In more ways than we can imagine, the course of history following the September 11, 2001 attacks and the 14 years of ensuing war in Afghanistan have shaped not only the lives of tens of thousands American military personnel and their families, but those of the people of Afghanistan as well. While events in this far-flung, mountainous nation have drifted in and out of the national consciousness as the extent and nature of U.S. involvement waxes and wanes, for the ordinary people who live in Kabul and Kandahar and any number of small villages, the war that began following the Al-Qaeda assault on New York and Washington is a constant presence.
In his book "No Good Men Among The Living," by Anand Gopal, it is life in this climate of violent instability and its impact on the people of Afghanistan, that takes center stage. While the media has profiled individual Afghans in newspapers and magazines, it is in this book-length exploration of the lives of three individuals doing their best to survive, that we get a sense of what it must be like to live life perpetually at the edge of ruin. At its core, this is a book about survival in every sense- emotional, political, physical and intellectual - in a landscape of constantly shifting allegiances, norms and rules.
It is on this shaky ground that Gopal introduces us to the person who may be the most compelling figure in the book, a woman by the name of "Heela," who sees her life and family torn apart by the war, shattering her comfortable, middle-class urban reality and condemning her to one of rural poverty, misogyny and fear. One of the brilliant things about this book is that Gopal humanizes issues by taking us into the lives of individuals, but also manages to tie what's happening on a small scale in someone's life to larger challenges in Afghan society.
One area where he does this well is in regard to the treatment and status of women, highlighting the clash that occurs when traditional ideas and male-dominated leadership structures come into contact (and often conflict) with modern, western ideas about the role of women in society. On this topic, Gopal writes, "For the ancient Pashtun mountain families, anything that marauding rivals could plunder was worth protecting and controlling - and this included women. Females were a family commodity; in some cases mountain clans even tattooed their animals and their women with the sane markings."
By providing historical context, the author helps us to better understand the present era in Afghan life, which is valuable considering that most coverage of the country today tends to lack both depth and nuance. Gopal does a service to his readers as well in offering a succinct overview of the legacy of damage left behind in the wake of the Afghan-Soviet conflict, the ghosts of Russian infantry and Soviet hegemony constantly whispering around the edges of his narrative. It was from the rubble of this earlier conflict that the modern Taliban would build their base of support, providing a sense of order in an otherwise chaotic place. Gopal observes that, "In times of strife, taliban have usually mobilized in defense of tradition. British documents from as early as 1901 decry Taliban opposition to colonialism in present-day Pakistan. However, as with so much else, it was the Soviet invasion and US response that sent the transformative shock." This is a theme that appears again and again throughout this work, and Gopal presents a credible argument that while the history of the region is rife with violence and instability at every level, that this sequence of events has had a uniquely deleterious and perhaps permanent impact on the country.
Throughout the text he stays focused on the lives of his characters and the ways in which external forces, from senior Pakistani intelligence officials to provincial governors, tribal leaders and the US military influence their lives on a daily basis. This feeling of uncertainty, of being at the mercy of outside powers, echoes throughout the book and is illustrated in his portrayal of a Taliban leader called "Mullah Cable," who earned his nom de guerre by carrying around a whip to hit people he encountered who were, in his mind, engaging in "un-Islamic" behavior. For this man, the thirty years of war which have engulfed his country lead to a dizzying and often dispiriting array of highs and lows as he fought against US troops and endured starvation-level poverty.
None of the people presented in this book are hapless or cartoonish. The genius of Gopal's book is that while he could have easily slipped into stereotypical descriptions or coasted in places, he assiduously avoids such literary laziness, bringing the reader into the darkened rooms and conflicted mind of a widow entirely dependent on her husband's family for her survival, of a former Taliban commander forced back to the battlefield by abject poverty and of an anti-Taliban activist who sought to reform the political structure of his country at considerable risk to his own life. In doing this he humanizes the tragic trajectory of life in a perpetual war zone, bringing those of us for whom the war, and its consequences, seem impossibly distant, closer to the reality of life in Afghanistan.
His work is also important because it provides a glimpse into a war in which thousands of American and allied forces were killed or seriously injured trying to uproot the Taliban and rebuild the country, all from a different angle than most media coverage. In telling the stories of these ordinary afghans he is contributing to our understanding of this complex and devastating war, and for this he deserves our thanks.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.