Book review: Shadow boxing in Af-Pak

Directorate S
The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016 
Steve Coll
Penguin Random House
757 pages, Rs 1,907 

US President Donald Trump’s New Year tweet about Pakistan’s double dealing embodied a decade-and-a-half of US frustrations. The question for many is why it took so long when what underwrote Pakistan’s policy postures was so self-evident, even as the US’s longest-ever military conflict continued without direction.

There can be no better place to find the answer then Steve Coll’s Directorate S. The title is borrowed from the term used by US diplomats and intelligence officers to describe those units in the ISI that focus on covert operations and support to the Taliban, terrorists, and Kashmiri insurgent. But, as a full reading of this book brings out and India’s own interface with Pakistan has long confirmed, looking only at the ISI leads to the futile search for rogue elements or a state within a state. In Pakistan, a national security mindset is what underwrites policy and strategy. How US spies, military officers, diplomats and politicians interfaced with and assessed, sought to or win over or neutralise its multiple layers, contradictions and paranoia from 2001 to 2015 is the story told in this book. 

Mr Coll is well equipped to write this story. Directorate S is a continuation of his much acclaimed Ghost Wars which told the story of these same players from 1979, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan till the Al-Qaeda strikes of 9/11. We have in this new book, too, a combination of excellent journalism and reportage mixed with just the right dose of scholarship and history tutorials. 

In Mr Coll’s telling, post 9/11 America’s principal goal was to destroy Al-Qaeda, and it went into Afghanistan because it felt it had no alternative. Its fight was not for “cynical gain” but was “informed by illusions” nevertheless. None of these was more powerful than the nature of the US presence — was it a humanitarian or a security mission? Mr Coll does not seek to simplify the complexities of this argument: Counterterrorism, Afghanistan’s instability and its massive under-development cannot be separated easily.

In the circumstances, the war became “a humbling case study in the limits of American power”. There were other policy decisions that confounded this situation, none more than the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US and Western hubris is a large part of the story in this book. But the other equal part is the sullen, brooding presence of the ISI and the Pakistani military. For Mr Coll “the failure to solve the riddle of the ISI and to stop its covert interference in Afghanistan became, ultimately, the greatest strategic failure of the American war”.

But with Pakistan, too, conflicting sets of requirements presented themselves to US policymakers from the start. As the US prepared to attack the Taliban regime post 9/11, present in its calculations was the “nightmare scenario” that Vice-President Dick Cheney warned was the war spilling over into Pakistan and the potential loss of its nuclear arsenal to extremists. There were other US interests, too — reducing tensions with India, controlling its nuclear weapons and so on. How were these interests to be progressed if too much pressure was put on the ISI? 

As the war progressed, many US assessments about Pakistan became increasingly cynical as evidence accumulated of the ISI’s links with the Taliban and other extremists but there was also the inability to break out of the “default American approach” of “engagement” and “hope for change”. Was the ISI and the Pakistani state complicit or inefficient as it broke commitment after commitment? As Pakistan failed to prevent massive terrorist attacks on itself, this debate raged in the US government at multiple levels from one administration to the next.

Inevitably, India figures largely in this narrative as many Pakistanis saw the post-9/11 world as having two principal axes — a strong Indian presence in Afghanistan with deep ingress into the Afghan intelligence and military and a growing US-India alliance exemplified by the civil nuclear agreement of 2006. Both these reinforced Pakistani doubts about what it was doing as a US ally in the first place. The attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul and later on Mumbai in November 2008 were to many in the departing Bush administration “the last straw in a seven-year long journey from counterterrorism partnership to disillusionment”. If the next administration did not start from a clean slate and inherited much of this cynicism, nevertheless the CIA-ISI liaison was “like a bitter marriage that neither party had the will to break”.

This story is not new and its milestones well documented. What makes Mr Coll’s treatment distinctive is the detail he puts in to fill in the larger picture and the insight he provides into US policymaking and its evaluation of Pakistan policymakers and policies. The mindset issue looms large as he recounts how successive US officials failed to convince the ISI “that it did not need the Taliban to influence Afghanistan and it did not need militant Islamists in Kashmir to pressure India”. 

Towards the end of his book President Barack Obama is quoted in December 2014 as saying, “The longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” This, of course, was not to be and the new terrain of US-Pakistan relations in 2018 remains an open question. The great value of this book is that it enables us to make a more informed guess about the discussions taking place in Washington about how much pressure can effectively be put on Pakistan today.
The reviewer is a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan

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