IN his memoirs, 88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary, Robert L. Grenier, the CIA’s station chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan from 1999 to 2002, recounts:
“In effect we were telling our tribals they could kill bin Laden if he resisted arrest, which he certainly would, but that nonetheless they could not set out to kill him. If that’s a bit difficult for a Western-educated sophisticate to wrap his head around, one can imagine how it must have sounded to an Afghan tribal…”
Complicated? But that was just the beginning, just one small segment of the multi-layered job given to Grenier. There were other issues and hurdles, in front and ‘behind the lines’ on Grenier’s side as he set about pursuing his targets in Afghanistan. 88 days to Kandahar relives some of the key events through the eye of an American spy who gives himself credit for winning what he insists on calling the “first American war in Afghanistan”. The book maps the CIA’s role in Afghaistan right up to the dislodging of the Taliban in Kandahar in 2005. It is a smoothly, proudly told story of a ‘successful’ expedition that is lent some additional mobility by the division of the account spread over more than 400 pages into small, crisp units, each bearing its own catchy title.
Grenier was recruited into the CIA in 1979, and after a very happening career, he was fired while working as the head of the agency’s National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC). The ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ leading to his hiring make for some good build-up material, and having apprised readers of just how motivated he was, he gets down to the juicier part.
His assignment inside Pakistan and Afghanistan brought him face-to-face with a variety of logistical challenges, characters out to help as well as those looking to scuttle the drive. There was any number of reasons that defined the responses to his work; from personal to ideological to purely financial. Not all of Grenier’s methods could always be subject to the strict professional code that bound the CIA’s commander in this most sensitive part of the post-9/11 world. The protagonist is found blithely moving forward, through a network of associates and agents, not all of whom he is prepared to name in his book.
Overall, there are maybe too many hidden details here for this work to qualify as something that is as intimate or is potentially as revealing as a diary. This feeling will perhaps be more pronounced in the case of readers in Pakistan and Afghanistan who may, as usual, find it annoying, for the narration is disciplined by American interests that the author is obviously mindful to protect. Also, they might have expected a more frank, indiscriminate unveiling of faces from their own backyards. However, the book is full of aliases and, because some of the veils are thin, there is room for the more knowledgeable to discover the real identities behind these masks.
Clearly, this CIA operator had to deal with both foot-dragging associates, and with rules that he often found too restrictive for his natural, well-meaning and patriotic expanse. He was frustrated by those wont to “displaying the exquisite if sometimes craven feel for political self-preservation.”
There are a few omissions which are more glaring than others, though. The most striking among them is his silence over CIA detention centres — something that caught the eye of critics soon after the launch of the book earlier this year. As has been pointed out by other reviewers, it’s remarkable for an account on the subject to be bereft of details about the interrogation and torture centres spawned by the new realities that the Americans were faced with. The absence of details about these black sites indicates the severity of the censorship under which the author must have been working. It detracts from the value of the book, making it even more one-sided than it may appear at first glance.
Grenier’s original task was to try and convince the Taliban under Mullah Omer to dissociate with the Arabs in Afghanistan who were directly held responsible for 9/11. Al Qaeda had to be isolated to make their targeting by Afghan groups willing to play the proxy or by the American forces directly easier. Later events forced the use of other options to locate and hit targets; the distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda becoming increasingly blurred with time. A good part of the book is dedicated to mapping the mercurial Hamid Karzai’s rise, right up to his installation in power spearheaded by the United States. But that is not the only instance where Grenier uses his power of observation and his training to create a profile in passing, yet vivid detail. Writing at another place in the book, about the then Pakistan president-cum-army chief, he remarks: “I felt Musharraf had been sincere. He would no doubt have taken the action we requested if he had been in a position to do so himself. But he was not. As the four-star Chief of army staff, he presided as a rough ‘first among equals.’”
And this profile of Haqqani, which among other things confirmed the ever-present need among those at war to generate some additional finances: “A Pakistani-based warlord serving then as the Taliban minister for tribal affairs, Jalaluddin Haqqani, demanded we pay him the equivalent of $80,000 just for the privilege of meeting. (His financial demands went unmet.)”
Then there are instances which offer fleeting glimpses into the personality of the writer himself. As he went about setting the principles of the Afghan conquest to president George Bush, Grenier’s mind was flooded with various currents and he was careful that he did not reveal too much: “In practice, the process was much more fluid, but this did not seem like the time to be getting out ahead of my leadership — at least not in their full view.”
At another point, he finds it useful to flash the human side of a hardboiled agent. “It wasn’t until weeks later that Mark related to me the story of the house-bombing at Takht-e-Pol. The father of the injured girl had wept openly and unashamedly after rushing to the scene. Although Afghan tradition called for compensation for his loss, he refused it. He hated the Taliban, he said. If the sacrifice of his wife was the price to be paid for liberation, he would accept it. The Special Forces medic stitched up his daughter and treated her as best he could.”
As is usual for books on the topic in recent years, this account, too, provides deep insights into the most sensitive relationship between the uneasy American and Pakistani partners in the war. The relationship has always been at its most challenging whenever there was a high-value target in the picture, as can be seen in Grenier’s recounting of the capture of Abu Zubayda:
“Within a few minutes, after some technical analysis, CTC returned its assessment: an over 85 per cent likelihood that this was, in fact, Abu Zubayda. That was encouraging, but in the meantime the wounded captive was bleeding to death. A Pakistani police driver leapt behind the wheel of the truck. It wouldn’t start. A mixed group of Pakistanis and Americans pushed to jumpstart it; finally, the engine caught with a lurch, and the truck raced off, with several other vehicles following ... He was the first senior member of Al Qaeda to be captured. It was his apprehension which triggered — one might say forced — the CIA back into the business of interrogation, after a hiatus of many years.”
If that is the term which must be used for whatever took place at the CIA detention centres, then it must have been one heck of an ‘interrogation’. And it is far from over. The simple fact is that it is the perception about the seriousness of the threat that determines the severity of the means and method used to deal with it. National interests play a part, as does patriotism. The good talk about what is right and what is not has never had too much of an impact on the secret world of spies.
88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary
By Robert L. Grenier
Simon & Schuster, UK