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

Steve Coll. Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. New York: Penguin Books, 2018. Illustrations. xxiii + 757 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-59420-458-6; $18.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-241-33735-6.

Reviewed by Barbara Elias (Bowdoin College)
Published on H-Diplo (May, 2019)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53436

In mesmerizing detail, Steve Coll’s Directorate S documents the tragic policies of the US war in Afghanistan. It is a slow, heart-wrenching history of strategically compromised half-measures and uncoordinated bureaucratic practices, in which US, Pakistani, and Afghan allies have cooperated with and conspired against one another, over time enabling the Taliban to reclaim political and geographic space in Afghanistan. A sequel to Coll’s 2005 Pulitzer-winning volume Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004) documenting the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban until 2001, Directorate S ambitiously and impressively provides a post-September 11 “history of how the C.I.A., I.S.I. [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence], and Afghan intelligence agencies influenced the rise of a new war in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, and how that war fostered a revival of Al Qaeda, allied terrorist networks, and, eventually, branches of the Islamic State” (p. 7). The book is named after Directorate S, the vexingly effective wing of the ISI that secretively and steadfastly assists the Taliban insurgency against US forces.

Dean of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, Coll draws on over five hundred interviews and hundreds of primary source documents to provide an outstanding narrative of a staggeringly complex conflict. The book combines such details as verbatim transcripts of tapped phone conversations between ISI officials with sweeping synopses on the cumulative effects of Pakistani, Afghan, and American policies. For example, in a section discussing US resistance to an Afghan request for expanded support for its intelligence agencies to help Kabul monitor Pakistani support of insurgents, Coll comments that this is a prime example of the American approach to Afghanistan, “deliberate minimalism, followed by tentative engagement, followed by massive investments only when it was very late to make a difference” (p. 192). Unlike the war itself, the book is superbly organized and beautifully composed. In a chapter examining the early years of American intervention, titled “Catastrophic Success,” Coll writes, “Thirty years of war—and now, after Operation Enduring Freedom, thousands of additional bombs dropped on the country—had left Afghanistan prostrate.... The country’s only real equities were international goodwill and some collective memory of a multiethnic country that had once been peaceful” (p. 111).

As a veteran specialist on Af-Pak issues, Coll readily complicates overly simplistic narratives. For instance, while providing ample evidence documenting the disastrous consequences for Islamabad’s duplicity supporting and undermining US counterinsurgency efforts, Directorate S also contextualizes ISI motivations to support Afghan insurgents. Aside from explaining that the Afghan Taliban was a way for Pakistan to hedge its bets against Indian influence in Afghanistan, Coll also documents how the more the ISI helped Washington by isolating the Taliban and other non-state entities, the more Islamabad risked being targeted by those groups. According to Coll, Pakistani intelligence was likely compelled to continue to support extremists, “to prove to its own restive clients that it was not going soft, and that it should not be considered the enemy. After I.S.I. lost control of important sections of its militant clients in 2007, not only were its offices targeted in suicide bombings, [but] its legitimacy was increasingly ridiculed within radical Islamist circles” as well (p. 346).

Coll also takes a nuanced approach to Afghan, American, and Pakistani bureaucracies. He documents how they were at times highly effective institutions (the ISI, for instance, was able to squeeze astronomical sums from Washington while never fully cooperating with American agendas) while proving to be demonstrably ineffectual in other circumstances. “In Washington, it was increasingly common for policy makers and members of Congress to talk of I.S.I. as an omnipotent, malign, highly effective force, when in fact the rise of domestic terrorism in Pakistan could be just as well understood as profound evidence of I.S.I.’s incompetence.... The intelligence showed that at the lower levels of I.S.I., in the field, officers pursued their own plans without necessarily informing the army brass in advance of every operation” (p. 290). Coll provides similar room for the CIA, the Pentagon, and both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations as potent, indecisive, or inept, depending on the given situation and the pressures they were responding to.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of Directorate S is its painful illustration of the ways Islamabad, Kabul, and Washington each supported and undercut one another. Many other works have dissected components of these problematic alliances, mostly focusing on the dysfunctional US-Pakistan partnership, an alliance comedian Jon Stewart characterized as “enemies with benefits.”[1] Directorate S instead artfully unravels the dysfunction between Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul as three distinct but codependent players, detailing how Islamabad and Kabul worked for and against one another, as did Kabul and Washington, despite presumptions that Kabul is merely a hapless American client. Being both aided and undermined by allies and responding in kind produces unrelenting strategic dysfunction. Like a Greek tragedy, the process of simultaneously cooperating with and undercutting strategic partners ensured that the war was ill-fated from the start. This slow march toward defeat is a manifest chorus in Directorate S. Citing Eliot Cohen, for example, Coll comments that over time a pattern emerged in military briefings, as US commanders at the start of a rotation would say, “‘this is going to be difficult.’ Six months later, they’d say, ‘We might be turning a corner.’ At the end of their rotation, they would say, ‘We have achieved irreversible momentum.’ Then the next command group coming in would pronounce, ‘This is going to be difficult’” (p. 298). Adding to the circular tragedy are a host of familiar characters who have reemerged in the Donald Trump era, including Michael Flynn, H. R. McMaster, and Zalmay Khalilzad. Khalilzad is a particularly fascinating and pivotal figure in the early history of US intervention, who according to Coll, personally “invented American policy from day to day during the long hours he spent huddling with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai ... [and] attended [Afghan] cabinet meetings as if he were a member of the government, which, in effect, he was” (p. 189).

A captivating display of Coll’s craftsmanship, Directorate S is a 757-page catalogue of cautionary tales. The US should not presume a critical ally will change because it would be terribly inconvenient if they did not. Pakistan should consider the risks of using extremists as extensions of foreign policy, as it pressed Islamabad toward extremism as well. The Afghan state should not be built on institutions it cannot sustain. While some areas of the book rehash well-trodden topics (from 2003 to 2007 Iraq distracted US policymakers at a critical moment in the war in Afghanistan), other sections detail often-overlooked dynamics, including, for example, Afghan intelligence (National Directorate of Security, NDS) attempts to play Pakistan’s “hide-my-neighbor’s-insurgent-as-a-way-to-gain-leverage-game” by protecting “armed Baluch separatists from the Bugti tribe who were fighting the Pakistan Army in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province. One Bugti leader lived in a safe house on Street 13 in Kabul under N.D.S. protection. Baluch fighters trained in Kandahar” (p. 428).

Not only were Afghan, Pakistani, and US allies often working at cross-purposes, but US policy itself was also often contradictory and counterproductive. Tactics were misaligned with US strategic and political goals. The US was paying off warlords while lamenting endemic corruption, implementing “hearts and minds” campaigns while mistreating prisoners, jailing corrupt figures who were on the payrolls of its intelligence agencies, and simultaneously announcing both surging and withdrawing from a war that the US did not want to lose but was not sure was worth what it would take to win. As Vice President Joe Biden once rashly snapped at Afghan President Karzai when Karzai pressed Biden to do more for Afghanistan against Pakistan’s meddling, “Mr. President, Pakistan is fifty times more important than Afghanistan for the United States” (p. 352). The US was not willing to fully address the failing effort, and the war would continue to slowly sink toward some ignoble conclusion.

How US bureaucracies persistently pulled policy in opposite directions is another key expression of American contractions detailed in Directorate S. As Coll summarizes, both Bush’s and Obama’s approaches to Afghanistan “tolerated and even promoted stovepiped, semi-independent campaigns waged simultaneously by different agencies of American government.... It is hardly surprising that policies riddled with such internal contradictions and unresolved analytical questions failed to achieve the extraordinarily ambitious aim of stabilizing war-shattered Afghanistan. The war became a humbling case study in the limits of American power. It became a story of mismatched means and ends” (p. 666).

Directorate S lays bare the costs and consequences of losing this war. US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan revived and sustained al-Qaeda, as Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan remain “embroiled in civil violence directly set off by the American-led invasions that followed September 11” (p. 661). US and Pakistani experiences in the war have likely irreparably damaged the relationship between Washington and Islamabad. The US will not soon forget how Pakistan’s covert (and not so covert) support for insurgents led to the killing of Americans in Afghanistan and how their duplicity doomed the American effort. Similarly, the US operated unilaterally to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, which cornered the ISI into a lose-lose situation as they could either admit they knew bin Laden’s whereabouts and provided sanctuary or deny they were aware of bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, effectively admitting incompetence. The fact the ISI had failed to prevent or respond to a foreign military applying lethal force within its territory was deeply problematic for the military. As the director-general of the ISI Ashfaq Kayani told the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, “it will forever remain a very deep scar in our national memory and our military’s memory, that we failed to detect the raid.... By the same token, it will never fade from our national memory that you guys did it” (p. 546).

To add nuclear weapons to the litany of bad news compiled in Directorate S, there is also the question of Pakistan’s weapons of mass destruction. Directorate S recalls in gripping detail the efforts of Pakistani navy lieutenant Zeeshan Rafiq who coordinated with al-Qaeda to attempt to hijack a nuclear-capable seven-story Pakistani frigate in September 2014. While the plot was unsuccessful as Rafiq and the collaborators were killed in a firefight boarding the ship, the perpetrators had gotten too close for comfort, using inside connections to duplicate keys to the missile room and successfully stashing weapons on board. Also important on a grand strategic level is China’s involvement. The “fallout from the Afghan war also persuaded Pakistan’s leaders, after 2011, to give up on any strategic partnership with Washington and to deepen ties to Beijing. This effectively opened Pakistani territory to Chinese companies and military planners, to construct transit corridors and bases that might improve China’s regional influence and links to the Middle East. Overall, the war left China with considerable latitude in Central Asia, without having made any expenditures of blood, treasure, or reputation” (p. 663). As Iran gained regional influence as a result of US failures in the war in Iraq, China is gaining from US failures in Afghanistan.

Considering that one of the most impressive accomplishments of Directorate S is how it gracefully dissects and reconnects the confluence of disasters that has led to this moment in the US war in Afghanistan, it is curious why Coll named the book Directorate S, signaling a focus on Pakistani intelligence, as opposed to a more comprehensive title that would have encompassed the expansive scope of the volume, akin to Ghost Wars. Relatedly, Coll concludes Directorate S by stating, “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” (p. 667). While the prevailing US effort was doomed as long as Pakistan supported the Afghan Taliban insurgency, it would also likely have been impossible for the US to win without the right governance processes in place in Kabul and/or a coherent US strategy within and toward Afghanistan. After reading 700+ pages of fatal errors and impending tragedy, some involving the ISI, some not, there is plenty of blame and misfortune to go around. Directorate S is an astoundingly readable and comprehensive narrative of the complex processes that have doomed the “good war” in Afghanistan—just don’t read it on a day you need an uplifting story.


[1]. Jon Stewart, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (Comedy Central, May 19, 2011), http://www.cc.com/episodes/2kpdh3/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-may-19--2011---lisa-p--jackson-season-16-ep-16068. See also Jean MacKenzie, “US and Pakistan: Enemies with Benefits,” Public Radio International, October 27, 2013, https://www.pri.org/stories/2013-10-27/us-and-pakistan-enemies-benefits.

Citation: Barbara Elias. Review of Coll, Steve, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. May, 2019.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53436

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.