Directorate S – S. Coll

“Things would be easier if there was a right way – honey, there is no right way” Hozier

You might not expect Hozier, he of the “Take me to Church” Fame, to have the right words to describe America’s Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan after September 11, but he does.

There is no right way. But the US sure found a lot of the wrong ones.

The graveyard of empires.

We spoke about Steve Coll’s other book, Ghost Wars, last week, and Directorate S picks up where that book ended. You know the sordid story. You probably lived through it. September 11 (where where you when the Twin Towers crashed?), America’s invasion of Afghanistan, a quick military victory which turned into an increasing quagmire.

For a short period, Afghanistan became the vocal point of the international attention. (If I learnt one thing by reading these two books, it’s that it is never a good sign when someone pays attention to Afghanistan.)

As of 2017, the US still has a couple thousand troops in the country, with no intention of fully leaving the country in the foreseeable future. Afghanistan has turned into the longest war in the history of the US, seventeen years and counting.

It seems like somehow, a country that ranked among the very last in the development index, a country that had been at war for decades, with rampant corruption and no government to speak of, somehow managed to fend off the mightiest military in the world.

So what went wrong? Turns out, all of it.

There were shocking errors. 

The US had no coherent geopolitical vision of what the war in Afghanistan should achieve. They knew they had to do SOMETHING, but they didn’t know what, exactly.

Did they want to beat Al Qaeda? Officially, yes, but it took the US over ten years to figure out that they couldn’t beat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan because the movement had a sanctuary across the border in Pakistan. There is, quite simply put, no use in fighting in Afghanistan if the ‘center of gravity’ of the enemy is in Pakistan. (Again, Clausewitz was right).

Was the goal to chase out the Taliban? They came from an indigenous movement of the Pashtuns, and were nurtured and accommodated by the Pakistan spy service ISI. Moreover, after an initial confusion about the difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the Bush / Obama administrations declared they had no interest in engaging in the dynamics of Afghan politics itself. They were only there to catch the bad guys.

They also didn’t want anything to do with nation building. They invested far too little money in the country after the initial win. Bush and his fellow war criminal Cheney also had a pronounced disinterest in building infrastructure, development opportunities, or a civil society.

To make matters worse, neither the Bush nor the Obama administration found a way to integrate the semi-independent agendas brought forward by different agencies of the American government. the State Department, the CIA, the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the DEA and many others all did their own thing, more or less. This resulted in policies ripe of internal contradictions, while the underlying analytical questions remained unsolved.

So the bottom line is – To this day, it is not clear what the US wants to achieve in Afghanistan. Therefore, they achieved nothing, despite all the money spent and sacrifices made.

There were unforced errors.

Afghanistan wasn’t looking too bad until Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003. This diverted resources, troops and attention to a second front, and gave the Taliban a chance to sneak back into the country.

It also gave the extremists a credible ‘the US is after all Muslims’ story line that they repeated over and over. The invasion created a deep resistance to the US in the Muslim world. The US, quite simply, became the bad guys. This was accentuated by other unforced errors, such as Guantanamo and the CIA’s torture of Al Qaeda suspects in offshore prisons.

There were sometimes no good options. 

So Afghanistan posed some really hard questions that the US simply couldn’t answer.

What’s more important – working with unsavory but sometimes effective warlords against Al Qaeda, or to promote decent government?

Do you stop drug enforcement, at the risk of aggravating farmers, and distracting resources off your main goal?

How do you deal with the Taliban, who clearly have some abhorrent views on the world, but pose no real threat to the US directly? How severely do you punish them for giving shelter to Osama bin Laden after he was chased out of Sudan? And how do you deal with the fact that the Taliban enjoy a solid base of support?

There were things the US didn’t want to see.

Like the fact that Afghanistan had two massive problems – terrorism and massive under-development. The US wanted to fight one problem, but not the other. However, this is not how it works. You cannot separate those two, as they are intrinsically linked.

Pakistan’s ISI spy service directly supported the Taliban, even at a time when they were fighting Americans in Afghanistan. The US knew this, but they didn’t know how to stop it.

If you want to list them, here’s the Top 5 Reasons How The USA Fucked Up Afghanistan:

  1. Failure to stop ISI’s covert actions in Afghanistan, supporting the Taliban
  2. Under-investment in development and security immediately after the Taliban’s fall
  3. Drain on resources (human, financial, military) caused by the invasion of Iraq
  4. Corruption fed by contracting & deal-making with local warlords
  5. Military hubris

So yes, the US really picked a whole bunch of oopsy-daisies in Afghanistan. And by doing that, they changed the dynamics of world politics.


  • Because the US got so FED UP with dealing with Pakistan, they … kinda stopped dealing with it. Which, of course, delighted India, Pakistan’s enemy numero uno. They didn’t skip a beat, started a charm offensive, with the result that the US and India are now closer than ever.
  • The US never really got a hold on Al Qaeda – instead, the movement spread like cancer across the region. The worst consequence of this is the rise of ISIS in Iraq & Syria, which can be directly traced back to the US invasion of Afghanistan & Iraq.
  • Of course, there’s the curse of ongoing civil violence and instability, not just in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan. This is especially worrying because Pakistan has these things called nuclear bombs. Weapons of mass destruction in an unstable country are always a nightmare, but Pakistan came closer than most other nuclear powers to losing them to extremist groups. Fun.
  • And finally – the US burned their bridges with most countries in Central Asia. They really didn’t do themselves any favors. So now China is reaping the advantages of this disenchantment with the West, without having to have made any sacrifices. Note to self: sometimes it really is best to stay in your lane.

So please read this book. But more importantly, read Ghost Stories. I’m not kidding. I knew about 30% of what Steve Coll described in ‘Directorate S’. I mean, you know the story line – the CIA torture prisons, and Karzai, and Musharraf. There was still plenty of new information that I hadn’t heard previously – and Coll is uniquely skilled at breaking down complicated matters into easy-to-understand plot lines – but I knew where this was going. I lived through it!

On the other hand, I knew about 5% of the content of Ghost Stories. That book was a constant ‘You gotta be kidding me!‘ and ‘What the hell are they up to now.‘ It received a Pulitzer Prize, so that tells you how good it is, and it will teach you a lot about the conflict and why Afghanistan is such a hard nut to crack.


And next week…

I’m not gonna lie, the past two weeks were a bit intense, and my sister is visiting me this week (YAY!), so I won’t have much time to read. We’ll be busy going to amazing restaurants and having a great time!

So, I thought I’d talk about one of my favorite books. According to my records (and yes, I do keep records), I read this book 13 times since last October. I rarely re-read books, but this one is special. So please stay tuned. I cannot wait to show this book to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s