Twelve days after 9/11, on the night of September 23, 2001, the CIA’s Islamabad station chief, Robert Grenier, received a telephone call from his boss, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet. “Listen, Bob,” Tenet said, “we’re meeting tomorrow at Camp David to discuss our war strategy in Afghanistan. How should we begin? What targets do we hit? How do we sequence our actions?”
Grenier later wrote in his book, 88 Days to Kandahar, that while he was surprised by the call he’d been thinking about these same questions—“mulling them over and over and over,” as he later told me—so he was ready. President George Bush’s address to the U.S. Congress just a few days before, Grenier told Tenet, was a good start: demand that Afghanistan’s Taliban ruler, Mullah Omar, turn bin Laden over to the United States. If he refused, the U.S. should launch a campaign to oust him. Grenier had thought through the plan, but before going into its details with Tenet he abruptly stopped the conversation. “Mr. Director,” he said, “this isn’t going to work. I need to write this all down clearly.” Tenet agreed.
Grenier set to work, and over the next three hours he laid out the battle for Afghanistan. Included in the paper was a detailed program of how the CIA could deploy undercover teams to recruit bin Laden’s enemies among Afghanistan’s northern Tajik and Uzbek tribes (an uneasy coalition of ethnic militias operating as the Northern Alliance), supply them with cash and weapons, and use them in a rolling offensive that would oust the Taliban in Kabul. With U.S. help, which included deploying American Special Forces teams (under CIA leadership) coupled with American airpower, the Northern Alliance (more properly, the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan) would start from its Panjshir Valley enclave in Afghanistan’s far northeast and, recruiting support from anti-Taliban forces along the way, roll all the way into Kabul.
Grenier gave the eight-page draft paper to his staff to review, then sent it to Tenet in Washington, who passed it through the deputies committee (the second-in-command of each of the major national security agencies), then presented it to Bush. “I regard that cable,” Grenier wrote, “as the best three hours of work I ever did in my twenty-seven-year career.”
Three days after the Tenet-Grenier telephone conversation, on September 26, the CIA landed a covert-operations team in Afghanistan to recruit local allies in the hunt for bin Laden. The quick action was impressive, but then events slowed to a crawl. It wasn’t until October 20 that the first U.S. Special Forces team linked up with anti-Taliban rebels, and it took another week for U.S. units to land in strength. But by early November al Qaeda was on the run and the Taliban’s grip on the country was slipping away. On November 13, militias of the Northern Alliance seized Kabul. The Taliban was defeated, its badly mauled units fleeing south and east (its last bastion, in the south, fell on December 6), and into nearby Pakistan, while what remained of al Qaeda holed up in a series of cave complexes in the Spin Ghar mountain range of eastern Afghanistan.
By almost any measure, the CIA-led anti-al Qaeda and anti-Taliban offensive (dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom by George Bush) marked a decisive victory in the war on terror. The U.S. had set out a plan, marshaled the forces to carry it out, and then seen it to completion.
But this triumph came with problems. The first was that the offensive was hampered by Washington infighting that pitted the CIA against a puzzlingly recalcitrant U.S. military and a carping Donald Rumsfeld, who questioned George Tenet’s leadership of the effort. This bureaucratic squabbling, focused on just who was responsible for what (and who exactly was running the Afghanistan war), would remain a hallmark of American efforts well into the Obama administration. The second problem was that Afghanistan’s southern Pashtun tribes were only marginally included in the effort, and they remained suspicious of their northern non-Pashtun counterparts. The mistrust, CIA officers believed, would almost certainly plant the seeds of an endless inter-tribal Afghan conflict, embroiling the United States in an effort to prop up an unpopular Kabul government. The third problem was Pakistan—or, more precisely, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the ISI, and the ISI’s “Directorate S,” responsible for covertly supplying, training, and arming Pakistan’s Islamist allies, including the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.
The intractability of these variables, and America’s 17-year effort (sometimes focused but often feckless) to resolve them, form the basis of Steve Coll’s Directorate S, a thick but eminently readable account of America’s Afghanistan misadventure. While Directorate S stands alone as a comprehensive exposition of the Afghanistan conflict dating from 9/11, it’s actually a follow-on of Ghost Wars, Coll’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 narrative of America’s efforts to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan following their invasion in December 1979. Given the breadth of Coll’s dual treatments and the depth of his research, it’s likely that these books will remain the standard exposition of the period for years to come.
While the focus of Directorate S is on Pakistan and its shady intelligence services, each of the obstacles that confronted the United States in Afghanistan from the moment the Taliban abandoned Kabul is embraced in detail. These obstacles included America’s post-9/11 attention deficit disorder (the pivot away from al Qaeda to Iraq was being considered in Washington even as the Northern Alliance cleared the Afghan capital) and the deeply embedded antipathy toward the new Kabul government among Pakistani-supported southern tribesman. Thus, after the United States ousted al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters, it embarked on a program to strengthen the new Kabul government, anointing Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s president and pledging billions in reconstruction aid. And so, or so it seemed, everything had gone as planned. The Taliban was routed; al Qaeda was on the run; a new anti-terrorism government was in place in Kabul; and the United States had signed Pakistan on as a willing accomplice. On May 1, 2003, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld declared an end to major combat operations in Afghanistan. The war was over. Won.
But of course it wasn’t.
Coll’s account provides a disturbing catalogue of the U.S. mistakes in the wake of the Taliban defeat. Almost all of them are well known: Hamid Karzai, the consensus choice of a grand assembly (a loya jirga) as Afghanistan’s interim president, proved to be a weak leader. The monies appropriated for Afghanistan’s postwar reconstruction were woefully inadequate for the task—“laughable,” as one U.S. official put it. American soldiers responsible for countering the Taliban’s return (and hunting al Qaeda terrorist cells) were thinly and poorly deployed (and, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, of secondary importance in the Pentagon). Tentative Taliban efforts to engage the United States in political talks were summarily and unwisely spurned. Allegations of prisoner abuse at U.S. detention facilities consistently undermined U.S. legitimacy. American funds were funneled into Afghan ministries laced with corrupt officials. Afghani poppy production increased, despite faint-hearted U.S. eradication efforts. And U.S. counter-terrorism actions proved ham-handed and caused preventable civilian casualties, pushing Afghanis into a resurgent anti-Kabul resistance.
More crucially, Pakistan’s unstinting support for America’s Afghanistan efforts proved to be anything but unstinting. The reason for this was not only entirely predictable but was actually the unintended result of the American victory. When the Northern Alliance and U.S. airpower pushed what remained of the Taliban (along with the remnants of al Qaeda) out of Afghanistan, they pushed them into Pakistan, creating conditions that, as Coll tells us, “deepened resentment among Pakistan’s generals, who would come to see their country’s rising violence as a price of American folly . . .” Put simply, for the United States to seal the Operation Enduring Freedom victory, it had to ensure that its effects did not spill over into the one nation that could ensure that its victory would, in fact, be enduring. That didn’t happen. The result was that the Taliban was able to rebuild and rearm its networks not only in Pakistan, and under the eyes of the ISI, but also in Afghanistan.
It might have been otherwise. During a series of discussions I had about America’s intervention in Afghanistan in the months immediately following 9/11, a number of currently serving and former senior U.S. officials told me they believed that, given enough time, the Taliban might well have handed bin Laden over to the Americans, obviating the need for a full-on invasion. One of these officials was Milton Bearden, a famed CIA officer (his close friends refer to him as “Uncle Milty”) who, during his time as a station chief in Pakistan, had helped to head up the CIA’s war against the Soviets in the mid 1980s.
After 9/11, Bearden recharged his Pakistan and Afghanistan networks in an effort to convince the Taliban that turning bin Laden over to the Americans was a better option than the one they were facing. All the while, Bearden kept senior U.S. officials apprised of what he was doing, even as he was attempting to head off their rush to war. Bearden told me that, while his efforts had not reached fruition by the time the Bush White House had decided on a course of action, he believes the United States had not fully explored all of its options—or thought through the long-term impact of its intervention. “I don’t know what would have happened, I don’t know,” he says wistfully, “but I think we have a handhold in history. We should have seen what was coming.” He notes that Alexander the Great “took one look at Afghanistan’s mountains and decided against it. He thought his whole army could get swallowed up in there, and he wasn’t going to take that chance. So, well, you tell me if I’m wrong, but Alexander was no slouch, right?”
Not everyone agrees with this, of course. The dissenters include Robert Grenier, the first drafter of what became the American war plan. Taliban leader Mullah Omar, he told me, was committed to his pledge to protect Osama bin Laden; he viewed it as a blood oath that could not be broken. Moreover, argues Grenier, “Omar viewed himself as a kind of world historical figure, a person on whom the axis of history would turn.” One result was that he believed his fight against the Americans would be epochal.
That said, Grenier believes America’s foray into Afghanistan, and the mistakes that followed, might at least have been dampened by a more diligent focus on the inherent divisions of Afghan society. “We [at the CIA],” he told me several months ago, “were very aware that the march of the Northern Alliance into Kabul would likely create real difficulties in the south. And we tried to slow it, precisely for this reason. But events overtook us, and it just wasn’t possible. So, yes, things might have been otherwise, but in truth we just don’t know.”
The value in Coll’s Directorate S comes not from the elegant telling of a story not fully known, but from the dawning realization that Afghanistan is the kind of lock for which there is no key. There is no reason to believe that a different outcome would have ensued if other events had intruded—for example, more personnel, money, focused diplomacy, or robust and disciplined enemy-defeating and nation building; or that our war there and the occupation that followed would have yielded the same results that we realized in, say, Japan after 1945. The real hubris here is not that we tried and failed but that we thought we could actually succeed. Afghanistan is simply not that kind of place.
There is a term of art for this in the military, which found its first usage in Iraq in 2009, when U.S. commanders adopted it as an appreciation of what could and could not be accomplished. Instead of focusing on defeating corruption, inefficiency, disunity, and poor leadership, the focus shifted almost exclusively to dampening violence, to keeping the doors to Iraq open even as its factions battled for its control. More importantly, the adoption of the phrase marked the abandonment of high expectations and an embrace of realism. The United States would have to yield the business of replicating a Western-style democracy on the banks of the Euphrates. That goal, if it was going to be accomplished at all, would have to be realized by the Iraqis.
Analyst Anthony Cordesman, one of America’s premier military thinkers, adopted the phrase and applied to Afghanistan in 2012 in an essay he entitled, “Time to Focus on ‘Afghan Good Enough.’” His plan was simply stated but had all the elegance of actually working: keep the Taliban out of Kabul and the major cities, preserve the central and provincial government even in the face of endemic corruption, and work to provide security to large numbers of Afghanis. Cordesman conceded that this was not the kind of victory that Americans had hoped for on September 12. And it was difficult to describe the outcome as even vaguely passable—or “good.” But it was far better than adopting goals that could not be realized or embracing an illusion that disappeared even as it was grasped. For the time being at least, it would have to be “good enough.”
Mark Perry is a foreign policy analyst, a contributing editor to The American Conservative and the author of The Pentagon’s Wars.