Book of the week
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Steve Coll’s impressive new history of the war in Afghanistan “should induce shudders,” said Graeme Wood in The Washington Post. A definitive account of the military engagement that is already the longest in American history, the book is “mostly a catalog of mistakes made and lessons learned far too late, if at all.” When U.S. troops arrived in Afghanistan shortly after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the immediate goals appeared readily achievable: capture or kill Osama bin Laden, root out al Qaida, and end rule by the Taliban. But soldiers and civilians are still dying, every rebuilding effort has failed, and Coll argues that the core trouble has been America’s inability to keep Pakistan, a nominal ally, from thwarting the endeavor. The war effort appears, for now, “beyond recovery.”
Revisiting the effort’s derailment is “like watching a slow-motion video of a truck going off a cliff,” said Mark Mazzetti in The Atlantic. Despite Afghanistan’s centrality to the American war on terror, nuclear-armed Pakistan was always more of a worry to U.S. policymakers, and Pakistan’s military and intelligence leaders took advantage from the start, getting rich on U.S. funding while harboring displaced al Qaida and Taliban fighters, giving up only a select few. Through a division known as Directorate S, the Pakistani intelligence agency even began bankrolling Taliban attacks on the U.S.-installed government in Afghanistan, to prevent India’s allies from gaining an advantage there. Under President Obama, the CIA advocated an expansion of drone strikes, while the Pentagon backed nation building, and “the more the United States invested in the Afghan War, the more it seemed as if Washington was holding on to a steering wheel detached from the rest of the car.”
For all the detail Coll’s reporting brings to the tale, “a blind spot remains,” said Andrew Meier in Bookforum. Though the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Ghost Wars provides a clear summary of Pakistan’s broader motives, he fails to deliver an informed account of how Directorate S operates, or who steers its work. Nonetheless, Coll has written “a book of surpassing excellence,” said Andrew Bacevich in The New York Times. Sadly, it is “almost certainly destined for irrelevance.” Despite Mike Pence’s recent assessment that victory in Afghanistan is “closer than ever,” readers of Directorate S “will find no reason to take such assurances seriously.” The war the book describes has no end in sight, and the many insights Coll supplies are unlikely to change its course.