The Blurb On The Back:
In the wake of the terrible shock of 9/11, the CIA scrambled to work out how to destroy Bin Laden and his associated. The CIA had long familiarity with Afghanistan and had worked closely with the Taliban to defeat the Soviet Union there. Superficially the invasion was quick and efficient, but Bin Laden’s successful escape, together with that of much of the Taliban leadership, and a catastrophic failure to define the limits of NATO’s mission in a tough, impoverished country the size of Texas, created a quagmire, which has now lasted many years.
At the heart of the problem lay ‘Directorate S’, a highly secretive arm of the Pakistan state, which had been covertly arming and training the Taliban for years as part of a wider competition for global influence, and which assumed that the USA and its allies would soon be leaving.
This remarkable new book tells a powerful, bitter story of just how badly foreign policy decisions can go wrong.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Steve Coll is a staff writer on The New Yorker who has previously written about Al Qaeda and the CIA’s activities in Afghanistan and in this insightful, gripping and horrifying read (a companion book to the earlier GHOST WARS), he aims to give a history of the relationship between the CIA, ISI and Afghan intelligence agencies and their respective governmental foreign policy and how their collective failures led to the rise of jihadi terrorism.
Coll writes in a linear fashion but the huge number of people involved in each of the respective nation players, coupled with the complexities of the various operations going on meant that I did sometimes lost track of who was who and what their relationship was with other people. There is a cast of characters at the front, which helps and I liked the biographical details that Coll gave on individuals, which helps to draw them out and keep them in your memory – e.g. the free-wheeling, grand-standing Richard Holbrooke constantly juggling phones and Ahmed Pasha, the Director-General of Pakistan’s ISI 2008 – 2010 who was proud of his humble roots and railed against Pakistan’s elite. However the complexity of the read is exacerbated by the fact that at times chapters double back on themselves to follow alternative events going on at the same time. All of this means that this is a challenging book and one that you really need to read cover to cover in a few sittings rather than try to dip in and out of (a big ask given this comes in at almost 700 pages).
That said there is no doubt that Coll has done his homework (and in the Author’s Note he acknowledges the support he received from Christina Satkowski and Elizabeth Barber who carried out interviews and document analysis and fact-checked the book respectively) and there is a huge amount of information in here that anyone who wants to understand what is currently going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan would do well to check out.
What stands out is that neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations had any real long-term plan for how they wanted things to pan out in Afghanistan, no clue on how to handle Afghanistan’s tribal politics and regional set up and no clue how to handle Pakistan with its complicated relationship between the military and civilian governments. So much of what played out appears here to be due to the personalities of the main players and their relationships with each other (e.g. the insecure Afghan President Hamid Karzai felt better treated by Bush who understood the need to make him feel special and in the circle than by the more cerebral Obama who took more an assertive stance) with US diplomats such as Zalmay Khalilzad (US Ambassador to Afghanistan 2003 – 2005) building personal relationships with Karzai to an extent that he became almost a personal advisor.
With Pakistan, the overriding take-away is that while the US was frustrated by the ISI’s support of the Taliban (with repeated intelligence proving that they were funding fighters and sending them back into Afghanistan) they lacked the will to really challenge them on it out of fear of creating further instability in a nuclear power. The ISI emerges here as a unit that operates independently within the already autonomous Pakistan military but where there are pockets that act independently of even ISI’s internal governance, e.g. with regard to funding terrorist atrocities. Coll’s research shows the gulf between the civilian regime, which exercises no control as it is so dependent on the military to help prop it up and the military is obsessed with India and what it believes is its rivals attempts to undermine it. (The main weakness of the book is that there is no investigation on whether Pakistan’s fears were/are justified – certainly the examples given in the book, such as Indian’s increased presence in trying to rebuild Afghanistan – suggests that this is pure paranoia but there is simply not enough analysis to allow the reader to form an opinion).
The best sections of the book for me were the human stories where Coll follows individual soldier’s accounts of their time in Afghanistan – either through interview with them or their families or written diaries. The lack of equipment and on-the-ground knowledge that they had is frightening and you can well imagine the soldier’s fear as they faced IEDs that were difficult to spot and disarm and had deadly results. Also good are the endless strategy documents and Powerpoint presentations that the CIA and State Department kept putting together as they tried to find a way out of the quagmire, their efforts hampered by a lack of on-the-ground reliable information and the chapters that look at the panic created by the rise of Afghan/terrorist attacks on US army personnel from within their own bases or within training scenarios is truly horrifying.
Ultimately I think that if you have any interest in what is happening in the region or why the West went in there in the first place, then this is a must-read and I will definitely be checking out Coll’s other work on the strength of this one.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.