In Review

Inside the CIA's secret war in Afghanistan

Published 19 Apr, 2018 10:59pm
American air strikes in Afghanistan have increased since August 2017 | Reuters
American air strikes in Afghanistan have increased since August 2017 | Reuters

Steve Coll’s new book picks up where he left off in Ghost Wars, published in 2004. Together, the two volumes are more than a 1,500-page thick opus on futility, confusion, misplaced hopes and serious errors. Despite the resources and commitment that the administrations of American presidents George W Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump have put into the war in Afghanistan, the pieces just do not fit. The demons would not fall in line regardless of critical policy adjustments — from democracy building to seizing, holding and handing off parcels of real estate to the Afghan National Army; from counterterrorism to counternarcotics to counter-insurgency; from campaigns against al Qaeda to campaigns against the Afghan Taliban; and from coddling Pakistan to bashing it.

Afghanistan remains a quagmire for the US troops that cannot succeed without good Afghan governance, capable Afghan national forces and a strong partnership with Pakistan. All these factors have been consistently lacking. Washington keeps looking for an exit strategy but this pursuit only increases the resolve of its opponents. Badly conceived and poorly executed wars – and no country’s record since Vietnam is worse on this score than the United States’ – do not usually end well.

Doing nothing wasn’t an option after the 9/11 body blows to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But, as Coll recounts, the US military campaign in Afghanistan went awry very quickly. The initial US air strikes were directed against typical conventional warfare targets instead of focused on an unconventional campaign to decapitate the leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban. As the leaders from the two organisations were fleeing from Kabul and Kandahar, the best chance of inflicting a knockout blow was lost with insufficient boots on the ground and inadequate firepower.

Whatever help Pakistan’s troops might have provided in rounding up fleeing Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda leaders evaporated when Pakistan-based jihadists attacked the Indian parliament building in December 2001, which shifted Rawalpindi’s attention to counter the mobilisation of Indian troops along Pakistan’s eastern borders. It is remarkable that this daring attack and the prolonged crisis it prompted are missing from Coll’s otherwise detailed account. Was this a masterstroke to loosen the noose around the necks of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders or a random occurrence? Either way, the prospect of another war in the Subcontinent so soon after Kargil shifted Pakistan and the Bush administration’s focus away from the Tora Bora cave complex where many al Qaeda leaders were then holed up. Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders would live to fight another day. Pakistan would help initially with capturing the former but not the latter.

Truth be told, the prospects of a quick and decisive US victory in Afghanistan were never great. 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, in the many years to follow, into a bad movie script, featuring sectarianism, warlord-ism, double-dealing and corruption. Coll makes an utterly convincing, but unstated, case that this demon-infested landscape has been beyond Washington’s ability to handle — although the Trump administration is giving it one more go.

Washington never recovered from its confusion over war aims, lingering over plans to defeat al Qaeda as the Afghan Taliban revived themselves. The Bush and Obama administrations were particularly ill-suited to succeed for separate and overlapping reasons. Quickly after sending the US expeditionary forces to Afghanistan, the Bigfoots in Bush’s national security team turned their attention to Iraq, with disastrous effects on both campaigns. When dollar-releasing spigots were subsequently opened in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the money disappeared into well-greased Afghan construction projects and creative accounting schemes like the Pakistan military’s Coalition Support Fund.

US forces at a base in southern Afghanistan | Reuters
US forces at a base in southern Afghanistan | Reuters

The Obama administration tried to pick up the pieces in Afghanistan but could only demonstrate US leverage by having “skin in the game”. Obama’s commitment was limited. He was too much of a clear-eyed realist to project the success of US counter-insurgency campaigns in critical Afghan districts. He was willing to invest in preventing collapse but not to tilt at windmills.

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 them, and negotiating with them has so far proven to be a bridge too far. Obama softened his war objective to reversing the Taliban’s momentum but this, too, came across as the coining of new terminology with no effect.

The baton has now been passed to the Trump administration, which basks in the reflection of its own convictions, but what matters the most are stubborn facts on the ground. What does Washington have to show for around 140,000 deaths and 17 years of war in Afghanistan? The answer is: one policy re-examination after another, the massive futility of trying to work closely with Pakistani interlocutors and being lost within mazes of the Taliban’s making.

How much treasure – with “blood” drainage now limited – has Afghanistan been worth to Washington? The answer so far is that it is worth enough to avoid a humiliating withdrawal but not enough to pour sizeable contingents of US troops back into Afghanistan or to act aggressively against the Afghan Taliban’s safe havens on Pakistani soil.

The question of how much Afghanistan is worth applies 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 in Afghanistan but to no avail. Team Trump, as well as the Pentagon, the United States Intelligence Community and Capitol Hill, have clearly stopped performing this balancing act. They have concluded that Pakistan’s military and intelligence services – notably the enlarged Directorate S focusing on leveraging Afghanistan’s ever-receding endgame – remain committed to “success” even at exorbitant costs that now include 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 a meaningful course correction by Rawalpindi towards Afghanistan and India. Pakistan’s national security establishment appears stuck between a rock and a hard place. Even if we assume that Rawalpindi has possibly acknowledged that its once-prized militant assets have become its 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 militant leaders after high profile attacks on Indian soil or by “mainstreaming” these militant groups into Pakistani politics would not fix these problems.

The fallout of a 2015 US air strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan | AFP
The fallout of a 2015 US air strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan | AFP

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

Perhaps these messes will be described in Coll’s third volume — assuming he has the interest and persistence to write it. But one suspects he might have already had his fill of retelling an endless litany of intrigues, manoeuvres and missteps.

There are many important nuggets in Coll’s reporting based primarily on US sources. (The subtitle of this book, therefore, deserves to be its title.) He concludes that Pakistan’s military and intelligence services did not know about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts in Abbottabad. He believes the Obama administration tried seriously to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban, but his account suggests there were far too many loose ends in this process for it to have a reasonable hope of success.

There are no heroic figures in this volume. Instead, we find the US political leaders, senior military and intelligence officers and diplomats trying to slog their way against heavy odds. Afghan leaders, especially Hamid Karzai, appear as the worst of the lot.

Pakistan’s military and intelligence officers come across as gifted in the art of deception that Washington has been far too willing to accept. In a rare summary judgment, Coll concludes, “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.”

Washington never really figured out workable plans for Afghanistan. It is doubtful they existed. More than a decade and a half after committing troops to this war, the US military has a modest footprint to counter the Taliban and other groups likely to be far worse. If this outcome appears unworthy of the costs incurred, it seems to be all that is on offer.

The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Center.

This was originally published in the April 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.