Foreign Affairs Focus on Books: Anand Gopal on Afghanistan and Iraq

Anand Gopal, a former Afghanistan correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, sits down with Justin Vogt, deputy managing editor of Foreign Affairs. Gopal, whose latest book was reviewed in the November/December 2014 issue, talks about interviewing Taliban commanders, the prospects for Afghanistan's new leadership, and why ISIS is gaining followers. A transcript is available below:

VOGT: Hi, I'm Justin Vogt, deputy manager editor of Foreign Affairs. We're joined today by Anand Gopal, a journalist and the author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban, and The War through Afghan Eyes. And this book was a finalist for the National Book Award and is part of a review essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

Anand, thanks so much for joining us today.

GOPAL: Thanks for having me.

VOGT: Recently, President Obama announced a shift in U.S. policy saying that unlike the prior plan, which foresaw American forces ending their combat role and withdrawing by the end of 2014. Now it appears as though American forces are going to remain in a combat role in Afghanistan through 2015. What's your take on this decision?

GOPAL: Well, I think tactically it will probably make a difference in the Taliban's ability to operate, because what we've seen is that the Taliban forces have been massed in unprecedented numbers. They've had daring raids of the type we haven't seen before, and I think that's in large part because of their confidence of the fact that the U.S. troops are leaving. 

They're sticking around for longer, and so we're probably going to see less of that. That's a tactical change, but on a more, let's say, strategic level or on a question of the balance of forces, I don't think we're going to see a major change. And that's because really this—we're entering the 14th year of U.S. boots on the ground in Afghanistan, and the U.S. military presence has failed to quell the insurgency in the last 13 years, so I fail to see how one or two more years is going to change that dynamic.

VOGT: Just going to kick the can down the road one more year, in a sense?

GOPAL: Exactly.

VOGT: Recently, Afghanistan had an election. The aftermath of the election stretched on and on a bit and led to a sort of unusual compromise agreement that's resulted in the new president, Ashraf Ghani, and a sort of chief executive role for his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. Can you tell us a little bit about your impression so far of both Ghani and his governing and also about the larger sort of prospects of this unusual tandem?

GOPAL: Well, you know, Afghans that I speak to are more hopeful today than I've ever heard them. And it's because of the breath of fresh air that Ghani brings to the presidential palace. Karzai was somebody who dealt with patronage. He was able to cultivate clients around the country. Ghani is a state-builder, and we already see in the first couple of months of his administration, he's attempting to clean up corruption and actually make a difference.

You know, with that being said, though, it's important to realize that in a place like Afghanistan, whoever is sitting in the presidential palace in Kabul only has limited power, and that's for one reason: in the countryside, the power is held by warlords and strong men and also because the government itself is beholden to the international community for aid. And so it's—you know, there's only so much somebody like Ghani can do.

VOGT: What do you see about the—in the longer term, how will the power-sharing angle work with, you know, these two rivals and this uneasy, you know, agreement?

GOPAL: Well, it seems like Ghani has firm control of the executive. And it really is his show to run right now. And so far, Abdullah has made some ceremonial gestures, but it seems like his main role right now is to appease political tensions because of the fractious nature of the elections. He has a constituency that feels like he was robbed, and his very presence in or near the presidential palace I think is important for that reason. But in terms of actual nuts and bolts administration, I think it's really Ghani's show to run.

VOGT: Let's talk a little bit about your book here. One of the things that really sets your book apart from a lot of books that have been written about Afghanistan and the Afghan war is that you had a really sort of unparalleled access to Taliban figures—and not just foot soldiers and Taliban sympathizers, but actually to commanders, people at the commander level. This is something that, you know, as a reader really jumps out at you about your book. I wanted to ask you, how did you go about sort of getting that kind of access? And what about the issues that had raised in terms of your own sort of safety and security? Can you talk about that a little bit?

GOPAL: Well, you know, Justin, it’s actually interesting, because when I started out—and I was very interested in reaching out to the Taliban, because they were the big unknown, you know, and I wanted to understand why they were fighting. And what I found very quickly is you go and ask them questions such as, why are you fighting, what kind of state do you want to see, and you get boilerplate answers. You get propaganda. 

And so I didn't get anywhere for a while, but then I started—I took a different tack, and I went in and I wouldn't ask them about any political questions. I'd say, tell me about your childhood. Tell me about, you know, your favorite memory growing up. Tell me if you're in love. You know, and people love to talk about themselves more than anything else. And that really got them to open up, and I was able to cultivate a relationship in this way that really lasted over two or three years. And Afghanistan's a society based on trust. And once you can establish that kind of trust, it actually can keep you safe in many ways.

VOGT: So you approached them more as people, less as Taliban figures, in other words?

GOPAL: Exactly. And they opened up, yeah.

VOGT: That's interesting. You know, we've seen in the past couple of months these horrendous kidnappings and killings of journalists by extremists in Iraq and Syria. I’ve wondered whether that suggests some sort of difference, a salient difference between movements like ISIS in Iraq and the Taliban, in the sense that whereas ISIS seems to see journalists from outside as potential ransom or propaganda tools, in your case, the Taliban saw you, let's say, or the people that you spoke with in Taliban saw you as a means of actually communicating their desires, their messages? Is that distinction—does that tell us something?

GOPAL: Yeah, I think so. It's still possible today to meet people—higher-ups in the Taliban and actually have interviews. It's difficult and it's dangerous, but it's still possible, and I think that's pretty much out of the question for ISIS. But it's also the case that the world has changed so dramatically since I started doing this. Most of my interviews in the book were from 2008 to 2010. And in those days, it was possible to go to villages and just have the protection of a tribal elder and meet Taliban foot soldiers or Taliban field commanders and be safe, if you had the imprimatur of this tribal elder.

I don't think that's possible today in Afghanistan. I wouldn't feel safe doing it. And, you know, I think what we're seeing in Syria and Iraq is an expression—an extreme expression of the way the world has changed and the way Islamist movements of various stripes now regard journalism and journalists.

VOGT: What do you trace that change to? That's really an interesting point. When do you think that happened and why?

GOPAL: Well, you know, definitely Syria was a turning point, I think. And part of it is sort of a crude mistrust of the West that's come as a consequence of the Iraq war, of the Afghanistan war, of the inaction in Syria, which angered a lot of Syrians. I think that's part of it. 

And part of it is in Syria, it's just such a free-for-all where people—you know, kidnapping is such a major part of what's happening there, and then once somebody does it and gets notoriety, you know, other people copycat. And ISIS has been able to use these horrific executions as a perverse sort of recruiting tool. And so the world has changed for all these reasons, I think.

VOGT: You're just returned recently from a reporting trip to Iraq. What can you tell us is the single most important thing that's happening there on the ground now that might be getting lost in the coverage that's so focused on ISIS and so focused on the sort of counterterrorism question? What's happening on the ground in Iraq that you noticed that you think people in western capitals are not really—and in western media are not really paying enough attention to?

GOPAL: Well, I was interested in the question of, what are the roots of ISIS? You know, what would compel somebody to join what seems to me to be such a retrograde organization? And what I found very quickly is that from the point of view of a lot of Iraqis I spoke to, they really have kind of two oppressors, particularly if you talk to people in Anbar, which is sort of Sunni majority province where ISIS is very strong. On the one hand, there are people who initially supported ISIS but now are opposed to them. But on the other hand, they're also just as opposed to the—what they consider the Shia state, Shia militias, who—who behead, who torture. You can go on YouTube and you can find videos where they're doing things just as gruesomely as ISIS is doing. We tend not to hear about it, because those are—you know, those are our guys. Those aren't—that's not the enemy, but, in fact, the fact that they were doing this helped lay the groundwork for a movement like ISIS to grow.

VOGT: Interesting stuff. Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban, and The War through Afghan Eyes. Thank you so much.

GOPAL: My pleasure.

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