Three Tours, One Unsolvable Riddle: An Airman’s Reflections on Securing the Peace in Afghanistan

June 26, 2018

Steve Coll, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (New York: Penguin Press, 2018)

Advising a crusty Afghan general is a delicate endeavor. Like American generals, they’re accustomed to the trappings of rank and the deferential treatment that often accompaniesthem. But unlike their American counterparts, they have to endure innumerable coalition advisors peddling the latest “solution” to their problems. In 2014, I found myself advising a 50-something-year-old Afghan brigadier general who knew where the bodies were buried because he had buried many of them himself. General Gul was a ruthless bureaucratic knife fighter who had survived not only the incessant turf battles inside Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration, but also the bloody purges between the rival factions of the Afghan Communist Party in the 1980s. He oozed competence and experience and had little need for “advice,” especially from a lowly American field grade officer with a sliver of his experience.

Fortunately, our relationship flourished due to my broken Pashto, his fondness for the whiskey I clandestinely acquired at the embassy on his behalf, and my successful efforts to prove I wasn’t like the “last few idiots” who had tried to advise him. In reality, my primary job was to give his ideas a platform across the street at Resolute Support Headquarters, the coalition’s command center. As one of the junior generals inside the Ministry of Interior, he lacked the political connections to press his agenda. After months of painstaking rapport-building, we established a good working relationship that made uneven progress towards making his department slightly more functional.

One topic, however, would always halt the conversation: Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its support for the Afghan Taliban. I learned to avoid it like the plague. Gul’s harangues on the subject could last hours. Despite my best efforts, I often stumbled across the issue when asking why the Taliban or the burgeoning Islamic State of Khorasan Province were gaining strength and making suggestions accordingly for where to focus his limited personnel. Sometimes he would shoot back with his favorite retort, “Yes. We could increase police in (fill in the province). But will you help us by squeezing the Taliban in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]? Or is your relationship with Pakistan too important? Who comes first, Afghanistan’s security or Pakistan’s stability?” It was a difficult question to answer then and remains so now.

Steve Coll’s 700-page tome, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan, attempts to answer Gul’s paradoxical question: Why does the United States tolerate Pakistan’s support for the Taliban at the expense of its mission in Afghanistan? Coll’s latest book resumes the narrative of his 2004 Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Ghost Wars was a page-turning history that helped non-specialists understand how Osama bin Laden launched the most devastating terrorist attacks in American history. It was part-spy novel and part-Bob Woodward-esque palace gossip. Directorate S is written in the same enthralling manner, but tells a far more sobering story of how the United States squandered a spectacularly successful initial invasion due to an incoherent strategy, illusions of grandeur, and Pakistani duplicity. Coll delves into America’s relationship with the ISI, specifically Directorate S, an ultra-secret section responsible for funding and equipping the Afghan Taliban. Despite the directorate’s aid to the Taliban, the United States continued funding Pakistan to secure vital intelligence on al-Qaeda, acquiescence to U.S. drone strikes, and a modicum of influence over the volatile country’s nuclear weapons protocol.

Coll’s engrossing sequel would be fun to read if the subject were not so utterly depressing. Directorate S excels in highlighting the inherent contradictions in America’s strategy. Despite spending billions on failed attempts at security-sector reform and stabilization and development programs, the United States was unable to answer fundamental questions. How could the United States provide material support to Pakistan if it knew it was aiding a terrorist organization that was fomenting unrest in Afghanistan? Should the coalition work with unsavory characters to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban, or was good governance more critical? And, most importantly, was Afghanistan’s sovereignty more important than Pakistan’s stability? These questions remain unanswered. As Coll astutely observes, “the political strategies that followed [the invasion] were often reactive, improvised, and informed by illusions.”

In fact, the schizophrenic relationship between the three countries significantly hindered the international community’s effort to find stability in Afghanistan. As successive U.S. administrations vacillated between supporting Pakistan, conducting counter-terrorism, or promoting good governance and development, the unenviable task of explaining such fluctuations often fell on the shoulders of young Americans with little cultural or historical insight into Afghanistan’s tangled history. After the fall of Kabul, the United States continued its embrace of Pakistan to focus on capturing the remnants of al-Qaeda that had fled into the FATA. Less attention was paid to rebuilding the Afghan state, which forced Karzai, who literally rode into Kabul on American power, to incorporate the warlords responsible for Afghanistan’s destructive civil war into his government. But as the international community struggled to extinguish a revitalized Taliban movement, the United States changed course and started preaching good governance and development via its Provincial Reconstruction Teams. But how could American soldiers talk about responsible governance while allied with predators like former Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai, who leveraged their relationships with American forces to eliminate their enemies while enriching their own pockets?

I experienced these very challenges while serving on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kapisa in 2008. During this time, according to Coll’s book, President George W. Bush was finally beginning to question Pakistan’s support in the war on terror — a conclusion that nearly all Afghan veterans reached early in their tours. Our team brought some new projects, tried its best to support two fledgling district governors who had little power and no budget, and conducted joint operations with the Afghan Army. However, most of our progress was ephemeral. Over thousands of cups of tea, toothless Pashtun elders rebuffed our attempts to explain that supporting the central government was the best way to help the reconstruction process: “You want to help us rebuild? But you’re also funding our enemy who is destroying us. How can we trust the Kapisa governor who is corrupt and also allied with Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin?” There are obvious responses to these questions: America could claim a valid need for Pakistan’s acceptance of drone strikes on its territory; U.S. aid helps buy access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons; the alliance with the Kapisa governor was intended to shore up Karzai’s dwindling political support. But these arguments weren’t going to fly in rural Afghanistan. Instead, many Afghans accepted conspiracy theories that the Taliban, Pakistan, and the United States were all working together to hobble Afghanistan. While such theories sounded ludicrous to us, to rural Afghans it seemed equally farfetched that America would knowingly provide aid to a country that was arming militants who killed U.S. soldiers.

President Barack Obama tried to thread the same needle with Pakistan. In February 2009, he proposed increased aid to Pakistan while also demanding that “Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and violent extremist within its borders.” However, this message was muddied in December of that year, when Obama “surged” troops in Afghanistan while simultaneously stating they would return in 18 months. As Coll astutely observes, “Obama would affirm the I.S.I’s convictions and redouble the service’s incentive to aid the Taliban as a means of Pakistani influence.” This strategic incoherence hindered the surge, too, as it cemented the perception in rural Afghanistan that the United States was eyeing the doors.

In 2012, I spent a year in northwest Kandahar, conducting Village Stability Operations in a barren district that had recently been under Taliban control. Trying to woo fence-sitting Afghans who were understandably apprehensive about siding with the United States is incredibly difficult under the best of circumstances. It was even more difficult because the United States was — yet again — providing Pakistan with more aid, despite the bin Laden raid occurring next door to Pakistan’s West Point. These optics weren’t lost on the Afghans we were trying to convince to support the government: The United States was drawing down while also continuing to aid the very country supporting the Taliban. Why would a Pashtun elder place his family on the losing side of that wager?

Two years later, I was back in Afghanistan, advising Gul and some of his counterparts at the Ministry of Interior. There was newfound hope that President Ashraf Ghani, who literally wrote the book on rebuilding war-torn countries, would prove more competent than Karzai, who had fallen out of favor with the United States after he refused to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement. The international coalition was so confident in Ghani’s strength that it ended its combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Advisors were instructed to continue to driving home the message that the United States planned to cut the number of troops in half to 5,000 by the end of 2015 and the Afghans would soon have to stand on their own. However, in July 2016, Obama reversed course to keep troops at 8,400. After nearly two decades in Afghanistan, it is safe to say the United States suffers a bit of a credibility gap in the Hindu Kush.

And who can blame the Afghans for being confused? Since October 2001, the United States has invaded and helped install a new government, reduced its footprint to focus primarily on counterterrorism, surged forces to conduct a limited population-centric counterinsurgency campaign, enacted a massive drawdown to transition to Afghans in the lead, and now has, once again, increased the number of troops in Afghanistan. Although President Donald Trump’s administration has taken an early tough stance against Pakistan, it is probably too little too late to sway many fence-sitters who have suffered through years of war and are merely trying to survive this never-ending tug of war over their allegiance. Moreover, recent scholarship suggests the administration will need to be more consistent with its carrot-and-stick approach to Pakistan if it wants to see a change in behavior. The problem, however, is that Pakistan can retaliate by restricting logistical supplies or ratcheting up support to terrorist groups in India and Afghanistan. The paradox Coll’s book chronicles — and that my peers and I experienced every day — continues: how to reconcile a genuine need for Pakistan’s help in the war on terror with the imperative to curb its destabilizing efforts in Afghanistan.

The United States should continue to support Ghani’s peace initiatives. His unilateral cease-fire was unexpectedly reciprocated by the Taliban, leading to impromptu celebrations between Afghans, the Taliban, Afghan Security Forces, and Afghan provincial government officials. Although the Taliban didn’t reciprocate Ghani’s cease-fire extension, the genie might be out of the proverbial bottle, as Afghan from across the country have tasted peace, if only for a few days. Fortuitously, the cease-fire coincided with the arrival of approximately 70 Afghans who marched nearly 700 kilometers from Helmand to Kabul, pleading for an end to hostilities. The march came on the heels of Pashtun demonstrations in Pakistan in February 2018 that called for an end to the indiscriminate killing of Pashtun men in the FATA. Even Saudi Arabia backed the cease-fire, hinting at a possible new role for the Kingdom in the peace process.

Barring an unforeseen event, Lt Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller will be the ninth American general to lead America’s longest war. There is likely to be more debate about troop numbers, Afghan government corruption, Pakistani deceit, and the other familiar talking points that Coll’s book tackles. But after 17 years of uneven effort, the United States is unlikely to alter Pakistan’s strategic lens, which views Afghanistan through the prism of its existential struggle with India. It is critical that the United States abandon prior peace frameworks that foundered, and focus on fresh ideas that demur a comprehensive peace accord dictated by Kabul, Washington, or Islamabad and concentrates instead on confidence-building measures that are built on reducing violence from the ground up. Steve Coll has eloquently laid out the failures of the past two decades. The United States should heed these lessons.


Major Will Selber is a USAF CENTCOM Foreign Area Officer. He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan five times. These views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Army/Flickr