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War without an end

Friday, April 06, 2018

Perhaps the finest book to emerge out of the 17-year-long Afghanistan war makes depressing reading in terms of its prognosis for the future, says K Raj

Directorate S

Writer Steve Coll

Publisher Allen Lane/Penguin Press

The Second Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan have been unmitigated disasters for the US, when viewed from its long-term goals. Sure, its military might was able to achieve a regime change in both places, it is nowhere close to achieving stability in any of these two regions.

There have been several excellent books written on the subject. While Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, George Packer’s Assassin’s Gate focus on life in occupied Iraq and failures of the US policy, Three Trillion Dollar War by Nobel laureate Joseph E Stiglitz and Linda J Bilmes focuses on the cost to the US economy of that ill-founded war. Similarly, Carlotta Gall’s Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014 focuses on the war in Afghanistan and how the US focused on Al Qaeda instead of looking at Pakistan’s involvement in the issue.

But none of these books even come close to Steve Coll’s two books on the US involvement in Afghanistan. Coll is a former Managing Editor of Washington Post and currently the Dean of Columbia University’s School of Journalism. His first book, Ghost Wars published in 2004, fetched him a Pulitzer Prize. Ghost Wars looked at US involvement in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979 up to September 10, 2001.

Directorate S, published recently, is a sequel to Ghost Wars and looks at the issue from September 11, 2001 – the day of the World Trade Centre attacks – to 2016. The title of the book comes from the ultra-secret department of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) tasked with expanding and retaining Pakistani sphere of influence in Afghanistan.

ISI does this by arming and controlling Taliban and by undermining the Afghan government. The success of its strategy and tactics is evident from reading Directorate S. It has been 17 years since US invaded Afghanistan. Mullah Omar, the chief of Taliban is dead. So is Osama Bin Laden, killed in a US Special Forces operation. Ahmed Karzai, President of Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014 – whom US initially hailed as Afghanistan’s Nelson Mandela and later derided as that country’s Robert Mugabe – is also gone.

Yet, during the last year, the legitimacy of the Afghan government is increasingly called into question as corruption reaches epidemic proportions, opium production is at an all-time high and Taliban controls more territory than ever in the last 17 years.

As Coll points out, the US has little to show for the expenditure of the lives of about 2,400 of its soldiers and over a trillion dollars.

How did this come about? Why has the greatest military power the world has ever seen, failed so abjectly? As Coll lays it down in the book in excruciating detail, based on over 550 interviews, it is a combination of unfounded optimism, lack of an understanding of a complex society like Afghanistan and turf wars between various US agencies like the military, CIA and State department.

What the US hasn’t grasped fully or has more likely refused to acknowledge is a simple fact that Richard Holbrooke, former special envoy of President Obama for Pakistan and Afghanistan, used to postulate often – that a counter-insurgency war cannot be won, if the insurgents find a safe sanctuary in a neighbouring country – in this case Pakistan.

Given the terrain and Afghanistan’s long history of resistance to foreign forces, pacifying the country was always going to be a challenge and without full cooperation from Pakistan it was next to impossible.

As Coll points out in the book, the US wanted Pakistan to play two key roles. First to ensure safe passage for the supplies to its forces in Afghanistan and secondly deny Al Qaeda and Taliban a safe sanctuary on its territory to regroup.

But these expectations, especially the second one, was completely at variance with Pakistan’s own strategic goals. Pakistani generals saw Afghanistan as providing “strategic depth” in its struggle against India. A stable, peaceful Afghanistan would have defeated this objective.

As a result, while the generals made every show of cooperating with the US, gratefully accepting billions of dollars in subsidies, Directorate S was simultaneously working to undermine US efforts by arming Taliban and providing it with a sanctuary.

At one point, US even elevated Pakistan to the status of a “major non-NATO ally.” Yet this double game did not stop. What is worse, as Coll points out in the book, is that while the US was aware of this, it had very little leverage on Pakistan – a nuclear state – to bend it to its will.

As a result, even as the US poured in enormous funds and expended thousands of lives, Pakistan never ceased to support the very enemy that the US was fighting against. Directorate S continued to be, as Coll says, “an incubator and enabler of extremism”.

The author terms this inability of the US government to solve the conundrum of Pakistan’s “covert interference in Afghanistan” as the “greatest strategic failure of the American war.

For readers wishing to know what the resolution to this conflict is, Coll doesn’t offer too much hope. The conflict in Afghanistan is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, destabilising the entire region, the book concludes.

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