This goes deeper than the usual war lies.
We’ve had plenty of those. We weren’t told the Taliban was willing to turn bin Laden over to a neutral nation to stand trial. We weren’t told the Taliban was a reluctant tolerator of al Qaeda, and a completely distinct group. We weren’t told the 911 attacks had also been planned in Germany and Maryland and various other places not marked for bombing. We weren’t told that most of the people who would die in Afghanistan, many more than died on 911, not only didn’t support 911 but never heard of it. We weren’t told our government would kill large numbers of civilians, imprison people without trial, hang people by their feet and whip them until they were dead. We weren’t told how this illegal war would advance the acceptability of illegal wars or how it would make the United States hated in much of the world. We weren’t given the background of how the U.S. interfered in Afghanistan and provoked a Soviet invasion and armed resistance to the Soviets and left the people to the tender mercies of that armed resistance once the Soviets left. We weren’t told that Tony Blair wanted Afghanistan first before he’d get the UK to help destroy Iraq. We certainly weren’t told that bin Laden had been an ally of the U.S. government, that the 911 hijackers were mostly Saudi, or that there might be anything at all amiss with the government of Saudi Arabia. And nobody mentioned the trillions of dollars we’d waste or the civil liberties we’d have to lose at home or the severe damage that would be inflicted on the natural environment. Even birds don’t go to Afghanistan anymore.
OK. That’s all sort of par-for-the-course, war-marketing bullshit. People who pay attention know all of that. People who don’t want to know any of that are the last great hope of military recruiters everywhere. And don’t let the past tense fool you. The White House is trying to keep the occupation of Afghanistan going for TEN MORE YEARS (“and beyond”), and articles have been popping up this week about sending U.S. troops back into Iraq. But there’s something more.
I’ve just read an excellent new book by Anand Gopal called No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes. Gopal has spent years in Afghanistan, learned local languages, interviewed people in depth, researched their stories, and produced a true-crime book more gripping, as well as more accurate, than anything Truman Capote came up with. Gopal’s book is like a novel that interweaves the stories of a number of characters — stories that occasionally overlap. It’s the kind of book that makes me worry I’ll spoil it if I say too much about the fate of the characters, so I’ll be careful not to.
The characters include Americans, Afghans allied with the U.S. occupation, Afghans fighting the U.S. occupation, and men and women trying to survive — including by shifting their loyalties toward whichever party seems least likely in that moment to imprison or kill them. What we discover from this is not just that enemies, too, are human beings. We discover that the same human beings switch from one category to another quite easily. The blunder of the U.S. occupation’s de-Baathification policy in Iraq has been widely discussed. Throwing all the skilled and armed killers out of work turned out not to be the most brilliant move. But think about what motivated it: the idea that whoever had supported the evil regime was irredeemably evil (even though Ronald Reagan and Donald Rumsfeld had supported the evil regime too — OK, bad example, but you see what I mean). In Afghanistan the same cartoonish thinking, the same falling for one’s own propaganda, went on.
People in Afghanistan whose personal stories are recounted here sided with or against Pakistan, with or against the USSR, with or against the Taliban, with or against the U.S. and NATO, as the tides of fortune turned. Some tried to make a living at peaceful employment when that possibility seemed to open up, including early-on in the U.S. occupation. The Taliban was very swiftly destroyed in 2001 through a combination of overwhelming killing power and desertion. The U.S. then began hunting for anyone who had once been a member of the Taliban. But these included many of the people now leading the support of the U.S. regime — and many such allied leaders were killed and captured despite not having been Taliban as well, through sheer stupidity and corruption. We’ve often heard how dangling $5000 rewards in front of poor people produced false-accusations that landed their rivals in Bagram or Guantanamo. But Gopal’s book recounts how the removal of these often key figures devastated communities, and turned communities against the United States that had previously been inclined to support it. Add to this the vicious and insulting abuse of whole families, including women and children captured and harassed by U.S. troops, and the revival of the Taliban under the U.S. occupation begins to become clear. The lie we’ve been told to explain it is that the U.S. became distracted by Iraq. Gopal documents, however, that the Taliban revived precisely where U.S. troops were imposing a rule of violence and not where other internationals were negotiating compromises using, you know, words.
We find here a story of a bumbling oblivious and uncomprehending foreign occupation torturing and murdering a lot of its own strongest allies, shipping some of them off to Gitmo — even shipping to Gitmo young boys whose only offense had been being the sexual assault victims of U.S. allies. The danger in this type of narrative that dives deep into the crushing Kafkan horror of rule by brute ignorant force is that a reader will think: Let’s do the next war better. If occupations can’t work, let’s just blow shit up and leave. To which I respond: Yeah, how are things working out in Libya? The lesson for us to learn is not that wars are badly managed, but that human beings are not Good Guys or Bad Guys. And here’s the hard part: That includes Russians.