Designed to Fail: The American Misadventure in Afghanistan

A review of Carlotta Gall's 'The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan'.

In 2003 I attended a hearing on Afghanistan at the US Senate. During the hearing, at which a serving general and a few other experts were giving their testimony, the then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, leaned forward and said something to the effect of, “I’ve always felt that rather than sending 100,000 troops to Iraq, we should have sent 25,000 troops to Waziristan instead.”

There was a pause and then one of the experts replied that it would be easy to send the troops, but getting them out would be another thing altogether.

While Biden was making a political point about the futility of the Iraq War, the idea that the US just needs to fight “the right war” keeps resurrecting itself. Carlotta Gall, the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter, who covered Pakistan and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2013, makes this argument in her book, The Wrong Enemy, placing the blame for the failures of the Afghanistan war squarely on the double-dealing by Pakistan and the ISI. She has a compelling argument and the thesis will warm many an Indian heart. It is also a deeply disingenuous argument, one that fails to examine how many problems of the Afghan war were creations of American design, on which the Taliban and Pakistan capitalised. It showcases the problems of an embedded reporter who has chosen sides in a conflict – in Gall’s case, that of Afghanistan and the US troops. So much so that throughout the book, a great deal of Gall’s analysis is contradicted by her reporting itself, which is never less than superb.

Gall’s book ends two years after the 2012 surge of US troops in Afghanistan, when it seemed the back of the Taliban was broken. Today, the Taliban are stronger than they have ever been, controlling more territory than at any time since their fall in 2001. On October 18, 2018, in an attack at a meeting in which the US’s top general was present, Kandahar’s police chief, governor, and intelligence chief were all killed. It thus becomes dreadfully important to understand why the US-led intervention in Afghanistan has done so badly.

The Wrong Enemy,
Carlotta Gall,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Carlotta Gall gives, at best, half a story, one of deceit by a supposed ally, which allows the US to think that it did little wrong and if only it had not been betrayed, would have ‘won’. But America did win, comprehensively, after the December 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The American military might was far beyond the imagination of the Taliban and the air power that the US commanded destroyed even the possibility of resistance. In the opening chapters of his excellent No Good Men Among the Living, Anand Gopal paints a devastating portrait of the way that the Taliban were shredded by the firepower directed at them, how the Taliban themselves decided that there was no way to fight against the power unleashed against them.

What happened thereafter is largely elided in Gall’s analysis, though not her reportage. She mentions the fecklessness and corruption that defined Hamid Karzai’s government, and the torture and murder that were carried out by US forces. She investigated a few deaths herself and found them to be clearly marked as homicides by US military doctors.

A criminal investigation into the deaths was reopened but took two years to reach a conclusion. No one was ever charged with homicide. Meanwhile, the military intelligence team in charge at Bagram was redeployed to another prison, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, where they continued the same practices that were eventually exposed in the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004.

Truly the gift that keeps on giving.

This impunity was inbuilt in US policy, as Gall notes, “For nearly the entire duration of the war, Afghanistan had no Status of Forces Agreement with the United States, which would formalise the rights of American forces to detain and imprison Afghans.” And it was supercharged in the case of aerial attacks on wrong targets, both of allies and US soldiers themselves, but also Afghan civilians. Gall draws a visceral picture of how the bombing and strafing of wedding celebrations did enormous damage, as well as irreparably harmed the reputation of both the NATO forces and the Karzai government. Of course nobody was punished for these acts of mass murder from the sky.

Despite the excellent documentation, Gall never asks the key question. The US had won, the Taliban were decimated, so why did this campaign of arrest, torture, and murder continue unabated? As Gopal notes in his book, the Taliban were more than willing to surrender, but they could not, and this was explicitly because of the policy that the US pursued. Intent on state-building on the light, the US relied on its allies on the ground to tell them who to trust and who not to, and like the de-Baathification strategy adopted in Iraq, chose elimination rather than co-option of those that wanted to surrender. The problem was that most of the Afghan allies had been warlords or conflict operators and inevitably gave information on their rivals – whether they were close to the Taliban or not – using US firepower to wipe out competition.

More problematically was how the policies of reconstruction undermined the Afghan state itself. At a meeting of the UK Conservative Party’s National and International Security Policy Group in 2006 (at which I volunteered) a former senior World Bank official, who had worked closely with the current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, documented the missteps to us. At the start, due to corruption concerns, the UN gave $20 million to the Afghan government with 270,000 civil servants, and $2 billion to the UN agencies that only had approximately 20 members on the ground. The salary of a civil servant was around $50 a month, that of a driver for an aid agency, $1,000.

The effect this had on the functioning of the Afghan government and its inability to retain and recruit the best (and most honest) people, is hard to overemphasise. What it meant about the “hidden corruption” of international aid is another thing altogether. In 2005 a friend of mine, the Asia correspondent of a British newspaper who had reported from Jerusalem and Iraq, told me gloomily that things looked likely to go bad in Afghanistan. When I asked him why, he told me that people were having toga parties in Kabul, from where he had just returned, and the only Afghans present were the waiters carrying the alcohol.

Last year in Kabul I too attended a party at the house the bureau chief of a US newspaper. There were no togas, but the Afghan in charge my security remarked to me, “You know, I usually don’t come because I don’t drink, and the other Afghans, who know me, are embarrassed with their drinks in their hand.”

None of this is mentioned by Gall, instead she focusses primarily on the perfidy of the ISI and Pakistan in general. What she reports is damning, and the chapter that traces the suicide bombers of Afghanistan to madaris in Pakistan, as well as the role of the government in allowing and possibly facilitating them is horrifying. What is not so good is how Gall attributes all anti-NATO actions to Pakistani duplicity. For her it seems there are only three types of Afghans: those in favour of the NATO mission, dupes of Pakistan, and the innocent bystanders that pay the price.

One could pick up a copy of Abdul Salam Zaeef’s memoir, My Life with the Taliban to correct that impression, especially the deeply antagonism it contains against Pakistani manipulation. Maybe it would be better to read the excellent Fountainhead of Jihad on the Haqqani network by Vahid Brown and Don Rassler. It was, after all, the Haqqani network that pushed for the Taliban to keep hosting Osama bin Laden despite Mullah Omar’s anger at the flamboyant Saudi threatening the US from Afghan soil without the Taliban’s permission. There are Afghans committed to the Taliban, or certainly a form of nationalism that is anti-foreigner, as well as bad actors who may have worked with the ISI. But to see them only as Pakistani dupes does an injustice to Afghans as well as the truth. The rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, in part as a reaction against parts of the Taliban that wanted to negotiate with the US, is not explicable otherwise.

Also read: Jalaluddin Haqqani: Life and Times of a Jihadist Lynchpin

Secondly Gall seems to accept certain assertions without much proof. She spends a considerable part of a chapter documenting Afghan allegations that Benazir Bhutto was killed as part of a conspiracy by the ISI. She subsequently documents how a PPP-led investigation found Musharraf only guilty of not giving her enough security, but dark allegations continue to surface. Nowhere does she mention that the Afghan National Directorate of Security is completely dominated by the Northern Alliance, which (for good reason) deeply distrusts Pakistan. Quoting them alone, without supporting testimony is a bit like asking Putin if Trump is a good guy.

Carlotta Gall. Credit: Twitter

There is even a laugh-out-loud moment when she quotes a diplomat who suggests that nobody was paying attention to Pakistan-Taliban connections until 2007. “‘When you are running a joint project with another country you don’t spy on them,’ the former Western diplomat said.” Does Gall actually have the naiveté to believe this, or that anybody could? The amount of times that the US has spied on its allies is legion. The CIA even spied on the US Senate. More problematically it suggests that people were unaware of Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban, something that Gall herself documents, and which Ahmed Rashid wrote a book on in 2000.

However horrid or self-defeating Pakistan’s aims have been in South Asia, they have certainly been clear. It has had two: (i) it will not kowtow to India, (ii) it will not tolerate an Afghan government that is inimical to it. Attendant to these, it will use deniable proxies to achieve these aims. These are not secrets, and you do not need to spy on Pakistan to know them. Why the US expected that Pakistan would put aside these two main strategic goals is inexplicable, except that the hubristic George W. Bush administration thought it could ignore history and unilaterally bend the world to its will.

Gall ignores this. She makes only some slight references to the illegal invasion of Iraq, and the mayhem that followed. The cost of the war crimes on the credibility of the US has as yet to be calculated. The propaganda windfall it gave to the Taliban, to Al Qaeda, and continues to give to the Islamic State and other jihadi groups is immeasurable.

None of this should, or does, obscure the actions of Pakistan in facilitating the disaster in Afghanistan, but it should be very clear: the ISI and the Taliban never had the capability to defeat to the US-led forces in Afghanistan, only the US did. It chose to pursue strategies that were self-defeating and which extracted a ruinous cost on both itself and Afghanistan. To suggest that it fought the wrong enemy in the wrong country – the quote from Richard Holbrooke from which Gall’s book takes its title – suggests that there are other wars to follow, not that there will be any changes in how these wars are fought.

This does a great disservice not only to the ones who will suffer these wars on their land, but to the US military personnel among whom Gall was embedded. These men and women are being sent into the field to fight wars whose goals keep changing; wars which – after they are won – are lost again due to failed leadership. They are dying in service for a country that is failing them. Today the US military machine resembles nothing so much as the many BMW accidents in India. You may have the best and most powerful machine, but in the hands of the reckless, the arrogant, and the wilfully ignorant, the only destination you will arrive at is one of grievous harm to both yourself and others.

You will not find this analysis in Gall’s book. Given that she was the principal reporter for the New York Times on this war for a dozen years, it is little surprise that Americans find it hard to make sense of this war that they thought they had won, and now seem to have lost.

Omair Ahmad is an author. His last novel, Jimmy the Terrorist, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and won the Crossword Award. His last book was a political history of Bhutan and the eastern Himalayan region. Twitter: @omairtahmad.