The story of Afghanistan has fascinated readers for years. Tomes have been written on the Great Game played out between imperial Britain and Russia in the 19th century. Soviet occupation of Afghanistan at the height of the Cold War in 1979 brought about a significant increase in scholarship. In the past 35 years, as control passed from the Soviets to the warlords and from the Taliban to the US-led multinational troops, Afghanistan’s attraction increased manifold for scholars, diplomats and journalists. The complexities of Afghan society, with its web of ethnic rivalry, tribal and clan loyalty and ever shifting alliances among key players, have kept the story alive.
As Barack Obama finalises a drawdown of American troops from Afghan soil—a process that is scheduled to be completed by the year-end—the focus is squarely back on Afghanistan. Obama’s desperation to look for a face-saver before US troops leave Afghanistan by seeking Pakistan's help to deliver the Afghan Taliban to join the democratisation process in Kabul has sparked off a renewed debate on Afghanistan’s future.
As the Afghan story rolls on, an extremely engaging and insightful new book on the country, No Good Men among the Living by Anand Gopal, is out to help us wade through the complex layers of Afghan socio-politics and understand some key developments of recent years better.
Relying solely on Afghans to narrate the story and explain the complexities of inter-ethnic and intra-clan and tribal rivalry, Gopal takes us through the events that unfolded in the period after 9/11, when the US declared its war on terror on Afghanistan.
As a journalist, Gopal was posted there from 2008 to 2012 and wrote extensively for the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, Harper’s and other publications. Here, he convincingly explains how and why most things did not work out according to the American plan. More importantly, he also throws enough light on why the Taliban, marginalised during the initial phase of the US campaign and ready to surrender to American officials, succeeded in bouncing back to pose a serious challenge to both Washington and Kabul.
Gopal’s story is narrated mainly through three key characters. ‘Mollah Cable’, a Taliban commander, Jan Mohammed Khan, a Pashtun warlord and close friend of Hamid Karzai who was tortured by the Taliban but later becomes one of the chief beneficiaries of the US occupation, and Heela, an educated woman from Kabul, who through all odds managed to keep her young children together and succeeds in becoming a senator in the Afghan parliament.
The book is extremely disturbing in parts as it details not only the inter-ethnic violence, but also the mayhem and bloodletting resulting from intra-clan and tribal rivalries among the Pashtun and other Afghans.
But the book has some serious flaws too. It holds a much more sympathetic view of the Taliban, glossing over much of the cruelty it unleashed when it controlled Afghanistan. Similarly, Gopal hardly mentions the role played by Pakistan and the ISI, relegating them almost to the backburner.
However, despite these shortcomings, Gopal’s book is an extremely significant contribution to the existing good literature on Afghanistan. For those who are looking for an engaging and insightful read on the country, this should definitely be on top of the list.