Review | No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes – Anand Gopal

About the Book

Told through the lives of three Afghans, the stunning tale of how the United States had triumph in sight in Afghanistan–and then brought the Taliban back from the dead

In a breathtaking chronicle, acclaimed journalist Anand Gopal traces in vivid detail 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 US-backed warlord, who uses the American military to gain personal wealth and power; and a village housewife trapped between the two sides, who discovers the devastating cost of neutrality.

Through their dramatic stories, Gopal shows that the Afghan war, so often regarded as a hopeless quagmire, could in fact have gone very differently. Top Taliban leaders actually tried to surrender within months of the US invasion, renouncing all political activity and submitting to the new government. Effectively, the Taliban ceased to exist–yet the Americans were unwilling to accept such a turnaround. Instead, driven by false intelligence from their allies and an unyielding mandate to fight terrorism, American forces continued to press the conflict, resurrecting the insurgency that persists to this day. 
With its intimate accounts of life in war-torn Afghanistan, Gopal’s thoroughly original reporting lays bare the workings of America’s longest war and the truth behind its prolonged agony. A heartbreaking story of mistakes and misdeeds, No Good Men Among the Living challenges our usual perceptions of the Afghan conflict, its victims, and its supposed winners.

319 pages (kindle)
Published on April 29, 2014
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When I go on current event nonfiction binges, I tend to look for books that are written from the other point of view. I know my own well enough. I want to see whatever I’m reading about through the eyes of those who lived it. So, when I came across this book, I knew I’d found something really special. A book that would not only challenge my perspective of what happened, but also of the people who were the most impacted by the things that happened. The people who so often do not have a voice.

I will say, before I get too far into this review, that this book has the potential to offend people. It will drastically reinterpret the war in Afghanistan, and it unflinchingly paints some of the things America has done over there in a questionable light. If you are a person who has your mind made up about all things War on Terror related, then I really think you should skip over this book. Pass it on by. You won’t like it, and it will just make you mad. 

On the other hand, if you’re a person who finds this sort of thing interesting, then you’ll likely want to read this book, but keep an open mind. You won’t agree with everything said here (I didn’t), but it is worth reading because knowing how other people experience and understand things is an important part of being a human.

Anand Gopal is a United States journalist. He was sent to Afghanistan to report on the war, and somehow managed to travel quite a swath of the country in the process. In this book, he tells the stories of three individuals who got sucked into the fray. There is a teenager who is unavoidably pulled into the conflict, a warlord who ends up with US-support, and a housewife who is, quite literally, trapped. 

“The first time a woman enters her husband’s house,” Heela told me about life in the countryside, “she wears white”—her wedding dress—“and the first time she leaves, she wears white”—the color of the Muslim funeral shroud.

Intermixed into this are stories from a few others, vignettes that tell stories about things that happened. A baker who gets arrested routinely by US soldiers; a freed warlord prisoner; a man wrongly identified and arrested for crimes he never committed, and more. 

The power of this book comes from the stories being told, but Gopal recognizes the complexity of the region and the conflicts he is writing about, and he does an absolutely marvelous job at setting up the backdrop, the story that supports everything that is coming next. Starting in USSR days, and then sliding through the chaotic years that follow until Taliban and then US intervention. Gopal boils it all down and makes this region’s numerous dramas easy to understand and incredibly digestible. 

To become a mullah, you studied for up to twelve years in a madrassa, where you learned the intricacies of Islamic law, along with history, philosophy, and logic. In Pashto, such students were called taliban. Because a mullah was guaranteed employment for life, this was a course of study particularly well suited to those from the humblest backgrounds. It was in greater Kandahar, where tribal structures were the weakest, that the taliban were most fully integrated into social life.

There is a whole lot I didn’t know, for example, I did not know that the Soviet Union and the US used Afghanistan as a sort of proxy Cold War battle ground, where the USSR dug its heels in in Kabul, while the CIA funded religious militants known as mujahedeen, out in the surrounding countryside. I didn’t know that when the USSR left, the US followed, creating a power vacuum which resulted in a catastrophic civil war and unbelievable unrest between tribal groups. I didn’t know that this was the setting wherein the Taliban were called down from their mountainous homes in an effort to calm things down, and that this hotbed of blood and death and strife was where Bin Laden, with lots of money and guns marched in from Saudi Arabia and set up camp. I didn’t understand the cultural context for any of this until I read the book. Not just the war-torn region itself, but also the role of the Taliban, how it was created, why it was a thing in the first place, or how they got the power they eventually attained.

Outside the capital, mujahedeen rule veered into the tyrannical. A commander in the northwestern province of Faryab decreed it permissible to rape any unmarried girl over the age of twelve. In the western city of Herat, authorities curtailed musical performances, outlawing love songs and “dancing music.” It was the mujahedeen—not the Taliban, who did not yet exist as a formal group—who first brought these strictures into politics. Many of these same commanders would be returned to power by the United States to run the country after 2001.

Gopal goes into a lot of detail, but never manages to get bogged down in it. From the setup to this war on terror, to how the Taliban formed and what they are, and so much more. In this regard, Heela, the housewife, is probably the perspective that I found the most interesting and engaging.

Heela was raised in Kabul during Soviet times, when she did not have to wear a headscarf, and she was allowed to go to school. In fact, Heela had an advanced college education, a rather enlightened husband regarding women’s rights, and a promising future ahead of her. Then the USSR fell, civil war broke out, and in an effort to save themselves, she, her husband, and her son, fled to his remote roadless, electricity-less village seven hours from the nearest town, where she had to don the garb we all associate with women in Afghanistan, stay behind the walls of her house, and never be heard by any man but her husband. Pre-Taliban, the mujahedeen rule was tyrannical, especially toward women. I was rather surprised to learn that most of what I associate mentally with women in Afghanistan was actually started with the mujahedeen, not the Taliban (though, let’s be honest, they didn’t really help matters at all). Her change from the open atmosphere of Kabul to the oppressive countryside must have been like entering another planet.

Women are not to leave their homes at all, unless absolutely necessary, in which case they are to cover themselves completely; are not to wear attractive clothing and decorative accessories; are not to wear perfume or jewelry that makes any noise; are not to walk gracefully or with pride in the middle of the sidewalk; are not to talk to strangers; are not to speak loudly or laugh in public; and they must always ask their husbands’ permission to leave the home.

Her story was incredibly gripping, but there were a lot of other stories and details woven in that were incredibly illuminating as well. I also found the story of an ex-Taliban officer who fled when America invaded, defecting the cause he’d believed in along with so many others, quite interesting. Gopal managed to interview warlords, as well as the everyman. He showed not just how the war impacted their lives, but their unflinching perspective of what happened, as people who lived there, on the ground, and had to traverse this reality every day of their lives. It was brilliantly well done, if disturbing and extremely depressing. There were a lot of mistakes made on all sides, and a lot of lives lost. 

Gopal set out to tell the story of America’s war on terror from an Afghan perspective, and he managed it with flying colors. Not only do I have a better understanding of what happened on the ground (including how warlord feuds became US military-backed conflicts), but I have a much better understanding of the culture and the strife of this region, and what laid the groundwork for the war that is still being waged to this day, and the terrible human cost on both the American and Afghan sides.  

This book is not anti-American. Rather, Gopal is stepping back and giving us a window into the lives of those impacted by our decisions and our policies. You can agree or disagree with what is presented in this book, but I do believe it is important for us to try to understand not just the policies this country enacts, but the lives it impacts as well, and in that respect, there are not enough books like this in the world. 

In times of strife, taliban have usually mobilized in defense of tradition. British documents from as early as 1901 decry taliban opposition to colonialism in present-day Pakistan. However, as with so much else, it was the Soviet invasion and the US response that sent the transformative shock. In the 1980s, as guns and money coursed through the ranks of the Kandahar mujahedeen, squabbling over resources grew so frequent that many increasingly turned to religious law to settle their disputes.

No Good Men Among the Living haunted me. I could not stop thinking about it. I couldn’t stop reading it. I just couldn’t stop. I have so many highlights and notes from this book, it’s ridiculous. I have read a lot of books about Afghanistan. The region fascinates me, probably because we really know so little about it, and the area is, from my Western perspective, so incredibly foreign to me. I don’t understand a whole lot about it, and I doubt I ever will. Afghanistan has an absolutely abysmal record regarding women’s rights, and isn’t that great about people in general, either. I’m horrified and fascinated. Gopal did an amazing job of not just presenting the nuances of an incredibly complex conflict, but also painting a rich cultural backdrop with which all of this is presented, giving context and layers to things that had seemed so obviously one-note to me before. 

No Good Men Among the Living is one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time, and I doubt I will stop thinking about it anytime soon. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I consider it mandatory reading for anyone with even the slightest interest in Middle East affairs. It is uncomfortable. It is painful. It is depressing. 

It is so incredibly important. 

“Winning a war such as this was not about planting flags or defending territory or building fancy villas. It was not about titles or promotions or offices. It was not about democracy or jihad, freedom or honor. It was about resisting the categories chosen for you; about stubbornness in the face of grand designs and schemas. About doing what you had to do, whether they called you a terrorist or an infidel. To win a war like this was to master the ephemeral, to plan a future while knowing that it could all be over in an instant. To comfort your children when the air outside throbs in the middle of the night, to squeeze your spouse’s hand tight when your taxi hits a pothole on an open highway, to go to school or the fields or a wedding and return to tell about it. To survive.” 

5/5 stars


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