Amoral Allies In Afghanistan

British MP Rory Stewart reviews Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, which “demonstrates that the failures of the intervention were worse than even the most cynical believed”. In particular, Stewart praises the insight Gopal brings to just how ethically compromised our alliances with Afghan warlords really were:

His long interviews with warlords, his sympathetic accounts of their youth and sufferings, make their crimes only more convincing and more shocking.

Thus he interviews Jan Muhammed at length, tracing his rise from school janitor to major resistance commander in the fight against the Soviet Union. He describes his being imprisoned, the tortures he suffered, and his being marched out to face a Taliban firing squad. He describes how Jan Muhammed saved President Karzai from an ambush in the 1990s and then became his friend and adviser. All this, however, is the introduction to Jan Muhammed ordering death squads to shoot unarmed grandfathers in front of their families, to electrocute and maim, and to steal people’s last possessions, in pursuit of an ever more psychopathic crusade to eliminate anyone associated with the Taliban or indeed with a rival tribe. No one reading Gopal would be tempted to joke about these men again, or present them simply as “traditional power-brokers” and “necessary evils.”

Peter Tomsen compares Gopal’s work to two other recent books on Afghanistan by Carter Malkasian and Carlotta Gall, which focus more on how Pakistan—”the true enemy”, in Gall’s words—was playing a double game all along:

Unlike Malkasian and Gall, Gopal does not depict Pakistan as the primary spoiler in Afghanistan. And he rejects the conventional wisdom that the Afghan war went astray only because Washington took its eye off the ball by shifting its attention to Iraq. He puts forward a different hypothesis: “Following the Taliban’s collapse, al-Qaeda had fled the country. . . . By April 2002, the group could no longer be found in Kandahar — or anywhere else in Afghanistan. The Taliban, meanwhile, had ceased to exist. . . .  The terrorists had all decamped or abandoned the cause, yet U.S. special forces were on Afghan soil with a clear political mandate: defeat terrorism.” This, Gopal claims, presented Washington with a puzzle: “How do you fight a war without an adversary?” The answer, he writes, was supplied by Afghan warlords who saw an opportunity to consolidate their power with the unwitting assistance of the Americans — and to get rich in the process.

But Tomsen finds Gopal’s conclusion only halfway convincing:

There is merit to Gopal’s thesis that the U.S. partnership with unpopular warlords helped open the way for the Taliban’s return. But Gopal errs in concluding that the Taliban had “ceased to exist” in Afghanistan after the group’s leaders fled back to their former Pakistani sanctuaries following the U.S.-led invasion. Thousands of Taliban foot soldiers, along with scores of midlevel leaders and commanders, had merely gravitated back to the protection of clans and tribes in Afghan villages and mountains, ready to fight another day. And although Washington’s embrace of warlords helped the Taliban win public support after regrouping, the militants would not have been able to return to Afghanistan in force without Pakistan’s assistance.