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Review: Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll

Steve Coll’s new book states that retired ISI officers “cooked up” the 2008 Mumbai attacks and cites a 2010 US memo that says Pakistan’s third day-to-day priority is “to monitor and assess a medley of militant groups active against India, including indigenous Maoists operating in poor areas of India’s interior.”

books Updated: Apr 27, 2018 18:56 IST
J Ford Huffman
J Ford Huffman
Hindustan Times
Naxalites at a training camp.(HT Photo)
Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Steve Coll; 784 pp, US$35; Penguin

The author of “Ghost Wars,” the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner about the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pakistan’s similar organization, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), presents a follow-up of equal importance.

If only it could influence decision makers at the highest levels of a multitude of governments around the world.

Coll says the second book “can easily be read independently” from “Ghost Wars” and he is correct. Despite the forgettable title the narrative sticks with you as a rewarding journalistic account that is detailed but worth devouring. (“Directorate S” is what US agencies call ISI’s secret operations division.)

In almost 800 pages including footnotes, an index and a bibliography, he documents the mistakes – or to be somewhat kind, the miscommunications – between the CIA, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Defense (the Pentagon), and the White House during the George W Bush and Barack Obama presidential administrations.

The multiple examples and quagmires dismay and disturb, from the “blame shifting between the CIA and the FBI” and the “remarkable diplomatic incompetence” to every stakeholder’s inability to train – while feeding – the elephant in the room, Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s neighbour on its geographic right is the nuclear-holding nation whose Directorate S backs “the Taliban, Kashmiri guerrillas, and other violent Islamic radicals” while perplexing another neighbour in the region, India.

India is not a principal player in “Directorate S” but is on stage occasionally, and some of the references might affirm what some Indians already believe:

– As early as Sept. 12, 2001, the Pakistani general who runs military intelligence tells a US Defense Intelligence Agency official in Rawalpindi that India is planting rumours “to implicate Pakistan in terrorism and the attacks.”

Tariq Majid says “there is concern that hostile states like India will use the attacks to gain an advantage over Pakistan.”

– In 2006, Pakistani generals believe Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security has a director “whom they judged to be an ally if not an agent of India.”

But Amrullah Saleh “regarded himself as an ardent Afghan nationalist and certainly not an agent of any foreign power,” a man who works with India and other “allies of an independent Afghanistan.” He finds the CIA’s deferring to ISI “highly frustrating.”

– Two years later, a US intelligence assessment says Pakistan “continues to define India as the number one threat” and “insists” India wants to subvert Pakistan’s security by operating inside Afghanistan.

– Retired ISI officers “cooked up” the 2008 Mumbai attacks, “a Hollywood-inspired terrorist extravaganza” of an “audacious scale” that was not cleared by their bosses.

– In 2010, a US memo “distributed to allied spy services” says Pakistan’s third day-to-day priority is “to monitor and assess a medley of militant groups active against India, including indigenous Maoists operating in poor areas of India’s interior.”

– In 2014, Al Qaeda “publicly announced a new branch in the Indian subcontinent, under the leadership of Asim Umar, the Indian from Uttar Pradesh.” But the news seems “designed to provide Al Qaeda with a new visibility and relevance” while countering the rise of the Islamic State.

A US soldier in Afghanistan in a photograph dated March 29, 2014. ( Getty Images )

Coll says ISI as “an institution well practiced at manipulating the CIA and the Taliban simultaneously” and “agreeable to operate with the Americans against Al Qaeda” while supporting “indigenous jihadi clients” – partially with US money. “Judging by their invoices {to U.S. Central Command}, they were expending ammunition at a rate that exceeded that of American combat units in Afghanistan.”

During the endless fighting, a US colonel explains the “mechanics of this war” to an inquisitive US Department of State advisor:

“You walk through a valley until you get into a firefight and then you keep shooting until it stops.”

That’s a little troubling, the official replies. Yes, and when Coll introduces soldiers in the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Kandahar in 2010, a reader empathizes with how diplomatic gaffes turn into sad gaps on the ground.

“Not everyone in {Colonel Art} Kandarian’s task force had been trained for such yard-by-yard, life-or-death decision making. Because of the strains on the Army’s combat readiness after nearly a decade of continuous war, Kandarian had to fill out his green zone force by converting an artillery unit . . . to an infantry role.”

Lieutenant Tim Hopper’s journal reflects his being a member of a coalition of forces on feet:

“So here we are 100 men strong, sludging through fields of chocolate pudding with half the people not having NODs {Night Optical Devices} or speaking the same language while the enemy watches us as we approach the area where they plant all sorts of IEDs. Very comforting.”

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With Hopper’s humanity and others’ accounts, documentation proliferates. Coll determines that the US has “no coherent geopolitical vision when it counter attacked Afghanistan after September 11, other than perhaps to try to avoid destabilizing Pakistan, a goal it failed to achieve.”

The result? “The greatest strategic failure of the American war.” But “America did not fight alone for cynical gain,” reminds the dean of Columbia University’s journalism department. “The US was one of 59 countries, or more than a quarter of the world’s nations, to deploy troops or provide other aid to Afghanistan.”

J Ford Huffman is a Washington, DC, content-visual strategist and a consultant to Hindustan Times. An abbreviated version of this review originally appeared in the independent Military Times publications. Huffman is a winner of the 2017 annual defence journalism award conferred by The Military Reporters & Editors association.

First Published: Apr 27, 2018 18:56 IST