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Thursday, May 8, 2014


Photography by Flickr/Dirk Haas

Late last month, 2014 Schwartz Fellow Anand Gopal’s book “No Good Men Among the Living” went on sale and received a rave review in the New York Times. In the book, Gopal tells the story, through the lives of three Afghans, how the the United States had triumph in Afghanistan, and then brought the Taliban back from the dead. Below is an excerpt provided by the New America Foundation:

Early in the morning on September 11, 2001, deep amid the jagged heights of the Hindu Kush, something terrible took place. When teenager Noor Ahmed arrived that day in Gayawa to buy firewood, he knew it immediately: there was no call to prayer. Almost every village in Afghanistan has a mosque, and normally you can hear the muezzin’s tinny song just before dawn, signaling the start of a new day. But for the first time that he could remember, there was not a sound. The entire place seemed lifeless.
He walked down a narrow goat trail, toward low houses with enclosures of mud brick, and saw that the gates of many of them had been left open. The smell of burning rubber hung in the air. Near a creek, something brown lying in the yellow grass caught his eye, and he stopped to look at it. It was a disfigured body, caked in dried blood. Noor Ahmed took a few steps back and ran to the mosque, but it was empty. He knocked on the door of a neighboring home. It, too, was empty. He tried another one. Empty. Then he came upon an old mud schoolhouse, its front gate ajar, and stopped to listen. Stepping inside, he walked through a long yard strewn with disassembled auto parts and empty motor oil canisters. Finally, when he pushed his way through the front door, he saw them huddled in the corner: men and women, toddlers and teenagers, more than a dozen in total, clutching each other, crammed into a single room.

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

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

Finally, when he pushed his way through the front door, he saw them huddled in the corner: men and women, toddlers and teenagers, more than a dozen in total, clutching each other, crammed into a single room.
Back then, Gayawa was near the epicenter of a brutal, grinding war between the government of Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban, and a band of rebel warlords known as the Northern Alliance. In their drive to crush the resistance, government troops waged a Shermanesque campaign, burning down houses and schools, destroying lush grape fields that had for generations yielded raisins renowned throughout South Asia, and setting whole communities in flight. In the region surrounding Gayawa, the Taliban enforced a blockade, allowing neither food nor supplies to enter. Those who attempted to breach the cordon were shot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Anand Gopal is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow studying the evolution of insurgencies and revolutionary movements in South Asia and the Middle East. He is working on a book about the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and also has reported regularly from throughout the Middle East, where he has covered the revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

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