Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan

by Steve Coll

Hardcover, 2018

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Penguin Press (2018), 784 pages


"Prior to 9/11, the United States had been carrying out small-scale covert operations in Afghanistan, ostensibly in cooperation with, although often in direct opposition to, I.S.I., the Pakistani intelligence agency. While the United States was trying to quell extremists, a highly secretive and compartmentalized wing of I.S.I., known as "Directorate S," was covertly training, arming, and seeking to legitimize the Taliban in order to enlarge Pakistan's sphere of influence. After 9/11, when fifty-nine countries, led by the United States, deployed troops or provided aid to Afghanistan in an effort to flush out the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the United States was set on an invisible slow-motion collision course with Pakistan. Today we know that the war in Afghanistan would falter badly because of military hubris at the highest levels of the Pentagon, the drain on resources and provocation in the Muslim world caused by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and corruption. But more than anything, as Coll makes painfully clear, the war in Afghanistan was doomed because of the failure of the United States to apprehend the motivations and intentions of I.S.I.'s Directorate S. This was a swirling and shadowy struggle of historic proportions, which endured over a decade and across both the Bush and Obama administrations, involving multiple secret intelligence agencies, a litany of incongruous strategies and tactics, and dozens of players, including some of the most prominent military and political figures. A sprawling American tragedy, the war was an open clash of arms but also a covert melee of ideas, secrets, and subterranean violence. Coll excavates this grand battle, which took place away from the gaze of the American public. With unsurpassed expertise, original research, and attention to detail, he brings to life a narrative at once vast and intricate, local and global, propulsive and painstaking. This is the definitive explanation of how America came to be so badly ensnared in an elaborate, factional, and seemingly interminable conflict in South Asia. Nothing less than a forensic examination of the personal and political forces that shape world history, Directorate S is a complete masterpiece of both investigative and narrative journalism."--Dust jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member iftyzaidi
The short of it is that this is a massive, densely packed book which gives a good overview of what happens after the USA decides to go to war in Afghanistan after 9/11. Coll's [Ghost Wars] was THE definitive book on the history of the CIA engagement in Afghanistan up to 9/11 and this book certainly
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stakes a claim to being the definitive account of American involvement from 9/11 up to the end of Operation Enduring Freedom and the American-led International Security Assistance Force's combat mission in December 2014.

If there is one complaint it is that the titular Directorate S (The arm of the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence that is tasked with establishing influence in Afghanistan) does not feature as much as one would hope or expect. Or rather it features heavily by its behind-the-scenes, mysterious absence - its actions or lack thereof and influence over events are seen by Coll (and many of the various US military commanders and CIA officials who troop through Kabul) as being a major, if not the main, contributor to the USA's lack of success in achieving its mission. I hoped there might be insights in to its activities, debates and decision-making but its all really an area of speculation which I suppose is not really surprising given the opacity of the Pakistani intelligence services to western reporters.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Steve Coll’s latest book, Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a sequel to Coll‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars, an excellent chronicling of the CIA's involvement in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion through September 10, 2001.

As Coll
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painstakingly explains, U.S. relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan are, and have been, extremely complex due in no small part to the number of groups with conflicting interests. Pakistan perceives itself in a life and death struggle with India, its neighbor to the east, with whom it has had three unsuccessful wars since its founding in 1947. Its rivalry with India is largely based on religious differences; Pakistan originally split from British India to carve out an Islamic State.

Pakistan’s neighbor to the west is Afghanistan, a country that is nearly 100% Muslim. But Afghanistan is riven with tribal differences (Pashtuns vs. Tajik vs. Uzbek, etc.) as well as different versions of Islam. The capital, Kabul, is relatively modern and sophisticated; much of the hinterland is dominated by an almost medieval, primitive version of Islam practiced by the Taliban. Indeed, Afghanistan is embroiled in a long-lived civil war between the Taliban and a more moderate, enlightened government in Kabul.

Pakistan considers a friendly, or at least neutral, Afghanistan to be essential to its well being in its struggle with India. Pakistan has exerted its influence in Afghanistan through the ISI, its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has found common ground with the Taliban largely through religious affinity.

The United States became involved in Afghanistan in the 1980s in a proxy war against the USSR by supplying arms to insurgents fighting the Soviet-sponsored communist government. Those insurgents often were religious fundamentalists. The Soviets purposefully decimated the country’s educated elites, leaving the country to radical preachers and armed opportunists. Some of these morphed into Al Qaeda members after the defeat of the Russians.

The US supplanted the Soviets as invaders shortly after September 11, 2001, after it became known that Osama bin Laden had been operating as a guest of the Taliban, which at the time controlled the capital, Kabul, and most of the rest of the country. Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda operated training camps for terrorists in Taliban controlled areas.

By supporting the Northern Alliance, a rival of the Taliban, the US was able to drive the Taliban out of the capital, Kabul, and secure control of much of the country. Osama bin Laden was forced to go underground and eventually escaped to Pakistan, as it was learned much later. Then thing got "interesting" as the US and its allies failed to completely irradicate the Taliban, which underwent a "rebirth" of sorts and began to take back portions of the country. The US is still mired in that horrible quagmire seventeen years later.

The actual “Directorate S” is the section of Pakistan’s ISI that deals with the Taliban. It is thought to be responsible for helping create the Taliban’s safe harbors within the borders of Pakistan. Those safe harbors have immensely complicated the task of the American military in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In a section of the book entitled “Losing the Peace,” Coll blames the Bush administration for failing to bolster the nascent Afghan government that replaced the Taliban in 2002. It refused to pay even 10% of the war’s cost to secure the peace with new Afghan forces. One American observer noted, “You get what you pay for, and we paid for war.”

Some of America’s lack of success in Afghanistan can be attributed to the Bush administration’s emphasis on Iraq even though it had been the Afghan Taliban that had sheltered Osama bin Laden. For example, the CIA increasingly deployed lightly experienced officers in Afghanistan while sending the heavy hitters to Iraq. The US was never able to obtain the complete cooperation of Pakistan, which (in Coll’s words) played a double game—assisting both the US and the Taliban.

By the time Obama replaced Bush, Hamid Karzai, the man the Americans had put in place to head the new Afghan government, had soured on America’s participation in the war. His primary rationale was that American’s tended to kill too many innocent Afghans in their pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Karzai also blamed Pakistan for its support of the Taliban.

Another complication in trying to make sense of Afghanistan is that that country’s most profitable industry is opium production. The Americans tried to destroy the poppy fields to deprive the Taliban of a source of income, but in doing so they also greatly depressed the economy of their Afghan allies.

One of the most moving sections of the book deals with “green on blue” murders—the phenomenon of Afghan army trainees turning their weapons on their American or European trainers. The cultural differences between the two groups were extreme, with the exaggerated respect shown to the Q'uran by the Afghans being one of the most intractable aspects of the relationship. Many religious Afghans simply could not tolerate the presence of large numbers of infidels (Americans) in their midst. For their part, many Americans showed an insulting lack of respect for Islam and the Q'uran.

The book also recounts an event in 2014 that should send shivers down the spines of all Americans. Apparently, two fervently religious Pakistani naval officers hatched a plan to commandeer a Pakistani warship that may have had a small nuclear weapon aboard. They planned to use the vessel, which also had a large naval gun and several missiles aboard, to attack American ships conducting joint maneuvers with the Pakistani navy. Fortunately they were thwarted by alert Pakistani commandos assigned to guard the ship, but their efforts represent the first armed terrorist attack against a facility holding nuclear weapons. Coll warns ominously, “Judging by Pakistan’s trajectory, it was unlikely to be the last.”

Coll asserts that the war became a “humbling case study in the limits of American power.” He argued that “the 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.” He concludes that about the best the U.S. can hope for in Afghanistan is a sort of stalemate with the Taliban as long as it is supported by the ISI. The situation may come to resemble Mexico’s struggle with narco-traffickers or Colombia’s long war with the F.A.R.C. In each case the state, although fragmented and corrupt, remained more or less intact and continued to cooperate with the US and Europe.

Evaluation: Coll’s masterful study is carefully researched. It provides much more detail than can be duplicated in a (relatively) short review. In Ghost Wars, we learned that events in the region could be characterized as missed opportunities, owing, as Coll suggested, to "indifference, lassitude, blindness, paralysis, and commercial greed" that shaped America's foreign policy in Afghanistan and South Asia. Similarly in this book, we read about an endless number of strategic reviews and studies commissioned by the White House, Pentagon, CIA, and State Department, with no immediate effect.

The bleak assessment of this book is hard to gainsay in light of Coll’s thorough presentation. This is an important book for Americans who hope to understand the complications involved in intervening in foreign, particularly Islamic, lands.

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National Book Award (Longlist — Nonfiction — 2018)
National Book Critics Circle Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 2018)




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