Review from Major Amin: Directorate S –The CIA and Americas Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016-Steve Coll -Allen Lane- Penguin Books-2018-ISBN-978-1-846-14660-2 ISBN-13: 978-1987659184 ISBN-10: 198765918X
A leading US-Israeli Intelligence analyst and operator recently summed up pathetic state of US intelligence operators in Pakistan as following:–
“ They are afraid of their own shadows”
As great powers decline , their quality of strategic judgement and decision making and their operational effectiveness also markedly declines.
Steve Coll’s voluminous and bulky book reconfirms this fact .
The first defect of this book is that it does not contain a single relevant map connected to the subject i.e Directorate S.
On page 12 the writer repeats a false and unsubstantiated claim that CIA pilots had to fly Russian MI series helicopters for Northern Alliance , whereas in reality Afghanistan never had any shortage of Afghan helicopter pilots.
On page 14 the author confirms his absolute lack of knowledge of geography when he fallaciously claims that Panjsher valley slices north towards Tajikistan , whereas in reality Panjsher valley inclines towards Chitral in Pakistan towards the Northeast , ending at Anjuman Pass.
The authors analysis is a clear testament to the fallacious assessments of US policy makers about Afghanistan like on page-17 he discusses Al Qaeda and US policy makers obsession with Al Qaeda.
As a matter of fact Al Qaeda was never the real player in Afghanistan all along . It was a puny group with limited strategic ability. The real players in Afghanistan all along were Taliban supported by Directorate S of the ISI.
This basic US perceptual error repeatedly appears in Steve Colls voluminous narrative and Steve Coll himself is quite confused about it.
Steve Colls factually flawed statements like page-17 where he states “Recalling the miserable fates of Imperial Britain” while referring to Britain”s Afghan wars. Why Coll has to make such baseless statements is perplexing. As a matter of fact all three Afghan wars were a strategic success , the first being waged by a British private company. All three Afghan wars made British strategic position in India and West Asia stronger and created a more stable Afghanistan.I guess it is fashionable in western authors to make such statements about what a terrible place Afghanistan was and is .
Nowhere does the author analyse that every intelligence agency generates warnings about likely attacks so that its reputation and credibility is protected when one attack occurs.
On page-37 Steve Coll admits that 9/11 was a CIA intelligence failure.Page-38 discusses the interesting finding that an inquiry board in 2005 recommended action against Cofer Black for failing to perform to professional standards at the time of 9/11.
Steve Coll nowhere analyses why and how Al Qaeda succeeded in 9/11 attacks but could never repeat this performance .
On page-41 Coll discusses inflated perceptions in the CIA about Afghanistan where Coffer Black thinks that four or five dozen CIA personnel may perish in the planned attack on Afghanistan in late 2001.
Al Qaeda is all along exalted by Steve Coll to a very high pedestal. Like on page 50 he discusses that US policy makers feared an alliance between Al Qaeda and the Pakistani state.
On page-54 Coll starts fabricating Pakistani history absolutely baselessly when he states that General Musharraf was awarded a gallantry award for action behind Indian lines in 1971, whereas in reality Musharraf never saw any action in 1971 India Pakistan War. This false statement was first mentioned in Steve Colls earlier book and now repeated in the book under review.
I interviewed General Musharraf’s commanding officer Brigadier Iqbal Nazir Warraich now settled in Canada in 2005 and he dismissed this assertion of Steve Coll as absolutely baseless nonsense.
Coll is master in exaggeration and spicing his narrative but nowhere rationalizes as to why the US forces suffered only one fatal casualty in the invasion of Afghanistan , due to actual enemy action and that too a non military CIA specialist. Whereas Coll leaves no stone unturned to portray Al Qaeda as a very dangerous adversary.
I agree with Colls observation on page-64 that the ISI was a master in manipulating both the USA and the Taliban.
Page-83 contains an interesting example of CIA inefficiency where the CIA was adamant of bombing a place whose coordinates had already been passed to CIA as a US position.
On page-88 Steve Coll fallaciously claims that ISI shifted its covert action headquarters to Ojhri camp in 2001 whereas Ojhri Camp was ISI covert action Headquater as early as 80s and 90s.
All along the narrative the US fallacy of regarding Al Qaeda as the strategic objective of Afghan war recurs and is repeated . While in reality the real players in US Afghan war were the ISI and its Afghan Taliban proxies.The Al Qaeda was a bogey and a much inflated and misused term.
Like on page 102 Coll states “ The objective of Operation Enduring Freedom was not to seize Kabul ; it was to destroy Al Qaeda” . This remained the cornerstone of the totally flawed US strategy in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda did exist but was a minor player and apart from 9/11 there is hardly any significant feather that can be attached to the cap of Al Qaeda and 9/11 also remains a massively complicated affair.
On page-105 Coll discusses total lack of resolution of US general Dell Dailey during the Tora Bora attack.
On the same page as per Colls analysis General Tommy Franks stands out as a typical no risk , no boldness , hole puncher. A typical windbag general.
On page 107 Steve Coll fallaciously places Tora Bora in the Hindu Kush mountain range whereas Tora Bora has absolutely no connection with Hindu Kush mountain range.
Dick Cheneys assessments as discussed on page-110 that the war in Afghanistan may spill out to Pakistan and endanger Pakistans nuclear arsenal may be endangered , stands out as a case of how unrealistic US judgements could be . A conflict in which the US did not lose a single soldier in actual fighting was being exaggerated by characters like Cheney as a gargantuan life and death struggle.
On page 110 Steve Coll is intellectually dishonest when he states that US suffered 12 military deaths. As a matter of fact the US did not suffer a single military death due to enemy action and all 12 US deaths reported by Steve Coll to add some glory to US conquest of Afghanistan were accidental or friendly fire deaths which had no connection with real enemy action.
Even the CIA ex military civilian who died at Mazar Sharif died because of his excessive and misplaced zeal and over enthusiasm.
On page 119 Coll discusses erroneous assessments which CIAs Richard Blee foresees a final battle at Gardez.
As a matter of fact the Taliban had all withdrawn to Pakistan and there was no question of any great battle at Gardez.
On page 124, Coll’s assertion that few KHAD veterans were retained by Engineer Arif is totally erroneous. The KHAD and now NDS all along was majority composed of old USSR trained leftist era veterans and the same situation continues till to date.
On page 124 Coll repeats that the CIAs mission was Al Qaeda. As we saw it Al Qaeda was never the key player in Afghanistan.Thus one can conclude that the CIAs mission in Af Pak was totally out of touch of harsh battle and on ground realities.
On page 127 Coll admits that the US military massively exaggerated so called Al Qaeda fatal casualties in Operation Annaconda launched in Shahikot in 2002. In reality this was a puny operation much inflated and the US suffered very few casualties not exceeding 8 including friendly fire deaths.
On page 128 Coll fallaciously claims that the Kabul suburb Wazeer Akbar Khan was named after an Afghan king whereas the Wazeer was son of an Afghan king Dost Mohammad Khan who was allegedly poisoned by his father as per Afghan historian Qasim Reshtia.
Colls narratives discusses all along how US decision makers deceived themselves all along what role ISI was playing and failed to arrive at a final and firm resolution.
On page 151 he discusses how Pakistanis were massively inflating coalition support fund bills and the US was paying them despite fully understanding all the lies and exaggerations.
Map on page 162 showing CIA posts is vague and disappointing and Coll fails to note that US lost maximum soldiers at Shkin post simply because it was badly sited.
Steve Colls analysis repeatedly brings out the fact that US indecision and strategic vacillations allowed the ISI to regain the initiative.
Steve Coll rightly analyses Amrullah Saleh as the only key Afghan decision maker who most realistically assessed the ISI role and double game in Afghanistan but was snubbed and ignored by dumb and irresolute US commanders and decision makers and finally removed by Karzai.
Steve Coll on page 200 brilliantly analyses that US ambassador Nancy Powell was a total strategic disaster and a major part of US strategic failure in Af Pak.
Steve Coll accurately assesses Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in assessing the Pakistani double game in Af Pak.
On page 201 Coll is wrong when he states that Pakistan Army action started in Waziristan after the assassination attempt on President Musharraf in December 2003.
As a matter of fact Musharraf launched an unprovoked action in FATA/Waziristan in October 2003 as a deception plan to fool the Americans while providing full sanctuary to the vast bulk of Afghan Taliban in Pakistani Baluchistan.
On page 202 Coll is blunt and intellectually honest where he identifies total CIA intelligence failure in accurately assessing ISI complicity in aiding Afghan Taliban.This is a valuable service to posterity and intelligence history.
Coll however fails to discuss the hard fact that the April 2004 assassination attempt on Musharraf was planned and conceived by lower rank soldiers of Pakistans elite SSG commandos and included many Pakistan Airforce lower ranks.
Page 209 analysis shows how erroneously US fallaciously misperceived insurgents centre of gravity in Pakistans FATA region and was totally fooled and deceived by General Musharraf. Steve Coll fails to highlight this hard fact while discussing joint US Pakistani action in FATA against Nek Mohammad.
On page 212 Coll rightly assesses the CIA as a confused organization with a hazy and totally fallacious perception, all the time inflating Al Qaeda to massive dimensions and failing to see Taliban as the central strategic issue.
On page 216 Coll hits the nail on the head where he finds a confused CIA totally fooled and deceived by Musharraf and is shocked to see a naïve CIA so deferential to Musharraf and ISI. This in reality was biggest US strategic perceptual failure in US Afghan war and Coll must be commended here for his intellectual honesty.
On page 217 Coll discusses brilliant foresight of Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh where Saleh foresaw Taliban resurgence in 2009.
On page 218 Coll brilliantly discusses extreme naiveté of Killcullen in dismissing Amrullah Saleh’s brilliant assessments about ISI.
It is a super mystery why the Americans were so foolish in selecting and handpicking a man like Killicullen to advise them regarding Afghanistan war.
Coll discusses in detail how the CIA was repeatedly fooled by ISI and how CIA naievely shared Amrullah Salehs brilliant Pakistan assessments with ISI who simply assigned them straight into the dustbin.
In the chapter Digging a Hole into the ocean this matter is discussed in considerable detail.
Colls discussion of Swat operation is totally fallacious (page-310 to 316).Pakistan Army never faced any serious odds in Swat operation and its victory in 2009 was a foregone conclusion. I interviewed Brigadier Ajab Khan who was deeply involved in Swat operations all along. Ajab described in detail how Pakistani generals all along massively lied and exaggerated odds in Swat to win potential promotions etc and some 48 battalions were pitched against a puny force of 1,000 to 2000 badly armed insurgents in Swat . Ajab Khan also narrated how a famous Paakistani general ordered some 500 air strikes against a puny rebel force in Bajaur and Mohmand agency.
Ajab Khan an outstanding professional was passed over and not promoted on the totally irrelevant pretext that his wife a doctor was working for a US organization although Pakistani state was playing concubine to USA all along, at least outwardly and milked the USA of some 25 Billion US dollars for doing nothing.
Coll fails to analyse and note that despite getting over 25 Billion USD Pakistan did not deploy a single battalion to interdict 90 percent of Taliban infiltration in Afghanistan along the entire 1500 km Baluchistan Afghan border.
Coll rightly analyses that the decision to deploy in Helmand had no strategic rationale.
Colls discussion of military operations is sketchy and confused and the book does not contain a single map to illustrate US military operations of 2009-11.
The book is interesting but ends inconclusively.There is no detailed and definite conclusion .
What we have is an interesting narrative but no subtle analysis. Passing references to US lack of strategic insight but no details.
What Coll fails to admit or openly state is that the entire US war in Afghanistan was an exercise in massive self deception . Since the US lacked the strategic resolution to confront the Pakistani state , it fooled itself and its public with vague entities like Al Qaeda, which never was a serious player in Af Pak.
Coll refuses to see the hard and harsh picture that 90 % US casualties in actual fighting were caused by ISI proxies and not Al Qaeda.
It is a harsh admission that whole nations and states and this includes a super power like USA can go on deceiving themselves and their public and Steve Colls massive and exhaustive gargantuan book offers no definite conclusions.
The book was an interesting but mediocre read .It was necessary to buy this book to review it and Steve Coll again disappoints me with his typical Washington Post non committal dilly dallying.