August 17, 2022

Event Coverage Highlight

Steve Coll Examines US in South Asia in ‘Directorate S’

By Chad Bouchard

Hubris and a shallow depth of cultural understanding have marred U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India over decades of history, journalist and author Steve Coll explained during an OPC book night at Club Quarters on March 22.

Coll’s book, Directorate S: The C. I. A. And America’s Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan, 2001-2016, focuses on the covert action arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, a shadowy group that was both ally with and opposition to the CIA.

Coll, who serves as dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, said Directorate S (a name given to the group by U.S. intelligence) had cells that supported Islamist militias and was covertly training and trying to legitimize the Taliban while Pakistan was also a supposed ally in conflicts against extremists.

“[Directorate S] was well known to the Americans on September 11th, because in the 1980s the U.S. collaborated with ISI to provide guns and ammunition to the Mujahideen to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.”

The book picks up at the end of Coll’s first book on the topic, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars, which covers the period leading up to the 9-11 attacks.

To illustrate the fickle nature of the U.S. relationship with ISA and Pakistan, Coll recounted an anecdote that followed the Bush administration’s declared that nations must be “either with us or against us” in the war on terrorism. As Pakistan declared its solidarity with the U.S., the leader of Directorate S, Colonel Imam, was flying on a plane to Islamabad from Afghanistan, where he had been aiding the Taliban, along with the CIA station chief.

He reassured the station chief that Pakistan was fully on board to help the Americans. As soon as he gets off the plane and visits the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, and “bursts into tears when greeting him at the door and, saying ‘I can’t believe the treachery of us flipping to the American side.’”

“That encapsulated in one day the ISI, they were capable of manipulating the CIA and the Taliban simultaneously. That was their craft,” he said.

During the 1980s, Coll said, ISI was built into a state within the Pakistani state because of the scale of American and Saudi subsidies, which were way out of line with anything the Pakistani defense budget could have accommodated before.

“It was a swollen institution that had a certain hubris about itself, and after the Americans left in the early 90s, ISI decided to apply the methodologies that it had piloted with the CIA against the Soviets to the Kashmiri war,” he said. ISI collaborated with al-Qaeda to go after Kashmiri militants on the border of Afghanistan, and then looked to a long term asymmetric strategy against India that included Islamist groups

Coll outlined several phases of what he called the Americans’ “failure to understand ISI.” He said the only members of the Bush administration’s cabinet who had personal experience in Afghanistan or Pakistan were Colin Powell and Richard Armitage at the State Department, and their vision of the region was “distorted by their sense that the Pakistan army was the most important potential partner,” he said, and by the desire to believe that Pervez Musharraf was sincere in flipping sides and abandoning the Taliban.

The second phase was one of distraction, caused by the Iraq War, when the administration turned security in Afghanistan over to NATO partners as a way to concentrate their forces and attention in Iraq.

Pakistan and ISI saw the U.S. choosing India as its strategic partner for the 21st century, and its relations with Pakistan as transactional, he said. Finally, by the time Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice started to get a grasp of the situation around 2006, Coll said, the Situation Room was so tied up in

Iraq that it was not receptive to warnings about Afghanistan.“There was a blindness. Some of it willful, some of it incidental to the Iraq distraction. By 2008, the US system had some to understand that ISI was on the other side of the war.”

Click on the window below for a playlist of clips from the program.