In the 13 years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, $1 trillion has been spent, and 3,400 foreign soldiers (more than 2,300 of them American) have died. Despite our tremendous loss of blood and treasure, Afghanistan remains—even as we prepare to exit the country—”a weak state, prey to the ambitions of its neighbors and extremist Islamists,” as Carlotta Gall notes in “The Wrong Enemy.”
Could we have avoided this outcome? Perhaps so, Ms. Gall argues, if Washington had set its sights slightly southward.
The neighbor that concerns Ms. Gall—the “right” enemy implied by the book’s title—is Pakistan. If you were to boil down her argument into a single sentence, it would be this one: “Pakistan, supposedly an ally, has proved to be perfidious, driving the violence in Afghanistan for its own cynical, hegemonic reasons.”
Though formally designated as a major non-NATO U.S. ally, and despite receiving more than $23 billion in American assistance since 9/11, Pakistan only pretended to cut links with the Taliban that it had nurtured in the 1990s. In reality, Pakistan’s ubiquitous spy service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), foments jihad against NATO in Afghanistan much as it did against the Soviets in the 1980s.
At this point, accusations of Pakistani perfidy won’t raise the eyebrows of anyone with even a passing familiarity with the region. For years, a chorus of diplomats, analysts and journalists have concluded that the Taliban and its partners in jihad would be incapable of maintaining an insurgency without active support from across the border. In 2011, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, called the Haqqani network—the group responsible for some of the worst violence in Afghanistan, including an attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul that year—”a veritable arm” of the ISI.
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Ms. Gall’s long years of reporting for the New York Times from the front lines of the war are clear in this book, particularly in her vivid reconstruction of how things went rapidly downhill after the easy U.S.-led victories over the Taliban at the end of 2001. The West’s handpicked leader, Hamid Karzai, turned out to be a lot better at politicking than at running the country. As aid dollars poured in, corruption in the Afghan government soared. The Bush administration, distracted by preparations for the war in Iraq, took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, argues Ms. Gall. Most important, reassured by Pakistani assistance in nabbing key al Qaeda figures, the U.S. was slow to realize that Islamabad was playing both sides of the street.
Only in 2007, more than five years after the war began, did the CIA begin to pay attention to the deep ties between the ISI and the Taliban. By then, the fundamentalist group, which had all but disappeared in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion, had made an impressive comeback in its original stronghold of southern Afghanistan, reclaiming freedom of movement and seemingly able to strike targets at will. Even today, despite some gains against the Taliban following President Obama’s decision to send additional troops in 2009, the group remains a powerful force. Just last month, Taliban fighters attacked Kabul’s Serena Hotel, killing nine people, including an AFP photographer and a former Paraguayan diplomat. As Ms. Gall notes, the Taliban’s refuge across the border in Pakistan, where it recruits from militant madrassas and where fighters recuperate between battles, makes the group awfully hard to vanquish.
And what of Pakistan’s relationship to al Qaeda and its founder? The book offers significant revelations about the ISI’s alleged role in hiding Osama bin Laden for nearly a decade until Navy SEALs finally caught up with him in 2011. Ms. Gall points out the absurdity of the official Pakistani claim that nobody in the government was aware that the world’s most wanted man was living in a high-walled compound a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. “In a Pakistani village, they notice even a stray dog,” a former intelligence chief tells Ms. Gall.
Based on interviews with anonymous high-ranking Pakistani officials, the book pieces together how the ISI protected bin Laden. The spy agency apparently assigned a special desk to the al Qaeda chief. To ensure plausible deniability for higher-ups, the officer in charge made his own decisions. Ms. Gall reckons that those who knew about this arrangement included, among others, Gen. Shuja Pasha, then chief of the ISI, and his boss, then Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. Ms. Gall also says that, after the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Washington learned of Mr. Pasha’s role in protecting bin Laden but hushed it up in order not to hurt ties with the nuclear-armed Muslim nation.
But while the author does a fine job of reporting, she doesn’t seriously grapple with U.S. policy options. What alternatives did the U.S. have? Should it have cut off aid? Or extended drone strikes to the ISI’s jihadist madrassas that act as recruiting agents for the Taliban? Or should it simply have accepted Pakistan’s desire to wield a veto over Afghanistan’s foreign policy as a fact of life in the region?
To her credit, Ms. Gall gets the most important thing right. She underscores the danger of the U.S. turning its back on Afghanistan, which, while still fragile, shows more signs of modernity than ever before. The repercussions of the U.S. drawdown “are already inspiring Islamists, who are comparing it to the withdrawal of the Soviet Union” after its defeat at the hands of the mujahedeen. Unlike the Obama administration, Ms. Gall recognizes that radical Islam can’t be ignored or wished away.
Available at Amazon, the Kindle version is $15.48 US.