When Wendy Chamberlin, then American Ambassador to Islamabad, met Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf four days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to discuss a post-Taliban Afghanistan, the General said Pakistan supported America’s war plans but with some conditions. The post-Taliban government in Kabul should be pro-Pakistan and Pashtun-dominated, he said. “Extremism is not in every Taliban... One knows for sure that there are many moderate elements,” he added, questioning the American narrative on the Taliban.
This approach summarises Pakistan’s strategy for Afghanistan — it supported the U.S.’ counter-terror operations in Afghanistan and attempts to build a post-Taliban government while at the same time covertly providing assistance to the Taliban. The U.S., desperate for Pakistan’s backing for its mission, was willing to accommodate some of Gen. Musharraf’s demands, according to Directorate S , Steve Coll’s brilliant new book on the CIA and America’s secret wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan during 2001-2016.
Coll, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who is currently the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, painstakingly reconstructs America’s longest war with all its strategic advances and blunders and disclosing how partnerships between a great power and its allies work at time of crises. The 757-page book opens with the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary commander of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, two days prior to the 9/11 attacks, and then takes the reader into the complex world of war, intelligence battles, political infighting, insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. From the very beginning of American intervention, Coll writes, Pakistan has been a reluctant player. When President George W. Bush asked Gen. Musharraf bluntly if Pakistan was “with us or against us,” the General didn’t have many options but to join the war. But the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistan army’s spy wing, had cultivated deep ties with the Taliban that date back to the days of Soviet invasion. Pakistan joined the American alliance, but the Directorate S, a unit of ISI that was in charge of the agency’s secret operations in Afghanistan and India, continued its operation.
Coll suggests Pakistan’s main concern was the India factor. The generals were wary of possible expansion of Indian influence in a post-Taliban Afghanistan. And they saw the Northern Alliance, which was leading the ground battles against the Taliban with American air cover, as an Indian ally. That’s why they wanted a Pashtun-dominated government. The Plan B was to maintain links with the Taliban because Pakistan did not expect the Americans to last long in Afghanistan. To avoid the CIA’s scrutiny, the ISI moved its covert action cell supporting the Taliban out of its Islamabad headquarters to an army camp at Ojhri, near Rawalpindi. “From the evidence available, it seems most likely that [the] ISI did pull back many of its officers from Afghanistan during the American bombardment but kept its support for the Taliban viable,” writes Coll. The outcome is today’s Afghanistan that’s at war with itself.
Coll doesn’t make any suggestion on how to stabilise the war-torn country. But he points to a host of mistakes which all sides have committed during the course of the war. The U.S. could have taken out Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, in the very first night of the war. But the U.S. leaders were initially indecisive and by the time the order was given, it was too late. Had Omar been killed in the initial days of the war, that would have sent a message to the different factions within the Taliban, who would have cooperated with the Americans. One of the early priorities of the post-Taliban provisional government led by Hamid Karzai and advised by American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was to reach out to the remaining Taliban factions and they got positive signals from them.
A compromise would have averted a full-scale prolonged war. But at this juncture, the U.S. ruled out talks with the Taliban and stayed the military course. And once the Taliban was driven out of Kabul and other cities, the focus should have been on reconstruction and stopping the threat re-emerging. But in 2003, the U.S.’ attention shifted to the Iraq war, and Taliban was plotting a comeback with help from the ISI.
The Afghan intelligence agency, led by Amrullah Saleh, a former associate of Massoud, made several complaints to the U.S. about the collusion between the ISI and the Taliban. Following intelligence pileup, President Bush asked Ambassador Khalilzad to meet President Musharraf to discuss the accusations. “There are no Taliban here,” Musharraf said blankly. And the U.S. went on with its partnership with Pakistan.
Donald Trump is the third American President since the U.S. attacked Afghanistan. President Barack Obama had announced a surge and then a timeline for the U.S. troops withdrawal. Mr. Trump has announced more troops for Afghanistan. The Kabul government had held talks with the Taliban earlier, which collapsed, and has now made a fresh offer. All these efforts suggest that the war has entered into a stalemate. After 17 years of fighting and spending billions of dollars, the Taliban, still backed by Pakistan, is now either controlling or threatening almost 70% of Afghanistan. It’s too strong to be beaten, but not strong enough to retake Kabul. Directorate S , which Coll describes as “a humbling case study in the limits of American power,” reminds the world that the longest war in America’s history “would be longer still.”
Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016 ; Steve Coll, Allen Lane, ₹799.