Early on in his book on America’s longest war, still being fought in the badlands of Afghanistan-Pakistan, Steve Coll tells us about ‘Directorate S,’ one of several subsidiary wings in Pakistan’s intelligence service, ISI, devoted to “secret operations in support of the Taliban, Kashmiri guerillas and other violent Islamic radicals.” Other key directorates in the ISI, for example, on counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence, analysis and international liasion as well as Pakistani politics, are also manned by two-star generals, but there’s no question that ‘Directorate S’ is the most coveted real estate in the spy agency — and along with the Pakistan army, the real power in Pakistan. Prime ministers and presidents are so peripheral, they get only a few pages before they’re quickly relegated to the irrelevancies of history. It is the men who head the ISI and Directorate S who are fated to intervene in the destinies of nations and bend them in the direction of their will.
Coll’s gripping tale accounts for a mere 15 years, beginning with the day the modern world changed — not on September 11, 2001, when the Al Qaeda crashed several planes into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC — but, two days before that, on September 9, with the assassination of the charismatic Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud on a mountain top 150-odd km away from Kabul, which he was determinedly holding on to in the face of the voraciously expanding Taliban. The story ends in 2016, in the anti-climactic aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, with Coll pointing out that, 1,40,000 deaths later, the Taliban is once again becoming a larger-than-life player in the Af-Pak region. Except, this time the brutality is coated with the savage veneer of the Islamic State which has no time or inclination for the Pashtun code of honour, however self-defeating the latter may be.
This epic narrative demonstrates the painstaking detail with which the arrogant, inept and distracted George Bush administration transformed the “good war” against the Al Qaeda and the Taliban into a fragmented mess, as he shifted attention to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. How Barack Obama, who moved to end the CIA’s torture chambers on the Af-Pak front on the third day after he came to power, perfectly understood Pakistan’s perfidy in preparing for a “friendly” Afghanistan, once the Americans “left”. Still, Obama nevertheless decides that the perfidy is worth the risk because he, America or the rest of the world, cannot afford to have Pakistan’s 100-odd nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands.
So, when Afghan president Hamid Karzai, at the end of another irrational tantrum, asks Hillary Clinton whether America would once and for all end the double game that Pakistan’s ISI-Army was playing in Afghanistan — by fighting the war against the Taliban with the Americans and continuing to provide them safe havens inside Pakistan — or he would, himself, cut a deal with the ISI, Hillary has no answer. She knows that Obama has already decided he will gamble the future of Afghanistan every day of the week if it means that Pakistan’s unsafe nukes are protected.
Karzai, meanwhile, comes dangerously close to following through on his own threat by forcing the resignation of his own interior minister, Hanif Atmar, and national security advisor Amrullah Saleh — knowing full well that he is sacrificing them, and perhaps his country, to the ISI.
This book, really, is a movie. The epic scale of the betrayal, the chicanery, the double-crossing, the ego clashes, the lobbying and politicking is brought to life, as if it’s the stuff of daily destiny. Obama’s impatience with his own Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke is evident. Holbrooke pushes his “one-man CIA” analyst, Barney Rubin, into the role of a Greek hero, as America launches into secret negotiations with the enemy it is publicly fighting. The former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Zaeef, who spent time in Guantanamo, appeals to the Americans to rescue the Taliban from the Pakistanis. Against the big-picture arc of national interest, we read the small stories of suburban American boys fighting a war in the overgrown marijuana fields of Helmand and Kandahar, losing lives and limbs from exploding mines or, simply, a gunshot to their head.
Of course, this is a terribly familiar book, even if you don’t know what’s coming next. As America digs itself deeper and deeper into the Afghan morass, Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kayani makes clear that the price for Pakistan’s unstinting support is the removal of Indian influence in Afghanistan. The death of the Indian defence attaché in a Kabul bomb blast in July 2008, followed by the Mumbai attacks in November has the ISI imprint all over it — the Americans, from Bush to Obama, to Trump today, are excruciatingly aware of the extent of the double-cross they face every moment of the day. And yet, they must grit their teeth and accept the body bags and out-manouevre Pakistan — all in the hope of redeeming the honour of the 2,996 people who died in the September 11 attacks, even though thousands more have since died on the killing fields of Afghanistan. That is why Obama must take the chance of sending Navy Seals in Apache helicopters to take out Osama bin Laden on the night of May 1-2, 2001; although Coll gives the Pakistanis the benefit of the doubt, saying it was likely they “didn’t know” he had been living there for several years within earshot of the Pakistan military academy. No matter. By now the story has acquired such a magnificent sweep, it seems only natural that the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan must continue after bin Laden’s death, although it was the hunt for him that brought the Americans to this part of inner Asia in the first place.
So, as America’s longest war shows no signs of winding up and current president Donald Trump grapples with pretty much the same issues, Coll finds a beautiful way to end the story — pretty much how he began it, in the Panjshir valley that is the last redoubt of the great Ahmad Shah Massoud, killed on bin Laden’s orders two days before 9/11. Massoud’s son, Ahmad, was then just 12 years old. Today, he is 28 and he wants to be part of shaping the movement for democracy in Afghanistan. At last, hopelessness gives way to a glimmer of hope.