Review of “Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Steve Coll

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Steve Coll’s latest book, Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a sequel to Coll‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars, an excellent chronicling of the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion through September 10, 2001.

As Coll painstakingly explains, U.S. relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan are, and have been, extremely complex due in no small part to the number of groups with conflicting interests.  Pakistan perceives itself in a life and death struggle with India, its neighbor to the east, with whom it has had three unsuccessful wars since its founding in 1947.  Its rivalry with India is largely based on religious differences;  Pakistan originally split from British India to carve out an Islamic State. 

Pakistan’s neighbor to the west is Afghanistan, a country that is nearly 100% Muslim.  But Afghanistan is riven with tribal differences (Pashtuns vs. Tajik vs. Uzbek, etc.) as well as different versions of Islam.  The capital, Kabul, is relatively modern and sophisticated;  much of the hinterland is dominated by an almost medieval, primitive version of Islam practiced by the Taliban. Indeed, Afghanistan is embroiled in a long-lived civil war between the Taliban and a more moderate, enlightened government in Kabul.  

Pakistan considers a friendly, or at least neutral, Afghanistan to be essential to its well being in its struggle with India.  Pakistan has exerted its influence in Afghanistan through the ISI, its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has found common ground with the Taliban largely through religious affinity.

The United States became involved in Afghanistan in the 1980s in a proxy war against the USSR by supplying arms to insurgents fighting the Soviet-sponsored communist government.  Those insurgents often were religious fundamentalists.  The Soviets purposefully decimated the country’s educated elites, leaving the country to radical preachers and armed opportunists.  Some of these morphed into Al Qaeda members after the defeat of the Russians.

The US supplanted the Soviets as invaders shortly after September 11, 2001, after it became known that Osama bin Laden had been operating as a guest of the Taliban, which at the time controlled the capital, Kabul, and most of the rest of the country.  Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda operated training camps for terrorists in Taliban controlled areas.  

Undated ABC photo of al Qaeda militant training in Afghanistan

By supporting the Northern Alliance, a rival of the Taliban, the US was able to drive the Taliban out of the capital, Kabul, and secure control of much of the country. Osama bin Laden was forced to go underground and eventually escaped to Pakistan, as it was learned much later. Then thing got “interesting” as the US and its allies failed to completely irradicate the Taliban, which underwent a “rebirth” of sorts and began to take back portions of the country. The US is still mired in that horrible quagmire seventeen years later.

The actual “Directorate S” is the section of Pakistan’s ISI that deals with the Taliban.  It is thought to be responsible for helping create the Taliban’s safe harbors within the borders of Pakistan.  Those safe harbors have immensely complicated the task of the American military in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In a section of the book entitled “Losing the Peace,” Coll blames the Bush administration for failing to bolster the nascent Afghan government that replaced the Taliban in 2002.  It refused to pay even 10% of the war’s cost to secure the peace with new Afghan forces.  One American observer noted, “You get what you pay for, and we paid for war.”

Some of America’s lack of success in Afghanistan can be attributed to the Bush administration’s emphasis on Iraq even though it had been the Afghan Taliban that had sheltered Osama bin Laden.  For example, the CIA increasingly deployed lightly experienced officers in Afghanistan while sending the heavy hitters to Iraq.  The US was never able to obtain the complete cooperation of Pakistan, which (in Coll’s words) played a double game—assisting both the US and the Taliban.  

By the time Obama replaced Bush, Hamid Karzai, the man the Americans had put in place to head the new Afghan government, had soured on America’s participation in the war.  His primary rationale was that American’s tended to kill too many innocent Afghans in their pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.  Karzai also blamed Pakistan for its support of the Taliban.  

2016 – The resurgent Taliban hold more Afghan territory than before. Allauddin Khan / AP Photo

Another complication in trying to make sense of Afghanistan is that that country’s most profitable industry is opium production.  The Americans tried to destroy the poppy fields to deprive the Taliban of a source of income, but in doing so they also greatly depressed the economy of their Afghan allies.

One of the most moving sections of the book deals with “green on blue” murders—the phenomenon of Afghan army trainees turning their weapons on their American or European trainers.  The cultural differences between the two groups were extreme, with the exaggerated respect shown to the Q’uran by the Afghans being one of the most intractable aspects of the relationship.  Many religious Afghans simply could not tolerate the presence of large numbers of infidels (Americans) in their midst. For their part, many Americans showed an insulting lack of respect for Islam and the Q’uran.

The book also recounts an event in 2014 that should send shivers down the spines of all Americans.  Apparently, two fervently religious Pakistani naval officers hatched a plan to commandeer a Pakistani warship that may have had a small nuclear weapon aboard.  They planned to use the vessel, which also had a large naval gun and several missiles aboard, to attack American ships conducting joint maneuvers with the Pakistani navy.  Fortunately they were thwarted by alert Pakistani commandos assigned to guard the ship, but their efforts represent the first armed terrorist attack against a facility holding nuclear weapons.  Coll warns ominously, “Judging by Pakistan’s trajectory, it was unlikely to be the last.”

NS Zulfiqar, which Al Qaeda militants tried to seize on Sept. 6, stands in the background of this June 2011 photo. REUTERS

Coll asserts that the war became a “humbling case study in the limits of American power.”  He argued that “the failure to solve the riddle of ISI and to stop its covert interference in Afghanistan became, ultimately, the greatest strategic failure of the American war.”   He concludes that about the best the U.S. can hope for in Afghanistan is a sort of stalemate with the Taliban as long as it is supported by the ISI.  The situation may come to resemble Mexico’s struggle with narco-traffickers or Colombia’s long war with the F.A.R.C.  In each case the state, although fragmented and corrupt, remained more or less intact and continued to cooperate with the US and Europe.  

Evaluation: Coll’s masterful study is carefully researched.  It provides much more detail than can be duplicated in a (relatively) short review.  In Ghost Wars, we learned that events in the region could be characterized as missed opportunities, owing, as Coll suggested, to “indifference, lassitude, blindness, paralysis, and commercial greed” that shaped America’s foreign policy in Afghanistan and South Asia. Similarly in this book, we read about an endless number of strategic reviews and studies commissioned by the White House, Pentagon, CIA, and State Department, with no immediate effect.

The bleak assessment of this book is hard to gainsay in light of Coll’s thorough presentation.  This is an important book for Americans who hope to understand the complications involved in intervening in foreign, particularly Islamic, lands. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018

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2 Responses to Review of “Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Steve Coll

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I know we’ve been heavily involved in that area for years. It’s probably all too complicated for me to understand but I know it’s something I should learn more about.

  2. Beth F says:

    No matter how much news I watch or read, I know I’m fairly unversed in the Afghanistan war.

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