Afghanistan, March 2002: Al Qaeda has been largely defeated and dispersed; the Taliban regime has fallen and its leadership wants to talk; and the international community has come in strongly behind the United States, promising aid and installing Hamid Karzai as interim head of a new Afghan government, pending a new constitution and elections. US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld is unequivocal: “The war is over.”
Afghanistan, March 2006: the Taliban has returned to the battlefield, better armed and more professional, and conflict is intense. Though NATO is nominally leading the international coalition, the United States is still in charge – but there is uncertainty in Washington about the nature and purpose of the war in Afghanistan. An election has seen Karzai formally become president, but has exposed the deep divisions in Afghan society and left his administration dependent on northerners; and in Kabul and the provinces, corruption is booming. The road ahead is looking long and hard.
So, what went wrong?
The answer matters because it explains why American and some other coalition forces – including Australia’s – are still in Afghanistan today. For readers less familiar with the Afghan project, Directorate S, Steve Coll’s successor to his Pulitzer Prize–winning Ghost Wars, offers a fascinating explanation. For those more closely engaged in the saga, the granular detail provided in this “journalistic history” will add colour and fill in many gaps.
Hubris was almost certainly part of what went wrong, and the absence of a plan past the successes of the first months of the American-led operation hurt. So did the preoccupation with Iraq. Coll says that by mid-2002, “the Bush administration had stopped thinking seriously about Afghanistan”.
But the story Coll tells goes much deeper. He explains how American, Pakistani and Afghan intelligence agencies “influenced the rise of a new war in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, and how that war fostered a revival of Al Qaeda, allied terrorist networks, and, eventually, branches of the Islamic State”. Central to this is Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence unit, ISI, working through its secretive paramilitary wing, Directorate S.
ISI wanted a regime in Kabul that was friendly to Pakistan and embraced Pashtuns. After 2002, it became increasingly apparent that Karzai, with his Indian connections and a regime dependent on Panjshiris and the pro-India Northern Alliance, was never going to serve Pakistan’s interests.
Nor could Pakistan trust the United States, either to manage Karzai or to stay the course in Afghanistan. After the invasion of Iraq, Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, harboured serious doubts about America’s capacity to maintain involvement in two wars concurrently – why else had NATO been called up? These doubts were compounded when the United States cut a nuclear deal with India in 2006. And whatever goodwill might have been engendered by Washington’s military and economic aid to Pakistan was overshadowed by the war in Iraq, frequent well-publicised “battlefield mistakes” in Afghanistan, cross-border military incursions against the Pakistan Taliban, and CIA excesses in Pakistan.
And so Pakistan’s Directorate S moved from sheltering the Taliban leadership in Pakistan to providing more arms, training, intelligence and tactical guidance in Afghanistan. Washington tried to be tough but the coalition’s logistic routes through Pakistan were critical to its presence in Afghanistan, and pressing the regime in Islamabad to the point of toppling could leave Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in even less friendly hands.
“On Al Qaeda,” Coll writes, the CIA and ISI “could do business, but on the Taliban, [they] settled … into a dead embrace informed by accusation and denial.” It comes as no surprise, he concludes, that “the failure to solve the riddle of ISI and to stop its covert interference in Afghanistan became, ultimately, the greatest strategic failure of the American war”.
As the backdrop to this, Directorate S offers an illuminating account of the fractious relationships between (and within) American agencies both in Washington and on the ground in Afghanistan. Coll describes the “semi-independent campaigns waged simultaneously by different agencies of American government”, and details the corrosive differences between these “stovepipes”, which he says, intriguingly, were not just “tolerated” but “even promoted” by successive US administrations.
Not least of these inter-agency differences was whether to seek a “political settlement” with the Taliban. The history of this debate, from its beginnings in 2001 to the largely ill-fated negotiations that began, falteringly, in late 2010, is a fascinating subplot within Coll’s larger story.
In the early years post-2001, resistance came from the White House, and from Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, notwithstanding support for negotiations from the Saudis, Qataris and even some in the CIA. President Barack Obama’s 2008 appointment of veteran American diplomat Richard Holbrooke as his Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan brought new energy to the idea of a negotiated settlement. Based on his experience fifty years earlier as civilian adviser in Vietnam and with history on his side, Holbrooke believed that insurgencies could not be beaten by military means alone. But Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hesitated about taking on a sceptical Congress and the Pentagon, which still believed that a counter-insurgency doctrine could succeed and wanted longer to weaken the Taliban in the field.
By the time talks between US and Taliban representatives began, Obama’s clear signals about ending the war had begun to erode any Taliban interest in negotiating. Karzai and ISI, each demanding a place at the table but with opposing agendas, busied themselves – by Coll’s account – sabotaging the talks. Holbrooke, meanwhile, had died after collapsing in Clinton’s office; his last words reportedly were, “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”
While Australia rates few mentions in Coll’s narrative, his account helps to explain the limitations on our role. Our special forces had joined the fight against Al Qaeda when it began in October 2001 and were withdrawn when that phase of the conflict ended in 2002. They were redrafted in 2005 as the Taliban resurged, and “assigned”, with the Dutch at first, to Uruzgan Province. Before our departure from Uruzgan in December 2013, Australia had become the tenth-largest troop contributor to the NATO-led coalition and a significant aid donor.
In Uruzgan the mission was demanding. It was also high-risk: forty-two Australian soldiers died, and civilian aid work could only be done amid strong security. Through political, military and diplomatic channels, we endeavoured to contribute at high policy levels in Washington and Islamabad, with the fifty coalition partners in Brussels, and as a member of the group of special representatives that Holbrooke had put together. But while we were influential in Uruzgan and had good access in Washington, Kabul and Islamabad, Coll makes clear that much of what was playing out in those capitals was beyond our capacity to influence. And the well-known differences within and between Washington’s “stovepipes” made the policy-level management of our role in Afghanistan more difficult.
Coll concludes on a rueful note: while Obama announced in December 2014 that America’s longest war was “coming to a responsible end”, a year later it started again – this time against Islamic State and its affiliates. Back, that is, where it began.