Year 17

The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. Bush screwed it up. So did Obama. Will Trump make things even worse?

A soldier attached to the 2nd platoon, C-Coy. 1-23 infantry based at Zangabad forward operating base in Panjwai District, Afghanistan, gestures on Sept. 22, 2012.
A soldier attached to the 2nd platoon, C-Coy. 1-23 infantry based at Zangabad forward operating base in Panjwai District, Afghanistan, gestures on Sept. 22, 2012.
Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Over a decade ago, Steve Coll wrote Ghost Wars, a Pulitzer Prize–winning account of America’s support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, and the subsequent rise of the Taliban. That narrative, which ran from the 1980s up until 9/11, laid bare the contradictions and flaws of American policy—chief among them a dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan. Coll has now written a follow-up, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is the story of the last 15 years of the conflict in Afghanistan and its monumental errors.

Coll once again chronicles the failure of U.S. strategy and our inability to improve the American-Pakistani relationship. (Directorate S is a wing of Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the ISI.) Despite American military aid, Pakistan has continued to play a “double game” in the region, supporting Taliban elements and other extremist groups that it uses to check Indian influence.

I recently spoke by phone with Coll, who is also the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and a staff writer at the New Yorker.* During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the Obama administration’s dire mistakes in Afghanistan, what Osama bin Laden’s letters reveal about his relationship to Pakistan, and why the new Trump strategy for the region is likely to fail.

Isaac Chotiner: Has reporting and writing this book changed your view of American power and what it can accomplish in the world?

Steve Coll: Yeah, I guess it has. I was pretty skeptical about American power before, but now I’m even more informed about why we seem to repeatedly struggle with objectives that you imagine a superpower with an economy the size of ours and a military as capable as ours might be able to achieve.

The narrative in Ghost Wars was not entirely about dysfunction. It was about blindness of a cynical alignment with Islamists during the Afghan War and then a hubris about letting the country fall apart. This story, though, was really more dispiritingly about our inability to think straight and to act consistently.

When you think about the American war in Afghanistan, do you think our lack of success is because our capabilities were so limited as to make even a perfect strategy impossible to carry out, or that the strategy was so incoherent that even if we’d had the capabilities we still couldn’t have succeeded?

I think the latter, certainly after 2006–2007. The reporting documents the incoherence, the contradictions that were laced into the strategy and just perpetuated. One of the persistent ones was the conviction of presidents and even generals, who were willing to say out loud, “There’s no military solution to this war.” Petraeus said during his time in command, “You can’t kill and capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency.” Yet policy continuously resourced military action over every other possible line of effort. There was an attempt to negotiate directly with the Taliban, but each department of the government ran its own war, its own policy, and they didn’t really add up.

I think because President Obama was focused on al-Qaida and increasingly skeptical about everything else the Pentagon wanted to do in Afghanistan, he tolerated a degree of inconsistency in his own policy that made the war impossible to make progress on. You know, the thing that was frustrating me by the time I got to the end of the reporting about the Afghan efforts in the Obama years was this was an administration that succeeded at overturning decades of assumptions in policy toward Cuba. It was an administration that succeeded in negotiating a really difficult nuclear agreement with Iran that capped its nuclear program and brought Russia, China, and its European allies all together to achieve that goal. It was an administration that was capable of solving really hard problems through diplomacy, through sustained attention. Why did they tolerate the dysfunction and the kind of half-assed efforts to negotiate with the Taliban? I don’t understand it. There was a kind of self-perpetuating momentum that the military and to some extent the CIA possessed that the White House just was unwilling to challenge.

Do you think that if they had pursued these efforts more wholeheartedly that we’d be in a very different place in Afghanistan in 2018?

I think counterfactual history is really hard and dangerous. I think if you were to choose a place where we might have gotten things right in a way that would have prevented the violence that we see today, it would be in January 2002 when the Bush administration walked away from its own victory and toward Iraq.

If you wanted to rewrite history, then let’s not invade Iraq and let’s undertake a Bosnia-like approach to stabilizing Afghanistan with the international community that was completely on our side at that point, to not make this stupid decision to see every single walking Taliban as a candidate for Guantanamo. That was the moment where there were probably a few years there where you could have changed the equation. It would have taken a lot of wisdom and some luck and maybe it wouldn’t have worked.

The counterfactual in 2008 is about American lives and limbs: the fact that we went big in the war with a counterinsurgency strategy that within months of approving it I don’t think the president believed in anymore. The generals didn’t believe in it. They didn’t think they had the time or the resources to carry out fully-resourced counterinsurgency, but they went forward anyway. The war aims were such a muddle because the vital interests that we fought for weren’t really in Afghanistan after 2008. At least not in significant measure.

The main through-line of your book is that the United States never really solved its relationship with Pakistan, and thus the war was doomed. In the specific case of Pakistan, do you think this was a matter of never pursuing the right strategy, or that there was no right strategy with Pakistan to pursue, because of how the country’s military sees its self-interest?

It’s a great question. It’s a hard question. I would just start by saying that what I was really trying to do in this book was to allow Americans to see a war from Pakistani perspectives.

When you do that you kind of have to recognize that we were trying to change a country that had been grotesquely destabilized by our own retaliatory war in 2001 and that was trying to recover domestic security. We shared their worry during those dark years, 2008 to 2012 or so, which was really the worst period of domestic violence that Pakistan has ever known. The Pakistani Taliban were in Swat and then they were coming out of Swat toward Islamabad and everybody was in a full-on panic. I remember those days. To talk about putting pressure on Pakistan when it’s on the verge of civil war is just unrealistic.

By the time you get to that period, the Americans had figured out that President Musharraf misled them, that they’re unlikely to change Pakistan’s perspective, that they really are not even sure how to reach the Pakistanis.

How do you view Musharraf as a historical figure?

Oh, he was an egomaniac who overestimated his own political abilities and squandered opportunities while he was in power because he wouldn’t listen to anybody and he wasn’t a politician. He had a vision for putting the economy first and for stabilizing the relationship with India that had boldness in it. It wasn’t three-dimensional but he did negotiate a kind of a treaty with the Indians in secret in 2005 and 2006 that would have taken a bunch of irritants off the table and maybe changed the economic and political relationship between India and Pakistan in a significant way. They never got to the deal because he overreached in domestic politics and fired the chief justice and so forth. Then he just became increasingly a kind of tin-eared military leader who was in over his head.

Another way to think about him is with Benazir [Bhutto], he was the last of a certain generation of figures who sought to reengineer Pakistan through a more explicit commitment to secularism, secular politics. But he was out of step with the Pakistani population.

Do you have any kind of romantic feelings about whether, if Benazir had lived, Pakistan and the war in Afghanistan would have taken a different turn?

Well, her death was important because it was a signal and a tragic kind of end of a version of aspiration that Pakistan had always had. It was an aspiration that competed with other aspirations, sometimes in a state of confusion. Her leadership, her voice, her gender, her vision of what Pakistan could be and should be, was a really important part of the country’s sense of itself and its sense of possibility.

When she was murdered, it really marked the end of some part of that dream. I thought it was a very, very important and sad occasion. As to your question, the kind of alternative history, she never had the power to shake Pakistani foreign or military policy. At best, she had an uneasy relationship with the army. She got thrown out of office twice because that relationship went sour pretty fast both times. If she had come back into power it would likely have again been an uneasy relationship with the army. In any event, even if she had managed to hold her role in the civilian side they wouldn’t have let her reshape the war in Afghanistan or the policy toward the Taliban I don’t think.

Your book covers the Bin Laden raid. What’s your current opinion on what knowledge the ISI had about Bin Laden’s whereabouts before he was killed?

The way I approached it here was just to try to lay out what evidence I could find on both sides of the hypothesis that the ISI knew that he was there. I’m perfectly willing to accept the strong possibility that they did know, but as an empiricist I would want some evidence to confirm it other than other people’s anonymously sourced interviews, which I can’t assess. They may be accurate, but I don’t know who those people are or what the basis for their knowledge was. I never found direct sources who were able to describe from their own experience an ISI protection operation.

Then the other thing that we’ve got that we didn’t have a few years ago were all these translated letters that Bin Laden wrote while in exile. To go through them paragraph by paragraph and really take note of what the letters reveal about his own security anxieties and his own relationship with the Pakistani state was fascinating. I tried to deliver some flavor of what the evidence is.

It’s certainly not dispositive that he had no relationship with the Pakistani police, but it does make clear that if he did have a relationship with ISI it was not a relationship that he could call upon to maintain the security of his closest family members as they traveled in Pakistan. He was really quite worried about his family members bumping into the Pakistani state.

Now, his worry is not inconsistent with the possibility that there was a small ISI cell that looked after him, but their message to him obviously would have been, “Don’t count on us for anything else and please stay out of trouble and lay low.” If you put a gun to my head and I had to make a guess …

I would if this were an in-person interview.

I guess I think the totality of evidence about ISI’s conduct over the years would make me assume the worst. I just can’t see the shape of what that relationship would have been in the letters. It doesn’t have a political flavor, it doesn’t have an al-Qaida–negotiating flavor. It certainly doesn’t have a security aspect because he’s so concerned about his son, in particular, but also his wives’ travel.

Have you seen evidence that calls the official American narrative of the raid into question, as Seymour Hersh and others have written?

I don’t see any evidence to call the official narrative into question. The idea that the Pakistanis knew about the raid and it was all staged is one possibility that I’ve heard or seen written about. That doesn’t make sense to me. If the U.S. wanted to protect the Pakistanis they could have done it a completely different way, as the Pakistanis pointed out. They could have had the Pakistanis take credit for some of this. Pakistanis probably would have been ambivalent about that but they had no problem hauling in a lot of other al-Qaida fugitives in the past and they would have been rewarded in the international system for their cooperation. Significant sums of money would have flowed Pakistan’s way if they had done the right thing and been publicized for it.

The idea that the whole raid was phony or that there were no documents or something—that just doesn’t make sense to me.

President Trump has sent a small number of additional troops to Afghanistan while simultaneously promising to get tough with Pakistan. What do you make of this approach, and do you think there is another approach vis-à-vis Pakistan that makes more sense?

What’s going on here is that you have a new administration that comes in and thinks everything the old administration did was wrong. The Obama administration did something of the same thing when it came in after Bush.

The things that they, especially people like McMaster and Mattis, the mistakes that they attribute to the Obama administration are basically two. One was that the Obama administration failed to signal to the Pakistanis, “We’re here to stay in Afghanistan and you better get used to us and you better come closer to our terms.” Then, secondly, that the Obama administration did not put enough pressure on Pakistan to change its behavior. Those assumptions they brought into the administration. Then they seemed to have fought off Steve Bannon, who suggested we just leave Afghanistan. Now they’re putting their strategy into place.

The problem is that while pressure on Pakistan of some sort might be part of a strategy that could improve things in the Afghan War, by itself history tells us it’s not going to do the trick. Pakistan was under sanctions throughout the ’90s because of its nuclear program and it never changed its conduct. It was severely isolated in the international system. It was only one of three governments that recognized the Taliban. It had various problems with the IMF because of its international policies and yet it kind of fought its way through and never really changed its conduct.

What’s an alternative? Well, it has to be the way these really hard problems ever get solved, as with the Iran nuclear program. It would have to bring to bear on the problem, allies and as many of the great powers you could persuade it was in their interest to get involved, and really hammer it out, work on it the way the Obama administration did with the Iran nuclear deal and even with Cuba.

Would that work if you tried it that way? You know, I don’t know and I wouldn’t say that it was probable, but I do know that just taking military action and signaling that you’re never going to leave and putting pressure on Pakistan by withholding aid is very, very unlikely to succeed.

What effect do you think a complete American pullout would have on Afghanistan? Would it be another calamity for the people of Afghanistan, who have already had to deal with the Taliban and the war?

There’s a whole generation of young Afghans who have come of age in cities that are defended by the Afghan security forces, enabled uniquely by U.S. military power. At the level of presence we have now, the main thing we provide them that they need to hold onto these cities is air power, because the Taliban has no Air Force and no anti-aircraft weapons to speak about and they can’t mass in large numbers and they can’t take territory that people don’t want them to take without getting bombed.

If this stalemate is resourced at the level it’s resourced now and if Afghan politics don’t fall apart, which are two big political ifs, this could go on for a good long while. It’s a little bit like Nigeria or Colombia or even Mexico, where you can have an internal conflict with shockingly high levels of civilian and security force casualties, but because of the balance of power it just persists for years and years and years.

Political scientists have studied civil wars of this kind. They’ve pointed out that first of all these kinds of wars last a lot longer than they used to. Secondly, if you have a guerrilla group that has a territorial sanctuary like the Taliban enjoys in Pakistan, and if that guerrilla group can also self-finance, then they can go on for a very long time. The FARC had outside subsidies and then self-funded after the Soviet Union collapsed. They’ve settled that war tentatively now but it took what? Forty years? We’re in Year 17. We better be patient if we want to defend this Afghan government.

As to the question of if we left would it collapse? Yeah, I think militarily they would be in a difficult position. The problem is partly the fragmentation of Afghan politics and the factionalism that’s intensified, ethnic polarization, and this is bleeding into the security services, which are not cohering partly because they’ve become sort of mini patronage machines for the different factions of Afghan politics. That compounded by the pressure that the Taliban itself can bring to bear militarily has made it very difficult for them to make progress. They’ve taken huge losses.

Yeah, you look at the attrition rates in the Afghan security forces and it doesn’t look sustainable. The form of your question was would it be a calamity if we left? Yes, I think it would be. It may be a calamity even if we don’t leave.

Correction, Feb. 6, 2018: This article originally misstated that Steve Coll is affiliated with NYU.