America’s War Through Afghan Eyes

Anand Gopal’s extraordinary reporting shows how the Afghan countryside came to accept Taliban rule

The Taliban triumph in Afghanistan is easy enough to understand in broad outlines. Multiple reports have made it very clear that even when the US-led coalition forces defeated the Taliban in 2002, victory was highly localized in the few big cities of the country. But the vast majority of Afghans, roughly 70 per cent of the country, live in the countryside. The coalition’s control of the countryside was always shaky, even when the Taliban was initially shattered and on the defensive. Over the course of the last two decades, the Taliban regrouped in the countryside and eventually became the de facto government. The Potemkin regime in Kabul was a government in name only, and collapsed at the instant it no longer had the assurance of American military firepower. 

But how did the Taliban regain the countryside? That’s a difficult question to answer because the vast majority of reporting on the war has been structured by a series of biases: first and foremost, a bias of Americans voices over Afghan ones; of military voices over civilian ones; of urban voices over rural ones. Those Afghans who did get their voices heard were the ones who worked most closely with the Americans and benefitted from the occupation. 

As an example, on August 25, the New York Times ran an op ed from Sami Sadat, a commander of the Afghan National Army: 

It’s true that the Afghan Army lost its will to fight. But that’s because of the growing sense of abandonment by our American partners and the disrespect and disloyalty reflected in Mr. Biden’s tone and words over the past few months. The Afghan Army is not without blame. It had its problems — cronyism, bureaucracy — but we ultimately stopped fighting because our partners already had.

It's because voices like Sadat (not to mention his American benefactors) have been so dominant that I was very grateful to The New Yorker for publishing Anand Gopal’s very important report, “The Other Afghan Women.” (Gopal is the author of the much-praised 2015 book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes). 

It’s one of the rare reports that tries to look at the war from the eyes of the majority of Afghans who live in the countryside, particularly rural women. Gopal’s account is based on extensive interviews with women living in Sangin Valley, Helmand Province.

As it happens, Sami Sadat figures in Gopal’s account, but not as the betrayed ally he presented himself as in the New York Times. Rather, Sadat is shown to have unleashed devasting war crimes against civilians in Sanguin Valley:

Later, I spoke on the phone with an Afghan Army helicopter pilot who had just relieved the one who attacked the outpost. He told me, “I asked the crew why they did this, and they said, ‘We knew they were civilians, but Camp Bastion’”—a former British base that had been handed over to the Afghans—“‘gave orders to kill them all.’” As we spoke, Afghan Army helicopters were firing upon the crowded central market in Gereshk, killing scores of civilians. An official with an international organization based in Helmand said, “When the government forces lose an area, they are taking revenge on the civilians.” The helicopter pilot acknowledged this, adding, “We are doing it on the order of Sami Sadat.”

Gopal describes another attack:

General Sadat’s Blackhawks began attacking houses, seemingly at random. They fired on Wali’s house, and his daughter was struck in the head by shrapnel and died. His brother rushed into the yard, holding the girl’s limp body up at the helicopters, shouting, “We’re civilians!” The choppers killed him and Wali’s son. His wife lost her leg, and another daughter is in a coma. As Wali watched the CNN clip [showing Sadat offering an optimistic account of Helmand Province], he sobbed. “Why are they doing this?” he asked. “Are they mocking us?”

There were, as Gopal shows, two Afghanistans under the occupation: the Afghanistan of the cities, where the occupation did bring a measure of security and modernity, especially for women and the Afghanistan of the countryside, where the occupation brought endless violence in the form of militias and drone attacks. 

The difference between the two brings out the central dilemma, an insolvable one:

The Taliban takeover has restored order to the conservative countryside while plunging the comparatively liberal streets of Kabul into fear and hopelessness. This reversal of fates brings to light the unspoken premise of the past two decades: if U.S. troops kept battling the Taliban in the countryside, then life in the cities could blossom. This may have been a sustainable project—the Taliban were unable to capture cities in the face of U.S. airpower. But was it just? Can the rights of one community depend, in perpetuity, on the deprivation of rights in another? In Sangin, whenever I brought up the question of gender, village women reacted with derision. “They are giving rights to Kabul women, and they are killing women here,” Pazaro said. “Is this justice?” Marzia, from Pan Killay, told me, “This is not ‘women’s rights’ when you are killing us, killing our brothers, killing our fathers.” Khalida, from a nearby village, said, “The Americans did not bring us any rights. They just came, fought, killed, and left.”

I’ve highlighted these passages to make explicit the issues Gopal illuminates with great nuance and subtle detail in his long report. I highly recommend his article, one of the very best I’ve read on the long American war in Afghanistan. 

 (Edited by Emily M. Keeler)

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