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American Empire Project

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

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Gopal’s dramatic narrative, full of vivid personal detail, follows three Afghans through years of U.S. missteps: a Taliban commander, a U.S.-backed warlord, and a housewife trapped in the middle of the fighting. With its intimate accounts of life in small Afghan villages, and harrowing tales of crimes committed by Taliban leaders and American-supported provincial officials alike, No Good Men Among the Living lays bare the workings of America’s longest war and the truth behind its prolonged agony. A thoroughly original exposé of the conflict that is still being fought, it shows just how the American intervention went so desperately wrong.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published April 29, 2014

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Anand Gopal

6 books210 followers

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Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,401 followers
June 9, 2014
This is one the best works of narrative non-fiction that I've come across in recent memory. Anand Gopal spent several years living in Afghanistan and has come back with this incredible book narrating the Afghan War through the lives of three people actually living through it.

He follows the lives of Akbar Gul (a Taliban commander), Jan Muhammad Khan (a U.S-allied militia leader) and Heela Achekzai (a civilian woman), charting the course of their lives before, during and after the American invasion. Other narratives also weave in an out, including those of U.S. soldiers and others who have fought in recent years. What comes across is how amorphous and fluid the distinctions between friend and foe are - one can be an enemy or a friend on paper but the reality day to day is much more complicated. Morality is not all lined up on any one side, and instead of flighty concepts such as ideology the thing that most everyone is focused on rather is survival in a tumultuous and insecure land.

Through this narrative exposition the broader narrative of how the U.S. lost the war is told. A few months after the first bombs starting falling the Taliban had effectively ceased to exist. Its leadership had fled or was seeking to lay down arms and join the new order, and the rank and file had put down their weapons and returned to their villages to farm as they had in times before. But American alliances with brutal, rapacious local warlords - as well as an American insistence that there had to be an enemy there for them to fight - brought the movement back from the dead by brutalizing local populations and inadvertently enlisting credulous American forces in wiping out tribal rivals spuriously identified as Taliban members.

After the first couple of months, there had been no real war to continue with and if America had proceeded more wisely it could've built on the situation from there, leading to a far better for Afghanistan and for themselves. Indeed the war in Afghanistan actually could've been a good thing, and with a wiser, more rational approach it indeed may have been. Instead defeat was effectively snatched from the jaws of victory. Had America and the new Afghan government instituted some kind truth and reconciliation (something for which former Talibs were clamouring) the war could've ended in short order. No one wanted to go launch a futile war against the new order, by the start of 2002 there was essentially no one wanting to launch a war to put back in place the Taliban government.

But instead of seeking consensus to build an inclusive new Afghan government, the U.S. put back in power the same warlords who had raped and pillaged the country in the early 90s - this time with American military backing. They unleashed a predatory police force on the population (particularly in the rural Pashtun countryside) and wiped out any rivals to their corrupt new order, labeling them "Taliban" regardless of who they were. As such, they indeed gave birth to a resurgent Taliban movement just as their brutality had done once before a decade earlier - a movement which is now gaining in strength throughout much of the country.

America for its part was able to bring incredible killing power to Afghanistan, but did not possess any deep knowledge of the country, its history or its people. As such, that incredible lethal force was often and regularly brought down on the wrong people - often those who were actually seeking friendship and alliances with them in the aftermath of Taliban rule. Given its disastrous recent history of "nation-building" this book stands as a strong exposition as to why such endeavors are undesirable. Not because American power is by definition malevolent, but because the people planning to institute such grandiose projects simply lack the knowledge and foresight about these places to do such things effectively. America might, 13 years later, finally be learning something about Afghanistan and how better to administer that country, but the nature of its political process means engagement longer than such a time are simply impossible. They're leaving now, having stayed just long enough to realize how much harm has been done due to all the things they didn't know when they first airdropped in.

But in many ways this tragic story is told almost incidentally. The way the book is written is so personal, evocative and powerful that it really stands as unique literary achievement in its own right. The lives of the Afghans are portrayed in moving and inevitably humanizing detail, and it offers a picture of the war and Afghan society which is usually wholly absent from ordinary news reporting. At times the book contains an absolutely heart-stopping intensity; it was a page turner which I was not able to put down. As such, I really recommend this book unreservedly to anyone - its one of the most memorable non-fiction books I've come across in recent memory, and can be appreciated by all whether they are interested in Afghanistan or just the human condition itself. Was so deeply impressed that I can guarantee I'll be reading everything Gopal (a gifted, and seemingly pretty young journalist) writes from this point onwards.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,414 followers
February 9, 2015
Finally we have a journalistic nonfiction big and detailed enough to show the humanity behind the war in Afghanistan. I knew it could be done, had been done in fact, beginning with Rory Stewart’s chronicle of his walk though Afghanistan in 2002 just as the Taliban government fell. That book, The Places in Between, stands as the clearest, most in-depth view of the people and places with whom America has been involved for a decade. This book by Anand Gopal goes in that class. I am eternally grateful to both men for finally exposing for us the beating heart of Afghanistan.

Gopal’s exceptional journalism didn’t take hold of me at first. At first I was cringing at what I know to be true: that our military, acting on orders from above, landed in Afghanistan like creatures from outer space. They were good people, all, but their mission was undoable. They had no idea what was going on, who to trust, and how best to fulfil their mission, i.e., to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The people shifted. The mission shifted. Our soldiers struggled, and we got reports of raids gone wrong. No wonder. Gopal tells us now how any American mission could never have worked in an Afghanistan as torn and bloodied as it was in 2001.

This is the absolutely indispensable companion book to other books recounting American involvement in Afghanistan. The confusion on the ground was experienced by everyone, not just soldiers: no one knew whom to trust, who to follow, who to support. If you ever wondered who, in fact, is in Guantanamo, you have to read Gopal’s chapter “Black Holes.” By the time you have finished this chapter, you must see the absurdity and madness in the fog of war. “You survived one way and one way only: through the ruthless exploitation of everyone around you.” Men under fire act just like men after all.
"Dr. Hafizullah, Zurmat’s first governor, had ended up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed Police Chief Mujahed. Mujahed would up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed the Americans. Security chief Naim found himself in Guantanamo because of an old rivalry with Mullah Qassim. Qassim eluded capture, but an unfortunate soul with the same name ended up in Guantanamo in his place. And a subsequent feud left Samoud Khan, another pro-American commander, in Bagram prison, while the boy his men had sexually abused was shipped to Guantanamo. No one in this group had been a member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda."

The most affecting portrait Gopal shares is that of Heela, the Kabul University-educated wife of a UN worker in a farming village in Uruzgan. Her story illustrates the confusion and prejudice suffered by provincial residents through the period of the first election in 2004. A changing series of governors, and officials, each murdered by the one before left in place one of the most ill-tempered and combative.
“this whole land is filled with thieves and liars…”--Hajji Zaman. It takes one to know one.

Gopal gives us in-depth views from a Taliban leader, warlords, militiamen, fathers, husbands, wives, collaborators, militants, prisoners, and tribal leaders. These people we understand. Gopal allows us to see their motivations, their striving, their joys, their defeats. The dangers involved in the reporting is only mentioned in passing, but in a country where seismic shifts in alliances is everyday, it is a gift to have a journalist curious and capable enough to have done this work.
Profile Image for Mikey B..
984 reviews363 followers
October 24, 2021
This book gives us an extraordinary inside view of the life of Afghanis - from the time of the Russian occupation, the Taliban takeover in the 1990s, and more so of the American occupation that began in late 2001.

This can make for rather grim reading. Afghanistan has been brutalized by both outside forces, internal warlords and religious fanatics for decades. As one book I read on Afghanistan succinctly stated the country is a “shatter zone”.

The author gives us the life details of three individuals. One is a warlord who sided with Hamid Karzai and the Americans, another is a Taliban fighter who at the outset of the American invasion hid and fled his country, and the other a woman who had a university education in Kabul and was forced, along with her husband and children, to flee to the rural hinterland when the Taliban moved into Kabul. She then wore a burqa and seldom left the confines of her home – there was no electricity and very little access to the outside world. I found her life with its many restrictions more than maddening and upsetting. The degree of gender segregation and repression is appalling. One can hardly imagine what the majority of women, most of whom are uneducated, experience. Most women (and men) have very little education and are illiterate. The country is unimaginably poor with little in the way of infrastructure.

Page 108 my book

Kandahar airfield became one of the world’s busiest airports, [it] it would grow into a key hub in Washington’s global war on terror, housing top secret black-ops, command rooms and large wire-mesh cages for these suspects.

The author explicitly recounts to us, with many examples, what went wrong with the U.S. and NATO occupation.

Page 109

They [Afghan warlords in good favour with American forces] would create enemies where there were none, exploiting the perverse incentive mechanism that the Americans – without even realizing it – had put in place; [a] warlords enemies became America’s enemies, his battles its battles. His personal feuds and jealousies were repackaged as “counterterrorism”, his business interests as Washington’s.

In other words, by and large, the Americans were duped into fighting the wars of Afghanistan’s many competing adversaries.

Page 110

“He’d give us intel” explained [a special forces soldier] “and then we’d let him do whatever he wanted.”

With the huge influx of American aid and dollars this just created a vast mafia state replete with guns, drugs, high tech weapons – and religious indoctrination. With warlords and tribal affiliations competing for money and eliminating rival members in various villages it is no wonder that many Afghans came to loath and hate their occupiers. Corruption was rampant.

Page 221 Melek Hazrat some of whose family members and fellow villagers were killed by American special forces

“When you go back to America, give Obama a massage. You say you’ll give us roads and schools? I don’t give a shit about your roads and schools! I want safety for my family.”

All this led to a Taliban revival – with even more savagery.

There are two issues that disturbed me about the writing of this book. It is eloquently written – but I felt the author took liberties with events where he was not present – with reproduced conversations, descriptions of landscapes and villages from months or years prior. I felt he ventured too much into story-telling. I am not saying what he is recounting is false – but I found myself asking, while reading, how would he have known that?

The second aspect that irritated me was his short analysis of the mujahedeen war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. He recounts this as if the CIA and the U.S. were the sole support of the Afghanis fighting the Soviet occupation. This is false. Funds and weapons from America were funnelled into Afghanistan by Pakistan’s ISI (the equivalent of the CIA). The ISI has been active in Afghanistan since the onset of the Soviet invasion. Not mentioned by the author are the huge monetary donations (matching those of the United States) of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. They also sent men and weapons to help the Afghan mujahedeen. Saudi Arabia also funded madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan teaching a fundamentalist view of Islam. It is sheer nonsense, when the author says that the CIA was involved in this. The Saudi’s were happy to export their thousands of fundamentalists to Afghanistan to fight jihad.

Nevertheless, I felt this book gave a profound examination of what occurred to the Afghan people during this long occupation. This is not written from a U.S. perspective; it is a micro-view inside a tragic war-torn country.
Profile Image for Nishat.
27 reviews411 followers
August 28, 2021
The title is borrowed from an Afghan proverb: “There are no good men among the living and no bad men among the dead.”

Journalist Anand Gopal spent several years, navigating the ruins of a war-torn Afghanistan, in search of answers that remained elusive to his touch. Instead, he faced even greater questions and dilemmas, which transformed his preconceived notions of war and blurred the line between good and bad.

Gopal primarily attempted to study the war through the lives of three people: a vicious, widely-feared Taliban commander, Mullah Cable; a powerful local leader of the US-backed Afghan government, Jan Muhammad Khan; and a housewife, Heela Achekzai.

Mullah Cable, who knows little about Middle Eastern politics or theology – to the surprise of the author, was the leader of a fierce Taliban unit. During his raids, he carried a whip or a cable, the evidence of which was imprinted on the backs of his many victims, earning him the ominous name of Mullah Cable. Beneath the mask of his brutality, however, lie family tragedies inflicted on him, from a young boy, by the Afghan Northern Alliance rebels, following the 1992 outbreak of civil war.

Jan Muhammad Khan, who previously governed Uruzgan province in Southern Afghanistan and was a dear friend of Hamid Karzai, rotted away in prison, awaiting his execution during the Taliban rule. The torture and the humiliation, which was regularly visited upon him during those days, would later shape his actions in a newly-Taliban-free country and instill in him an unquenchable thirst for revenge.

Heela Achekzai, one of the few educated women from Kabul, goes through tremendous shifts in her daily life over the course of only a few years, paralleling the instability of her own country as well as the resilience of her people.

This exquisite journalistic piece tries to meaningfully explore the question of how the US invasion of Afghanistan was destined to fail from the very beginning and the stage was set for Taliban to resurface after a quick, near-total collapse.

In a land where no one ever truly acquired the taste of nationhood, where more than forty ethnicities are divided in different political blocs, where mountains hide devastating secrets and foreign troops make for regular, unwanted guests, and where nearly every adult man and woman carry a scar of his own, the fates of Mullah Cable, Jan Muhammad and Heela are unfortunately intertwined, and the war is the only certainty they can afford to hold on to.
Profile Image for Barry Sierer.
Author 1 book56 followers
November 28, 2017
If you treat your friends like you treat your enemies, your friends will become your enemies.

This is a lesson that the US has had to learn at great cost several times over.

This is one of several points made in Gopal’s book that chronicles the struggles of a Taliban Commander, a pro US “warlord”, and a housewife in wartime Afghanistan. Gopal portrays the day to day savagery and chaos that existed during the civil war years of the 1990’s, as well as after the US invasion. The tales are tragic, but not without hope.

Gopal focuses largely on events in Urozgan province. According to Gopal; in the aftermath of the invasion, the US had a vast selection of allies to choose from including members of the former regime. However, once US forces settled on certain strongmen, they repeatedly fell for false intelligence that painted pro-US Afghans as Al Qaeda or Taliban, resulting in their detention or deaths at the hands of US forces. In one case, US special operations forces struck two rival (yet pro-US) groups of officials on a single night. Some Afghans were being held in Guantanamo Bay, in part, for their ties to pro-US groups and warlords such as Ismail Khan and Ahmed Shah Massoud (who was killed by Al-Qaeda just before 9/11). The survivors of these attacks could either risk further attacks (lying low was not an option) or flee.

Caught between a predatory national government on one hand, and US forces that seemed strike at their own supporters on the other, with no access to government or NGO resources (which are filtered through the strongmen), many Afghans either joined the Taliban or simply played both sides in order survive.

Gopal’s work is an excellent example of why is so important for us to intimately understand the people we engage with, including our adversaries.
Profile Image for Nicole.
732 reviews1,837 followers
Shelved as 'on-hold'
October 1, 2020
Time to read some real stuff.

This is a book about categories that people create and then come to believe in—with a force of conviction so strong that sometimes it becomes literally a matter of life and death.
Profile Image for Vincent Masson.
43 reviews24 followers
July 12, 2021
My final project in film school was a feature film screenplay. We started it at the beginning of our first term, and worked on it until the end of our studies. Mine was called "Kabul" - a 130 page epic Drama about two young Afghan boys growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan. One becomes a Taliban fighter, and the other joins the Afghan Army, and they meet up later in life to try and reconcile their situations.

A feeling bubbled up from my gut as I read Anand Gopal's great book, "No Good Men Among the Living". Something akin to shame or embarrassment, as I thought back to that script, and how inauthentic it was (I had to google what language people spoke in Afghanistan before starting).

But it was authentic, in a way. Authentic in the sense that if you were writing a movie about Eskimo's, you might have an Igloo or two. But it wasn't authentic in the ways that mattered. My characters didn't talk about the history of their country, or take on nuanced opinions or thoughts, because I didn't have that history or know those thoughts. Gopal's book now provides them.

For instance, Gopal recounts the story of a Helmand Province man who went to the only Movie Theater in town to see a Hindi romance movie so many times he memorized it. When the Mujahadeen shut down the theater in 1992, effectively banning movies forever, he would recount the movie to anyone who would listen. Now that's a story. One can just picture some young whippersnappers walking past an old man, thinking he's completely crazy telling them about how they used to show a Bollywood romance movie in what is now a bombed out building.

Or how about when an Afghan woman risked death to organize a sewing class, which was forbidden under Taliban rule? The imagery that Gopal creates is something from a Hollywood movie, with sewing machines stashed away in corners from prying eyes like a weapons cache. Let's see Clint Eastwood make that movie.

Those little stories create a bigger picture of this conflict - a picture I had been missing when I was writing my movie. Gopal's strategy to look at this conflict from both sides and understand the real motives that are at play is one that has been missing from the literature of this conflict.

And there are a lot of motives to consider. The Russian's decade long occupation of Afghanistan was a significant turning point for Afghan life. After the United States and Russia withdrew their troops in 1989, and funding in 1992, the Mujahadeen filled the leadership vacuum that was left, and instituted some extremely harsh laws and policy's. The Taliban rose to combat the Mujahadeen sometime in 1996, and eventually instituted their own draconian laws that created it's own problem.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr was injured three times in the Civil War, including a very serious gunshot wound to the chest during the battle of Ball's Bluff in Virginia. His father, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., had published articles in support of the Union cause, but his son's injuries had made him reconsider not just his beliefs about the war, but his belief about beliefs.

"Certitude leads to Violence" was the lesson Holmes Sr. took from the Civil War, as he realized both the Union and Confederacy both thought they had god on their side, and were certain their cause was the right one. We know how history unfolded, but the consequences were so devastating that for Holmes - it was hard to say it was worth it.

This must be how both sides felt, I thought, as I read this wonderful book. We have been engaged in a battle of certitudes. We are certain their way of life is evil, and they are certain about ours. But with so much lost on both sides, it's hard call anything a victory anymore.
Profile Image for Timothy Bazzett.
Author 5 books10 followers
March 20, 2014
For the last dozen years or more U.S. consumers of the news have been force fed the American version, or “our side” of what has been happening in Afghanistan since the first American troops landed there at the end of 2001. Now, with Anand Gopal’s book, NO GOOD MEN AMONG THE LIVING, we are given a look at this long so-called ‘war against terror’ through Afghan eyes. Gopal, a respected American journalist who has also done stories from Egypt, Syria and other mid-East hot spots, made several trips into Afghanistan over the past five years, conducting numerous interviews with various warlords, tribal chieftains, Taliban leaders, and ordinary citizens, all in an attempt to understand - what? Well, I suppose trying to figure out what in the hell was going on in this country torn apart by wars for over thirty years now - ten years of occupation and war with the Soviet military, then a bloody civil war, followed by a harsh Taliban rule, and now, the American war against the Taliban and the elusive Al Quaeda.

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 sh** 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. There is much to think about here. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Imalah  Akhund.
34 reviews29 followers
October 23, 2021
I think there are better reviews of the book available on goodreads which come from a better understanding of the war but this is review from someone who doesn't know alot but is interested in making sense of stuff and getting to the truth.
When the American Troops were withdrawing from Afghanistan and Taliban were capturing at such a fast pace, seeing the amount of doctored news, whitewashing of war on terror, call for women's right drenched in white-saviourism and biased and selective reporting on Afghanistan, got me really interested in understanding what was really happening and what was really happening and what did the common Afghan people really want. To my surprise they weren't many narratives by Afghan people (the only other one I found that might be unbiased and honest was Raising My Voice by Malalai Joya, another on my list) and those by Western journalists where either drenched in white-saviourism or blaming Islam with the typical stereotypes of titles like "lifting the veil" and such. I happen to came across this title on twitter tweeted by a few Afghan Journalists and decided to give it a try.

Wikipedia Intro of the author: Anand Gopal is notable for his reporting in Afghanistan and the Middle East. He is believed to be one of the few Western journalists to have embedded with the Taliban. His book was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, the 2014 National Book Award and the 2015 Helen Bernstein Award. It was awarded the 2015 Ridenhour Prize for demonstrating "why the United States' emphasis on counterterrorism at the expense of nation-building and reconciliation inadvertently led to the Taliban's resurgence after 2001.

The title is an Pashtoon expression, "There are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead" which basically means there are no heros and villians. The author, Anand Gopal, briefly tells the story of Afghanistan from the Communist Government, the Soviet Occupation, the Mujahideen Movement, Soviet Withdrawal to The Civil War, The Rise of Taliban, the 2001 American Invasion and the days of the War On Teror as it was seen through Afghan eyes. There are many stories of Afghans in and out throughout the book but it mostly centers around three Afghans; Mullah Cable (a Talib or US's enemy), Jan Muhammad (former Mujaahid and US led miltiaman), and Heela Achekzai (a civilian woman).
After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by American Forces, most Al-Qaeda members fled to tribal regions of Pakistan and Iran, and most Taliban, except for a little few, also surrendered their weapons, retiring to their homes, shifted their loyalties and pledged allegiance to the new government some even encouraging other members to do the same. So the Taliban movement had basically died. American Forces with a mandate to fight terrorism and virtually no enemies, created alliances with local Warlords like Jan Muhammed, a former Mujaahid and a friend of Hamid Karzai, who used this US allyship to their advantage, furthering their interests, settled personal disputes and seeking power and hold falsely accused their enemies, former Taliban and sometimes innocent civilians and even people who were Anti-Taliban, Pro-Government and allied with the US as Taliban. American forces targetted these people conducting Raids, detained them under Counter-terrorism and subjected them to torture, sent them to Guantanamo Bay, Bagram or killed them. American Forces, even when they were aware about these things turned a blind eye, sometimes even awarding the soldiers and army staff involved with medals with next to zero compensation to those who lost their family members. All of this eventually led to Taliban Resurgency after the movement had previously died.
Mullah Cable, a talib who joined (Hizb e Islami), the Taliban movement initially during the civil war seeking protection when some of his close families members got killed during the civil war, left the moment and escaped to Pakistan after the 2001 invasion started to live a civilian life but ended up rejoining it after his struggles with making ends meet and his brush up with the corrupt warlords.
Heela Achekzai, a teacher, forced to give up her urban lifestyle during the civil war moves to the rural countryside to be a housewife, trains to be a nurse/midwife under Taliban and runs a secretive vocational centure for women under the Warlords allied by American Forces, and later gets widowed when the warlords kill her husband. She eventually ends being a senator in the city of Khas Uruzgun.

The narrative in the book is non-linear and attempts to humanize the war and different categories of people involved in the war. I think the book did a really good job bringing the Afghan perspective to the table!
Profile Image for Muhammad Ahmad.
Author 3 books153 followers
August 29, 2021
The one book you need to read to understand why the NATO mission in Afghanistan was doomed and why years more of US military presence in the country would not have made a difference. By 2002, the Taliban movement was pretty much dead, but through its intransigent policies and foolish alliances the US effectively helped resurrect the movement.
Profile Image for Anthony .
89 reviews11 followers
October 15, 2021
Back when I was an undergrad at UC Davis, I had the pleasure of taking a couple international relations classes taught by the brilliant Professor Miroslav Nincic. At the time, Professor Nincic's prevailing theory was that extremism in the Middle East reigned because of the long cultural shadow cast by the United States. All those Playboy magazines, Full House reruns, and Gillette commercials had incensed bad actors on the other side to the point that they became jelly donuts. The attraction they felt towards our way of living was contradictory to theirs, and the only way to resolve the hypocrisy was to destroy the fountainhead of all that doubt. I was shook. Not because this information was some great stride in my understanding of terrorism like the professor thought, but because I had never heard such an educated person invoke "they hate us because they ain't us" before. As much as this explanation appealed to my civic identity, it was that same appeal that had me side-eyeing Professor Nincic for weeks on end afterwards. Needless to say, I was unconvinced.

Anand Gopal's narrative non-fiction subverts the spin so often projected by my countryfolk through the telling of three Afghanis' stories: a Taliban commander, a U.S.-backed warlord, and an educated woman. As their descriptions suggest, they each stand at the edge of their own distinct existence, but all share in the deep wounds inflicted by the War in Afghanistan. These stories are gracefully interwoven with other historically significant events and figures of the time. It should surprise no one with even cursory knowledge of the Middle East that Afghanistan suffers greatly for its political instability and often socially repressive norms, but the real bomb is how much of that suffering comes as a result of American meddling and muckraking. Gopal's journalism reveals a great deal of evidence that, in its haste to address the events of 9/11 firmly, the U.S. cut corners and subscribed to a myopic approach to the war on terror. I found myself cringing at all the instances of U.S. soldiers attacking would-be allies on account of shoddy intel as told by corrupt allies and a haphazard militia, the sloppiness coming to a head with the U.S. accidentally launching an assault on their own encampment, slaughtering dozens of Americans and nearly killing the eventual U.S.-backed Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

If I had to summarize my impression of the U.S.' performance in Afghanistan, particularly after reading this book, I would be compelled to mention the dizzying quality of The Trial by Franz Kafka. In that book, Kafka places us in the feet of a man accused of a crime he knows nothing about before a justice system functioning under illogic. Like most actions taken by the U.S. government, those taken in Afghanistan were mired in the inefficiencies and short-sightedness of bureaucracy. Gopal describes chains of soldiers, commanders, and agents, each one with an even foggier understanding of the hierarchical tribal systems that run so many of the villages and towns, making judgments upon that which they know little to nothing about. The result is a system that flounders under the immobility of its intentions; the desperation to hunt down the winding down Taliban saw the U.S. targeting those who were or would have been friendlies until the unfairness of it all brought the Taliban back as rebels against an unjust system.

I think it speaks a great deal to the excellence of this book that I find myself more enamored with its content than I do quibbling over its technical aspects, which is likely a reflection of its incredibly solid writing and pacing. Narratives flow from chapter-to-chapter in a logical fashion, knowing when to switch perspectives and when to stay in place. The stories of Heela Achekzai and Akbar Gul were gut-wrenching reads, but I continuously found it difficult to tear myself away. Bits and pieces of historical detail, exterior events, and contrasting narratives are interspersed throughout, enriching those that come before and after with something we so often lack when we talk about Afghanistan: perspective.

If you're anything like me, you've likely marveled at the image of men marching into battle against the might of the U.S. military only to be blown to pieces by weaponry with such terrible names as 'Mother of All Bombs'. You may have asked yourself what would motivate such a man, let alone thousands of men, to mobilize themselves against such a seemingly unbeatable force. If you were in Professor Nincic's class, I hope you recognized the ludicrousness of suggesting that someone would strap explosives to themselves and dash off behind enemy lines in the name of Tom Cruise. Gopal's work deserves to stand as an incredible achievement in the humanizing efforts of journalism. It colors so much of the black-and-white of our media's predilection with the war and with our politicians' hesitance to honesty. No Good Men Among the Living is a practice in recognizing the devastating force of not just our military, but our capacity to ruin livelihood and identity alike.
Profile Image for Stoic Reader.
128 reviews13 followers
June 28, 2021
Superb! Narrative and investigative non-fiction of the very highest order. No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal is wholly absorbing. Mr. Gopal's storytelling is imbued with a sense of understanding and moral seriousness of the broad landscape of Afghanistan's war through the lives of ordinary people all trying to survive. His close observations and delicate renderings of the war on terror is sad but true that, ultimately, the war has become a business for the opportunists, jockeying for patronage, warlords and strongmen perpetuating for power in their own turfs, creating a massive avenue for corruption, thus, regenerating the war. This book offers another perspective on this war, not from the officials or leaders but from the frontliners, brokers, civilians who most profited, suffered and endured.
Profile Image for Radhika Roy.
88 reviews227 followers
September 19, 2021
It’s been a while since I’ve penned down a review, and I’m glad I picked this one up to get out of my rut. With the withdrawal of USA from Afghanistan, and the resurgence of Taliban, I figured that in order to comment on the socio-political fabric of the country, I would have to educate myself on the same first. Couldn’t have chosen a better starting point because Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among The Living” is not only comprehensive, but it is incredibly accessible.

Gopal approaches the changing political landscape in Afghanistan from the eyes of a Taliban commander, an individual belonging to the Afghan government which is backed by the US, and a simple housewife with dreams of a better life. He traces the history of Afghanistan starting from the days of the Soviet rule and ends with Obama administration’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. What follows can make you, a reader, realise the futility and the senselessness of a perpetual war that continues to ravage the country even today.

I started reading this book with pre-conceived notions and naïveté as to how what would be best for the people living in Afghanistan. Gopal has single-handedly managed to obliterate my way of thinking by showing me that from the elected Karzai government to the very villainised Taliban, and not to mention the utterly corrupt US administration, there is legit no institution which truly serves the interests of the people in Afghanistan ! Everyone is out to impose their own ideologies and fill their own coffers, sadly at the expense of poor citizens who merely want to feed their children and live to see another day.

The story is gory, shocking and cynical. The fact that it is 100% true makes it all the more worse. The only individual in the entire account who deserves any form of sympathy is Heela Achekzai, who went from being a relatively modern Kabuli to a woman forced to confine herself in a small district to a widow who had to scrounge for apparently immoral ways to feed her children without her husband and then, finally, to a female Senator. Her zeal to fight and take heed of her passions, even in the face of death is admirable and inspiring. But even her story betrays the inane patriarchy that underlines the most progressive of relationships in Afghanistan.

The writing is brave, sentimental, raw and poetic. I gasped audibly quite often while reading this book and the credit goes to Gopal’s creativity in masterfully recounting his experiences and interviews. I admire Gopal’s courage to have been able to travel to pockets of insurgents and terrorists, and to have gotten them to speak to him in an unfiltered manner. We need more journalistic accounts of this kind.

What I felt was amiss was a lack of structure in the story-telling. I also felt that the book ended quite abruptly; that there was more to be said and more loose ends that required tying up. Maybe a chronological account would have served the narrative better.

Either way, this book is informative and well-written, and I highly recommend this to anyone wishing to learn more about Afghanistan. Also, let’s just agree on the fact that US sucks.
Profile Image for Farooq Chaudhry.
58 reviews12 followers
June 1, 2021
No Good Men Among the Living is an account of the US war in Afghanistan and a few years of civil war leading up to the US invasion, told through the perspectives of people in Afghanistan who lived, and continue to live, through these brutal years of military occupation and unfettered civil war that preceded the invasion and continues to rage on afterwards. The narrative takes shape through the lives of three people: Akbar Gul, a leader of a local Taliban faction; Jan Muhammad, a warlord allied with the US government; and Heela Achekzai, a civilian woman, whose story is tragic and remarkable, as she flees Kabul with her husband, eventually becomes widowed as her husband is killed for speaking out against the corruption of a group allied with the US, and eventually becomes a senator.

After the U.S.S.R. was ousted from Afghanistan, the resulting power vacuum left behind gave way to a horrific civil war that was often fought along tribal and ethnic lines, as people did not trust anyone but their kinfolk. The Communist government of Afghanistan collapsed three years after the Soviets withdrew, and the years that followed were unspeakably gruesome. The magnitude of the violence that broke out cannot be understated, and many innocent people were killed, assaulted, or displaced in the name of a power struggle that was hard for anyone to identify with. With so many splinter groups jostling for power, a no man's land of anarchy flourished, and it was in the backdrop of this anarchy that the Taliban came to power, imposing an extremely rigid, zealous mix of tribal and fundamentalist inversion Islamic law upon the masses to create a semblance of "order" that not existed in about a decade.

A few months after the 9/11 attacks, when the U.S. first began dropping bombs on Afghanistan, the Taliban as it we knew it at this point basically dissolved; their leader, the infamous Mullah Omar had fled, and many high ranking Taliban commanders and generals openly sought to make peace, accept the new government, hand-over their weapons, and go back to living civilian lives. If you've been following the developments of the US war in Afghanistan, the fact that the Taliban essentially surrendered only a few months after 9/11 will come as a shock to you. The question obviously arises, why is the war still raging on to this day?

The short answer, meticulously told through this book, is that the US allied with local warlords who basically used US military power to settle scores from the days of the civil war and Taliban rule. These warlords used the world's most powerful military to become extremely rich and powerful themselves by contracting services to US military bases, and to bomb, raid, and destroy entire villages that had residents who once were allied with the Taliban, had former Taliban members residing amongst them, or had some other grievance associated with them from the civil war days . These members of the Taliban, though, openly supported the US government and turned in their weapons en masse, sought meetings with the newly formed Afghan government to initiate peace talks, and did everything in their power to move forward with a stable Afghan state. However, because the US was taking their intelligence and forming allies with people who sought to wage revenge and amass power themselves, the bombing campaigns, arrests, disappearances to Guantanamo against people who were openly pledging their support to the US government (many of who were incorrectly labeled as former Taliban members, and were just plain civilians) led to the re-emergence of the Taliban, as they realized that the state-building efforts had become a farce, and they were not going to find protection or peace in the future that was unfolding in front of them. They eventually viewed the Americans as a brutal occupying force and began fighting once again, though this time in a much more guerilla and splintered manner, employing tactics like suicide bombings and justifying civilian casualties in ways that they had not done before.

The US did not really understand the country they invaded, its people, or its history. That, combined with the extremely hawkish, pro-war sentiment that was fervent throughout the US government and media in the years following 9/11 led to a very costly (in both human lives and material resources) war that seemed to fought for its own sake, in a very crude manner. The US created more instability the longer it was (is) there, and more dollars were spent on arming and contracting warlords than building up the necessities of a civilian government in Afghanistan (like spending on schools, hospitals, etc.). Consequently, millions of innocent people in Afghanistan have suffered tremendously.

It becomes clear throughout the book that the lines between good or bad, rebel-allied or US-allied, blur quite dramatically, and people make decisions based on on survival alone, and not loyalty to any particular side. As Heela says in the book: "Living a war was different from fighting one; it meant keeping yourself somewhere in the gray area of survival." The trumped up songs of war that celebrate the virtues of liberty, valor, and honor all become irrelevant in the face of mass death and civil/social decay, and people make decisions based on whatever they deem necessary to stay alive for one more day. At the end of the day, people just want to live in stability and peace, ordinary lives, and the people of Afghanistan have not been able to do that for decades.

This book was extremely well written, and the stories and details from these peoples lives were incredibly riveting and powerful in their own right, and the book was hard to put down. I strongly recommend this book to anyone, but particularly those interested in understanding the US war in Afghanistan.
Profile Image for Ariel.
118 reviews18 followers
June 2, 2015
This book is amazing, amazing and depressing. I read it because my friend Tom, a correspondent in Afghanistan for years and years recommended it. The first part of the book lays out the lives of 3 Afghanis that serve as the groundwork for the whole book, which ultimately runs from the 1980s through the present day. I have never read a book that better captures the feeling a a life, a place, a history and a milieu. What he book ultimately shows is that Afganistan is made up of people and these people act as anyone might expect them to if we actually put even a little bit of thought into what it would mean to be an Afghani in Afghanistan. People act for their own survival, to preserve their own lives and those of their family. They battle against those who render those actions useless. Through so so many interviews Gopal shows that the country was filled with hope in the early 2000s and fell back to chaos as American intervention pushed on a in a fight against ghosts. I wish it was the 60s and we could visit the country untorn by modern history, I wish we (we is all things America) had never put boots on the ground and we had funneled those billions of dollars into American schools, I wish we cared more about knowing everything there is to know then we cared about taking action and above all I wish Afghanistan peace and stability in spite of all the history that stands in their way. 'Sigh'.
Profile Image for Daniel Simmons.
815 reviews40 followers
February 20, 2015
This book takes everything you (even the already cynical among you) thought you knew about the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, strips it naked, renders it immobile in flexicuffs, hangs it upside-down from the ceiling for a few days, subjects it to every imaginable torture, throws it in a dusty street, then drives a truck over it again and again until it bears no resemblance whatsoever to anything that was once human(e). Of the many upsetting books I've read recently, this work of narrative nonfiction -- in which Gopal weaves together, on the basis of hundreds of hours of in-country reportage, the personal stories of Taliban insurgents, U.S.-backed provincial warlords, sewing circle workers, and more -- is by far the most distressing. At times I couldn't believe the litany of atrocities that Gopal reports here, and indeed I wondered how he was able to verify the information relayed to him by his less-than-reliable Taliban or government mouthpieces, but if even 20% of what is written in this book is true, it's still plenty damning enough. Over and over the figures in this tragic narrative wonder: what and who is this war for? No matter how many victories Afghan politicians or Taliban leaders might claim in their spin rooms, it seems clear that for the average Afghan citizen, every "victory", no matter what side it favors, comes with too horrendous a price tag. A painful and essential read.
Profile Image for Mozammel Toha.
Author 5 books238 followers
February 3, 2023
টিপিক্যাল আমেরিকান দৃষ্টিভঙ্গির বাইরে চমৎকার একটা বই। তিনজন আফগানের জীবনকে ফলো করে এগিয়ে যায় বইয়ের কাহিনী - এক তালেবান, এক প্রো-কারজাই ওয়ারলর্ড, এক মহিলা। অথবা, দ্য গুড, দ্য ব্যাড, দ্য ইনোসেন্ট। এই তিনজনের জীবনের কাহিনীর মধ্য দিয়েই ফুটে ওঠে আফগানিস্তানের বাস্তবতা।
Profile Image for Jennifer Collins.
Author 1 book26 followers
June 16, 2014
This is the other side of the story.

With determined objectivity, Gopal does just what he claims: he tells the story of the War on Terror and the last fourteen years--particularly 2001 through 20010--of war and distrust in Afghanistan, "through Afghan eyes". The focus is not on the military or on the people in power, but on the men And women who are, very simply, attempting to survive in a climate of terror, poverty, and confusion. And Gopal begins on September 11, 2001, but in a fitting way for a book that is both troubling and all too believable: he begins in a town where everyone understands the Taliban as a failing force, and nobody knows of the attacks already occurring in America. He begins in a world where men and women are seeing their world beginning to make sense, where fighting has been ongoing since 1979 and is finally, seemingly, coming to an end, and where America is of no concern whatsoever.

This is a difficult book because it is so very believable and so very simple. It makes sense of the news stories and the world which Americans have seen portrayed in nonsensical inflammatory terms, and it makes understandable--to the extent that terrorism and death can be understood--the ways in which a small extremist force overtook an entire world through what amounts, sadly, to gossip and confusion gone mad. For men and women in America who want to understand the war that has been ongoing for more than a decade, this is required reading, not telling the whole story, but telling the parts of the story which are too often glossed over or ignored. It is difficult reading because the entire book--and the entire forces of Afghanistan and America, as a result--are essentially operating in a mist of gray where there is very rarely a good or a bad, or at least not one of either which can be easily apprehended. There is, more than anything, confusion, and an imperative to survive.

Gopal's work here is, very simply, disturbing and straight-forward. And it is two-sided. It should be required reading.

As a side-note, it's worth noting that his writing is superb, and his history-telling is absurdly clear considering the quagmire of a subject he's taken on. Whether you read this for the narrative, for the writing, for the history, for the politics, or for the telling of the other side, this is worth your time.

Absolutely recommended.
Profile Image for Narayana.
41 reviews17 followers
October 25, 2014
This was my first book on Afghan war, and it turned out to be a grisly read - it felt like a thriller novel throughout. It must have taken courage to travel the war-torn country side, for quite a few chapters concluded with this theme : "A few months after I spoke with him, he was blown to bits by a suicide bomber/unnamed gunman/bomb blast." But what I liked best about the book was that the story-telling seemed unbiased. There are obviously many faces of the war that have not been revealed in this book, many more sides of the story, and many more variables unaccounted for. But then the book is what it says - the war from the point of view of three people - an Afghan housewife, an ex-Taliban commander, and a US backed warlord. Throughout the book, you have the nagging feeling that if only the US had known this before hand, Afghanistan could have been be a peaceful country right now.
Profile Image for Steven Z..
585 reviews116 followers
December 30, 2014
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.

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.

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.
Profile Image for Sarah.
67 reviews2 followers
September 15, 2022
I just feel miserable having read this. The book is great, the writing is well-done, but the content is incredibly frustrating, heartbreaking and gut wrenching to read about.
Profile Image for Benjamin Gilmour.
Author 15 books18 followers
June 30, 2014
Stunning. A unique, compelling, moving, beautifully written book of the war from the Afghan point-of-view. It is unlike anything I have read before, absolutely gripping. Finished it in three sittings, difficult to put down, reads like a thriller, makes you gasp. It's a reading experience not easily forgotten. The intimate true stories of these select Afghans are simply astounding and reveal so much about how badly the US handled the war, how they could easily have prevented the Taliban's return with more insight and cultural understanding and fewer blundering assassinations of their own allies. If the country descends into hell after this year, it will be worth remembering the brutal warlords that now litter the country are American-made. This is a must read for anyone interested in contemporary Afghanistan and how wars go belly up.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,893 reviews430 followers
February 22, 2015
*Update 2/22/15*. The link below is about ISIS in Syria. Beneath that is my review about 'No Good Men...'


‘No Good Men Among the Living’ is making me crazy on several levels. I find myself sputtering, talking to myself, complaining, reacting as if someone had bumped me hard intentionally in a high school hallway. I can’t help it. The book’s subject matter is pushing all of my buttons at once. However, with the single exception of the author Anand Gopal expressing a continuing frustration with how American ignorance of the tribes, organizations and people of Afghanistan led it to policies which caused the resurgence of the ‘destroyed’ Taliban, apparently disbanded two months after the American invasion, if those interviewed are to be believed, the author is scrupulous with facts, figures and objectivity. I am not without opinions though, and if you read my review, you will not get an objective statement. My opinions and ‘hot buttons’ of judgment are not based on any bias against being poor, illiterate, or because of the foreignness of culture. It is primarily pure outrage at injustice, ignorance, religious stupidity and male testosterone - all of which together has created a toxic hell for humanity in Afghanistan specifically, and generally throughout the world where so-called ‘feminine values’ are suppressed.

Foremost, it is a great book. It was a 2014 National Book Award nominee for nonfiction. The research is amazing. Anand Gopal did not simply google information or gather information as an imbedded reporter. He went to Afghanistan alone and unaffiliated, and over a period of years, talked to Afghanistan Taliban members, warlords, and women who were trapped into lives which consist of three rooms or a family compound. He lived hardscrabble, walking and catching rides into the moonscape hills and exhausted valleys, going into abandoned and war-torn communities without electricity, schools or any other resources - finding the ordinary folks of Afghanistan. Then, he followed up on names, places, battles, torture sites, unspooling the tangled events between Americans, the elite Kabul authorities, the warlords and the Taliban, tracing back and forth using eyewitness accounts, naming names. He dug behind the ‘official’ story and he relates what the Taliban or the warlord men saw and were thinking during the Soviet invasion and then during the American invasion. He shows how quickly, and why, Afghan alliances shift and change, almost entirely driven by politics and affected by motivations of religion, tribal allegiance and testosterone, unleavened by education or knowledge of the world outside of Afghanistan. For example, some of the fighters were initially stunned by the bombing which American soldiers had called in when they were attacked, but not only because of the noise and damage. They did not know anything about airplanes or bombs. That is how ignorant and backward many Afghanistan people were, and to a degree, still are. Without electricity, education, roads, technology or contact with people beyond the next impoverished village of a few hundred souls, each run by a dominant family or two, how can they understand a wider context for their problems and issues?

The author does a fantastic job with few descriptions outlining what the various Afghan understandings were. Frankly, I can barely imagine such a primitive, ingrown and ignorant life. The author is respectful and objective, but what comes to my mind are the West Papua and Amazon tribes, discovered only in the 1970’s, who were as shocked by the accruements of civilization as they are by the clothes and forms of strange men walking into their forests.


Because of war, and ancient trails which allowed for extremely limited visits by strangers and commerce (money and roads are scarce), the Afghans have become more aware of technology and weapons, and are now spending what money they can make or steal on such useful items of war and robbery as they can find. As I read the descriptions of some of the villages and battle sites the author visits, I kept thinking of the Mel Gibson Mad Max movies, which Afghanistan apparently resembles, at least to my mind, with the exceptions of how extraordinary the holds of primitive fundamentalist Islam and a complete lack of contact with the world outside of their country combined with no education has turned most of the men in this country into a land of Morlocks (H. G. Wells, ‘The Time Machine’).

Despite the appearance of mature governance, legal formality and reason which most reporters and authors discuss when they find it in Kabul, in the former Northern Alliance, inside the Taliban and in the hundreds of smaller tribal associations, in my opinion, this is a country ruled by a male-gang mentality, and overrun by men who murder, rape and steal from each other based on something similar to our inner-city ghetto teenage logic and power struggles for dominance. There are over 40 different recognized tribes in Afghanistan and countless temporary sworn allegiances between them, linked by historical power plays, marriage, custom, and the basic requirements of pure survival. The author of ‘No Good Men among the Living’ interviews important and representative adult participants from many of these tribes, who were directly involved and eyewitnesses to the events he writes about. He was being as objective as possible, but I do not have to labor under such restrictions of judgement.

Although I have never set foot in Afghanistan, I have been reading countless stories and books about this horrible country for decades, especially since some of the Saudi-created al-Qaedi organization hid themselves among the Afghanistan Taliban after attacking New York City. The linked interests of Pakistan, India, Iran, and even China have occasionally surfaced in my path of reading various respected media outlets of journalism and memoirs about Afghanistan. I also worked for a high school in my own checkered past, and spoke with some refugees. I grew up in a blue-collar/welfare neighborhood in 1950’s America where alcoholism was present in every other home, along with a mixture of uneasy white and American Native renters living side-by-side. I am no stranger to ignorance, poverty, male dominance, religious superstitions and ghetto gossip/struggles. I felt I had an immediate grasp of some of the problems the author was researching. After all, we are all human beings with much the same feelings and reactions, whatever the culture within which we are educated.

I am linking a New Yorker Magazine article which discusses the author Dexter Filkins’s research, interviews and opinions as of 2012 regarding Afghanistan and the, at the time, guesses of the possible outcome of America’s withdrawal.


Below is a link where all of the elements present in Afghanistan have also combined to make an ancient land on a different continent a similar horror: Sudan.


As you may suspect, most articles and books about Islamic countries in which the lives of people under theological laws and rituals are discussed and explained are written by men. These male authors can freely travel, talk, meet and socialize, although often, as the recent beheadings of journalists by terrorists demonstrate, under some risk. Women are MUCH more restricted in opportunities to travel and discuss openly their opinions, complaints or having access to governance or education, often being literally killed if they express an opinion. I have yet to see a book or article written by a man who gives the suffering of women under Islamic tyranny any in-depth coverage, except for just enough description for basically commenting, ‘too bad, so sad, oh well, moving on.’ Gopal is more expansive than other journalists have been on the subject with the inclusion of Heela’s story.

One of the people the author interviewed was an educated woman, Heela. Despite her degree from the University of Kabul, she is made into a completely useless house slave (my opinion) when she marries Musquinyar, an arranged marriage. She also is a complete unquestioning fundamentalist Muslim, and she accepts her fate of purdah without question or qualm. The vagaries of war drive her family into a distant isolated village, where her difficulties demonstrate how terrible life is for a Muslim woman (my opinion). Given her education, she is able to overcome some of the strictures which Islam imposes on her life, but she does so almost driving herself insane with her fear of god and every person she meets (almost all of the Afghan men and women - neighbors, family relatives, leaders - who know or hear rumors about her pushing the Islamic envelope of permissible female humanity or ability will absolutely kill her or torture her for breaking Islamic rules). She has quite accepted and willingly kneels under the fundamentalist’s heavy hand of moral Islamic respectability, and she is no rebel. For example, at several points, the rules regarding Halal food leads her to starve herself and her children, rather than nourish herself (an intended wordplay on my part). In my opinion, her life is a tragic poisoned wasteland of madness. Heela’s survival is due entirely to her selected, tentative use of her education, in spite of her religion and culture. But even as she cleverly saves herself and her children, most of her efforts to survive are condemned by everyone she knows as being ‘un-islamic’. She herself experiences great shame and humiliation at being forced to act un-islamically to save her life. She prays to Allah to forgive her for being an educated person who wants to stay alive, basically (in my words). Is this not insane?

The link below is a list of educated women who in the past contributed ideas, social good, science and technology to their societies and people, including for the benefit of males, throughout centuries.


What is pissing me off is not only the treatment of women in Islamic countries generally, but the focused interior viewpoint which includes only an incomplete look at the involvement of NATO in Afghanistan. Although the book is basically a balanced collection of testimonies and corresponding research about the religious and politically inspired troubles of a particular and a particularly backwoods Islamic country, and how the invasions from the Soviet Union and by America upset the centuries of custom and homegrown legal procedures Afghans had peacefully developed, as told by actual Afghans without filtering by the author except perhaps editing, I think it is a limited, narrow exploration which ignores why America invaded Afghanistan.

There are other omissions as well. The author lets the statements which absolve the Taliban of any complicity in terrorist activities outside of Afghanistan stand without comment or rebuttal evidence. The author makes no mention of the music-driven recruitment videos made by Islamic terrorists, including the Taliban. The violence and declaration of war on infidels are stated by interviewees to be apparently only an al Qaeda aspiration, and apparently only because of the teachings in the madrassas of Pakistan. There is almost no mention of al Qaeda activities in Afghanistan, or of any collaborations between the Taliban and al Qaeda. Reading the book gives the idea that al Qaeda was a brief occasional guest of some Taliban, who simply passed through, without input or advice or having given any assistance to the Taliban. It may be, as the author learned through his conversations, that the Taliban organized itself into existence because of the lawlessness endemic throughout the country after the coalition of Western democracies, which helped to end the Soviet invasion, ‘deserted’ the mujahideen, leaving behind all of their munitions for warlords to grab and start a 4-year civil war, but the Taliban, uneducated and completely cut off from the world, not only organized but seemingly defeated the war-hardened gangsters without any financial assistance or battle advice or technology from al Qaeda or Pakistan extremists.

I don’t doubt the widespread ignorance and lack of education throughout Afghanistan. I know the cruelty of poverty, starvation and the lack of resources. I understand the solace of religion, if not the adherence to the cruel punishments, the horrific prohibitions against natural human entertainments, interactions and pleasure, and hierarchical/sexual enslavement. I can see how having no infrastructure could cripple development, innovation and the economy.

I think the stories, as told to the author, are considerably self-censored. I cannot accept that al Qaeda and the Taliban did not trade information and military support of any kind. The warlord and the Taliban interviewees probably left out the bits regarding torture, murder, and rape of their neighbors they personally committed or ordered. They definitely did not discuss whether they personally knew how much the common people hated them, or if in reflection, they could see how mistakingly evil they were in the name of Islam. I also think that, yes, the Americans did not know who the bad guys were, and shot up everybody; but I also think the Afghans did not wish the Americans success in their invasion (duh, right?), but many of them held out their hands to grab American money, weapons and aid, and lied about their countrymen, fellow brother Afghans, as being known to be supporters of the Taliban to criminally, immorally, un-islamically, gain possession of their neighbors’ property, businesses, inheritances, daughters and jobs.

The settling of scores, getting revenge is and was a HUGE motivation for most Afghans - a real condemnation and ugly reality about Islamic culture. By allowing a strong male imprint to exist on the face of their civilization, every dark impulse which primarily resides in the male sex is allowed complete free expression with the total approval of religious law and morality. The outrageous twists of logic and justice to give men a pass while brutally punishing and killing women for the same ‘sins’ declares the horror of their theology to every other civilization in the world.

There is a lot of moralistic and politically correct justifications and arguments being flung about by all participants, including journalists. The fact is al Qaeda attacked the United States explicitly wanting a war of religious faith - Islam against Christianity. The fact is the USA responded by attacking the countries in which America believed the militants had lived, been educated and militarily trained for jihad. Personally, I do not believe what George Bush, the President of the USA at the time, announced as to why he added Iraq to the invasion list, which as far as I can suss out, was some sort of preemptive strike because he thought Iraq might start a war with the USA, someday, only with nuclear weapons instead of commandeered commercial airplanes. Whatever. The plain truth is it was a War of revenge and retribution. Nation building was tacked on to satisfy those who: 1. felt guilty about how easy invading and destroying these two countries was; 2. excitement at the possible monetary rape the USA could extract; 3. genuine hope to realign these countries politically into rump democracies; and 4. genuine curiosity to see if nation building could be done. The Western world not only has real guilt at being so much richer than developing nations, but we also have genuine scientific curiosity about experimentation.

I did not find a lot to complain about with Gopal’s writing - he truly is quite liberal in accepting that an Islamic society will operate under Islamic values, and he vigorously illuminates the views of as many different leaders and tribal members who voice particular attitudes that are held by various Afghan groups. His book primarily switches views between three people: ‘Mullah Cable’, Akbar Gul, a Taliban leader who earned his nickname because he enjoyed flogging people, especially women and children, with a cable; Jan Muhammad, a warlord; and Heela - making real some of the people whose thoughts he examines. He does have a theme besides historical interest: a highlighting of America’s ignorance and cultural incompetence about Islam and Afghanistan, its extremely violent kill-everything-and-everybody responses to all approaches including by those people offering a truce, and its decision to support certain immoral lying self-serving psychopathic tribal leaders over more responsible and moral tribal leaders and businessmen. He is genuinely impassioned about the lost opportunities America had to rebuild Afghanistan into a humane, inclusive Islamic society, creating a more prosperous and productive country (me, too, but I never believed it was remotely possible). He mourns the murders of surrendering Taliban members by American soldiers. He is as disgusted, as are we all, about the fatal betrayal of Islamists who supported and trusted Western soldiers to embody Western values and rules about warfare while conducting war.

I am not certain if it is the author’s view or only of those he interviewed that the idea of international and NATO forgiveness of all international property destruction, killing and maiming caused by the acts of Islamic terrorism, and then a political and infrastructure refurnishing would have been the best way to end Taliban terrorism after bringing the war to their Afghanistan homelands for awhile. I think some may have thought justice would have best been served by America walking away after an initial two months of retributive invasion punishment, then leaving Afghanistan to the Afghans. The inference from Gopal’s text is that the Taliban men would have simply returned to their villages, and become the simple ignorant tyrants of starving women and children without complaint in their accustomed life of Middle Age Islamic values and impoverished ignorant isolation.

What do you think?
Profile Image for Faraaz.
75 reviews7 followers
September 25, 2021
This is by far the best work of journalism in the last 20 years, and quite possibly one of the best works of non-fiction ever. Anand Gopal went to Afghanistan in 2008, in the 7the year of the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. By then a plethora of books on Afghanistan/Taliban, 9/11 and the War on Terror had already been published by the usual coterie of beltway intellectuals with a specific agenda conveniently matching that of Washington.

This book came out in 2014, by the then a lot of the dynamics that dominated the narrative around the war had changed

- Osama bin Laden had been assassinated
- Al Qaeda and Taliban had fled Afghanistan
- The first US planted President of Afghanistan - Hamid Karzai was already out of office
- Obama who had inherited the war in 2008 was into his second term and looking to withdraw
- The war in Afghanistan had been eclipsed by the Iraq war and by 2014, 3 years into Arab Spring, the emergence of ISIS in Iraq, Afghanistan was well and truly the forgotten war.

And yet this is the most important book on this century so far because it's not just the definite book on Afghanistan, but it also helps us see the world we inherited in the wake of 9/11 in much needed new light.

For all it's fresh lens and perspective it offers, the only difference in Anand Gopal's approach to his predecessors is that he took the trouble of going outside of Kabul from where all the US and Western Correspondents settle in comfortably with their US Military provided escorts. Gopal took a motorbike and travelled outside of Kabul into the hinterlands, into rural Afghanistan, into the places outside of the control of US/NATO forces and the weak puppet regime it had planted in Kabul. And this is where he uncovers the stories that upend the narrative that was being built from Kabul.

Afghanistan was never a one single nation. It is made up of four major tribes, and it's location as a buffer between great empires always invited foreign invaders. Over time, they created a wasteland in Afghanistan, playing one side against the other, forging alliances with one tribe over another, favoring one over the other to break and subdue the country. As such, the natural fault lines that exist in any country are magnified ten fold in Afghanistan, only complicated and exacerbated by each foreign power that invaded.

By the time the US invaded in 2001 and enforced its own "with us or against us" and "war against terrorism" approach, it fractured the existing fault lines beyond any discernible repair, making life even more hellish for the ordinary Afghan.

The Westernized, rural elite propped up in Kabul, reliant on US aid and dollars was as far removed from rural Afghanistan as US soldiers were from Afghan society. In time their corruption and cronyism only grew, using violent warlords and criminal barons to govern the country.

All this while, US desperately needed terrorists to justify and sustain the war, and in a lawless war torn country where society has broken down multiple times, corrupt warlords and gangsters were only too happy to provide manufactured intelligence to the US to pass of their own personal opponents and enemies as Taliban/Terrorists.

At one point, when the Dutch forces call out a local warlord for this, he turns to the US and accuses the Dutch of supporting the Taliban.

These are unique and absurd stories that Anand Gopal is able to find because he goes outside of Kabul and starts travelling and living with actual Afghans brutalized and traumatized by the war.

Gopal's precision as a journalist is matched beautifully by his prowess as a writer. He combines the best tools of literature with investigative journalism to give us some of the most haunting, profound and absurd stories of the 21st century. The literary nature of the stories makes clear just how closely Anand Gopal had gotten to know his subjects, how intimate he was with them and how much they trusted him.

The three principle characters are a Taliban fighter, a pro Kabul government warlord and an Afghan teacher/nurse who over time becomes so much more. Through their eyes we live through the war we saw in the news and then forgot about. Personally for me, it was particularly evocative as this war coincided with my own coming of age and I particularly remember the various headlines and stories we used to see in the news from 2008 onwards. Reading about the events behind the headlines, recounted by the individuals living through those moments was an experience unlike anything else.

Over time, the Imperial empires that kept invading Afghanistan, turned it into a breeding ground for monsters, and in such a land, the only way to survive and win over your opponents is to outmatch them in brutality and violence. Hence, the Pashto saying, "No good men among the living and no bad men among the dead". Anand Gopal chose the first part as the title of his book.
Profile Image for Atar.
70 reviews2 followers
August 25, 2018
No Good Men Among The Living is absolutely a great book. It should be required reading for military officers and enlisted men alike. As well it should anyone interested in the Afghanistan war. It is an eye-opening read that will have a thought provoking response in most. However there are parts of the book that may be a bit to anecdotal than factual. In this case though the author says that he used his judgement of the people he had come to know over hours, days, weeks and months of meetings and interviews, as well as other confirmed sources to believe the veracity of the stories he has shared in the book. In any case the book is worth reading. I could not put it down. Well done Anand Gopal
Profile Image for Andrés Torres.
16 reviews
April 20, 2021
Well, what a surprise. Another episode of America screwing up the lives of millions of innocent people, and of course George fucking Bush being one of the most responsible actors. I'm awed by Gopal's work in this book, it's simply sensational. The war in Afghanistan is such a complex situation, and Gopal manages to show every side of the story in an extremely detailed way. You get a clear sense of why the Taliban is so strong now even when they were wiped out in 2001, of why Americans overstayed in the country and of how different is for civilians to live in a war instead of fighting in it.
Profile Image for Tommy.
80 reviews3 followers
August 14, 2021
This is a tough book to rate because I know that it was very well written, but it was quite challenging to stay engaged. Truly, most Americans—myself chief among them—have no clue what is going on in what we have dubbed the "Middle East". Afghanistan—with its many tribes, ethnicities, regions, and cultural identities—is incredibly complex. No Good Men Among the Living quite clearly made me realize that the United States government had no clue what we were doing in Afghanistan. We just got tossed around, and in turn, tossed everyone in prison on ridiculous charges.
My biggest problem with this book was simply how confusing this storyline was; yet, what is to be expected—this is real life, not some carefully crafted narrative. Nonetheless, I had a very difficult time remembering all of the similar names and locations, and their importance to the region. I nearly gave up multiple times throughout this book because of confusion, as well as the level of detail with which he described some of the brutal acts carried out by both Taliban and American troops. My favorite parts of the book were certainly when Gopal was following the story of a "normal" Afghani woman as she traversed the ever-shifting expectations and mores of her society.
Yet, what's the answer to all confusion? As I write this, the US of A is finalizing the departure of all troops from Afghanistan by the end of this month, and the Taliban have taken control of almost all territories. A mess, for sure, but no one has answers.
Lastly, I'll say to anyone who read A Thousand Splendid Suns to get their rocks off by saying that they're woke/cultured needs to read this, then we can talk.
Ultimately, Gopal did the best he could at describing the wild playing field of Afghanistan, but it was a bit too complex/uninteresting for my little mind.
3.4/5 stars
32 reviews6 followers
January 10, 2022
Heart-wrenching. Also just yet another example of how schools in USA say Cold War had no fighting USA and soviets just stocked weapons, a complete false narrative.
Profile Image for Sallie Dunn.
579 reviews39 followers
November 9, 2021

This book was a bit much for me, especially with my limited knowledge of military affairs. What I took from this book, which is essentially about the war in Afghanistan from 2001 through 2014, is that America sure did not know what the hell it was doing over there. This is the conflict seen through the eyes of three very different Afghans. The brutality described as well as the abject quality of life women have in that country is extremely difficult to comprehend. An important book but hard to digest.
Profile Image for Chris Chester.
564 reviews79 followers
June 16, 2014
A wonderfully-written story about the American war in Afghanistan told from the point of view of the people who lived it.

As is most often the case, the narrative about the war that seems to prevail is the government's: that the Taliban harbored terrorists, they were routed, and then were allowed to recover when the country turned its attention and resources to the boondoggle in Iraq.

The story Gopal tells is more complicated, but rings true because of that. The Taliban is not a discrete category of people, he explains. The tribes of Afghanistan tend to swing back and forth in their allegiances, seeking to curry favor with whatever group or leader held the greatest perceived potential for spoils.

So when the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan, they were largely successful in routing the Taliban and restoring the country to order. But because we have this idea that the Taliban and terrorists represent this discreet group of people worth fighting, we continued to pursue them where they no longer existed. Local warlords caught on to this, and began to use the accusation of "Taliban" or "al Qaida" to send American bullets down on their political enemies.

Do this for long enough, and you've bred a new generation of Taliban. Only these folks are more savvy. We destroyed an enemy only to create it anew, mostly through ignorance and hubris.

Gopal does a wonderful job telling this story using a handful of characters that he follows throughout the story. His narrative writing is thrilling, if a bit artificially so, but it conveys the ambiguity of the situation as it must appear on the ground.

To those considering supporting past or future wars, this book is probably worth a read.
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