Thoughts on Steve Coll’s Directorate S

I recently finished reading Steve Coll’s newest book, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Directorate S is Coll’s sequel to his excellent 2004 book Ghost Wars: The Secret History Of The Cia, Afghanistan And Bin Laden, From The Soviet Invasion To September 10, 2001, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Ghost Wars covered US support to the mujahideen groups who fought the Soviets, the rise of the Taliban, and CIA operations against al-Qaeda. It was also great fun to read. Coll writes extremely well, and he created a compelling narrative history of the key events leading up to the 9/11 attacks.

Directorate S continues Ghost Wars‘ focus on the CIA, but it also focuses heavily on the State Department and the military, which makes sense. After 9/11, Afghanistan was no longer a sideshow in US policy so the CIA was no longer the most important agency involved. Another change is that Directorate S focuses more on Pakistan than Ghost Wars did, precisely because the country has been so central to the Afghan conflict.

Directorate S was written in the same style as Ghost Wars, yet I found it a bit of an arduous read. This might just represent personal changes: I was much less busy back when Ghost Wars came out, and I was newer to reading things in this area. However, I think this also reflects how much this area of intellectual inquiry has changed.

Back in the mid-2000s, Ghost Wars sat on my bookshelf alongside the few other comparable books at the time, such as Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror. There seemed to be no other book at the time providing such a detailed account of the covert side of US policy in Afghanistan. Many of the events that it covered were not in the media headlines when they happened.

Today, there’s much more writing available on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and US military and foreign policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of the events covered in this book were reported while they were happening, in the news media, academic outlets, and think-tank reports. Many were also covered by specialist blogs at the time, such as the now-inactive Ghosts of Alexander and Registan, or Foreign Policy‘s similarly inactive AfPak Channel, or the still-running Small Wars Journal and Long War Journal. So Directorate S conveys less new and groundbreaking information than Ghost Wars did.

Nonetheless, I recommend it. There is still a great deal of new information in the book (Ghost Wars set a high standard), and Coll ties it all together coherently and insightfully.

The book’s core argument is convincing. In short, it argues that the misalignment of interests between the US, Afghan and Pakistani governments led to the failure of America’s war in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Most importantly, the way the US government saw the war differed greatly from how it was seen by Pakistan’s government, particularly by its powerful spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and by its subsection Directorate S.

As you might imagine from the title, the ISI’s subsection Directorate S is the book’s key focus. Through Directorate S, the Pakistani state supported (but never controlled) the Afghan Taliban movement’s war against the US and Afghan governments. At the same time, Pakistan was itself at war with the Pakistani Taliban movement and al-Qaeda. These are the sorts of contradictions that the book navigates us through.

Coll does not ignore the many potential reasons for America’s failure in Afghanistan, such as the diversion of resources to the Iraq War, the resiliency and local embeddedness of the Taliban, military misconduct, or the hubris of attempting to build on a strong centralised state in a society where that had not been the norm. But he suggests that Pakistani government support for the Taliban, via Directorate S, was likely the core reason behind the failure. As mentioned, I find this argument compelling. However, I would want to read a lot more on the topic before judging whether I find it fully convincing.

It isn’t the book’s overarching argument that makes me recommend it though. Instead, I found the book’s greatest value lay in all the smaller stories that make up its detailed narrative of how the conflict played out from 2001-2016.

The book shows how US leaders and officials constantly wrestled with conflicting policy aims, and how US operatives on the ground tried to achieve policy-makers’ often amorphous goals. The book also looks into how Afghan and Pakistani officials tried to make sense of (and respond to) US actions, but to a much lesser extent as it mainly focuses on the US.

Through this narrative, the lack of coherence in US policy comes out clearly. The story contains example after example of divisions between government agencies, within government agencies, and between individuals with strong personalities (such as Richard Holbrooke) who operated across multiple agencies. Coll shows in great detail how individuals within the US government maneuvered against other individuals and how this shaped the resulting policy efforts and impacted people at other levels of government, officials of other governments, and many Afghan and Pakistani civilians.

This dramatic and people-focused narrative approach is a strength of Coll’s decades of work as a journalist, which is an approach often lacking in academic books I read. What I most valued was how well it conveyed the unrelenting uncertainty faced by everyone involved.

For every important fact that US policy-makers needed to know, the information was always unclear. Understanding the intentions of their nominal partner, the Afghan government, was never easy as the relationship was frayed by distrust. America’s intelligence services routinely intercepted Afghan government communications, but Afghan officials often assumed this was happening and spoke with their American audience in mind.

These officials were themselves were deeply divided, so the Karzai government itself didn’t necessarily have coherent intentions (just like the Pakistani and US governments). Karzai himself was prone to changing his mind, and CIA analysts devoted resources to trying to understand his mental state. Any illusions US agencies might have had that either their Afghan or Pakistani counterparts could be easily manipulated would not have lasted long.

Similarly, when the White House tried to find answers to pressing questions, such as how many provinces the Taliban controlled or what explained the surge in insider attacks (when Afghan soldiers turned on their international trainers), it never turned out to be simple. Different government agencies held different data, gathered it in different ways, and disagreed over how to interpret it. Outside analysts (such as Marc Sageman) were sometimes brought in to disentangle the competing claims, but their reports often become another weapon in the intra-bureaucratic battles.

Some of the most interesting chapters are the ones about the Obama Administration’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, and they similarly show the constant uncertainty government officials faced. The negotiation efforts were slowed by the difficulty the White House faced simply when trying to figure out who actually represented the Taliban, and how to know whether their interlocutors were genuinely acting on behalf of the Taliban’s leadership.

These negotiation attempts persisted awkwardly for years. Miscommunication was a constant risk in each interaction. One supposed Taliban representative turned out to be a fraud. The Afghan and Pakistani governments often heard about these plans and, seeing themselves as the rightful brokers, objected to being left out.

One major initiative ended up being derailed when a planned opening of Taliban political offices in Qatar collapsed, because the Taliban’s representatives used a different flag to the one agreed on. Qatari officials had trouble believing that the US, as a superpower, did not have control of the minor details. But the book helps show why these sorts of problems are are an unavoidable part of the process.

So while I enjoyed Directorate S less than Ghost Wars, it’s definitely worth reading.

Coll’s overall argument, that the failure to find a solution to the misalignment of Afghan, Pakistani and US governments’ interests doomed the war effort, is compelling. The book shows how the inability to prevent Pakistan’s support for the Taliban lies behind much of the war’s ultimate failure. The smaller stories that woven into the narrative are both interesting and informative, and also help to convey the human tragedy.

The book won’t leave readers feeling very optimistic. The final chapter outlines potential lessons, much as the final chapter of Ghost Wars did. However, the stronger take-away might be the complexity of the conflict, the futility of ambitious goals, and the inherent dangers of trying to shape events in unfamiliar societies and dealing with political actors who don’t conform to outside views of what their interests should be.