Steve Coll’s new book is an excellent account of events of the last two decades in Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Steve has all the credentials to embark on this project. He is one of the best and well-informed journalist and his previous book Ghost Wars is the most authentic work of the history of Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) war in Afghanistan in 1980s. For his new book, he has used important American sources from different departments of US government engaged with Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has also used some Afghan and few Pakistani sources, but it is mainly an American perspective of the events. There is need for work on Pakistani and Afghan perspective which is a far more difficult task.
Book is about events of Af-Pak region and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) gets a lot of attention. Relations between CIA and ISI are not black and white. In the aftermath of September 11, majority of ISI officers were leery about too close cooperation with US and especially CIA. On the other hand, especially in early phase of 2001-2003, a small cadre of ISI officers viewed foreign fighters as serious threat to Pakistan’s security and wanted to use this opportunity of close cooperation with CIA to neutralize this threat. In this period of convergence of interest focused solely on al Qaeda, there was close cooperation and certain degree of trust between ground operatives of both agencies. CIA Islamabad station as well as satellite facilities in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar housed several dozen personnel from different US intelligence agencies especially technical intelligence staff. CIA used its technical superiority of surveillance while ISI used its human sources to dismantle al Qaeda in the region.
There were many thoughtful ISI officers who provided analysis of possible scenarios of US intervention in Afghanistan at a time when everyone was raising Champagne glasses for victory toast. Some CIA officers agreed with ISI point of view especially regarding Pushtun question of Afghanistan. In the winter of 2001, CIA station chief in Islamabad Robert Grenier comprehended the American dilemma better than many of his colleagues. He agreed with military action but understood Pakistan’s position. CIA Director George Tenet’s Chief of Staff John Brennan agreed with some of Grenier’s analysis. However, they were in minority and events unfolded differently. There were others like former Islamabad station chief Milton Bearden who thought that given enough time, Taliban may give up Bin Ladin thus avoiding a military mission, however there was no customer in Washington willing to buy this item.
Predictably, CIA exaggerated while ISI downplayed the role of ISI in Afghanistan and truth is somewhere in the middle. ISI unclear about US mission in Afghanistan as well as feeling hurt by CIA’s last mission and its fall out was not enthusiastic to jump on American wagon in haste. Director General of Analysis (DG-A) at ISI then Major General Javed Alam (later Lieutenant General) admitted that less than a dozen ISI officers were working in Afghanistan prior to American invasion. He also disclosed that most of the Pakistanis who went to Afghanistan to defend collapsing Taliban regime in the winter of 2001 were from Southern Punjab. He wryly commented that most of them died and ‘they got their just deserts’.
Later, mistrust between Pakistan and US widened and involved all agencies. ISI has some influence in Afghanistan and some of its policies contributed to the instability in that country. However, to blame ISI for all American follies in Afghanistan is incorrect and unfair. ISI is a huge bureaucracy with a checkered past. It is not a monolithic entity and there is wide range of opinion among senior and mid-level officers. The aura of playing in the ‘big league’ gives the agency a clout in internal and external policies but it comes with a price that it is also blamed for sins of others.
Steve provides details of genuine difference of opinion on policy matters as well as turf wars of US government agencies. This provides a window to US decision making process and impact of institutional and personal friction on policies on the ground. We tend to generalize government policies for easy comprehension and ignore these subtle changes. Steve provides this perspective as far US decision making process is concerned. There is no serious attempt to understand similar case of Pakistan. In my own work on Pakistan army, I found similar challenges of Pakistani decision makers. Army brass was reluctant to share details with civilian government especially when Asif Ali Zardari was President. In the army, there was friction between officers involved in operations against militants and intelligence officers. Professionally competent and confident officers took charge of the operations and realized that some ISI policies were detrimental to ongoing operations. These officers relied less on ISI and kept intelligence officers at arm’s length. On the other hand, officers who were less confident, relied more on ISI. I found former lot much more successful than the later.
There is a small error in caption of a 2005 picture about Pakistan on first page of pictures. The caption wrongly identifies two Pakistani army officers flanking Colonel David Smith as Lieutenant General Tariq Majid and Major General Asif Akhtar. The officers are then Lieutenant General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and Lieutenant General Muhammad Yusuf.
This book should be on the reading list of anyone interested in Af-Pak region. It is summary of major events of the last two decades that affected Pakistan and Afghanistan and Steve takes us on this journey as an informed guide. It covers events as seen from the tall citadels of power of Washington to individuals who do heavy lifting like mules in a big caravan. For a thoughtful reader, it is a sober and humbling read about the limits of power.
Steve Coll. Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (New York: Penguin Press), 2018. 757 pp.
25 August 2018