It is easy to forget that until he started criticising the Americans for bombing too many Afghan civilians and comparing them to “occupiers”, Hamid Karzai was Washington’s grateful servant. After all, US officials picked him to be Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban president, armed and financed him to launch an uprising against the mullahs after 9/11, helicoptered him away from imminent capture after one clumsy foray inside Afghanistan in mid-October, reinserted him a few weeks later to march on Kandahar successfully, and finally foisted him on the rest of the Afghan political class at the United Nations-sponsored conference in Bonn in December 2001 as the leader they could not afford to reject.
Robert Grenier’s fascinating book 88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary shows just how close the Karzai-US relationship was at that stage. As the Central Intelligence Agency’s station chief in Islamabad, Grenier played a key part in what he calls (in a nod to the three Anglo-Afghan wars) the first American-Afghan war. It lasted 88 days, from 9/11 until the capture of the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar’s compound in Kandahar. Much of Grenier’s time was spent trying to persuade tribal chieftains, often with cash, to rise up against the Taliban, or even — in the other hallowed CIA tradition — plotting with a senior Taliban commander to mount a palace coup against Omar. No other US official has yet chronicled this period so intimately, including detailed records of meetings and phone calls.
The story of Karzai’s floundering military campaign against the Taliban is particularly graphic. Grenier discloses how the future president was almost killed by US “friendly fire”, a fate later to befall dozens of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Dec 5, 2001, a US Special Forces ground controller, working with Karzai’s small contingent of armed men on the northern outskirts of Kandahar, made a mistake and called in a 2,000lb “smart bomb” on his own location. No Americans died but around 40 of Karzai’s Afghans were killed or wounded. Karzai was in a nearby building and escaped with minor cuts.
Thanks to details such as this Grenier adds considerable value to the historical record, even though his book is often marred by a know-all and self-justifying tone. Colleagues and several senior officials, including the then secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, are pilloried. Grenier admits to some errors of judgment; for example, he preferred Gul Agha Sherzai, who later re-emerged as Kandahar’s controversial governor, over Karzai as the best man to topple the Taliban. But overall he has little doubt that he always made the right calls in the arguments between various sectors of Washington’s bureaucratic machine.
He takes particular pride in the fact that, unlike most foreign-based CIA station chiefs who stick to spy craft and narrowly focused operations, he was trusted to make strategic policy recommendations. Twelve days after 9/11, George Tenet, the CIA director, asked him to produce a comprehensive plan for the “war on terror” that George Bush had just announced. Grenier calls the eight-page cable that he produced “the best three hours of work I ever did”. We know from Bob Woodward’s Bush at War that the president and the military top brass adapted their plans in line with the memo, so Grenier’s self-congratulation is no idle boast. His cable warned the Americans not to be too closely identified with or rely on the Tajik-led Northern Alliance who were fighting the Taliban near Kabul. This risked encouraging the Pakhtuns, Afghanistan’s majority ethnicity, in the southern and eastern provinces to coalesce behind the Taliban leadership against foreign invaders. It would be better to find and arm dissident Pakhtuns, if possible within the Taliban. The US should play on Pakhtun suspicions of the Arab jihadis, keep its footprint small and eschew permanent bases.
Grenier avoids the crucial question of whether it was necessary to attack the Taliban at all, given that Bush’s demand that they hand Osama bin Laden over was futile. The Al Qaeda leader and his closest associates had taken refuge in the mountains well out of Taliban reach, so that the US charge that the Taliban were harbouring terrorists had become void. Grenier brushes this aside as “irrelevant”, since Bush wanted regime change and was determined to take war to the Taliban as well as Al Qaeda. This was the first major US blunder.
The second blunder — and Grenier acknowledges this one — was that no American effort was made, after Kandahar fell, to bring any senior Taliban figures into the Karzai-led government. Convinced that many Taliban leaders were willing to accept Karzai, Grenier criticises the US detention of the former foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil and Abdul Salam Zaeef, the ambassador in Islamabad. Damningly, he reveals a complete vacuum in thinking. “I neither sought nor received any sort of policy guidance regarding senior Taliban figures,” he writes. Separately, we know that Washington told the UN diplomats who were in charge at the Bonn conference not to make overtures to the Taliban. Had they split the Taliban by bringing some into a coalition government, the movement might never have revived in 2003/04 to spark the insurgency that still continues after a decade of US and UK offensives against it.
Grenier is scathing about the “over-ambitious” second American-Afghan war, when Washington launched its counterinsurgency in Helmand, Kandahar and the rest of southern and eastern Afghanistan and embarked on an attempt at nation-building. “It overwhelmed a primitive country … triggered massive corruption through our profligacy, and convinced a substantial number of Afghans that we were in fact occupiers,” he writes. It also “radicalised Pakistan and undermined the political and social underpinnings of a nuclear-armed state”.
Many readers will agree with that assessment, though far fewer will support Grenier’s bland treatment of torture practices. After the Taliban’s collapse, Grenier took charge of CIA activities in the Iraq war and later headed the agency’s Counterterrorism Center before going into private business. It was no surprise that when the Senate Intelligence Committee produced a blistering report a few months ago on CIA torture, Grenier led the counter-attack. In this book he sets the same tone, criticising senators for changing their tune from the allegedly uncomplaining days when they were briefed on the programmes in secret sessions. He acknowledges that what he calls the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) were designed to ensure that detainees “were frightened, humiliated and psychologically worn down, especially through sleep deprivation”, and calls it “a grim business, at best”. But he claims the EITs were efficient and effective — a view that the Senate report rejects, saying that they produced no ticking time-bomb-style information that prevented any attacks but rather led detainees to produce “fabricated” tales.
Grenier is still too much of an old agency man to turn against his former employers on the torture issue. But we can be grateful that he has lifted the lid on the shambles of US policy in and around the Afghan wars.
Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2015