Review: Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The following is a review by Dr Hamid Hussain.

Book Review – Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll.

 Hamid Hussain

 Steve Coll’s new book is an excellent account of events of the last two decades in Afghanistan-Pakistan region.  Steve has all the credentials to embark on this project.  He is one of the best and well-informed journalist and his previous book Ghost Wars is the most authentic work of the history of Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) war in Afghanistan in 1980s.  For his new book, he has used important American sources from different departments of US government engaged with Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has also used some Afghan and few Pakistani sources, but it is mainly an American perspective of the events. There is need for work on Pakistani and Afghan perspective which is a far more difficult task.

 Book is about events of Af-Pak region and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) gets a lot of attention. Relations between CIA and ISI are not black and white. In the aftermath of September 11, majority of ISI officers were leery about too close cooperation with US and especially CIA.  On the other hand, especially in early phase of 2001-2003, a small cadre of ISI officers viewed foreign fighters as serious threat to Pakistan’s security and wanted to use this opportunity of close cooperation with CIA to neutralize this threat.  In this period of convergence of interest focused solely on al Qaeda, there was close cooperation and certain degree of trust between ground operatives of both agencies. CIA Islamabad station as well as satellite facilities in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar housed several dozen personnel from different US intelligence agencies especially technical intelligence staff.  CIA used its technical superiority of surveillance while ISI used its human sources to dismantle al Qaeda in the region.

 There were many thoughtful ISI officers who provided analysis of possible scenarios of US intervention in Afghanistan at a time when everyone was raising Champaign glasses for victory toast.  Some CIA officers agreed with ISI point of view especially regarding Pushtun question of Afghanistan.  In the winter of 2001, CIA station chief in Islamabad Robert Grenier comprehended the American dilemma better than many of his colleagues. He agreed with military action but understood Pakistan’s position.  CIA Director George Tenet’s Chief of Staff John Brennan agreed with some of Grenier’s analysis. However, they were in minority and events unfolded differently.  There were others like former Islamabad station chief Milton Bearden who thought that given enough time, Taliban may give up Bin Ladin thus avoiding a military mission, however there was no customer in Washington willing to buy this item.

 Predictably, CIA exaggerated while ISI downplayed the role of ISI in Afghanistan and truth is somewhere in the middle.  ISI unclear about US mission in Afghanistan as well as feeling hurt by CIA’s last mission and its fall out was not enthusiastic to jump on American wagon in haste.  Director General of Analysis (DG-A) at ISI then Major General Javed Alam (later Lieutenant General) admitted that less than a dozen ISI officers were working in Afghanistan prior to American invasion. He also disclosed that most of the Pakistanis who went to Afghanistan to defend collapsing Taliban regime in the winter of 2001 were from Southern Punjab. He wryly commented that most of them died and ‘they got their just deserts’.

 Later, mistrust between Pakistan and US widened and involved all agencies.  ISI has some influence in Afghanistan and some of its policies contributed to the instability in that country.  However, to blame ISI for all American follies in Afghanistan is incorrect and unfair.  ISI is a huge bureaucracy with a checkered past. It is not a monolithic entity and there is wide range of opinion among senior and mid-level officers.  The aura of playing in the ‘big league’ gives the agency a clout in internal and external policies but it comes with a price that it is also blamed for sins of others. 

 Steve provides details of genuine difference of opinion on policy matters as well as turf wars of US government agencies.  This provides a window to US decision making process and impact of institutional and personal friction on policies on the ground.  We tend to generalize government policies for easy comprehension and ignore these subtle changes.  Steve provides this perspective as far US decision making process is concerned.  There is no serious attempt to understand similar case of Pakistan.  In my own work on Pakistan army, I found similar challenges of Pakistani decision makers. Army brass was reluctant to share details with civilian government especially when Asif Ali Zardari was President. In the army, there was friction between officers involved in operations against militants and intelligence officers. Professionally competent and confident officers took charge of the operations and realized that some ISI policies were detrimental to ongoing operations.  These officers relied less on ISI and kept intelligence officers at arm’s length.  On the other hand, officers who were less confident, relied more on ISI. I found former lot much more successful than the later.

 A small error in caption of a 2005 picture about Pakistan on first page of pictures.  Caption wrongly identifies two Pakistani army officers flanking Colonel David Smith as Lieutenant General Tariq Majid and Major General Asif Akhtar. The officers are then Lieutenant General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and Lieutenant General Muhammad Yusuf.

 This book should be on the reading list of anyone interested in Af-Pak region. It is summary of major events of the last two decades that affected Pakistan and Afghanistan and Steve takes us on this journey as an informed guide. It covers events as seen from the tall citadels of power of Washington to individuals who do heavy lifting like mules in a big caravan. For a thoughtful reader, it is a sober and humbling reading of limits of power.

 Steve Coll.  Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (New York: Penguin Press), 2018. 757 pp.

 Hamid Hussain

[email protected]

25 August 2018

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30 Replies to “Review: Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan”

  1. For a county with grave issues, i am amazed as how much time and public debate in Pakistan is dedicated to foreign policy. Feel Pakistan is somewhat an outward looking country, India is equal degree inward looking.

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    1. Good observation. Importance of any feature of politics, in crude utilitarian terms, can be measured by its monetizability.

      Some rent-seeking states like Pakistan monetize their geo-strategic position and the size of rental income pocketed by the elites is mainly driven by (volatile) geo-strategic demands of large players (US, China etc).

      India was inward-looking because it inherited the Indian middle class bias of rapacious foreign interventionism. Also, the culture is genuinely more entrepreneurial (more innovative, less dependent on rents) on average. Perhaps we have to thank to some extent all the “Hindu baniyas” Pakistanis kicked out. Not sure if there are any economic studies on the growth of businesses started by Pak refugee families in India in a generation after Partition. But anecdotal evidence suggests significant contribution.

      A section of the Indian middle class identifies this foreign interventionism with European colonialism, whereas another (and increasing) section goes further back to extractive Muslim feudals. [This is just shadow-boxing of course. Hard to argue that poor Indians were squeezed any more (or less) for rents under Moghals as they were under Guptas]

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      1. Some rent-seeking states like Sri Lanka monetize their geo-strategic position and the size of rental income pocketed by the elites is mainly driven by (volatile) geo-strategic demands of large players (US, China and India etc).

        Slapstik, Fixed the comment

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    2. India is inward looking since it’s main governing concern is keeping internal balance between different caste, ethnic and regional groups and vested interests. That has been historically so and Mughal or British empires would have found a ‘sweet spot’ of maintaining this balance with least effort. That was the key to their success and longevity.

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    3. Pakistani ruling elite/clique think they have mastered internal balance either by brute force ( against Jeeye Sindh, MQM, FATA) or using Islamic jihadis to crush national movements (Baluchistan, NWFP). Jihadi groups are not only preferred army against external powers like India or Afghanistan, but also internal control for Pakistani army. Jihadis are reservoir dogs of PA.

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  2. Apropos Saurav and Slapstiks comments contrasting the political culture of India and Pakistan. What confounds me is the inability of India to convincingly win the ‘better place to live’ argument despite possessing a superior and more responsive political culture for a long period of time.

    Key data (murder rates, education levels, exports) do indicate this, but somehow Pakistani elites seem to be able to convince their middle classes and masses otherwise. If nothing else, I would have expected Pakistanis to reflect on why they rely so heavily on Indian imports for entertainment.

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    1. @Vikram

      // inability of India to convincingly win the ‘better place to live’ argument //

      Maybe because India is not actually a better place to live for many of its people. India has one of the most skewed income and social distributions of any country in the world and so on-average POVs do not do it justice. Life is still terrible for hundreds of millions and mere economic upliftment does not mean the same thing it did in, say, 70s China because social (caste-based) penalties are still fairly orthogonal to (and stickier than) one’s economic condition.

      The litany of screw-ups by our forefathers is long and very difficult to overcome, and we are making more (though at a considerably lesser rate) as we undo those.

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    2. Vikram, millions of foreigners want to move to India for spiritual/religious reasons. India does not welcome them and discourages them from moving to India and becoming Indian citizens.

      Do you think India should change this policy?

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  3. Oh look! All the anti-Pakistan commenters are out in force.

    Muslims are being lynched in India for eating beef. Human rights activists are being arrested. Clean up your own mess before attacking the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

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    1. Actually , the sentiment is not completely anti-Pakistan. It is a compliment that Pakistani policy makers turn their gaze towards geo-strategy and make something out of it. Their skill and interest in this is appreciated , even though what they do with their skill is not .

      Conversely, I decry the lack of strategic culture in Indian higher echelons of power.

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      1. You are one of the people who is always sniping at Pakistan, even on those threads where Pakistan is not the topic. The comment about “Jihadis” above is a classic example of anti-Pakistan rhetoric.

        I do wish you guys would focus on sorting out the messes in your own country. It’s not like everything is going so well over there. You are also a third world nation, though you all seem to think you are some great power in waiting.

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          1. Of course Pakistan has its problems. But you are obsessed with pointing them out. It’s quite pathetic.

            Deal with Hindutva before talking about “Jihad”.

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  4. Kabir, my comment was not to trumpet India’s achievements (apologies if it came across as so), but more to inquire about how the Pakistani elites manage to sustain such a high level of animosity and contempt towards India. If the reasons for such feelings and attitudes were really rooted in questions of minority and human rights, surely they would provoke a reaction towards those issues within Pakistan as well. Objective comparisons would be made with other countries around the world, including strong Pakistani allies like China, where the rights of Muslims are legally proscribed.

    What seems to be operative is quite different. The Pakistani mind seems pre-programmed to think of India as an enemy of Muslims, and any data that might confirm this is taken as the complete and confirming picture. Its confirmation bias on a truly national scale.

    The problem is that such attitudes make any meaningful conversation nearly impossible. Notice how you immediately brought up lynchings and arrests, when all I did was ask a question, perhaps poorly framed. You could have argued why India really is a threat to Pakistan. Surely, Pakistanis dont think that a flood of Hindus are going to swarm across the border and lynch them for eating beef. We have been discussing things for years now, and there is no real progress in understanding.

    There are the peaceniks and diaspora populations who provide an impression of overcoming issues by simply not talking about them. This works for them since they are detached and relate to India or Pakistan in a cultural sense rather than as a national or political project. But the bulk of the populations in these countries dont.

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    1. It’s not just you. There are a whole bunch of you–what I will loosely call right-wing Hindus– that never have anything good to say about Pakistan. It’s getting extremely irritating.

      What makes you think that Pakistanis are not concerned about human rights issues in their own country? It is possible to worry about both the domestic human rights situation and about India’s treatment of Muslims.

      India is not an enemy of Muslims. But certainly it is not a friend of Pakistan. No two countries that have a long-standing territorial dispute are going to like each other. Add to that the current government’s Hindu majoritarian policies and you can see why many Pakistanis distrust Indians.

      In any case, you guys need to get over your supercilious attitude about how much better India is than Pakistan. Muslims and Dalits are not having such a good time.

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      1. I agree on the living standards with living Standards thing with kabir. Was reading somewhere that as a percentage of population India has more poor people than Pakistan. Even though slightly but still. Only recently did India got a higher gdp per capita than Pakistan

        I feel that religion has to do with outward / in ward thing. Had India been a Muslim majority country it would have perhaps also been looking outwards. A country like Iran too which has been facing so much still devotes a lot of time to foreign policy Also i doubt that india foreign policy has really come out of its nehruvian past anyway

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        1. Pakistanis are going to leave their homeland for countries like Norway..

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fOYJ3_ZppM

          I was looking for an academic paper from many moons ago that stated Pakistan is a very young state but a very old nation. I would recommend all those commentators talking about the “artifice” of Pakistan to see this video and how powerful Pakistaniat is, especially with the people of the Indus..

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          1. Gave me quite the opposite impression. The guy at the end clearly says that he was only able to experience being a human once he came to Norway.

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        2. Saurav, this is not true. India is nearly 50% richer than Pakistan, as AnAn has pointed out. And when it comes to industry, it is in a very different league. Pakistan’s economy is heavily dependent on remittances, and there is little industry to speak of other than textile and allied sectors.

          If this was really about Muslim rights, Pakistanis could not be so comfortable with China or even some of the Western countries.

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  5. “Maybe because India is not actually a better place to live for many of its people.”

    slapstik, I dont disagree about that. But my inquiry is about the contemptuous perception the Pakistani elite is able to create regarding India amongst its masses and middle classes. India may not be a great place for many, but it is better than it was 20 years ago, and much better than a lot of other countries.

    Not only that, it is quite a bit ahead of Pakistan in terms of industries and science/technology. I think these things impress middle classes a lot more than poverty levels/social discrimination etc. Surely Pakistani middle classes are aware that India has a wide range of industries and very successful software and entertainment industries. Ordinarily, these would produce quite a bit of respect, perhaps even admiration, and open the doors to a view other than ‘Musalmano ka jaani dushman’.

    I certainly sense this in my conversations with a lot of Iranians, Japanese, Chinese and Egyptians. It is not that they are not aware of right wing politics in India, but they seem to better grasp the totality of the situation, and dont resort to hyperboles like almost every Pakistani commentator I can think of.

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    1. India’s success in the software industry will not take precedence over the atrocities committed against Kashmiri Muslims. Like I said, countries that claim the same land are generally not fans of each other.

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    2. @Vikram

      // the contemptuous perception the Pakistani elite is able to create regarding India amongst its masses and middle classes //

      I think that is a generalization. A section of Pakistan’s elite actually do not have a contemptuous perception of life in India. India to them is a larger, comparatively freer, more cosmopolitan and more economically advanced country. However, political violence against Muslims in India also scares some of them and maybe confirms the nascent bias of India being anti-Muslim generally. (Maybe it actually is, but I am speaking of perception here rather than objective reality)

      Yet to generalize a country of 200 odd million would be silly indeed. India-Pakistan relations are especially bitter precisely because the cultural overlap is so high. However, since India is manifold larger and more complex, it is more likely to evolve in ways that will increasingly feel alien/disconcerting to Pakistanis – esp if people to people contact remains limited. I have mixed feelings about this.

      I will say no more on the topic as I do not want to digress on the comment thread and make this about India-Pakistan again. I am happy for any/all of my comments to be deleted if deemed too digressive.

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  6. “The extremely wise Husain Haqqani has said that if Indian GDP per capita increases to twice Pakistan’s level, Kashmiris might want to stay part of India.”

    AnAn, I feel that this is the critical point. At what ratio of GDP per capita, will Pakistanis put away their contempt and blinkers, and look at things more rationally ?

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    1. This is trying to gauge moral priorities of people using an economic utilitarian calculus. It is philosophically flawed.

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      1. India per capital gdp only became higher than Pakistan in 2008 I think. So mostly 10 years out of last 70 years

        Also I feel things like “better place to live “ are abstract notions. They cannot be quantified. Irrespective of per capita gdp I don’t think anyone living in Pakistan would want to move / have Better relations with India and vice versa.

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        1. There are lots of people in Pakistan who want to have better relations with India (I am one of them). But in order to have these better relations, both sides have to be willing to resolve the issues that are at the heart of the conflict, chief among them Kashmir.

          I agree GDP doesn’t make the ideological and diplomatic issues go away.

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