Of Terror, Tribes, and Spies

Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan BY Steve Coll. Penguin Press. Hardcover, 784 pages. $35.

The cover of Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Kabul in the summer of 1996 was under siege. A little-known force of young militants had surged north from their base in the south. For months, they had camped just beyond the city limits, raining shells on the capital almost daily. They called themselves religious “students”—or in the local Pashto, Taliban.

I had seen them earlier that summer in Kandahar, cradle of the new radical Islamist movement. The mullahs wore all black and seemed to pray all night. During the day, they crowded into Ford 4x4s, laden with rifles and RPGs and eager to expand the borders of their would-be statelet, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Their boss, Mullah Mohammed Omar, a tall gaunt man with four wives and one eye, issued edicts on Islamic virtue while remaining shrouded in mystery behind his compound’s high, mud-caked walls. It would be the last summer of American insistence. Mohammed Omar encountered a carousel of supplicants from abroad: a diplomat from Washington seeking a peace deal; an executive from Unocal eager for a pipeline; and, it was said at the time, shadowy officers from across the border to the east, agents of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Within weeks, the Taliban would triumph, toppling the national government. On the eve of the fall, I was taken to see Ahmad Shah Massoud, famed “Lion of the Panjshir,” former commander of the Afghan resistance to the Soviets, and then the defense minister standing behind the government clinging to Kabul. The drive north was less than twenty miles, but took an hour along old roads up jagged hillsides. Massoud slept in a new locale nearly every night. We found him in a mountain redoubt in Istalif, a former palace of the exiled king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, its plaster pockmarked and half its windows gone. Outside a dozen aides, wearing mismatched Soviet and American camouflage, crouched low, awaiting orders.

In Kandahar, Taliban leaders spoke reverently of Mohammed Omar, who had taken to calling himself the Amir ul Momineen, the “Commander of the Faithful.” Massoud spat the term out. “No one can call himself the Amir,” Massoud said. “It is sacrilege to all Muslims.” The Afghans were tired, he told me on that afternoon. They had seen the Soviets, and then the Americans, come and go. Abandonment, though, had brought a bitter lesson. “Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Europe, the Americans—they want to tell us what to do, but we must find our own way.” He sat on a wooden high-backed chair and sipped green tea lightened with goat’s milk. “But we know, too, we cannot survive alone. No one will let us.”

As we spoke, an Afghan in his twenties, short and fit, with close-cropped dark hair and the beginnings of a scruffy beard, translated. Amrullah Saleh wore a crisp beige blazer and slacks—civilian dress rare among Massoud’s men. On the drive north, he had spoken in Russian—a vestige of a stint in Moscow—but Saleh’s English was far better. “Thanks to Hollywood,” he said. (Sharon Stone and George Clooney were favorites.) Like his leader, he was a son of the Panjshir Valley, the verdant region that rises to the northeast, and the stronghold of the resistance during the decade-long war against the Soviets. The youngest of five brothers, Saleh was orphaned at seven. Two brothers would fall to assassins. At twenty-two, he joined Massoud’s campaign, becoming the youngest in the inner circle. The commander would dispatch Saleh to Russia to explore an alliance, to Switzerland for secret talks with the Taliban, and, in the summer of 2001, to Frankfurt. Saleh, not yet thirty, had already begun to work with the CIA. The Americans deemed him “tough, disciplined, honest, and professional,” and soon would be helping Saleh to lead “a DIY guerrilla war.”

On September 9, 2001, two days before 9/11, the Afghan stage, remote and dimly lit, seized the attention of US intelligence. In a strike that should have presaged Al Qaeda’s grand plan, Massoud was assassinated by two suicide bombers posing as journalists. In the days to come, Saleh would rise fast, and far. Soon after the fall of the Twin Towers, as America looked for able allies in the “war on terror,” they turned to Saleh. As the “outsiders” again prepared to wage war in his homeland, he would become their main clandestine conduit.

Ahmad Shah Massoud weaving and poster, Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, 2010. Colin Cookman/Flickr.
Ahmad Shah Massoud weaving and poster, Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, 2010. Colin Cookman/Flickr.

Steve Coll is the closest thing American journalism has to a High Priest of Foreign Correspondence. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, former managing editor of the Washington Post, former president of the New America Foundation, staff writer for the New Yorker, and current dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, Coll still manages to practice high-minded reportage, the species now maladroitly branded “fact-based.” Coll began his rise nearly thirty years ago in New Delhi, as “a wide-eyed rookie newspaper correspondent” for the Post. In 1993, after jihadists detonated a truck bomb beneath the World Trade Center, his editors called. Posted to London, Coll caught wind of a “wealthy Saudi exile in Sudan,” Osama Bin Laden. Not many had yet heard of Al Qaeda. In Ghost Wars, Coll’s acclaimed 2004 history “of the often-secret actions, debates, and policies that had led to Al Qaeda’s rise amid Afghanistan’s civil wars and finally to the September 11 attacks,” he returned to the region. Now, after a decade of research and 550 interviews, he offers Directorate S, an epic sequel that picks up on the eve of Massoud’s assassination.

Coll has proven himself an obsessive devotee of geopolitical catastrophe of the Central Asian variety. He is also a deft guide to the shadow world. Few books delve as deeply into the personnel of the CIA and the Taliban, offering a daunting array of characters (the cast list alone runs five pages). Coll also aims higher: He wants to address the questions—“as best the evidence allows”—that haunt many of the “hundreds of thousands of Americans” who have served in Afghanistan since 2001. “More than two thousand American soldiers died alongside hundreds of contractors,” Coll writes. “More than twenty thousand soldiers suffered injuries. Of the much greater number who returned safely, many carried questions about whether or why their service had been worthwhile and why the seemingly successful lightning-strike American-led war of late 2001 had failed to vanquish the Taliban and Al Qaeda for good.” Directorate S, Coll tells us at the outset, is an attempt to find answers.

America’s intervention in Afghanistan, now entering its seventeenth year and seemingly without end (at least 11,000 troops remain in-country), is rightly called America’s longest war. It is also the CIA’s greatest war. The Cold War was a protracted battle, decades of spy-versus-spy played out from Europe to Africa to Asia to the Middle East. But nothing can compare with the fire, brimstone, and waterboarding that the CIA has delivered post-9/11: the Blackwater outsourcing, “enhanced interrogation,” and Predator drone strikes that are the Agency’s signature legacies in the region.

Coll is interested, above all, in the story of the CIA’s grievous misadventures in Afghanistan. The book is long—thirty-five chapters—but Coll goes far beyond a behind-the-scenes “tick-tock” that toggles among CIA headquarters, the White House, and the far-off battles that millions of Americans viewed nightly in Wolf Blitzer’s “War Room.” Directorate S delivers a magisterial chronicle, so much of it newly reported and deeply nuanced. Coll shuns literary varnish, relying instead on windowpane clarity to achieve his complex exposition. The narrative, which follows the calendar, replays the events blow by blow, in the style of a Hollywood blockbuster.

In a saga of tangled threads, two come to dominate: the hunt for Bin Laden and the push for talks with the Taliban. These story lines, each revealing US government policy and its dismal implementation, nearly intersect, their denouements coming within days of each other. Along the way Coll misses little of the drama. The CIA’s reunion with Massoud’s men. Hamid Karzai’s return to his homeland, his improbable rise and mercurial reign. The blasting of Tora Bora. George W. Bush’s foolhardy turn to Iraq. And Barack Obama’s discomfort with the war, and the Afghan president, he inherited. (“The Obama administration and Karzai were bound by enormous sacrifices in expenditure and blood,” Coll writes, “and yet they saw the war in fundamentally different terms.”)He traces Richard Holbrooke’s battles and his sudden death, at sixty-nine, as he verged on a possible deal with the Taliban. (“Richard, what is the matter?” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked that day. “Something horrible is happening,” he answered.) Recounting the murderous escapade of Raymond Davis, a former Blackwater contractor on the CIA payroll who shot and killed two Pakistanis in January 2011 in Lahore, Coll includes the CIA colleagues who sped to the rescue in a Land Cruiser—only to run over a thirty-two-year-old shop-owner who was to marry in a month. Here, too, is the remote-controlled death by drone—bangana in the Pashto, the word for “wasp”—favored by the Obama administration. “Drone strikes on Pakistani soil,” Coll reports, “more than doubled during 2010 from the previous year, from an estimated 54 to 122, or more than two per week.”

In the years since Ghost Wars, dozens of books on the Afghan war have appeared. Coll mines the best of them—and Chelsea Manning’s trove, the WikiLeaks cables. This is not a grunt’s account. We do not get the blood, guts, and fear until we read the journal entries of Timothy J. Hopper, a lieutenant with the 101st Airborne in Kandahar, that begin on page 467. Visceral in their immediacy, these excerpts are echoed by e-mails sent home by John Darin Loftis, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, to his wife and two young daughters in Florida. A graduate of Vanderbilt and the Peace Corps on his second tour in Afghanistan, Loftis—one of the military’s few Dari and Pashto speakers—was forty-four when he and a colleague were shot dead by an Afghan Interior Ministry driver in 2012.

Through it all, one of Coll’s most ascendant characters is Saleh, the Massoud aide-de-camp who came to represent the remains of Massoud’s alliance in the Karzai government. In 2004, Saleh was named the head of Afghanistan’s intelligence service. For six years, as he developed networks throughout the country and inside Pakistan, few men knew more about the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the confounding quid pro quos of their relations with the Pakistani state. Saleh would remain loyal to the memory of Massoud, an unforgiving Panjshir insistent on rooting out militant Islamists. He also grew close to the CIA. At the war’s start, the Americans, who arrived bearing $10 million in cash, turned from handlers into partners, but they would never be coequals. Saleh, too, would fall in June 2010: quitting after a Taliban attack on the peace jirga, the national council of 1,500 delegates convened at Karzai’s urging. No one was killed, but Saleh was sacrificed, Coll explains, to Karzai’s mood swings, and to the Americans’ race for an accommodation with the Taliban.

Coll has set himself a tall order—to “provide a balanced, complete account of the most important secret operations, assumptions, debates, decisions, and diplomacy at the highest levels of government in Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul.” Yet for all the precision, a blind spot remains. Directorate S is an inaccurate title. The CIA moniker, Coll tells us, refers to the Pakistani intelligence units “devoted to secret operations in support of the Taliban, Kashmiri guerillas, and other violent Islamic radicals.” The ISI, as I heard often in the summer of 1996 while the Taliban surged, is believed to have nurtured, if not given birth to, the Taliban. Coll goes to great lengths to present the Pakistani perspective, part paranoia, part rational national-security interest. Yet the forensic details of Pakistan’s intervention in Afghanistan since the 1990s, and of the rise of the religious “students” from the Quetta madrassas, remain obscure. Although Directorate S begins by tracing the Pakistani puppet masters behind the Taliban, and ends with the American search for a peace deal with the militants, their Pakistani patrons—with rare exceptions—remain at a remove.

Pakistani writers, too, have tried and done little better. Coll cites Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos, and interviews the former leaders Benazir Bhutto and General Pervez Musharraf, and scores of unnamed “Pakistani officials.” We meet the chief players: Mahmud Ahmed, ISI director-general and “paymaster of the obscurantist Taliban”; Ahmed Pasha, a successor; and, in greatest detail, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Pakistani officer who would attend training in Fort Leavenworth and Hawaii and rise to head the ISI and the army, becoming the “de facto head of state.” Yet none appears to have granted an interview. Coll must rely on European and American proxies—CIA officers, diplomats, White House insiders—to reprise the Pakistani speaking roles. The absence only adds to the quality ascribed, above all, to Kayani: “inscrutability.”

At start, and end, this is a CIA history; more than a dozen officers—some cowboys, some Ivy League alumni, several a blend of the two—loom large. If Coll reveals the debacle of American endeavors (more Monty Python than cloak-and-dagger) to negotiate with the Taliban in granular detail, his replay of the killing of Bin Laden is less revelatory.“The full story,” he concedes, of “Bin Laden’s long fugitive exile in Pakistan may never be known.” Yes, Bin Laden’s final hideout was “less than a mile” from Pakistan’s national military academy, its West Point, and yes, Kayani, the chain-smoking, golf-loving antihero of Coll’s tale, was atop the ISI when the world’s most-wanted man moved in. But Coll cannot indict the ISI. In fact, he writes: “CIA and other Obama administration officials have said they possess no evidence—no intercepts, no unreleased documents from Abbottabad—that Kayani or Pasha or any other ISI officer knew where Bin Laden was hiding.” Given the premium on such intelligence, he argues wisely, “it almost certainly would have leaked.” Some, most notably Seymour M. Hersh in the London Review of Books, have cast doubt on the official story—that the CIA found Bin Laden by tracking his courier, Ibrahim Ahmed. A “blatant lie,” Hersh insists. Not Coll: How the CIA learned the courier’s name, and that he might be aiding Bin Laden, “remains unclear.”

For 670 pages, Coll keeps his cool, steady in his dispassionate narration. In the final pages, though, he unseals a searing indictment: “Policies riddled with such internal contradictions and unresolved analytical questions failed to achieve the extraordinarily ambitious aim of stabilizing war-shattered Afghanistan.” The war, whether executed by Bush II or Obama, had turned into “a humbling case study in the limits of American power.” He points to the endurance of the ISI (“This was ISI in microcosm: an institution well practiced at manipulating the CIA and the Taliban simultaneously”), yet comes up short of revealing the mechanisms of that power.The opacity is of consequence. For the war’s “greatest strategic failure,” Coll notes, was “the failure to solve the riddle of ISI and to stop its covert interference in Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan remains in tumult. The US once operated 715 bases in the country. Now the number is twelve. Yet the CIA’s “longest war” has done little to heal the country. The population has swelled from twenty million in 2000 to more than thirty-four million, even as the country remains one of the world’s poorest. There is bitterness, too. Razor wire surrounds the institutions of governance, while a generation of foreign contractors, prodigal sons from the Afghan diaspora, and warlords have grown rich on rebuilding. Tales of corruption and theft swirl around many of Massoud’s former lieutenants. And terror still threatens Kabul and nearly every city.

Yet as Coll looks to the horizon, an anachronistic note of Western romanticism, and an echo of the mujahideen resistance, returns. Ahmad Massoud, the general’s only son, enters in Coll’s final pages. Twelve years old when his father was killed, Massoud fils returns home at age twenty-eight from London, with degrees from Sandhurst and Kings College (where he took courses in war studies) and a master’s degree from City University. The “resemblance to his father is unmistakable,” writes Coll, evoking the aura of the “Lion of the Panjshir.” Saleh, for his part, remains eager to rejoin the fight, whether on Twitter, in the government (he leads Afghanistan Green Trend, a movement, fiercely anti-Taliban, that purports to be pro-reform)—or yet again on the battlefield. It is “hard to avoid the possibility,” as Coll reports of his most recent trip in 2016, “that the Afghan war might be cycling back toward where it began before the American intervention following September 11.”

Andrew Meier is the author of Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall (2003), Chechnya: To the Heart of a Conflict (2004), and The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service (2008; all Norton).