Michael KreponSteve Coll on the Afghan Quagmire

Quotes of the Week:

“The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states…The United States will stand beside any nation determined to build a better future by seeking the rewards of liberty for its people.” — George W. Bush administration National Security Strategy, 2002

“The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone—indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power. In the past, we have had the foresight to act judiciously and to avoid acting alone…America has not succeeded by stepping outside the currents of the international system.” — Barack Obama administration National Security Strategy, 2010

“Globally, we have moved beyond the large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that defined so much of American foreign policy over the past decade. Compared to the nearly 180,000 troops we had in Iraq and Afghanistan when I took office, we now have fewer than 15,000 deployed in those countries.” — Barack Obama administration National Security Strategy, 2015

“We will bolster the fighting strength of the Afghan security forces to convince the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield and to set the conditions for diplomatic efforts to achieve enduring peace.” — Trump administration National Security Strategy, 2017


Steve Coll’s new book, Directorate S: The C.I.A.’s and America’ Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, picks up where Ghost Wars (2004) leaves off. Coll has now penned a two-volume, 1,000-plus-page opus of futility, confusion, misplaced hopes, and error. Despite the talent and commitment the Bush, Obama, and now Trump administrations have put into this fight, the pieces just don’t fit. The demons won’t fall in line or behave, regardless of critical policy adjustments from democracy building to seizing, holding, and handing off parcels of real estate to the Afghan National Army; from counter-terrorism to counter-narcotics to counterinsurgency; from campaigns against Al Qaeda to campaigns against the Afghan Taliban; and from coddling to bashing Pakistan.

Afghanistan remains a quagmire for U.S. troops who can’t succeed without good Afghan governance, increasingly capable Afghan national forces, and a strong partnership with Pakistan. All have been consistently lacking. The current hope lies in a diplomatic settlement with the Afghan Taliban, which is hard to get off the ground  and unlikely to be long lasting. Washington keeps looking for an exit strategy but the obviousness of this pursuit reinforces the steadfastness of its opponents. Wars whose initiation are badly misconceived – and no country’s record since Vietnam is worse on this score than the United States – do not usually end well.

The initiation of U.S. combat in Afghanistan wasn’t optional after the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon but as Coll recounts, this campaign went awry very quickly. The initial U.S. air strikes were directed against typical target sets in conventional warfare instead of focusing on an unconventional campaign to decapitate the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. As leaders from both ranks were fleeing from Kabul and Kandahar, the best chance of a knock-out blow was lost with insufficient boots on the ground and deficient combat firepower.

Whatever help Pakistan’s troops might have provided in rounding up fleeing Afghan and Al Qaeda leaders evaporated when Pakistan-based jihadists attacked the Indian parliament building in December 2001, shifting Rawalpindi’s attention to counter the mobilization of Indian troops along fighting corridors. In a chronicle woven together by conspiracy theories, it’s remarkable that this daring attack and the extended crisis it prompted are missing from Coll’s detailed account. Was this a masterstroke to loosen the noose encircling Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders or a random occurrence? Either way, the prospect of another war on the subcontinent, so soon after Kargil, shifted Pakistan’s and the Bush administration’s focus away from the Tora Bora cave complex. Al Qaeda and the Taliban would live to fight another day. Pakistan would help initially with the former, but not the latter.

Truth be told, U.S. prospects of winning quickly and decisively in Afghanistan were never great. President George W. Bush’s reelection, amidst ringing pronouncements of promoting democracy in far away lands, were hollow. The Afghan campaign was under-resourced from the start. Even if the Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leadership had been decapitated, Afghan politics would have devolved into the bad movie on display in the many years to follow, featuring sectarianism, warlord-ism, double-dealing and corruption. Coll makes an utterly convincing, but unstated case that that this demon-infested landscape has been beyond Washington’s ability to repair – although the Trump administration is giving this one more go.

The Bush and Obama administrations were particularly ill suited to succeed for separate and overlapping reasons. Quickly after sending U.S. expeditionary forces to Afghanistan, the bigfoots in Bush’s national security team turned their attention to Iraq, with disastrous effects on both campaigns. When funding spigots were subsequently opened in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the money disappeared in well-greased Afghan construction projects and creative accounting schemes like the Pakistan military’s Coalition Support Funding.

The Obama administration tried to pick up the pieces in Afghanistan but leverage could only be demonstrated by having “skin in the game.” Obama’s long-term commitment was clearly lacking. He was too much of a clear-eyed realist to project the success of U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns in critical Afghani districts. He was willing to invest in preventing collapse but not to tilt at windmills.

How much treasure – with “blood” drainage now limited – has Afghanistan been actually worth to Washington? The answer so far is enough to avoid a humbling withdrawal, but not enough to pour meaningful contingents of U.S. troops back into the country or to act aggressively against the safe havens on Pakistani soil from which the Afghan Taliban can find refuge.

The question of how much Afghanistan is worth has applied no less to Pakistan than to the United States, with the answer being no less blurry. The Bush and Obama administrations spent years trying to offer carrots as well as sticks to influence Pakistani choices, but to no avail. Team Trump has clearly dropped this balancing act concluding, as have the Pentagon, the U.S. intelligence community, and Capitol Hill that Pakistan’s military and intelligence services – notably the enlarged Directorate S focusing on leveraging Afghanistan’s ever-receding end game – remain committed to “success” even at exorbitant costs, now including another rupture with Washington.

What can one say about Pakistan’s national security policies when relations with Afghanistan are deemed to be more important than relations with the United States? And what can Washington do about this? Not much, apparently. More penalties seem headed Pakistan’s way without the prospect of meaningful course corrections by Rawalpindi toward Afghanistan and India. Pakistan’s national security establishment appears stuck between a rock and a hard place. Even assuming that it is possible to acknowledge that once-prized assets have become vulnerabilities, then what? Pakistan remains weighted down by its investments in anti-India jihadist groups dating back to the expulsion of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Band-Aids such as placing temporary restraining orders on leaders after high-profile attacks on Indian soil, or by “mainstreaming” these groups into Pakistani politics won’t fix these problems or soften negative external impressions.

Developments along the Afghan border could also be deeply troubling as Pakistan’s erstwhile assets have greater scope for mischief making when Washington’s footprint and ambitions are eventually curtailed. At least Washington can extricate itself, if it is willing to accommodate to the staying power of the Afghan Taliban and the advent of more fearsome competitors. Pakistan’s extrication – assuming it is sought – will be far harder.

Perhaps these messes will be recounted in Coll’s third volume – assuming he has the interest and persistence to write it. But this reviewer suspects he has had his fill of retelling an endless litany of intrigues, maneuvers and missteps. Washington never recovered from its confusion over war aims, lingering over plans to defeat Al Qaeda during the revival of the Afghan Taliban. The Obama administration’s carefully parsed war aims were to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and its affiliates,” which presumably included the Afghan Taliban. There were, however, insufficient resources and commitment to defeat the Afghan Taliban, and negotiating with them has so far proven to be a bridge too far. Obama softened his war objective against the Taliban to reversing their momentum, but this, too, comes across as mere wordsmithing.

The baton has now been passed to the Trump administration which has the company of its convictions. What matters most, however, are stubborn facts on the ground. What does Washington have to show for perhaps 140,000 deaths and seventeen years of war in Afghanistan? One policy re-examination after another, deep futility in trying to work closely with Pakistani interlocutors, and being lost within mazes of the I.S.I.’s and the Taliban’s making.

There are many nuggets in Coll’s reporting, which is based primarily on U.S sources. (The subtitle of this book deserves to be its title.) Coll concludes that Pakistan’s military and intelligence services didn’t know about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts in Abbottabad. He believes that the Obama administration tried seriously to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban, but his account suggests far too many loose ends to have had reasonable hopes for success.

There are no heroic figures in these pages. Instead we find U.S. political leaders, senior military and intelligence officers, and diplomats trying to slog their way through an endless morass of war. Pakistan’s military and intelligence officers come across as gifted in the arts of deceptions that Washington was far too willing to accept. In a rare summary judgment, Coll concludes that, “the failure to solve the riddle of I.S.I. and to stop its covert interference in Afghanistan became, ultimately, the greatest strategic failure of the American war.” Afghan leaders, especially Hamid Karzai, come across as the worst of the lot.

Washington never really figured out workable plans for Afghanistan. It’s doubtful they existed. Seventeen years after committing troops to this fight, the U.S. military has a modest footprint to counter the Taliban and groups likely to be far worse. Resources can be found to prevent a recurrence of the 9/11 attacks and to shore up the government’s defenders. If these outcomes appear unworthy of the costs incurred, they seem to be all that’s on offer.

Note to readers: An edited version of this book review appeared in the April issue of The Herald, a Pakistani monthly.