The South Asia Channel

A Hedgehog and a Fox Explain Afghanistan

Carlotta Gall, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014).

The Greek poet Archilochus said -- and Isaiah Berlin popularized -- that "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." New books by journalists Carlotta Gall and Anand Gopal give us both these viewpoints. (Full disclosure: I have met both Gall and Gopal, but only in passing, despite the latter also being a fellow at the New America Foundation.) In The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, Gall brings to light the often whispered but seldom spoken truth that much of the difficulty in Afghanistan "can be traced to Pakistan and its duplicitous government and intelligence forces." This "hedgehog" drives her narrative.

In No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, Gopal complicates traditional narratives and binary categories, pointing out the double dealing and other vices among America's allies, while illustrating the failings of both Afghan authorities and American facilitation that helped regenerate a Taliban he is able to make remarkably sympathetic without whitewashing their brutal flaws. Both texts provide unique insights into American's intervention in Afghanistan and make important contributions to our understanding of the conflict there. They should be purchased by all Afghanistan specialists, while having the virtue of remaining accessible to the general reader.

Gall's title is a snippet of a Richard Holbrooke quote, who said as the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan: "We might be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country." This sentence more or less sums Gall's retelling of America's intervention in Afghanistan. Her account focuses mostly on familiar events, but consistently brings the Pakistani influence to the fore. The story is relatively new because -- as Gall concedes -- "confirming the links between the ISI [Pakistan's primary intelligence service, the Directorate for Inter-Service Intelligence] and the religious parties and the Taliban was always difficult." Because of this lack of connection (not to mention other geopolitical realities), Gen. Dan McNeill, a former commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), noted that during his time in the region, he "had no mandate to act across the border in Pakistan to get at the source of the militancy, so he did what he could in Afghanistan."

In Gall's retelling, it is this sense of injustice more than anything else that has made Afghans sensitive to civilian casualties. In their minds, the bombs should have been falling in Pakistan's tribal areas, not on their side of the border. Gall does great work investigating several incidents of civilian casualties, often documenting much higher casualty rates than acknowledged by the ISAF command. She also draws attention to the political price that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has paid for being associated with these attacks, which helps explain -- at least in part -- his sometimes irrational verbal assaults on his American patrons.

But despite Gall's new turn of placing the blame on the far side of the Durand Line, the 2,640 kilometer border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, her approach largely causes her characters to fall along binary categories -- NATO and all of their allies are good, while the Taliban and all they touch are bad. This leads her, for example, to sing the praises of the American-installed police chief of Kandahar province, Abdul Razziq. While Gall admits that one goal of Razziq and his Achakzai tribesman band was the opposition of the rival Noorzai tribe, she paints him as a faithful, if flawed "conqueror of the Taliban." This, despite contradictory reporting that Razziq would be better described as an alleged drug smuggler who did not so much repress as cause a local uprising through his human rights abuses against the Noorzai and his internal tribal rivals. But this nuance seems ill-placed in Gall's book. Her hedgehog idea (and it is a big thing) is that Pakistan is the real enemy, but this revelation does little to add shades of gray to her Afghanistan.

Gall also deals with the safe haven Osama bin Laden found in Pakistan, a sanctuary she believes could not have happened without significant cooperation from Pakistan's ISI. She is willing to go out on a limb to "name names" of the Pakistani officials who -- while there is no hard evidence -- almost certainly (in her opinion) knew that bin Laden was in Abbottabad. It seems that for Gall, the presence of bin Laden in Pakistan puts (not implausibly) the proverbial nail in the coffin for the case that the war was occurring on the wrong side of the border.

Gopal's more fox-like work is quite different. His title, quoting a Pashtun proverb, points to the deep moral ambiguity that encompasses all actors in war-torn Afghanistan. In Gopal's own words, he "began to wonder whether the root of the conflict was Afghan's stubborn refusal to conform to the classifications that Washington had set forth, and America's insistence on clinging to those divisions."

Gopal's narrative circles around three groups -- a Pashtun "warlord" (a Karzai ally) and his entourage, two Taliban commanders, and a modern-leaning Pashtun woman and her (former) communist husband -- and those who find themselves within one or two degrees of separation. The story is deeply intertwined, as his character's lives touch or even intersect throughout the work. Indeed, Gopal finds that in one major battle in 2001, the commanders on both sides are members of one of these two groups -- and is able to indirectly bring the two into dialogue. The level of craftsmanship in this book is often awe-inspiring.

Gopal has a keen eye for contradiction and unintended consequences. He lauds Afghan communists for promoting the rights of women while in power, but notes that by removing village elders (usually by death), they inadvertently empowered new warlords, the rise of which would be catastrophic for women, as the oppressive mores of the rural villages were brought to the urban areas.

But most of all, Gopal notes the chaos and disorder that the American intervention brought to Afghanistan. In perhaps the most damning sentence ever written on Afghanistan, he concludes that: "the Americans were not fighting a war on terror at all, they were simply targeting those who were not part of the [Gul Agha] Sherzai and Karzai networks." He demonstrates, with painful efficacy, that in the early days after 9/11, Western troops spent less time attacking their real enemies, and more time inadvertently settling scores for those with whom they were aligned. Powerbrokers of all stripes found that it was quite simple (particularly if one spoke English) to label their opponents as "Taliban" or "al Qaeda," and well-meaning NATO troops would then go arrest or even kill them. Gopal further adds that the tribal nature of the various U.S. forces further complicated matters for well-meaning Afghans, as one broker might be aligned with general U.S. forces, a second with Special Operations forces, and a third with the CIA, but each using their American allies to strike at their rivals or -- more tragically -- innocent Afghans just trying to get by. In one memorable moment, Gopal finds that "the actual Taliban were perplexed" by the infighting. One can only imagine the Taliban's amusement at watching their former enemies jailed, as Taliban.

The daily tragedy of many Afghan lives is seen perhaps most powerfully in the character of Heela, a Pashtun woman in southern Afghanistan, who is forced leave a cosmopolitan life in Kabul for the repressive rural mores of southern Afghanistan. After some time there, her husband is killed after reporting a local police chief for extorting money from rural voters (brought to his attention as a former U.N. elections monitor -- though the U.N. refused to help their former employee). American soldiers come to assure her that they are working to find the killer -- in conjunction with the police chief that she knows, but cannot prove, is responsible for her husband's death. When her family is threatened, she begins to provide medical supplies for the Taliban. And she must swallow her pride and appeal to a local warlord when one of her sons is abducted by a well-known pedophile. Life for an Afghan woman like Heela is beyond good and evil; it's just about survival. When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.

It is also worth noting that Gopal breaks -- if only in passing -- what seems to have been a taboo on talking about the central role that the sexual abuse of young boys plays in Afghan culture, specifically among the powerbrokers who have thrived under Western reconstruction. Whether this silence reflects a reluctance to talk about sexual violence against men in general, or a desire not to expose the American public to this dirty underside of Afghanistan is not clear.

While there are significant differences in approach between these two works, they do converge on one point -- that maintaining a larger troop presence with more attention from Washington early in the war would have made no significant difference in the outcome. In other words, the "draining of resources" from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003 made no difference for Afghanistan at all (whether it was wise to divert them to Iraq is another matter altogether). While the two authors disagree on why this is so -- Gall maintains primarily that Pakistan was not attacked, while Gopal explicitly highlights the dysfunction and chaos that U.S. and NATO forces caused for themselves -- the end result is the same for both. Afghanistan metastasized not because of our neglect, but because we were either treating the wrong "disease," or because our treatment made the problem worse.

These two works are part of a growing literature emerging as the American adventure in Afghanistan transitions to a new phase, or perhaps ends entirely. When one tries to understand a large and complex phenomenon like Afghanistan, both the fox and the hedgehog have their place.

Douglas A. Ollivant is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, as well as a Managing Partner of Mantid International, LLC. A retired infantry officer, he served two tours in Iraq, was the senior counterinsurgency advisor to the Regional Command-East commander in Afghanistan, and was a director for Iraq on the National Security Council for both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He holds a doctorate in political science from Indiana University. Follow him on Twitter: @DouglasOllivant.

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