities, roaming packs of religious police under the authority of the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue saw to it that no one missed the mandatory five-times-a-day prayer. All men were required to wear a fist-length beard and were beaten and jailed unless they complied.

A land of Old Testament rules, the Taliban’s Afghanistan was brutal and vindictive. Relatives of murder victims were invited to gun down the accused; thieves had their hands lopped off; and obscurantist religious clerics, often semiliterate, decided matters of jurisprudence. If it were possible to distill the zeitgeist into a single devastating moment, it would be the Taliban’s infamous demolition of two massive fifteen-hundred-year-old Buddha sculptures. Among South Asia’s great archaeological treasures, the statues were brought tumbling down in an effort to rid the country of “false idols.”

Yet Taliban rule did not go unchallenged. Remnants of some of the defeated militias fled to the mountains north of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, where they regrouped in 1996 to form the Northern Alliance. For the next five years, Taliban troops fought a bloody campaign to subdue the north, meting out the greatest punishment to villages along the front line, like Gayawa.

Years later, I visited Gayawa to try to understand the Afghan world as it had appeared on the eve of 9/11. Some of the Taliban’s old, rotting observation posts were still standing, and many houses remained abandoned. Memories of those war years lingered, and the rancor echoed in conversation after conversation. “The Taliban were evil. They were tormentors,” Noor Ahmed told me. After finding those survivors in the schoolhouse on the morning of September 11, he had fled the area, returning only months later after a new government had assumed power. “They weren’t humans. The laws you and I abide by, they didn’t mean anything to them.”

As I met more villagers in the area, I found that many of their stories centered on a particular roving Taliban unit, a feared team of disciplinarians who journeyed from village to village demanding taxes and household firearms. “Their leader was a tall man named Mullah Cable,” said Nasir, a local. “We heard his name on the radio. He traveled a lot. He would search your house looking for weapons, and when you swore you didn’t have anything, he’d bring out his whip, a cable. That’s where his name comes from. He was a clever man—I don’t know where he was from, but he was very smart. He was one of the first to use a whip on us like that. After a while, all the Talibs started carrying whips.”

Mullah Cable. The very name spoke of the strange language that Afghans had acquired in decades of war. No one in Gayawa knew quite what had become of him. “When the Americans invaded,” Nasir said, “all those Taliban vanished like ghosts.”

–––

I first saw Mullah Cable on an early winter evening in Kabul, the hour of dueling muezzins, dozens of them crooning from their minarets. It was 2009, and more than one hundred thousand foreign soldiers were on Afghan soil battling an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency. When I approached him, he was pacing uncomfortably in a park, hands in his pockets, his eyes shifty, a black turban stuffed into his pocket. Tall and lanky, he stood with his shoulders hunched, as if he were carrying some dangerous secret. He wore glasses, unusual for an Afghan. Tattoos flowed down his arms and henna dye covered his fingernails. When he smiled, gold teeth glistened. Only his thick, spongy beard and a missing eye, a battlefield injury, placed him unmistakably among his Taliban comrades. Even without such telltale marks, though, as an Afghan you can never truly hide—a cousin, or an old war buddy, or a tribal chieftain somewhere would know how to find you. So I had tracked him down, and after months of effort I finally convinced him to speak to me.

“I don’t come here often,” he said. “Kabul is a strange place. I’m a village guy. I need the open spaces and fields to be able to think.” As the typical Kabul evening smog settled in, commuters headed home, many with their faces wrapped in handkerchiefs. Toyota Corolla station wagons and minivan taxis, with arms and heads poking out, rattled by. A Ford Ranger police truck passed us, making Mullah Cable nervous. He had slipped in from the surrounding countryside and was worried about being noticed. We took shelter in a taxi, moving slowly through the darkening streets as we spoke in the back.

Almost a decade after battling the Northern Alliance, he was still fighting—now against the Americans. Though he didn’t mention it, I later learned that the band of guerrillas under his command in the province of Wardak, a few dozen miles southwest of Kabul, had assassinated members of the US-backed Afghan government, kidnapped policemen, and deployed suicide bombers. On numerous occasions, they had attacked American soldiers. He fought, he told me, for “holy jihad,” to rid his country of foreigners and to reinstate the Taliban regime.

This much I had expected, but he also surprised me. He admitted to not having received a single day’s worth of religious instruction in his life. He could read only with great difficulty. Maps were a mystery to him, and despite his best efforts he could not locate the United States. In fact, growing up he had only the foggiest notion of America’s existence. He cared little for, and understood little of, international politics. He had no opinions about events in the Middle East or the Arab-Israeli conflict. And even though he had been a Taliban commander in the 1990s, after the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 he had quit the movement and for a time actually supported the new US-backed government.

This is what fascinated me most: How did such a person end up declaring war on America? Nor was he alone. It turned out that thousands of Talibs like him had given up the fighter’s life after 2001, but something had brought most of them back to the battlefield just a few years later. I wanted to learn his story. At first he was skeptical. “I don’t understand why it matters,” he said. “My story isn’t very special. I think you won’t find it interesting.” I assured him that I would, and for a year we met regularly in the backs of taxis, in drowsy dark offices in Kabul, or out in the countryside. In his tale I found a history of America’s war on terror itself, the first grand global experiment of the twenty-first century, and a glimpse of how he and thousands like him came to define themselves under this new paradigm—how they came to be our enemy.

–––

As with so many Afghans, the beginning was hazy. He could not state where exactly he had been born, although he believed it was somewhere on the squalid outskirts of Kabul. Nor did he know when he was born, so he wasn’t sure if he was three or five when the Russians invaded in 1979. That war had unfolded mostly in the countryside, and people in Kabul spoke of it the way they spoke of foreign countries, as something far off and vaguely interesting. But the Russian retreat, followed by the outbreak of civil war in 1992, brought the conflict home to the capital, and eventually he enlisted in a local militia. It was an “aimless life,” as he put it, until the Taliban swept into power in 1996, inspiring thousands of young men to rally to their cause. He was one of them.

The Taliban provided a welcome home for unsettled youths like him who were repulsed by the chaos. In their regimented order he found a sense of purpose, a communion with something greater. “You have to understand,” he explained, “we felt like we were the most powerful people in the world. Everyone was talking about the Taliban. The whole world knew about the Taliban. We brought good to this country. We brought security. Before we came, even a trip to buy groceries was a gamble. People stole, people raped, and no one could say anything.

“Under our government, you could sleep with the doors open. You could leave your keys in your car, return after a month, and no one would’ve touched it.”

On the battlefield against the Northern Alliance rebels, he had risen quickly in the ranks, first leading a few dozen men, then heading a fifty-man unit, and finally establishing himself as one of the top commanders on the front line. By 2001, he was directing a force of a hundred or so fighters tasked with trekking through the mountains near Gayawa, hunting for rebel sympathizers. He was also chief of police for a district north of Kabul, occasional director of military transportation and logistics, and the sole authority responsible for disarming the population in any newly conquered territories. It was in this last duty that he acquired his nom de guerre, one that, in those days at least, he had carried proudly.

For five years, the fighting between his Taliban forces and the Northern Alliance ground on. For every insurgent hamlet put down, it felt as if another sprang up in its place. Then, on September 9, 2001, in the first suicide strike in Afghan history, a pair of young Arab men posing as journalists assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary leader of the Alliance. Rebel forces were thrown into disarray. For the first time, Mullah Cable could sense the prospect of total victory. On September 10, he and other Taliban commanders launched an offensive across the entire front line. By the morning of the eleventh, they had swept into the strategic village of Gayawa.

“We were on the verge of something great,” he recalled, “but everything changed after the planes hit. That was the biggest mistake that ever happened to us.”

–––

Early on the morning of September 12, 2001, in the cracked, war-eaten office building housing Kabul’s Foreign Ministry, a few turbaned Taliban officials sat watching the news on a flickering television—the only sanctioned set in town, as all moving images had been banned. As they stared at replays of the Twin Towers collapsing into an apocalyptic pile of burning ruins, President George W. Bush’s warning flashed across the screen: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”

It was a moment some Taliban officials had long feared. To the most pragmatic among them, Osama bin Laden and his retinue of followers had been nothing but trouble since they had landed in 1996. The Arabs of al-Qaeda spoke a different language, practiced a distinct culture, and even followed a different form of Islam from their Afghan counterparts. Bin Laden was waging international jihad to overthrow US global hegemony, while the Taliban were concerned largely with politics within their country’s borders. Bin Laden railed against the West, and his acolytes bombed US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, while the Taliban were seeking Western diplomatic recognition. Quickly, America’s bin Laden problem had become the Taliban’s as well. The two sides met throughout the late 1990s in an attempt to work out a solution, but cultural and political divides proved insurmountable. The Taliban agreed to place bin Laden on trial, but Washington, not trusting the impartiality of Afghan courts, demanded his extradition t...

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