The next time you hear someone dismiss journalism as “fake news,” pass them a copy of Steve Coll’s Directorate S. Coll draws on decades of experience in South Asia, nearly 600 interviews over a decade, and thousands of pages of documents to give the most balanced and comprehensive picture to date of the unraveling of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Few writers can match Coll’s length of time on the topic, range of contacts, or personal knowledge of realities on the ground. Coll, the Pulitzer-winning author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, and On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia, brings decades of experience and an unmatched network of contacts to his work. I suspect, too, that Coll’s extraordinary behind-the-scenes access to CIA officers rests on contacts he developed covering the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent Stinger recovery program.
Coll pulls no punches, whatever his personal ties. He argues feckless policy and competition among the CIA, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), and Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security empowered al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Washington’s strategic failure was its inability to address Pakistan’s duel game as Islamabad traded access to land routes to Afghanistan and some counterterrorism collaboration for U.S. aid, even as it sponsored Taliban terror. Meanwhile, Afghan corruption and former President Hamid Karzai’s paranoia undercut attempts to negotiate peace. Coll argues America’s elected leaders bear the ultimate responsibility for the failure to develop a viable Pak-Afghan strategy, but documents how inter-agency battles and clashing egos also eroded U.S. leverage. Coll’s interviews with former Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, former President Karzai, and CIA sources highlight competing interests and grievances, anticipating current Trump administration struggles to respond to Islamabad’s double-dealing.
Coll writes that he sought to explore the “important secret operations, assumptions, debates, decisions, and diplomacy at the highest levels of government in Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul.” Directorate S does this and more, highlighting the mix of organizational folly and individual heroism that led to our current impasse.
Someday, we will have access to now-classified records from the NSC, CIA, State, and Defense. Until then, it is hard to imagine a more complete and thoughtful account of how the United States went wrong in Afghanistan.
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Penguin Press, 2018) is now available online.
Diana Bolsinger is a doctoral student at the LBJ School of Public Policy at the University of Texas, Austin. She specializes in U.S. national security strategy and is a Graduate Fellow at the Clements Center for National Security. She served as a Political Officer in the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad in the 1990s.