Steve Coll’s ‘Directorate S’ is about how ISI was allowed to succeed in blocking the United States’ efforts to impose a stable, democratic order in Afghanistan

by Praveen Swami

In plain black ink, below the embroidered letterhead of Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, were words designed to deter as effectively as his nuclear weapons. Threats had been made, it recorded, that any act of terrorism against the United States emanating from Pakistan “will warrant a direct action by the United States against Pakistan”.

“The consequences of such a scenario for overall security in the region are not difficult to predict,” it went on. “We must do anything and everything possible to avoid such a catastrophe.”

“No more!”, President Donald Trump tweeted on New Year’s day. “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit”. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan”.

But the letter, revealed by author and journalist Steve Coll in ‘Directorate S’, his account of the failure of the United States’ 9/11 war in Afghanistan, was written in 2010—years before Trump’s threat. Coll’s lushly detailed account investigates the decision-making processes that led Afghanistan into the murderous warfare it is now mired in—and helps understand why Trump’s strategy may achieve little.

In spite of its title, ‘Directorate S’ isn’t, in fact, about Directorate S—the Inter-Services Intelligence wing responsible for covert action in India or Afghanistan. It is about something arguably more significant: precisely why, and how, Directorate S was allowed to succeed in blocking the United States’ efforts to impose a stable, democratic order in Afghanistan. There are few villains, and no heroes, in Coll’s account. Like all good historians, he seeks instead to understand why the actors in this tragedy behaved as they did.

From the outset, Coll’s account shows, Pakistan attempted to deflect responsibility for the attacks from itself, and its client regime in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. President Pervez Musharraf asserted that “al-Qaeda could not have done this”. “They live in caves,” he explained to the United States ambassador in Islamabad, Wendy Chamberlain. “They don’t have the technology to do something like this.”

Major-General Tariq Majid, Musharraf’s military intelligence chief, suggested investigating Cold War era Marxists, like the Red Army Faction, and even Pakistani exiles in Bolivia.

In the immediate wake of 9/11, much of the United States’ intelligence community saw the ISI as a key strategic partner. Central Intelligence Agency chief George Tenet’s argument ran thus: “The enemy is Al Qaeda; we need Pakistan’s army and ISI to dismantle Al Qaeda; and Pakistan’s stability and interests are at least as important to the United States as Afghanistan’s recovery from Taliban rule.”

Robert Grenier, the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad, argued that Pakistan was indeed willing to partner with the United States. The ISI’s post 9/11 chief, Lieutenant-General Ehsan-ul-Haq, he wrote in one top-secret cable, represented a new, moderate leadership that was “motivated to cooperate fully with the CIA in the war on terrorism”.

From the outset, though, there were sceptics. Gary Schroen, the CIA’s ranking expert on Afghanistan, attacked Grenier, saying the “push to allow the Pakistanis back into the Afghan game was disturbing and a real mistake”. “They had their own specific agenda for the country and it did not track with anything the U.S. government would want to see emerge there in the post-Taliban period.”

Evidence in support of Grenier’s argument wasn’t hard to come by. For example, journalist Ahmed Rashid found the Taliban military commander Mullah Dadullah “living openly in a village outside Quetta”. Leaders of the provincial government, and top jihadist leaders, even attended a lavish family wedding.

Later, Coll writes, Afghan intelligence and the CIA jointly provided the ISI with the details of the locations of top Taliban leaders inside Pakistan, some of whom were under surveillance. “Within forty-eight hours, all of them moved,” Coll writes. “The Americans watched them disappear”.

Why did Pakistan act as it did? Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s President, met with General Kayani to address this issue.

“The heart of Kayani’s offer to Karzai,” Coll records, “was ‘We can help you sort out the insurgency, we can turn it off’”. In exchange, he writes, Pakistan would expect an end to Indian influence in Afghanistan.

But Indian influence in Afghanistan was minimal—and Pakistani offered other, more plausible explanations to its United States interlocutors. “The CIA’s drone war was driving the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Haqqanis into closer cooperation, particularly in North Waziristan, the ISI feared,” Coll writes. Kayani argued that “this was dangerous for both Pakistan and the United States”.

Increasingly, the ISI knew, even elements of loyal jihadist clients like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad were turning against Islamabad—a consequence of the forces unleashed by the fighting in Afghanistan. Moreover, with a steady flow of revenue from narcotics, Afghan jihadists were increasingly independent of the ISI. The answer, from Pakistan’s optic, was to install the Taliban back in Kabul—either alone, or as part of a coalition—thus breaking up the emerging jihadist challenge.

Hoping this end would also facilitate the United States’ exit from the Afghan war, President Obama authorised an ambitious secret outreach to the Taliban, led by the German diplomat Michael Steiner (later his country’s ambassador to New Delhi) and veteran peacemaker Richard Holbrooke. Though promising much, their efforts failed: the Taliban couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make peace on terms that were offered, and what they wanted was certain to provoke a savage backlash from minorities in Afghanistan, like the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras.

In the end, Holbrooke became deeply pessimistic about his own project: “The best that can be hoped for is a bloody stalemate,” he said, privately. “Moreover, as far as I can tell, one constant about counter-insurgency: It does not work against an enemy with a safe sanctuary, and I do not believe we can get Pakistan to see its strategic interests as being symmetrical with ours.”

Things have moved on little in the years since then. Kabul is shortly to begin its own outreach to the Taliban, but few believe it has real chance of success. The reason is simple: the Islamist insurgents believe they can wait out the United States, which will sooner or later cut loose the Afghan state. Even if the Taliban do accept a peace deal, moreover, it is far from clear if it draws in local commanders enriched by extortion and narcotics revenues, as well as new forces like the Islamic State.

Larger lessons for regional stability and peacekeeping, too, emerge from the book. From the work of Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, we know the United States has struggled in wars from Korea to Vietnam, and in finding the numbers needed for counter-insurgency—a form of warfare that needs massive numbers of forces to prevent the insurgents from reoccupying territory. The situation today is bleak: ‘The Long War Journal’ estimates the Taliban hold 97 districts, up from 70 a year ago.

Afghanistan’s army was expected to fill the gap, but just doesn’t have the numbers. The Afghan National Army is authorised 195,000 personnel, and the Afghan National Police another 157,000—a total of 352,000—to guard a 652,864 square kilometre nation, much of it rugged mountains with extremely poor road connectivity. India, by contrast, uses an estimated 325,000 troops, backed up by some 85,000 police and 7,000 central police, to protect the 42,241 square kilometre Kashmir and Jammu divisions.

The United States, Coll observes sharply, has ultimately failed to resolve fundamental questions.

“Did they truly believe that Afghanistan’s independence and stability was more important than Pakistan’s stability”, he asks. “Why did they accept ISI’s support for the Taliban even when it directly undermined American interests and cost American lives? If they were to try to stop ISI’s covert action, what risks were they prepared to take?”

Coll makes no simple prescriptions: there are none. Yet, he has flagged exactly the right questions. How much pressure ought be mounted on Pakistan to cut off the Taliban, and what might the consequences of military pressure, covert action or economic sanctions be? Should pressure fracture the Pakistani state, after all, the price of peace in Afghanistan might be a far larger crisis in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Though ‘Directorate S’ does not address the Pakistan Army’s own motivations—and those of the ISI—there is a wealth of literature that explains why it will not easily abandon its sponsorship of jihad in Afghanistan or elsewhere. As both C. Christine Fair and Husain Haqqani have pointed out, the Army sees itself as the praetorian guard of an ideological project—as the vanguard of the Islamic state. The jihadist project is not simply a matter of projecting power, but also of the state’s fundamental values.

‘Directorate S’ deserves careful reading—not just by all those who wish to understand why the region is where it is, but Indian policy-makers. Now seeking to coerce Islamabad into reining in its sponsorship of jihadists both by diplomatic pressure and covert action, New Delhi needs to clearly understand the consequences of its actions, as well as the limits of coercion.

Praveen Swami is an award winning journalist and security affairs analyst