Seeing America's Longest War Through Afghan Eyes

The following is an excerpt from Anand Gopal's new book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books, 2014).

The old man sat legs folded on the asphalt, facing a bullet-ridden building. Spread out before him were Colgate toothbrushes and colored plastic combs and glossy cigarette packs promising “American flavor.” The building was like a crumbling cave, with its collapsed roof, buckling support beams, and a yawning hole for a front door. He pointed to the structure. “There,” he said, “was once something glorious.”

He had lived in this sweltering city of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, selling trinkets and toiletries for as long as he could remember—“before the Americans, before the Taliban, before the Russians,” he explained. In the 1970s, the building had served as the Helmand Cinema House, the only movie theater in all of southern Afghanistan. On a Friday afternoon, you could catch double features imported from around the world. One of the most popular was Laila Majnu, a Bollywood take on a classic Arab story of unrealized love. Qays, a farmer, falls hard for a girl named Laila, but her father forbids the marriage and she is given to another man. Despondent, Qays roams the desert for years, earning the sobriquet majnun, madman. Eventually, his body is found next to the grave of his beloved, his final ode to her written in the sand nearby.

The old man had gone back repeatedly, even though he didn’t understand most of the Hindi spoken, until he had the film memorized. He had grown up in a world segregated by gender, where marriages were arranged, and this was his first love story. “It gave us all hope,” he told me, “that we would find something special in our lives.”

But one afternoon in 1992, the mujahedeen arrived in town and shut down the theater forever. Later, they rocketed it for good measure. When the Taliban seized power, the building was converted into a state-run radio station. After 2001, under the American-backed regime, the place became an opium den. A whole generation grew up never having seen a film. But the old man still remembered, and he told anyone who would listen about the time when, for two hours a week, a madman and his lover were all that mattered.

The first years after 2001 were like a dream. Society had effectively been on hold for two decades, and now, with the war over, it was as if the very notion of public life had been unearthed from a time capsule. It was a new beginning, a Year Zero. Barbers were among the first to reemerge, unrolling their mats onto busy sidewalks; for a few pennies and a cup of tea you could shave your Taliban-mandated beard, shearing away the weight of the past. Music once again rang out through the streets, and Hollywood and Bollywood DVDs, once traded like samizdat, were selling openly in Kabul.

Millions of refugees returned after years away. Investment dollars poured in, as television stations and cell phone towers sprouted seemingly overnight. An influx of aid organizations formed part of the broadest international humanitarian initiative in history, and abandoned homes were repurposed into offices for gender experts and development specialists. One result of all the outside attention was the 2004 constitution, drafted with heavy Western input and hailed as one of the world’s most progressive. In addition to protecting basic civil liberties and minority rights, the document guaranteed women 25 percent of parliamentary seats (surpassing the proportion in the US Congress).

Yet I wondered if all this was enough to erase the memories of the Taliban past. What did it feel like to emerge from those brutal years? One afternoon in 2010 I met a woman, Heela, who would help me understand what the post-Taliban world really meant for civilians. At first, however, she hesitated to talk. “I don’t know anything about these wars,” she told me. “I’m just an ordinary woman.” So ordinary, in fact, that she seemed the very embodiment of Afghanistan—troubled, tried, resilient, and ultimately beholden to a foreign power. She appeared to typify exactly the sort of person the US invasion had saved, and I wondered if perhaps, in her newfound freedom, she would offer a glimpse of the best of American influence.

Heela, then thirty-seven, was the doyenne of a tiny clan of boys. Walid, the youngest, was a torrent of mischief; Omaid, the oldest, was a pensive teenager with lugubrious eyes. Between them were Nawid and Jamshed, both of whom had a penchant for skipping school and wandering far and wide, but who always came home in time for dinner. Heela lived a life of jangled nerves and frequent distractions; when speaking, she raced ahead breathlessly, hopscotching in her story from one place to another, zigzagging across time and space like some postmodern conversationalist. She stood taller than average, with a youthful smile and large, winter-gray eyes.

As with Mullah Cable and Jan Muhammad, I was interested in Heela’s experience in the new American-backed order. But to start her story with the US invasion would be like “watching a movie from the middle,” as she put it. In truth, Afghanistan’s real Year Zero was 1979, the year of the Soviet invasion, and nothing—not the Taliban, or the American invasion, or the trajectory of Heela’s life—makes much sense without first coming to terms with the Russian occupation and its aftermath.

In the veritable Afghan prehistory of peace and anonymity, the era before the Soviets, there lies a world lost and yet to be recovered. In 1972, the year that Heela was born to a family of journalists and professionals, Kabul was a quaint, relaxed mountain town. An important stop on the “hippie trail”—a well-trodden route for Western stoners and flower children often heading to India—the town had reinvented itself in a few short generations. A wave of progressive reforms had rippled through Afghanistan in the 1950s, resulting in a government decree that veiling was optional for women. In 1964, they were granted the franchise. Photographs from the era show besuited men accompanied by women in short skirts and beehive hairdos; there are movie theaters, broad paved roads, and tree-lined sidewalks.

Out in the heavily tribal Pashtun countryside, however, conservatism still reigned and women lived cloistered in their homes. The state was largely absent, and civil society nonexistent; politics worked through kinship and patronage, leaving clan leaders and landlords to run their own fiefdoms. If you managed to make it out to Kabul and attend university, you came away with a tantalizing taste of what your country could become, and a stark, unremitting sense of the inadequacies of the world you’d left behind. As with so many other developing nations of that era, this disjuncture spawned a crisis of modernity, and the disillusioned urban intelligentsia struggled to articulate a response. Two rival currents emerged: one embracing Communism, which looked to the Soviet Union and third-world liberation movements, and the other, Islamism, which took inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood and related trends in the Arab world.

For many years these were merely undercurrents, but they rushed to the surface in the late 1970s. Heela was in the third grade when, one afternoon, she happened upon a large demonstration. Throngs of students wearing black headbands were carrying a body and chanting slogans. They had symbolically tied cloths around their own jaws, the way Afghans did with a corpse to prevent its mouth from swinging open. Some were shouting and firing rifles in the air, or waving flags bearing the likenesses of Che Guevara and Karl Marx. It was April 1978, and the Communists were rallying against the government for killing Mir Akbar Khyber, one of their leaders. “This was the first time the Afghan people raised their voices. It was like an earthquake,” she told me. “None of us in my family understood it yet, though. We weren’t political people.”

The Communists used the killing of their leader as a pretext to launch a coup against dictator Daud Khan. Within days, army units had seized the palace and executed Khan and his family. But the Communists themselves were riven into two feuding factions, which immediately took to conspiring against each other. For the next year, chaos gripped the country, as the Communist leadership pushed through land reform, killed thousands of tribal elders, landlords, and religious figures, and plotted to knock one another off. The government seemed on the verge of devouring itself. On Christmas Eve 1979, the neighboring Soviet Union invaded, ostensibly to end the internecine fighting and put in place a more stable leadership. But their occupation only intensified the bloodshed: in the decade-long war that followed, it is believed that a million Afghans were killed and five million became refugees. Soviet bombers wiped whole villages off the map, while Soviet troops imprisoned and tortured thousands. The decade marked a cataclysmic rupture; nothing for Afghans, or indeed the entire Muslim world, would ever be the same.

While the Communists waged devastation on the countryside, within the big cities they managed to win a semblance of support through the provision of services. They built modern housing complexes and subsidized health care and basic foodstuffs. Record numbers of women went to college. “I don’t know about their political views,” Heela said of the Communists, “but they helped build Kabul. We liked them for that.” She also approved of their liberal take on women’s rights. “There was complete freedom in those days,” she said. “No one could tell a woman where to go or what to do.” Even the headscarf, that shibboleth of societal conservatism, had become a matter of familial discretion. Heela was supposed to wear one, but upon leaving the house she would stuff it into her purse.

Education was Heela’s abiding ambition. At seventeen, she won admission to Kabul University, the nation’s premier institution of higher learning. She majored in economics, hoping to go on for a master’s degree.

One day during her junior year, her family brought home a young man for tea. It had become a regular occurrence, for at nineteen she was well into her marriageable years. Heela was to stay quietly in the adjacent room until called; usually, she would be brought out to meet the visiting family, some words would be exchanged with the adults, and then modesty would call for her to retreat again. This time, though, as she was introduced, she saw that there were no relatives accompanying this visitor, no throng of curious aunts. There was only a tall, pale young man standing shyly in the corner. He had a sharp nose, prominent cheekbones, and—impossible to ignore—a disarming smile.

Heela knew that it would be improper to inquire about him openly, but over the next few days she gleaned snippets here and there. His name was Musqinyar, and he’d come alone because his family was down south. He had been living by himself in Kabul, something she’d never heard of before, working for the government. She also learned that he was a Communist and a fervent defender of women’s rights. Over the following weeks, Heela registered her approval the way a good Afghan girl did—by saying nothing at all.

During her daily walks to the university she found her thoughts wandering to him. It was killing her not to know what the two sides were discussing, or if they were talking at all. One afternoon, she had almost reached the campus when suddenly Musqinyar appeared in her path. Oh my god, she thought. They stood staring at each other. She could see the scandal, the tears and screams at home, the accusations about a couple skirting their families and taking matters into their own hands.

Before she could say anything, he broke into a wide grin and announced that he would like her hand in marriage. Not knowing what to do, she turned and hurried the other way. She fought the urge to look back.

Some days later he appeared again. This time, before she could flee, he blurted out that he wanted to get to know the woman that he might spend the rest of his life with. He meant no harm, he insisted, and no one would know that they had spoken. It was just for his peace of mind.

She agreed to walk with him. He quickly slid into lengthy monologues about politics and religion and the war. He was distinctly modern, progressive, in a way she’d never seen before in a man. He assured her that only the Communists could save the country, that the stories filtering in from the countryside were exaggerated. By the end of the walk, she finally plucked up the courage to ask if he would allow her to work. He shot her a wounded look, seeming insulted that she’d even asked. It was a woman’s natural right, he said.

Soon he became a fixture on her daily walk. They spoke of Pashto poetry and overbearing relatives, of traveling the country after the war and some day visiting central Europe, where Kabul’s electric trolleybuses were built. They would go to Germany, he promised, after peace arrived. They’d ride the trains, even the ones that ran underground.

In 1991, they were wed. Shortly after, they moved into a small Soviet-built apartment near downtown Kabul. Musqinyar was making good money working for the Ministry of Health, and Heela, upon receiving her diploma, found a job as a teacher. In her spare time she took courses in nursing and midwifery, which led to a moonlighting gig with the World Health Organization. It wasn’t long before she gave birth to a baby boy.

Life was good. Infused with tiny, daily acts of hope, their imagination told of a future that belonged entirely to them. But beyond city limits, in the rust-hued mountains girding Kabul, that future was being unwritten.

Even before the first Soviet tanks crossed into Afghanistan in 1979, a movement of Islamists had sprung up nationwide in opposition to the Communist state. They were, at first, city-bound intellectuals, university students and professors with limited countryside appeal. But under unrelenting Soviet brutality they began to forge alliances with rural tribal leaders and clerics. The resulting Islamist insurgents—the mujahedeen—became proxies in a Cold War battle, with the Soviet Union on one side and the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia on the other. As the Soviets propped up the Afghan government, the CIA and other intelligence agencies funneled millions of dollars in aid to the mujahedeen, along with crate after crate of weaponry. In the process, traditional hierarchies came radically undone. When the Communists killed hundreds of tribal leaders and landlords, young men of more humble backgrounds used CIA money and arms to form a new warrior elite in their place—which was how, for instance, school janitor Jan Muhammad reinvented himself. In the West, we would call such men “warlords.” In Afghanistan they are usually labeled “commanders.” Whatever the term, they represented a phenomenon previously unknown in Afghan history. Now, each valley and district had its own mujahedeen commanders, all fighting to free the country from Soviet rule but ultimately subservient to the CIA’s guns and money.

The war revolutionized the very core of rural culture. With Afghan schools destroyed, millions of boys were instead educated across the border in Pakistani madrassas, or religious seminaries, where they were fed an extreme, violence-laden version of Islam. Looking to keep the war fueled, Washington—where the prevailing ethos was to bleed the Russians until the last Afghan—financed textbooks for schoolchildren in refugee camps that were festooned with illustrations of Kalashnikovs, swords, and overturned tanks. One such edition declared: “Jihad is a kind of war that Muslims fight in the name of God to free Muslims. . . . If infidels invade, jihad is the obligation of every Muslim.” An American text designed to teach children the Farsi alphabet began:

Aleph [is for] Allah; Allah is one
Bey [is for] Baba (father); Father goes to the mosque
Tey [is for] Tofang (rifle); Javed obtains rifles for the mujahedeen
Jeem [is for] Jihad; Jihad is an obligation. My mom went to the jihad.

The cult of martyrdom, the veneration of jihad, the casting of music and cinema as sinful—once heard only from the pulpits of a few zealots—now became the common vocabulary of resistance nationwide. The US-backed mujahedeen branded those supporting the Communist government, or even simply refusing to pick sides, as “infidels,” and justified the killing of civilians by labeling them apostates. They waged assassination campaigns against professors and civil servants, bombed movie theaters, and kidnapped humanitarian workers. They sabotaged basic infrastructure and even razed schools and clinics. (This litany of terror pales in comparison to Soviet brutality but is relevant for what came next.)

With foreign backing, the Afghan resistance eventually proved too much for the Russians. The last Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, leaving a battered nation, a tottering government that was Communist in name only, and a countryside in the sway of the commanders. For three long years following the withdrawal, the CIA kept the weapons and money flowing to the mujahedeen, while working to block any peace deal between them and the Soviet-funded government. The CIA and the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), Pakistan’s spy agency, pushed the rebels to shell Afghan cities still under government control, including a major assault on the eastern city of Jalalabad that flattened whole neighborhoods. As long as Soviet patronage continued, though, the government withstood the onslaught.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, however, Moscow and Washington agreed to cease all aid to their respective proxies. Within months, the Afghan government crumbled. The question of who would fill the vacuum, who would build a new state, has not been fully resolved to this day.

Excerpted from No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal, published April 29, 2014, by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © by Anand Gopal. All rights reserved.


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