As presidential election results in Afghanistan are being counted one must ask the question; how much better off is Afghanistan today, as compared to the period before the American invasion following 9/11? Further one must ask; what is the future outlook for Afghanistan as the United States and its NATO allies are about to withdraw by the end of the year? Carlotta Gall, a New York Times reporter who has worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than ten years attempts to answer these questions and many others in her new book, THE WRONG ENEMY, AMERICA IN AFGHANISTAN 2001-2014. A number of books have been written about America’s role in Afghanistan and its relationship with Pakistan the best of which are Steven Coll’s GHOST WARS, Ahmed Rashid’s DESCENT INTO CHAOS, and Barnet R. Rubin’s AFGHANISTAN FROM THE COLD WAR THROUGH THE WAR ON TERROR, but what sets Gall’s apart is her knowledge of the region and her ability to coax interviews with villagers, mujahideen, Taliban fighters, government officials, intelligence sources, and major decision makers involved on both sides of this never ending war. Gall takes the reader inside councils held by the Taliban, government meetings in Kabul, decision making within Pakistan’s chief spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and discussions among village elders as they try to cope with the threats they face on a daily basis. Gall’s premise is that the United States has failed to confront the real enemy in its Afghani war, Pakistan. Gall argues that the Pakistani governments, including its presidents over a period of time and the ISI have pursued a duplicitous policy by publicly claiming to be an ally in the war on terror with the United States, but privately creating and supporting the Taliban as a means of manipulating events in Afghanistan and controlling its government in Kabul. These conclusions are sound, well argued, and supported by abundant research and sources that only she has had access to.
From the outset Gall writes from the perspective of the victims and does not claim to be objective. She argues persuasively that the ISI is the real power in Pakistan and controls its press and media. By December, 2001 after the Taliban’s leadership misjudged the strength of the American attack, and their standing with the Afghani people, thereby forcing them to flee to the safety of Peshawar across the Pakistani border. Soon after, Taliban commanders convened a council of war which included Afghan Taliban commanders, their Pakistani allies from the Pashtun border areas, and Pakistani militant and religious leaders to discuss how they should respond to the American attack. Watching from the sidelines, but present at these meetings were representatives from the ISI and Pakistani Special Forces who had been involved with the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Also in attendance was the son of the powerful Taliban commander and minister, Jalaluddin Haqqani, a stalwart against the Soviet Union and a favorite of Pakistani intelligence and Arab donors. The goal of the Taliban was to create an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan would now be continued as a guerilla war against the United States and its western allies. The goal for Pakistan was to continue to employ “proxy forces, Afghan mijahideen, Taliban in Afghanistan, and Kashmiri militants against India to project its influence beyond its border.”(21) As Seth Jones, the author of IN THE GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES: AMERICA’S WAR IN AFGHANISTAN wrote in the New York Times on April 10, 2014, “Islamabad’s rationale for supporting Afghan insurgents is straightforward and, in many ways, understandable. Hemmed in by its archenemy, India, to the east, Pakistan wants an ally in the west. It doesn’t have one at the moment. Instead, New Delhi has a close relationship with the Afghan government. Feeling strategically encircled by India, Islamabad has resorted to proxy warfare to replace the current Afghan government with a friendlier regime.”
Gall follows the war as the United States pursued its neocon agenda of the Bush administration and shifted important resources from Afghanistan to support its ill conceived invasion of Iraq in 2003. This left open the door for the Taliban to try and recapture its position in Afghanistan. Many have asked why the United States chose Hamid Karzai to head the government in Kabul. Gall concludes that he was a compromise candidate as he was Pashtun and acceptable in the northern part of the country. Gall accurately concludes further that Karzai was the problem from the outset. For the next thirteen years Karzai would oversee the most corrupt country in the world as stated in the “Transparency International Scale”, as it was tied with Myanmar,” with only Somalia lower. (216) the key to the Taliban resurgence would be their “friends and supporters in power in Pakistan’s border provinces.” This would allow Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader to emerge in February 2003 and publicly call on all Afghans to wage holy war against American forces. (67)
Galls details the Taliban resurgence and Pakistan’s role in their successes and points out the flaw in American policy towards Afghanistan. According to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who wrote a strategic review on Afghanistan for the incoming Obama administration in 2009, the Bush administration considered the Taliban irrelevant once they were defeated. In addition, the Bush White House never gave instructions to its intelligence officials in Pakistan to follow the Taliban and CIA officials in Pakistan saw the Taliban as a “spent force.” (75) The road was open for the Taliban to succeed especially when the ISI forced many Taliban exiles that fled to Pakistan to join the insurgency. Gall describes the situations in northern and southern Waziristan were foreign militants were sheltered in tribal areas and foreign journalists were banned by the Pakistani government from traveling. Gall explores the role of President Pervez Musharraf and his double dealing with the United States. He would feign being an ally and turn over a few Taliban wanted by Washington, but in reality was training, supplying, and encouraging the insurgency to the detriment of Afghanistan who he needed to control because of his fears of India.
Gall correctly argues that America’s approach in dealing with counter terrorism through the use of massive bombing was self defeating. It alienated the Afghan villagers and turned the Afghan people further against what they viewed as their corrupt government in Kabul that was allied with the United States. In 2004 the United States supported the reelection of Karzai, but despite his reelection his policies under the heavy handedness of his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was in charge of the southern part of the country further alienated the Afghan people and did little to counter the onslaught of the Taliban. With the economy in dire straits and little hope for improvement, “young unemployed men were going to Pakistan in search of work and being recruited by the Taliban….who paid $175 a month to join and fight.” (133)
Gall makes many important observations in her narrative. It was clear that America’s NATO allies were not very successful. With only 2000 Canadian troops in the south the task for the Taliban to seize control of the Kandahar region was made easier. The U.S. asked its allies for further troop commitments, but they refused. Exacerbating the problem was the increase in suicide bombings in 2006, many of which were in the south. Gall accurately describes the voyage of young men to madrassas to receive suicide bombing indoctrination and the final committing of the act. Most were traced back to Pakistan were Islamic cells functioned quite freely. Afghan intelligence would share information with NATO allies, who would forward the information to the ISI, which was like warning the suicide cells and resulted in the torture and death of Afghan informers. The nexus of Pakistani support for the Taliban was Quetta and other border areas. “The madrassas are a cover, a camouflage,” a Pashtun legislator told the author, “behind the curtain, hidden in the shadows, lurked the ISI.” (159) From Gall’s extensive interviews in the border region her contention that the ISI played the major role in the Taliban success is well founded.
Some of Gall’s most interesting chapters deal with militant blow back in Pakistan as the ISI periodically would lose some control and then recover, a cycle that went on for years; how close the Taliban came to conquering the south as they reached the outskirts of Kandahar; and the role of Ahmed Karzai. Many Americans have grown tired of Karzai’s act over the years believing he was ungrateful for the sacrifices and support given by the United States. However, despite his antics Karzai’s point of view is important in understanding the events of the last thirteen years. Gall does a remarkable job presenting Karzai’s perspective and making sense out of his statements and actions. Granted his government was corrupt and appointments were based on tribal membership or political faction, but the United States was aware of the political culture around him from the outset. But as Gall correctly points out that when a society functions “on patronage, a duty to help your relatives and clans comb[ined] with Karzai’s poor management and the influx of vast sums of assistance, often poorly administered by donors, [it] created the most corrupt regime Afghans had ever seen.” (216) By 2010, $900 million in loans disappeared implicating Karzai’s family. The problem is that Karzai is not personally corrupt, yet he has tolerated and benefited from it. Karzai would brush off complaints “as a necessary way of doing business in cash strapped country.” (217)
By 2009, after the United States mistakenly bombed a wedding party in eastern Afghanistan and Washington’s failure to deal with Pakistan, Karzai became convinced that the US was not going to defeat the Taliban. As Pakistan continued to ignore American requests to reign in the Taliban, Karzai’s bitterness increased and he decided the only way forward that made sense was to negotiate peace with the Taliban and Pakistan. Richard C. Holbrooke, the US Special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan began back channel contacts with the Taliban. Holbrooke realized the difficulty Karzai faced and realized further that peace with Pakistan was the key; as he summed up the situation in 2010, “we may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.” (222)
In 2009 the Obama administration also announced a “surge” of 30,000 troops in the south as Kandahar was in danger of falling to the Taliban. The joint operation with Afghan and Canadian troops lifted the Taliban siege and Gall’s description of the fighting as she went on patrol with US troops brought the reader to the battlefield. The IEDs, the mines, the booby traps, the rigged houses provide insight into Taliban tactics and what American and Afghan troops faced and have to undo. However, the Taliban hold in the south was broken. Over the next three years the Taliban would be kept at bay, but a new crisis developed with Pakistan over the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Gall has an excellent chapter on the raid and Pakistan’s culpability in having Bin Laden seized from under its nose. From Gall’s interviews it is clear that Pakistani officials were involved with Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. Whether it was military or ISI involvement is not totally clear, but it’s beyond the pale to imagine that the Pakistani government was not involved.
Gall closes her book with a somewhat optimistic chapter about the future of Afghanistan, however the threat from Pakistan remains constant and they must be reined in. At the outset of this review I asked whether Afghanistan was in a better position since the pre-9/11 period. One thing is clear the United States has brought modernity, rebuilding and bright educated graduates in every government office, but “the fundamentals of Afghanistan’s predicament remain the same: a weak state, prey to ambitions of its neighbors and extremist Islamists.” (286) 2014 is a perfect storm for Afghanistan, NATO and US forces are withdrawing, the election of a new president and the appointment of a new government, and the handover of security to Afghan forces in the middle of the summer fighting season. What will the future hold? I would be naive to think that once the US withdraws the security situation will not collapse, but we will see. For those who are interested in reaching an educated guess about Afghanistan’s future I would read Carlotta Gall’s powerful new book.