Finding the Right Enemy: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and al Qaeda

May 19, 2014

Carlotta Gall, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).


In 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Pakistan’s then-President Pervez Musharraf, “You are either with us or against us.” This stirring rhetoric has been shown to be empty. Pakistan proved to indeed be both with us and against us, providing the lines of supply to sustain the coalition war effort in Afghanistan, cooperating with the U.S. unmanned air vehicle (UAV) campaign against some factions of its violent Islamic radicals, and  enabling Afghanistan’s economic growth. At the same time, the Afghan Taliban insurgents continue to rely on Pakistan’s sanctuary and support. Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is, today, using proxies to inflict violence against Americans, Afghans and Pakistanis alike.

Despite this, U.S. policy — along with its Pakistan-based diplomats and reporters — has historically been sympathetic to Pakistan’s security interests.  This trend is likely to continue as troops leave Afghanistan and Washington’s high stakes fear of a destabilized Pakistan becoming “Somalia with nukes” increases. Washington’s reluctance to publicly confront Pakistan’s sanctuary of Afghan insurgents is, in the eyes of Kabul, a policy of appeasement and willful blindness at best and deeply duplicitous geopolitics at worst. Pakistan and its military are deeply resented by Afghans, even those opposed to the government in Kabul and its foreign allies.

The region’s surreal kaleidoscope of allies and adversaries is the focus of New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall’s recent book, The Wrong Enemy. Gall’s title refers to Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents. Her argument is that Pakistan’s ISI is the more dangerous enemy to Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies. It is the Afghans who are paying the price for Washington’s failure to effectively deal with a Pakistani strategy based on proxy war.

A skillful reporter knows when to bury the lede on a news story. Gall waits until Chapter 13 (of 14) of The Wrong Enemy to reveal her “bombshells:” that the United States has evidence that the chief of ISI knew of wanted terrorist leader Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad and even assigned him a special ISI desk officer. This made The Wrong Enemy a news event. It was widely reviewed, excerpted in The New York Times’ Sunday magazine and condemned (though never convincingly contradicted) in Pakistan.

Overturning the accepted wisdom that Pakistan was ignorant to bin Laden’s location using reporting that relies on unnamed Pakistani sources and U.S. government officials who think her story is “consistent with their own conclusions” may indeed be problematic. Despite the publicity surrounding Gall’s revelations, her evidence on the ISI-bin Laden relationship is weak. But the reader, reaching this point in The Wrong Enemy, will have already encountered much about the ISI’s role in Afghanistan and Pakistan that should be considered even more disturbing.

The Wrong Enemy became news because of what it said about Pakistan’s security services. But Carlotta Gall’s story starts with Afghanistan. Gall obviously knows and likes the Afghan people. As someone with years of experience in the region, I appreciated her perceptive observations and her characterizations of Afghan elites and their agendas. Afghans express disdain of others by rhetorically asking, “Who is his father?” If no one knows, then that person likely doesn’t matter. That Carlotta’s father is Sandy Gall, one of the first British journalists to cover the Soviet-Afghan War, opened up many sources to her.

Good reporting from Afghanistan is valuable, providing evidence and perceptions that often elude even a veteran traveler to that complex (and hard to get around) country. Gall’s years of reporting from Kabul exposed her to the deep and profound frustrations of the Afghans. In The Wrong Enemy, more than collecting and reprinting her original newspaper stories, Gall used her subsequent reporting to update them into a cohesive narrative that often had me nodding in agreement. I have visited Afghanistan for over 30 years. I can judge from my own experience that Gall reports with accuracy, commitment and, at times, with fire — “I do not pretend to be objective in this war” — energized by an eye for revealing details that sees through her often febrile, dissimulating sources. She has seen too many bodies in Afghanistan. There is no mistaking her deep sense of anger towards those responsible, whether it is the ISI, coalition forces inflicting collateral damage, or corrupt Afghan elites uncaring towards everything except their own power and bank accounts.

Gall concentrates on key events and personalities. Her treatment of the mysterious, suspicious and avaricious President Hamid Karzai reveals a man intending to be a less official but still salient source of power once he leaves the presidential palace. Central to his difficult relationship with the U.S. is his long-standing view that it has always, dating back to the 1950s, been more concerned with Pakistani security than the future of Afghanistan.

Pervading this book is the author’s frustration that what Afghanistan has needed most since 2001 the U.S. has failed to deliver: not soldiers or dollars, but using the long-standing U.S. security relationship with Pakistan to turn it away from its strategy of proxy war in Afghanistan. Her reporting from Pakistan on the security services’ nurturing of transnational radical Islam included visits to the families of teenage cross-border suicide bombers and the madrassas where they were indoctrinated. Gall was robbed and assaulted by security personnel and menaced by madrassa boys who had apparently been taught that Western female journalists were a triple-threat to them and their world. I recall when, in the past, ISI men were willing to discuss their business politely over cups of tea (or Johnny Walker Red) and the students were eager to demonstrate their recitation skills for foreign visitors.

Being punched and threatened is not likely to encourage analytical detachment or impartial observation in anyone. Unsurprisingly, Gall does not provide a comprehensive account of the strategy, organizations, or background behind Afghan or Pakistani actions (and U.S. reactions to them), which is unfortunate. She reports largely what she saw. Similarly, Gall does not attempt to provide a prescription of how U.S. policy might focus away from the “wrong” enemy without compounding the damage already done. She does not look at the larger story of U.S. relations with Pakistan, nor does she aim to identify and examine the alternatives to the perceived policy of appeasement bitterly opposed by her Afghan sources such as Amrullah Saleh, the former intelligence chief, one of the most thoughtful and effective Afghan officials (hated by the ISI, not least for his sympathy towards India). But without Pakistan providing access through its territory, both coalition military forces and Afghanistan’s economy would be at risk of being cut off. Despite Pakistan’s dysfunctional democracy, the ISI remained hands-off as an elected government served its full term for the first time in the country’s history, to be replaced by an elected successor of a different party. Pakistan has been willing to see the U.S. blamed for the UAV campaign, but decimating radical Islamic leadership (while the UAVs spared Afghan insurgents) helped provide the political breathing space for elections. These elements of the relationship — and whether Washington’s policies have enabled or hindered a better future for Pakistan — receive little attention in this book. While this reluctance is understandable in an account from a British journalist rather than a U.S. policymaker, she does not set out to answer the hard questions her perceptive reporting raises.

Focusing on what Gall implies is the actual enemy would be difficult for Washington, but none the less vital for the future of the region, including Pakistan itself, facing “blowback” from the radicals it has used as proxies bringing their war home. Many Afghans would like to see Pakistan subjected to sanctions comparable to those imposed on Iran (a country, like India, they largely perceive as benign), but there would be little international support for such measures. Washington’s relationships with the two other countries that have been Pakistan’s foreign supporters — China and Saudi Arabia — have deteriorated, making an effective multilateral policy unlikely. With the U.S. military presence drawing down, its leverage in the region is decreasing.

As Voltaire wrote long ago, “Lord protect me from my friends; I’ll take care of my enemies”. The U.S. may need such protection. Gall writes,

Militant Islam is a juggernaut that cannot be turned off or turned away from.  Pakistan is still exporting militant Islamism and terrorism, and will not stop once foreign forces leave its borders.

Gall does not share the widespread view in Washington, “win, lose or draw, Afghanistan was not worth the effort,” instead seeing U.S. disengagement as emboldening to dangerous enemies. Disengagement from Afghanistan, even in an age of lethal UAVs and pervasive intelligence, carries with it both the potential for a disastrous future for the Afghans and risks of future U.S. policy failures with effects reaching even beyond those reported by Carlotta Gall.


David Isby is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires and numerous other books and articles on the region.

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