It is widely accepted that the United States’ war to flush out the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11 faltered because of military hubris, a drain on resources, corruption, and provocation in the Muslim world caused by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Yet there is more to the story. The war was also doomed because of American failure to grasp the role of the Pakistan intelligence agency ISI’s secret wing, “Directorate S”, which has been equipping, training, and propping up the Taliban to consolidate Pakistan’s sphere of influence. It took the United States a painfully long time to realize the ramifications of Directorate S’s objectives in Afghanistan.
So argues Steve Coll, a staff writer at the New Yorker and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, in his latest book, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Coll, who is also the dean of Columbia Journalism School, visited SIPA on December 4 to talk about the book and the vexing irresolution of the longest-running war in American history. He was joined by SIPA faculty Dipali Mukhopadhyay, Stephen Biddle, and Richard Betts, who moderated the discussion.
The new book is a follow-up to Coll’s Pulitzer-winning Ghost Wars, which explored the U.S. intelligence community’s failure to recognize the threat of Islamic radicalism and the rise of Osama bin Laden. Directorate S covers the subsequent war in Afghanistan and attempts to answer the following key question: “Why did the U.S. and NATO fail to achieve their goals in Afghanistan?”
Both the Bush and Obama administrations struggled to define the “vital interests” of the United States to justify their war in Afghanistan. Eventually, the vital interests were narrowed down by the Obama administration to, first, denying a safe haven to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and second, stopping Afghanistan from destabilizing Pakistan to prevent terrorist groups from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan was insistent about one thing whenever he met with American officials: if the United States didn’t do something about the ISI’s involvement in the war, it would never achieve its goals. The Americans would receive this advice as evasion of Karzai’s responsibility for the failures of the Afghan governance and corruption, which was partly true. The Bush administration did not take the ISI’s influence seriously for a long time. The Obama administration was not serious about negotiations with key players in the region like it was in the cases of Iran or Cuba.
The Americans confused Karzai “by constantly telling him we respected his views as the sovereign leader of Afghanistan but then failing to act on his urge to do something to put more pressure on Pakistan,” Coll said. “This led him to become convinced that there must be an ulterior explanation. If the U.S. wanted to change Pakistan’s conduct in Afghanistan, it could. But it’s not doing that. So the U.S. must want ISI to destabilize Afghanistan in order to justify having long-term military presence in the country.”
Mukhopadhyay said that Afghanistan’s historical position of constantly being caught in great-power competitions and split up by warlords. National Afghan leaders often have had no choice but to “schizophrenically” collaborate with great powers as well as regional warlords to uphold a functioning state. In that sense, she said she had a “sympathy” for Karzai and gave him credit for laying the groundwork for the expansion of the central government. She also said Afghanistan was “a humbling case study in the limitations of U.S. power.”
Biddle attributed the cause of the American stalemate in Afghanistan not to the difficulty of identifying national interests, but rather the means to achieve the ends. He said that the U.S. military doctrine of aiding indigenous allies was doomed to fail in Afghanistan because the United States had failed to understand that national Afghan leaders like Karzai must prioritize “internal balancing” of power over any external threats, leading to rampant corruption. Biddle suggested that the U.S. must carefully leverage its military support as a way to strengthen the position of the central government in Afghanistan.
Coll highlighted additional lessons that have often been overlooked. Pakistan, he said, eventually agreed to cooperate with the United States after initially opposing the invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan again became suspicious of the U.S. when the latter signed a nuclear treaty with India, Pakistan’s main strategic rival. Embroiled in a costly occupation in Iraq, the U.S. was stretched thin and relied upon its allies to keep the peace in Afghanistan.
“The Pakistani high command, I think, essentially saw this as a fulfillment of their prophecy that the Americans were never going to stay again,” Coll said. “So why wouldn’t [Pakistani leaders] go back to their playbook? Why would [Pakistan] help out the Americans?”
Coll also noted that the ISI is a highly disciplined organization that has perfected the art of plausible deniability for its operations; as an example he cited its role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. However, he still has not found any evidence that Pakistan was secretly harboring bin Laden.
The panel agreed that the Trump administration has been more enthusiastic than its predecessors about negotiating with the Taliban. The panelists saw the need for Pakistan to be involved in the process, emphasizing that American leaders could not simply ignore the precarious geopolitics of a region that will greatly impact national security for years to come. Mukhopadhyay and Biddle ended the panel expressing cautiously optimistic sentiment that a settlement could end the United States’ longest-running war.
“The war has been stalemated for years with little or no negotiating progress,” Biddle said. “I think the odds are strong that the stalemate is going to break soon. It could break badly or it could break well. Part of the prospect for it breaking well is the danger that it could break badly.”
— Jeenho Hahm MPA ’19