Anand Gopal reports on Afghanistan's American hell

Anand Gopal.
March 6, 2015

No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes
By Anand Gopal
Metropolitan books, 2014
304 pp, $27

Anand Gopal's book should be compulsory reading for every federal politician in Australia. Nobody could finish it and still have a shred of belief in US foreign policy.

What comes through this history is that it is very dangerous to be an enemy of the US. However, it is just as dangerous to be an ally.

Anand Gopal is a well-established American reporter who did what too few have thought to do before: talk to Afghan people about what they experienced through the US-led war against their country. He grew a beard, learned the local languages and gained the confidence of people on all sides.

His very readable account weaves together the stories of three Afghans: Taliban heavy Akbar Gul, an opportunist friend of former president Hamid Karzai, Jan Mohammed, and Heela, a woman who survived astonishing travails and eventually rose to the Afghan senate.

Their stories illustrate Afghan history from the 1950s, including the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan government and the Soviet intervention to support it, the subsequent CIA-organised jihad and warlord civil war, the Taliban period and the US invasion.

He also spoke with US soldiers, like Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, almost a caricature of a Special Forces commander, who led an attack on two al-Qaeda compounds in 2002. In one, he grappled with an unknown assailant in the darkness, broke his neck and then finished him off with his pistol.

Trouble was, neither of the compounds had anything to do with al-Qaeda. They were the offices of two Karzai-supporting governors.

The Americans handcuffed one governor in his bed before murdering him in cold blood, killed many guards, blindfolded and took many others off to be tortured and called in AC-130 gunships to blow up everything that was still standing. They left calling cards in the rubble reading: “Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc.”

The raid occurred because corrupt warlords fed the Americans “intelligence” on their rivals and the US Central Command believed it. Gopal records endless examples of this all over Afghanistan. Some of the stories will revolt readers, others simply baffle them.

Like that of Samoud Khan, a criminal and paedophile, who worked for the Americans. He was on the losing end of a feud with another US ally and so found himself experiencing “enhanced interrogation techniques” in Bagram prison. But one of the 12-year-old boys who had been kept as a sex slave by his gang was shipped off to Guantanamo, where he became the youngest prisoner.

Or Abdullah Khan, who was consigned to Guantanamo when the Americans determined he was actually the former Taliban minister of the interior, Khairullah Khairkhwa. This would have been a real intelligence coup, were it not for the fact that the real Khairullah Khairkhwa was already in Guantanamo being tortured.

Or Mohebullah, a bus driver whose home was mistaken for that of a Taliban leader. His Gitmo file actually reads: “Detainee’s file does not indicate why he was sent to JFT GTMO.”

After one-and-a-half years, he appeared in front of a Tribunal. “Right now we have no accusation against you that says that you were Taliban,” the panel president told him. It took a further three years before he was freed.

Gopal transports the reader so thoroughly into his subjects’ world that you can almost taste the dust and feel the indignities. Rape, murder, betrayal and corruption are mundane in this world — but the sense of rage survives.

How could a whole nation be condemned to experience all this just so some US strategic daydream could be fulfilled?

And what happened to Master Sergeant Pryor of “Damage, Inc”? He received a silver star for gallantry and seven of his team won bronze stars. Oh, Uncle Sam, have a nice day.

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