Steve Coll’s inquisition of the ISI

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The ISI does not comprise angels alone; it must have its fair share of rogue elements as happens in all organisations involved in cloak and dagger operations — but not to the extent Coll would have us all think

The highly decorated American writer and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes Steve Coll, has recently published his new book titled, Directorate S — the CIA and America’s secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Coll’s earlier book titled, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 described the CIA-ISI joint campaign in Afghanistan against the former USSR.  Ghost Wars provided an in-depth account of the CIA’s activity in Afghanistan from the time of the Soviet Invasion to the aftermath of 9/11 and its collaboration with Pakistan’s premier security agency, the ISI. Coll elaborated the camaraderie between both agencies, which utilised CIA and Saudi Arabian funding to build Mujahideen training camps along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in an effort to create radicalised, militant fighters sourced from various Muslim countries to attack the Red Army in Afghanistan. Coll won accolades for his incisive analysis and how the CIA-ISI nexus has had a long-lasting effect on the region.

Coming in the backdrop of the highly acclaimed Ghost Wars, one would have expected Directorate S to be of substance and shed more light on the impediments the US and ISAF have faced in achieving victory in Afghanistan. Steve Coll’s investigative skills should have highlighted why the world’s most sophisticated military hardware and best trained forces were unable to subdue the ragtag militia of the Taliban. Instead, the erudite scholar apparently falls victim to the oft repeated narrative of the US State Department and Pentagon, alleging that one of the wings of the ISI, the “Directorate S” (thus the title) has remained involved in the training of the Afghan Taliban.

Coll’s transcript would sound like milk and honey to the US establishment, Afghanistan and India but he has lost his credibility in Pakistan for laying the blame of US failures solely on Pakistan. Surely, the ISI does not comprise angels alone; it must have its fair share of rogue elements as happens in all organisations involved in cloak and dagger operations, but not to the extent Coll would have us all think.

For a war that is now 17 years old, the US has precious little to show, despite having lost over 2,400 of its own soldiers and expending an estimated trillion dollars

The dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, Coll is a seasoned and accomplished reporter but it does not require a rocket scientist to conclude that in his sequel to Ghost Wars, President Bush’s vow that American forces would stay until they finished the job and the December 2017 affirmation by Vice President Mike Pence ‘We’re here to stay, until freedom wins’ sound hollow and nowhere near “mission accomplished.”

SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) has concluded that over the past year, the Taliban have increased the amount of territory they control. Opium production has reached an all-time high; corruption continues to plague an Afghan government of doubtful legitimacy and effectiveness. For a war that is now 17 years old, the US has precious little to show, despite having lost over 2,400 of its own soldiers and expending an estimated trillion dollars.

After 9/11, ‘the United States and its allies went barrelling into Afghanistan,’ Coll writes, ‘because they felt that they had no alternative.’ Once in, they were soon plunged into a quagmire. Rarely has a great power undertaken a major military campaign with such a flawed understanding of the challenges ahead. Yet first Bush and then Barrack Obama concluded that the United States had no choice but to persist, a view that Donald Trump has now seemingly endorsed.

Based on about 550 interviews, Coll describes in graphic detail how senior officials, intelligence operatives, diplomats and military officers struggled to comprehend the problem at hand and to devise a solution. A never-ending cycle of policy reviews, surveys and reassessments, along with efforts to find common ground with Afghan and Pakistani counterparts, resulted in evolving various strategies but each fell short since they were based on trial and error. Trump, who had vowed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, is now retracting by sending more troops and accelerating bombing campaigns.

Coll has named two critical factors which stand out as stumbling blocks to success in Afghanistan. The first is an absence of trust between Washington and Kabul. The longer the Americans stayed the more difficult it became to persuade Afghans that their presence was helpful and their purposes benign. Hamid Karzai, who was hailed as Afghanistan’s Nelson Mandela, according to Steve Coll, 13 years later, became an Afghan Mugabe in American eyes.

The second factor in Coll’s opinion is Washington’s dysfunctional relationship with the government of Pakistan, or more specifically with the Pakistani Army, which effectively calls the shots on all matters related to internal and external security. To conclude, the book makes for a compelling read, but should be taken with a pinch of salt.

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