Interview with Anand Gopal, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction
No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes
Metropolitan Books/ Henry Holt and Company
Katherine Rowland: You originally did graduate work in physics and chemistry, and didn’t start out as a journalist. How did you come to come to be a reporter in Afghanistan?
Anand Gopal: I lived near the twin towers on 9-11 and I knew people who were killed in the attack, so I’d long been focused on that part of the world. It was a war that our country was fighting, but I felt like we weren’t getting a lot of information - Iraq was still the main story - and from what I was seeing things in Afghanistan were getting much worse. So when I decided to switch careers it seemed like the obvious place to go to see what the war on terror looks like on the ground.
KR: How did this book emerge from that experience?
AG: When I landed in Afghanistan I didn’t know the first thing about reporting. I’d switched careers, I didn’t go the traditional path of a foreign correspondent: I didn’t go with a bureau, I didn’t have translators. It helps that I actually spent months learning the language. So immediately I was embedded in a different kind of network than I would have been.
I got a motorcycle and rode around the country for months and just showed up in villages and relied on Afghan hospitality. People would take me in and feed me. What struck me in that journey was that the stories people were telling, the explanations they gave about why there’s a war, and their understanding of who the good guys and bad guys are, were so radically different from my preconceived notions. I learned to unlearn everything I knew about newspaper reporting - the who, what, when, where, why - I threw that out the window and would sit there and just have these long conversations about village life. Hearing people’s stories made me more attuned to the power of narrative. People had gone through extraordinary circumstances, had incredible things happen to them, and had gone through risks. Their stories were illuminating as to what the war is about. I was transformed in hearing them and thought that other people might be similarly transformed.
KR: Your book depicts the experience of war through the lives of three Afghans - a Taliban commander, a tribal strongman, and an educated housewife. How did you hone in on these particular figures?
AG: I was interested in trying to get at the way we categorize the world, and the war on terror in particular. In the United States we have this very Manichean approach to the way we talk about it: we have good guys and bad guys, there is no gray anywhere. And Afghanistan is all gray. People are shifting sides, people who we think are good guys do terrible things, people who we think are bad guys are trying to reach out and join the good guys. People who are caught in between have to side with one person or another. And I thought the three people in the book showed this.
KR: Your approach to reporting is quite intimate. How were you able to become so close to these people?
AG: Getting them to open up was very difficult, and it took me a while to figure out how to do it, because I was doing it incorrectly. With the Taliban commander, what I was doing at first was basically asking him questions about politics. Why are you fighting? What kind of state do you want to see when the Americans leave? I was asking him these kinds of questions and he was giving me boilerplate answers that didn’t tell me anything about who he was. I ran up against this for awhile, but then at some point I started to ask him personal questions, about his childhood, about the neighborhood he grew up in. And he spent hours talking and then he took me to the neighborhood, showing me where he had played, how it looked back then, how it all changed because of the civil war. I tried to put it on a human level, and once you do that people start to open up.
KR: Heela, a housewife, is among the figures you profile. How did she reveal this state of gray to you?
AG: Heela grew up in Kabul in a fairly cosmopolitan environment before the Soviet invasion in ’79. She went to university, she was educated, and had a westernized family - that was the world she knew. And then in the mid-90s, the city fell apart with the war. Warlords came and were fighting against each other, and she was forced to flee from this relatively modern lifestyle to the countryside in the south, where the cultural mores were very different. So you see through her eyes this idea of what it means to be a woman in Afghanistan in two different ways.
What was revelatory for me was that when she got to the south she was locked in her house and treated very poorly in ways that I used to think typified the Taliban. But in fact this was much broader than the Taliban. Certain patriarchal values existed there as part of tribal systems, and that immediately exploded one conception that I had: that women are oppressed because of the Taliban and if you can go in and remove the Taliban, then women will be free. It’s actually much more complicated, and her experience shows that. Even after the Taliban are overthrown she still couldn’t work or leave the house.
KR: By your account, there was a lot of pressure from the neighborhood keeping her within those walls.
AG: There was pressure from the neighborhood and pressure from other women - her mother-in-law in particular - which I think also explodes a simplistic dichotomy that people may have. It’s much more complicated than just men oppressing women. There are ways women try to find agency within that system, and for women like her mother-in-law that means oppressing her daughter-in-law. Elder women in that community are able to move around with some degree freedom and that is something hard won after spending a lifetime being locked in the house. I guess they see it as, we’ve gone through this, this is the state of affairs, and we don’t want this upstart woman from the city to come in and change it all.
KR: Speaking of exploding myths, early in the book you describe Mullah Cable as a man with pretty limited interest in or knowledge of international affairs. And you ask a striking question: How does this man end up declaring war on America?
AG: Mullah Cable - that’s his nom de guerre, which he got it because he used to wield a metal whip on detainees - was a Taliban commander in the 90s when the Taliban was in power. I had heard about him in the course of my reporting - he was a notorious commander - and I thought he was the most impossibly removed from anything I would think was normal, and so I was interested in seeing what makes him tick. In the period before the Taliban, there was civil war and chaos and he lost two family members in that. He, like so many others, was propelled to join the Taliban at a time when society had broken down and people wanted to return to the bare essentials. In that environment, Islamic law and order was very essential. You would think he was one of the extreme Taliban because he was going around whipping people, but after 9-11, after the Taliban are defeated, he quits.
He tried to make ends meet as a civilian: he opens a cell phone shop and keeps his head down. But for various reasons - which are really at the heart of the book about warlordism that the US was supporting – he felt that there was no space for him to survive as a civilian and so he rejoins the Taliban. That story explodes the myth: you have this idea of the American enemy that is an essential thing across time and space – once a terrorist you’re always a terrorist - but the truth is much more fluid and has so much more to do with local politics than it does with fighting a war in America.
KR: The idea at the heart of your book challenges assumptions about what the US was doing in Afghanistan in the first place. You demonstrate that rather than quell the Taliban, US intervention effectively resurrected it. Can you speak to how and why the US worked to create a resistance body in Afghanistan?
AG: When the US invaded in October of 2001, it only took two months to defeat the Taliban. So by December the Taliban was a spent force, the government had collapsed and the majority of the Taliban from the senior leadership all the way down to the rank and file had surrendered, quit. When I first learned that it was surprising to me, because I thought of it as a recalcitrant insurgency. But if you actually look at the history it’s not that surprising, because you have a country that - at that point - has been at war for two decades. There were many groups switching sides. After the Soviets left in the late-80s, the Afghans who were calling themselves communists rebranded themselves as Islamists, and something similar happened after 2001: the Taliban basically tried to rebrand itself either as neutral or as supporting the new order, which was Karzai’s government. So basically, the Taliban as a military force was finished, and Al Qaeda fled the country.
But you have thousands of troops on the ground and no enemy to fight, and the way that contradiction got resolved was for the US to frame the Taliban as an enemy. It’s a classic story. If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The US was there with this mandate to fight a war on terror, they expected terrorists to be there and so they incentivized false intelligence, they incentivized warlords to produce terrorists for the US.
KR: The US military and media tend to depict the Taliban as a monolithic entity, but your book shows that couldn’t be further the case.
AG: It’s portrayed as a cohesive, motivated enemy that’s fighting for certain principles. Where in fact, it’s valley to valley. It’s farmers fighting because there’s a rapacious warlord in the area, or because it’s an easy way to make money, or because everyone else is doing it. There are all these different reasons and different groups. Mullah Cable spends a lot of his time in the Taliban fighting other Taliban members, scheming to get funds, trying to get more money than the other guys. There are groups that are secretly talking to the Afghan government, while fighting against the Americans. There are groups in the pocket of Pakistan. It’s very complicated and messy, but the coverage portrays the Taliban as this unified group; the coverage tend portrays all these different Islamist groups as one entity, and that really does a disservice to our understanding.
KR: You mention your surprise that the Taliban had been effectively put down two months after the US occupation. How did your perceptions of the Taliban and life on the ground change over the course of your reporting?
AG: There were two moments when my perception of the Taliban changed. One was when I actually spent a month and a half living with them. It started because I was sneaking into the main prison in Afghanistan, where a lot of these Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders were being held. I was posing as a relative of this one guy from Malaysia who speaks Tamil, and I happen to speak Tamil, and who was there for drug trafficking charges. He happened to be housed in the same block as all the Taliban bigwigs, and so I spent months going in there and circulating among them and slowly winning their trust – by winning their trust I mean convincing them that I wasn’t a spy - and through them arranged with senior leadership to have me embedded.
KR: How did they treat you?
AG: I was with one group and they were fine. They knew what I was doing. They were worried about other groups finding out that I was there and kidnapping me. They were very protective in a sense, which goes to show how fragmentary the whole thing is.
The first day I went to meet them, I had spent the whole day hiking up a mountain, and when I got there I met this commander. It turned out I was the first foreigner he had ever met. I was interviewing him and halfway through he said, I gotta interview you, I’ve never met an American before, and he starts asking all these questions about life in the United States, like why did Obama send more troops. I was trying to explain American policy to him, and he says can you explain why it is that in the US women are made to work. He said, I heard in America, people walk around without clothes, that women are walking around naked. I said, in most parts probably not. And then he asks, why doesn’t your country make movies like The Titanic anymore? It turns out he was a huge fan of The Titanic - as were a lot of Taliban, actually. It is a very Bollywood type of movie - very maudlin, over the top, romantic. They loved it - they’re all romantics. So that exploded some of the myths I had in my head.
The other thing that changed my perception was spending time in the South in Kandahar and these places. What I would do almost obsessively in every place was try to get the history of the village from as far back as anyone could remember. They’d always bring in some graybeard, who would claim he was like 140 and he would tell me some story about when the Russians came and when the Russians left, and about the Civil War, and when the Americans came. One after the next, the stories were the same thing, which was that we all loved the Americans when they came here, and then mullah so and so was right here and he was a big Taliban commander and he gave up all his weapons and they attacked him. Every single village, the same story. So that changed everything I thought about this whole conflict.
KR: Your assertions about the effects of US intervention are somewhat controversial. Have you encountered any criticism for the ideas you put forth at the heart of your book?
AG: It’s surprising, I haven’t encountered any criticism of that. What I have gotten criticism for is humanizing the Taliban. Some people believe that if you humanize the Taliban that is the same as agreeing with their politics or condoning what they do. I maintain that there is actually a difference – that you can try and get at people’s motivations and say it is understandable why they would decide to reconstitute as an insurgency, but it’s not condonable how they have conducted themselves. They are actually different claims.
KR: You’ve noted that the book’s title refers to a proverb, “there are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead.” With this in mind, how do you hope readers will respond to your work?
AG: The proverb, “there are no good men among the living, no bad ones among the dead” has many different meanings – but one is to cut against the Manichean approach that dictates the discourse on foreign policy generally and the war on terror especially, and get away from thinking about good guys and bad guys and this cartoonish morality play.
I would hope the book could play a role in getting people to think differently about the conflict, as the reporting got me to think differently about the war on terror. I was speaking at a university the other day and trying to make the point that of all the things that keep us awake at night - healthcare, drunk driving, whatever the case may be - terrorism is not high on that list. But the political attention and the resources that are put to that are disproportionate. That’s a much broader stand and argument, but in Afghanistan we can look at the war differently and put it into a different context.
Katherine Rowland is senior nonfiction editor at Guernica. Her reporting has appeared in Nature, the Financial Times, OnEarth, and Green Futures, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.