My wife Marilyn and I enjoyed a chef’s dinner out at the Suttle Lodge at Suttle Lake in the woods west of Sisters last Saturday night. In addition to being an outstanding culinary adventure (“A Meal From One Pig” prepared by the chef from the Grand Army Tavern in Portland) it was a most convivial evening.
We enjoyed a fine conversation with a youngish couple from Bend about everything from parenting to agriculture. And we talked about how profoundly our world was shaped by the events of September 11, 2001, and our nation’s response to it.
Our daughters have never known a world that wasn’t under the shadow of those attacks. They have never lived in a nation that wasn’t at war, even if that war is mostly veiled from their sight.
That’s a thing to contemplate.
For all that the Global War on Terror has shaped our lives and the lives of our children in ways obvious and subtle, most of us don’t know a hell of a lot about how it came to pass and how it has been conducted.
Fortunately, for those who are willing to dig in to a pair of 700-plus-page tomes, the work of Steve Coll casts light into the dark corners and illuminates the mysteries of what happened, who the players really are, and why we seem to be trapped in an amorphous conflict with no end. Coll is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and reports on issues of intelligence and national security in the United States and abroad.
In his 2004 book Ghost Wars, Coll explores “The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.” The book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2005 and never was the award more richly deserved.
The U.S. effort to undermine the Soviet Union through support of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s helped plant the seeds of radical Sunni Islamic terrorism and created a fertile ground in which it would grow its bitter fruit.
Coll followed in 2018 with Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which brings the tale from the September 11 attacks to near current day, as America still tries to figure out what, if anything, we should be doing in Afghanistan, where we’ve been at war for 18 years.
It seems important to understand how all this came to pass — how our Cold War imperative to see the Soviet Union bogged down in its own version of Vietnam led the U.S. into perilous support of a virulent ideology that would soon enough be aimed at us. And how it created a clandestine relationship with the Pakistani ISI, a security service that operates on its own agenda, often at cross purposes with the U.S. and even with the government of Pakistan, which was itself destabilized by decades of war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Coll digs deep into the reasons why successive U.S. administrations have failed in Afghanistan, caught by surprise by the resilience of the Taliban after they were toppled so quickly at the end of 2001 by a motley collection of CIA paramilitaries, Green Berets and Northern Alliance militias, backed by American air power.
We never adjusted effectively after the Taliban began to make a comeback from sanctuaries in Pakistan.
“…two administrations led by presidents of different political parties could not resolve essential questions about the conflict. Did they truly believe that Afghanistan’s independence and stability was more important than Pakistan’s stability? Why did they accept ISI’s support of the Taliban even when it undermined American interests and cost American lives? If they were to try to stop ISI’s covert action, what risks were they prepared to take? Inside Afghanistan, which was more important: to work with unsavory but sometimes effective warlords and militias against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, or to promote decent government, even if the attempt to do so created instability?”
The Bush and Obama administrations, both tacked back and forth on such key questions, and when Obama determined that negotiation with the Taliban was necessary to end the fighting, they were handled clumsily. Current negotiations are unlikely to do better.
As Tamim Asey — former Afghan Deputy Minister of Defense and Director General at the Afghan National Security Council — observed recently in Small Wars Journal:
“The Taliban … are preparing for a long game with a grand comeback if all goes well. Taliban leaders now act more like statesmen and send negotiation teams to various capitals and have asked for offices in the region and inside Afghanistan. The chants of yesteryear’s Jihad “nasru men allah e fath ul-qareeb” which translates “with God’s help victory is near” with tears of joy rolling down on their cheeks can be heard in Quetta, Peshawar and recently in Moscow. The same chants mujahidin used to celebrate their imminent victory over the Red Army when Moscow announced it is withdrawing from Afghanistan – a sense of déjà vu and return of history – prevails in cities of Pakistan and Kabul.
“Furthermore, the Taliban feel that even if they don’t reach an agreement with the United States, President Trump’s waning support and patience to the Afghan war – will run out and (the U.S.) will withdraw without a peace. They can also play the ‘mission failure’ game with Special Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, that is to play him and prolong the negotiations until the Americans either replace or fire him. The same could apply to the Afghan Government to play the ‘mission doom’ game and reject his peace proposal just like the North Vietnamese administration rejected Henry Kissinger’s deal reached with the South Vietnamese. All such scenarios are plausible in the Afghan peace chessboard.”
Twenty years down the road, after an enormous expenditure of blood and treasure, it’s hard to discern what the U.S. has achieved in Afghanistan beyond the initial rout of Al Qaeda, which was already accomplished in the fall of 2001. It is incumbent upon us, the citizens of this distressed Republic to at least attempt to understand how we have failed so ignominiously in the longest war in that Republic’s history.