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Books  >>  History

Anand Gopal

No Good Men Among the Living

Anand Gopal No Good Men Among The Living America The Taliban And The War Through Afghan
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Series:

American Empire Project

Excerpt from book:

1
 
 
The Last Days of Vice and Virtue
Early in the morning on September 11, 2001, deep amid the jagged heights of the Hindu Kush, something terrible took place. When teenager Noor Ahmed arrived that day in Gayawa to buy firewood, he knew it immediately: there was no call to prayer. Almost every village in Afghanistan has a mosque, and normally you can hear the muezzin’s tinny song just before dawn, signaling the start of a new day. But for the first time that he could remember, there was not a sound. The entire place seemed lifeless.
He walked down a narrow goat trail, toward low houses with enclosures of mud brick, and saw that the gates of many of them had been left open. The smell of burning rubber hung in the air. Near a creek, something brown lying in the yellow grass caught his eye, and he stopped to look at it. It was a disfigured body, caked in dried blood. Noor Ahmed took a few steps back and ran to the mosque, but it was empty. He knocked on the door of a neighboring home. It, too, was empty. He tried another one. Empty. Then he came upon an old mud schoolhouse, its front gate ajar, and stopped to listen. Stepping inside, he walked through a long yard strewn with disassembled auto parts and empty motor oil canisters. Finally, when he pushed his way through the front door, he saw them huddled in the corner: men and women, toddlers and teenagers, more than a dozen in total, clutching each other, crammed into a single room.
“Everyone else is dead,” one said. “If you don’t get out of here, they’ll kill you, too.”
In wartime Afghanistan, secrets are slippery things. The Taliban had planned a surprise attack on Gayawa, but the villagers had known for days that the raid was coming, and those who could had hired cars or donkeys and moved their families down into the valley. But this had been a hard, dry, unhappy summer. Times were not good and many villagers could not afford to leave, even though they knew what might await them. Of those who stayed, only the few hiding in the schoolhouse, where the Taliban soldiers never thought to look, escaped untouched. The rest met an unknown fate.
Back then, Gayawa was near the epicenter of a brutal, grinding war between the government of Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban, and a band of rebel warlords known as the Northern Alliance. In their drive to crush the resistance, government troops waged a Shermanesque campaign, burning down houses and schools, destroying lush grape fields that had for generations yielded raisins renowned throughout South Asia, and setting whole communities in flight. In the region surrounding Gayawa, the Taliban enforced a blockade, allowing neither food nor supplies to enter. Those who attempted to breach the cordon were shot.
America’s war had yet to begin, but on that September 11, Afghans had already been fighting for more than two decades. The troubles dated to 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded a largely peaceful country and ushered in a decadelong occupation that left it one of the most war-ravaged nations on Earth. The Russians withdrew in defeat in 1989, and in their wake scores of anti-Soviet resistance groups turned their guns on each other, unleashing a civil war that killed tens of thousands more and reduced to rubble what little infrastructure the country still had. Rival gangs robbed travelers at gunpoint and plucked women and boys off the streets with impunity.
In 1994, a fanatical band of religious students—the Taliban—emerged to sweep aside these warring factions and put an end to the civil war. On a fierce platform of law and order, they forcibly disarmed and disbanded many of the militias that had been terrorizing the populace and brought nearly 90 percent of the country under their control. For the first time in more than a decade, peace took root in much of the land. Criminality and warlordism vanished, and the streets became safe from rape and abduction.
In the process, however, the Taliban instituted a regime of draconian purity the likes of which the world had never witnessed. Moral and spiritual decay had dragged the country into civil war, the Taliban believed, and a puritanical version of Islamic law offered the only hope for salvation. All music, film, and photography—which the Taliban regarded as gateway drugs to pornography and licentiousness—were banned. They caged up women in their homes, executed adulterers, and whipped men of flagging faith. They prohibited, with only a few exceptions, all female education and employment. They outlawed the teaching of secular subjects in school. In many cities, roaming packs of religious police under the authority of the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue saw to it that no one missed the mandatory five-times-a-day prayer. All men were required to wear a fist-length beard and were beaten and jailed unless they complied.
A land of Old Testament rules, the Taliban’s Afghanistan was brutal and vindictive. Relatives of murder victims were invited to gun down the accused; thieves had their hands lopped off; and obscurantist religious clerics, often semiliterate, decided matters of jurisprudence. If it were possible to distill the zeitgeist into a single devastating moment, it would be the Taliban’s infamous demolition of two massive fifteen-hundred-year-old Buddha sculptures. Among South Asia’s great archaeological treasures, the statues were brought tumbling down in an effort to rid the country of “false idols.”
Yet Taliban rule did not go unchallenged. Remnants of some of the defeated militias fled to the mountains north of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, where they regrouped in 1996 to form the Northern Alliance. For the next five years, Taliban troops fought a bloody campaign to subdue the north, meting out the greatest punishment to villages along the front line, like Gayawa.
Years later, I visited Gayawa to try to understand the Afghan world as it had appeared on the eve of 9/11. Some of the Taliban’s old, rotting observation posts were still standing, and many houses remained abandoned. Memories of those war years lingered, and the rancor echoed in conversation after conversation. “The Taliban were evil. They were tormentors,” Noor Ahmed told me. After finding those survivors in the schoolhouse on the morning of September 11, he had fled the area, returning only months later after a new government had assumed power. “They weren’t humans. The laws you and I abide by, they didn’t mean anything to them.”
As I met more villagers in the area, I found that many of their stories centered on a particular roving Taliban unit, a feared team of disciplinarians who journeyed from village to village demanding taxes and household firearms. “Their leader was a tall man named Mullah Cable,” said Nasir, a local. “We heard his name on the radio. He traveled a lot. He would search your house looking for weapons, and when you swore you didn’t have anything, he’d bring out his whip, a cable. That’s where his name comes from. He was a clever man—I don’t know where he was from, but he was very smart. He was one of the first to use a whip on us like that. After a while, all the Talibs started carrying whips.”
Mullah Cable. The very name spoke of the strange language that Afghans had acquired in decades of war. No one in Gayawa knew quite what had become of him. “When the Americans invaded,” Nasir said, “all those Taliban vanished like ghosts.”
*   *   *
I first saw Mullah Cable on an early winter evening in Kabul, the hour of dueling muezzins, doze

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