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NON-FICTION: THE PRICE OF STRATEGIC BLUNDERS

May 13, 2018

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A US soldier drinks tea with Afghan villagers. Washington’s mistakes have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Americans over the past 16 years |  Reuters
A US soldier drinks tea with Afghan villagers. Washington’s mistakes have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Americans over the past 16 years | Reuters

Noted British historian A.J.P. Taylor once wrote that human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness.

Three months after the gruesome 9/11 attack on American soil, the United States forces in Afghanistan had pummelled Al Qaeda bases, dislodged the Taliban government, installed Hamid Karzai as the head of government in Kabul and had the Al Qaeda leadership on the run, seeking to flee to Pakistan.

Sixteen years later — after spending nearly a trillion dollars and losing close to 2,500 of its own soldiers in addition to killing over 175,000 in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Osama bin Laden — Washington, despite military surges and withdrawal announcements, is still embroiled in what is the longest war in its history. So much so that in 2014, at a ceremony marking the end of a phase of US combat in Afghanistan, the programme noted that “attendees should lie down flat on the ground in the event of a rocket attack.”

A Pulitzer-winning author details the lack of coherence and consistency that have characterised US military involvement in Afghanistan since 2001

In order to understand how Washington found itself in such an inextricable and unenviable position, one has to read Steve Coll’s well-researched book Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan 2001-2016. The title is based on the Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) supposedly most secret division, Directorate S, which controls covert operations “in support of the Taliban, Kashmiri guerrillas, and other violent Islamic radicals.” The book criticises the questionable methods and motives of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency and discusses the ambitions and anxieties of the ISI’s various chiefs.

It is a worth-reading sequel to Coll’s majestic and magisterial Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, which deals with the first episode of US involvement in Afghanistan from 1979-2001. Combining an investigative journalist’s unerring eye for detail with a natural storyteller’s gift for narrative, Coll, a former South Asia correspondent for The Washington Post and staff writer on the New Yorker, won a Pulitzer Prize for Ghost Wars and displays the same impressive talents in his latest book.

The main focus of Directorate S, however, is the incoherent and inconsistent policy and covert war pursued by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other American agencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the last 16 years. As such, the subtitle would have been a more appropriate title for the book.

Coll writes a detailed and definitive account of Washington’s missteps, misjudgements and mistakes under two American presidents — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — in their Afghanistan war from 2001-2016. The inconclusive US campaign in Afghanistan, in the author’s words, is a humbling case study of the limits of American power.

By the last week of November 2001, Washington became distracted as then Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld ordered Gen Tommy Franks, who was preparing to launch Tora Bora operations in Afghanistan, to immediately start preparing for the invasion of Iraq. Both Karzai and the US envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, argued with Washington to approve negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, months after the attack on Afghanistan, to drive a wedge between different factions and to wean them away from hardcore and mainstream Taliban factions. Washington rejected the proposal.

One of the early turning points in the Afghan war was in December 2001 when high-level Al Qaeda leadership was trying to escape from the Tora Bora mountains into Pakistan following severe aerial attacks by Allied forces. Pakistani generals asked for help from the Americans to airlift troops high into the Hindu Kush mountains to close the backdoor escape route of Al Qaeda militants, but Washington refused to extend any help to the Pakistani generals. This would prove to be a costly mistake as not only did Al Qaeda militants pour into hideouts in Pakistan, but also wreaked havoc — in collaboration with local militants — in Pakistan’s cities and borderlands with Afghanistan.

Further blunders by the Americans included keeping both Pakistan and Afghanistan in the dark about their talks with the Taliban in Qatar, an effort which ended in embarrassing failure. By 2012, a quarter of the soldiers killed in the US-led alliance were killed by the very Afghan soldiers they were training. Additionally, American agents were actually still negotiating with representatives of Mullah Omar — nearly a year after he had died in a Pakistani hospital.

The goal posts for the US forces in Afghanistan changed many times. US forces have failed in their twin objectives of nation-building and counterterrorism in Afghanistan. Obama’s 2009 decision to beef up the US military presence by 30,000 troops was followed by the announcement that, after 18 months, they would start coming home. With insurgents and militants of all hues — the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and now Islamic State (ISIS) — gaining strength again, current American president Donald Trump recently seems to have reversed the earlier decision to pull out of Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, Gen Ziaul Haq wrongly believed that the Soviets would occupy Afghanistan for a long time and Pakistan would continue to be a recipient of generous US aid. He was surprised when the Soviets decided to withdraw in 1988. Decades later, then president Gen Pervez Musharraf and Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani miscalculated that the US would be leaving Afghanistan soon and played a double game — as Coll shows — so that Pakistan-backed proxies could be used in a scramble for power in Kabul in a post US-withdrawal scenario. The American presence in Afghanistan has outlasted Gen Musharraf and Bush as well as Gen Kayani and Obama.

It was not only Gen Musharraf and Gen Kayani who believed that Washington would withdraw soon from Afghanistan; Afghan president Karzai also shared this view. All of them had many reasons to believe so as Washington became distracted from Afghanistan and attacked Iraq in March 2003. The US National Security Council in 2003 met to discuss Afghanistan only twice.

In addition, it was around 2005 that Pakistan, Coll believes, changed its policy towards Afghanistan — as Bush went ahead with cutting a significant civilian nuclear energy agreement with India. American envoy Richard Holbrooke was the first analyst to recognise that the ISI viewed Afghanistan through its India-obsessed prism, believing that Washington had aligned with the Northern Alliance and India to win a military victory that would leave Afghanistan hostile to Pakistan.

Pakistani generals maintained that Pakistan had paid a high price in joining the US war on terrorism after 9/11, as it had been rocked by the spillover of America’s failed invasion of Afghanistan. The ISI’s support to the Afghan Taliban, if it were ever acknowledged, was portrayed as a defensive effort, meant to push the American-war generated violence in Pakistan back to Afghanistan, rather than as a covert offensive to retake Kabul.

American intelligence had formed the opinion that the ISI did not deal directly with the Taliban by delivering cash or weapons, but extended covert assistance to Taliban groups through a network of retired ISI officers, non-governmental organisations and other ‘cut-outs’. Despite its repeated efforts to strengthen Pakistan’s fragile civilian government, Washington continued to view, and work with, the Pakistan Army instead of their ineffective civilian counterparts, as their most dependable ally in Pakistan.

One US intelligence memo listed the Pakistani covert intelligence agency’s day-to-day priorities in the following order of preference: collecting information about then president Asif Ali Zardari and his political activities; suppressing the Pakistani Taliban; and monitoring and assessing a medley of militant groups active against India. The list did not include Al Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban — the top priorities of the Obama administration in the region.

Coll believes that the ISI was not complicit in hiding Bin Laden; he pinpoints corruption and incompetence in the Pakistani police and intelligence agencies as the main reasons for failure in tracking him. Given the hostile Pak-US relations during 2011, Washington — he argues — would have leaked any evidence pointing to the ISI’s complicity if it believed the agency were actually involved. However, at the end of the book, Coll’s key conclusion is that Washington’s inability “to solve the riddle” of Pakistan’s ISI and “to stop its covert interference in Afghanistan” constituted the “greatest strategic failure of the American war.”

Afghanistan has been a story of guns, drugs and jihad since 1979. In Coll’s book, the Afghan leadership comes across as hopelessly ineffective, embarrassingly incompetent and outrightly corrupt. It is not surprising, then, that the Taliban have reclaimed territory over which they had previously lost control. Opium production has hit an all-time high despite repeated efforts by foreign forces to destroy poppy fields.

The US remains stuck in the Afghan quagmire because of a number of strategic errors. However, the Afghan imbroglio could have been resolved in the long run through three factors: involving all neighbours — most notably Pakistan but also Iran, Russia, India and China — in stabilising Afghanistan, building up the Afghan state institutions through good governance, and engaging the Afghan Taliban in a meaningful dialogue with stakeholders in Washington, Kabul and Islamabad at the same time. Failure to achieve all these objectives means, as the author warns, that the longest war in America’s history will “be longer still.”

The reviewer is an Islamabad-based independent researcher

Directorate S: The CIA and
America’s Secret Wars
in Afghanistan and Pakistan
2001-2016
By Steve Coll
Allen Lane, UK
ISBN: 978-1846146602
757pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 13th, 2018