Legendary foreign correspondent Steve Coll talks to Prospect about America's secret wars in Afghanistan and Pakistanby Sameer Rahim / March 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
Steve Coll is one of the great foreign correspondents of our time. A staff writer at the New Yorker and Dean of Columbia’s journalism school, Coll has written extensively on the war on terror and the alliance between the CIA and jihadists pre-9/11 in his books The Bin Ladens and Ghostwars. The latter won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.
His new work is the sequel to Ghostwars, Directorate S (Allen Lane), which examines in forensic detail America’s secret wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2001 to 2016. What did the United States get wrong? Why did western forces—including the UK—underestimate the Taliban? And what about Pakistan’s enigmatic role? Prospect’s Managing Editor Sameer Rahim caught up with Coll down the line from the US.
Sameer Rahim: Let me take you back to just after 9/11 when George W Bush set out to destroy al-Qaeda, who were being given sanctuary by the Taliban. Do you think the US gave enough thought to who the Taliban were, and how they would deal with them in the long term?
Steve Coll: No they didn’t. Not at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, nor later on. There was a lot of confusion about the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda had sanctuary in Afghanistan but it later became clear that they had a somewhat tense relationship with the Taliban. Maybe the Taliban leadership didn’t even know in advance about the 11th September attacks.
After the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [the Taliban government], fell in 2001, there was an additional question: what do we do with them? Many leaders fled to Pakistan, but there were lots of ordinary Taliban who just went home. The US made the fateful decision not to try to rehabilitate the foot soldiers. They treated them—every one of them—as candidates for Guantanamo. This was foolish: the wisest way to win a war is to construct a peace out of a reconciliation programme. The foot soldiers are part of the political fabric of the country and you need a plan.
SR: Over the years the mission in Afghanistan seemed to take on different justifications. Initially it was justice for the 3,000 people who died on 9/11; then there was reconstructing Afghanistan; and then arguments for…