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 improving girls’ schooling or poppy eradication. It seems there was a war in search of a cause. Is that fair?
SC: Yes. There were many “causes” and the aims were contradictory. And as the war intensified American presidents had to decide what interest the US had in Afghanistan that could justify the sacrifice of young men and women. Why was it there? The answer to that question was a muddle.
The Obama administration, after a while, came out thinking that we had only two vital interests in Afghanistan: one was al-Qaeda; and the other Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Neither of those problems was actually in Afghanistan in 2009. The US rationalised the war by saying, if Afghanistan falls apart and the Taliban take over again, al-Qaeda might come back. That’s not an unreasonable fear but a kind of a strange reason to send 100,000 soldiers into combat.
And there were many other contradictions. Are we reconstructing? How much are we investing? Do drugs matter? These questions were often just kicked down the road.
SR: Your book explores how these questions divided not just the political class: the CIA had its priorities, the State Department had its priorities, the army had its priorities…
SC: Three wars were being fought simultaneously with three different national policies. Often the disagreements were about basic questions: should we be talking to regional governments? Should we be talking to the Taliban? Particularly during the Obama administration, which was a little bit dispiriting because this is a president who achieved two really difficult diplomatic successes: the Iranian nuclear deal, and normalising ties with Cuba. But in Afghanistan, the president allowed the military to fight one war and the CIA to fight another.
SR: Obama took a long time to make a decision over Afghanistan. His solution—a surge followed by a withdrawal—seemed more calculated for domestic political consumption.
SC: It was a bit of a tangle. Remember when he was going through these deliberations the US economy was in free fall and unemployment was sky-rocketing. The Democratic Party was restive about the war. He wanted to signal to his followers that he was not going to fight it forever. It was also a signal to the Pentagon: you’re not going to drag me into another Vietnam. But the Pakistanis and Taliban could easily see that by naming a withdrawal date there was an opportunity to wait the war out.
SR: You don’t pull your punches on the CIA’s torture programme: “Desperation, fear, group-think, pseudo-science, misplaced faith in aggression and humiliation of enemy prisoners, incompetence, stupidity, cruelty…”
SC: This torture culture that grew up after 9/11 is one of the darker chapters in the CIA’s history—and there have been some pretty dark ones. There was an enormous sense of guilt that they had missed the attacks. There was also a sense of rage about al-Qaeda. They resorted to torture because they thought it was the only way they could get information. Nobody had the courage inside the agency to say: first of all this is wrong; second this kind of interrogation doesn’t work; and third this is all going to become public.
Everyone who has been in the CIA for longer than a few years learns that you don’t do anything you don’t want to read about on the front page of the New York Times. But nonetheless, a very dark torture department grew up inside the CIA. The victims were often low level or entirely innocent Afghan suspects. It really had an effect on Afghan understanding of the American role in their country and even turned people to see it as an occupation.
SR: The use of CIA contractors compounded the problem.
SC: The CIA didn’t have the capacity to run prisons or carry out interrogations. In a couple of these cases the people they contracted out to were brutal and felt like they could rough up anyone they wanted. It was a different face that the US brought from what it had promised in 2002. Reconstruction had become heavily militarised.
SR: Ahmed Rashid has just reviewed for us Theo Farrell’s new book on Afghanistan, in which he examines Britain’s role in the war. He argues that UK intelligence and the army had very little idea of who they were fighting. Is that symptomatic of why things went wrong?
SC: I think it is. The Taliban were not a priority after their government was defeated in 2001. Even when the Taliban revived after 2004, the CIA continued to argue that the only enemy it should focus on—with limited resources—was al-Qaeda.
SR: Pakistan is another strand to this book. Trump tweeted earlier at New Year that despite all the US aid, the country had given them “nothing but lies and deceit.” Putting aside the rhetoric, is there some truth in this accusation?
SC: Yes, you could certainly understand the frustration that led to that tweet. Pakistan was designated a major Nato ally and it received billions of dollars in US aid. In exchange, it did carry out cooperative counter-terrorism operations against non-Taliban terrorists inside Pakistan.
But it played a double game partly about preserving its own interests. The army tried to convince the Pakistani Taliban to go into Afghanistan towards the true enemy, the US troops over the border. By the time the US really understood that Pakistan’s largest intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was on the other side of the war, it was 2008/2009. They really struggled to know what to do about it. Then you had 2011 when it was discovered that Osama bin Laden had been hiding in Pakistan. The relationship just fell apart.
You step back and ask: who succeeded in this war? Nobody entirely, but the ISI managed to take in enormous amounts of assistance from the US all the while pretending to the Americans that they were too weak to do anything.
SR: The confusion for me is that Pakistani civil society has suffered enormously because of the ISI’s support for extremism, which has destabilised the country itself. What exactly did they think they were getting out of this cooperation with the Taliban?
SC: If I were a Pakistani civilian I would be furious about army rule because it has really been a disaster for the country. You have to remember that it’s the military and the intelligence controlled by the military making these decisions. It is almost laughable but there was a sincere belief in the high command in the Pakistani army that you had to distinguish between good Taliban and bad Taliban. Good Taliban don’t attack the Pakistani state and bad Taliban do. It’s obviously a distinction that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and not one which a purely civilian government would have made.
SR: The Pakistani general Ashfaq Kayani, head of the army, wanted to ride the Taliban tiger rather than shoot it.
SC: That’s exactly right. He’s an enigmatic character: he studied in the US, sent his children to US schools and was sincerely drawn to the possibility that he could construct a deeper strategic alliance with the US. But at the same time he wasn’t prepared to take the kind of steps against the Taliban that the Americans demanded and the relationship just got worse.
SR: Another enigma is Hamid Karzai, former Afghan President.
SC: Yes. Karzai began to think that maybe the US wanted ISI to destabilise Afghanistan to justify a long-term American military presence. He became frustrated with civilian casualties and advised against the doctrine of full-blown counter-insurgency. The US essentially didn’t listen to him and he thought was in danger of going down as a lackey of the US. He clashed with them. This narrative that he was unstable or off his meds wasn’t fair. He had a temper, he behaved erratically, that’s certainly true. But that has to be seen in the context of what the US was signalling to him.
SR: There have been improvements in Afghan society though?
SC: There’s still a constitutional system; there’s a new Afghan generation that has come of age; there have been some improvements in telecommunications, healthcare and education. The heartbreaking thing was that after the fall of the Taliban, all these Afghans came pouring home from abroad and the whole world was with them: some of them remembered a country that was poor but very peaceful and stable, from the 1920s to the 1970s. This idea that Afghanistan was always a mess is false. It was a stable and multi-ethnic, nationalistic country for most of the 20th century.
Even with corruption, even with bad governance, if the US had not gone off and invaded Iraq, if the international community had invested in Afghan reconstruction in a serious way, if it had negotiated with Pakistan to overcome its historical suspicions, things could have turned out better.
SR: US General John Abizaid argued that large US counter-insurgency forces in Muslim societies over a long period of time are doomed to failure. Do you accept that it was perhaps always going to go wrong, even with good intentions?
SC: At the scale of 150,000 troops, yes. Abizaid’s thinking has become more or less conventional wisdom in the US military, which is why you see the US fighting in much smaller units through special forces, local forces and trying to avoid a big footprint.
SR: Is negotiating with the Taliban the only solution?
SC: In the end, yes. The war has been stalemated for a decade. The government controls the cities, the Taliban are strong—sometimes very strong—in the countryside. The idea there’s going to be a change in the military dynamic of the war, I just don’t understand the evidence for that. These kinds of wars can go on for 30 or 40 years. Ultimately they end through negotiations. Direct negotiations with the Taliban is not anybody’s panacea but—along with engaging other countries—this is the hard work that needs to be done to bring conflicts like this, if not to a full resolution, then at least to reduce the violence.
The problem is that Trump doesn’t have a state department equipped to tackle the problem. You would need to fully resource it at the highest levels of government, work with allies, be patient—this not something the Trump administration was built to do.
This interview has been edited for clarity