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Well into its first 200 pages, celebrated American journalist-writer-professor Steve Coll’s book Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016 offers a gripping account of the combined might of the US’ security agencies, at war with al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Coll’s Directorate S, a fitting sequel to his masterful Ghost Wars (which chronicled how the CIA played ‘midwife’ in the birth of Islamist terrorism in Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet invasion of and departure from that country) is a scathing indictment of the “limits of American power”.
A Gripping Insight into Pak’s Deep State
In Coll’s polite words, barring the elimination of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on 1 May 2011 (which was the result of an air-tight and well-executed operation by the CIA), the US National Counter Terrorism Centre and White House’s policies in restoring peace on war-ravaged Afghanistan, were “riddled with such internal contradictions and unresolved analytical questions (that) failed to achieve the extraordinarily ambitious aim of stabilising war-shattered Afghanistan… It became a story of mismatched means and ends.”
The book is an authentic record of misplaced American power, given to contradictions, bungling and botch-ups (as the CIA and other myriad intelligence and security agencies launched their war on global terrorism in the wake of the al Qaeda’s horrific strikes on New York and Washington DC).
Moreover, Directorate S also goes into the heart of the Pakistani security establishment, chiefly the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Not many American writers have delved so deep into Pakistan’s “deep state” like Coll has. It appears that as an unbiased observer and chronicler of the so-called war that America waged on the Taliban and al Qaeda, Coll leaves behind an impression – that while considered to be perfidious in its ways – the Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI) was a “formidable adversary” of the US.
Treacherous Corridors of Power
From the tenure of Pervez Musharraf, first as the Pakistan Army Chief of Staff and then as the country’s military dictator, to General Ashfaq Qayani and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Coll’s narrative accounts, complete with full quotations of several of the actors American, Pakistani and Afghan, over a 15-year-period, is breathtaking and awe-inspiring.
They reveal not just an investigative journalist at work; they unveil a writer’s mind that is at once meticulous, analytical and methodical – in collecting, collating, detailing and presenting an extremely complex narrative that played out on the treacherous mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in the corridors of the White House and the CIA headquarters.
While Directorate S, in large part, connects many seemingly disparate stories into a wholesome narrative, it reveals how India remained a bit player in the high-stakes war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
According to Coll, Pakistan’s extreme levels of suspicions of India’s intentions in Afghanistan after the so-called ‘fall of the Taliban’ in 2001, was fueled by the ISI’s own running and backing of terrorism against India.
From 9/11 to Operation Neptune Spear
Immediately after 9/11, the ISI successfully kept the US at bay from bringing India into the security matrix over Afghanistan. Coll goes back to the 26 November 2008 terror strikes in Mumbai – “a Hollywood-inspired terrorist extravaganza” – in some detail, which convinced the US about the massive threat posed by ISI-backed-and-supported terrorists in South Asia. But the US still hedged its bets on Pakistan as an ally in its war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, especially in the CIA’s unrelenting hunt for bin Laden.
However, the brushes of cooperation between Indian and American security agencies did foster the semblance of trust between the two countries, though the Indian establishment continued to remain ambivalent about partnering wholly with its US counterparts.
Even as Coll avoids repeating details of operation Neptune Spear, that finally took down bin Laden in Abbottabad, he offers an insightful and deeply absorbing account of the deep suspicions that the CIA, the Department of State and the White House harbored about the ISI’s role in shielding and protecting the Taliban (if not the al Qaeda).
Here too, Directorate S reflects the depths of Coll’s reach within the Pakistani, American and Afghan establishments.
Pak’s Collusion in Bin Laden’s Hideout
Coll’s conclusion on the ISI-al Qaeda relationship is summed up in a brief paragraph in which he says that “CIA and other Obama administration officials have said they possess no evidence… that Kayani and Pasha or any other ISI officer knew where bin Laden was hiding. Given the hostility toward Pakistan prevalent in American national security bureaucracy by 2011, if the United States possessed such hard evidence, it almost certainly would have leaked”.
However, notwithstanding Coll’s high-level contacts in Washington and Islamabad, it could safely be surmised that the Pakistani ‘deep state’ was fully aware of bin Laden’s Abbottabad lair.
The CIA would listen in on most phone conversations between the topmost officers of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments, including Kayani and Pasha. In one instance, Coll exposes how “intercepts of phone conversations between Kayani and Pasha after the Abbottabad raid had them sounding surprised about Bin Laden’s whereabouts – or pretending to be surprised – but also captured them expressing envy.”
My argument that the ISI leadership was fully aware of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad stems from evidence that Coll himself presents in the context of Taliban leader, the one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Despite being a high-value target, Omar had escaped assassination by drone-guided missiles, but resurfaced in 2013 as a dead man – who fell prey to a kidney ailment – in a Karachi hospital.
US’ History of Crisis (Mis)Management
Coll acknowledges, and rightly so, that for all the efforts that the US put into resolving the Afghan imbroglio, its “failure to solve the riddle of ISI and to stop its covert interference in Afghanistan became, ultimately, the greatest strategic failure of the American war”. More importantly, the Bush administration’s needless involvement in Iraq certainly deflected its attention from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Bush and Obama administrations, with their multiple agencies and waves of new officials and so-called specialists who occupied sensitive positions between 2001 and 2016, worked with little cooperation among themselves. They “interpreted White House policy memos liberally”, and sometimes so divergently, that their actions, howsoever genuine, caused a means-and-ends “mismatch”, leading ultimately to the failure in establishing a stable government in Kabul.
This, Coll concludes – rightly – was because the American foreign policy, intelligence and military “machine” were “built for competition with other states” or to overcome situations where winning conventional wars, negotiating treaties involving professional diplomats, to “steal secrets of other governments” and patrolling international waters.
The “machine” was not geared to install and run good governments in “deeply impoverished, violent landscapes or to win asymmetric conflicts”. What Coll, however, forgets is that America has always had a history of mismanaging crises emanating from its own policy botch-ups across many theatres of global violence.
Directorate S: The CIA and America’s secret wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016
Penguin Random House
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