Looking to make sense of US endeavours in Afghanistan? This is your book, although be warned, there isn’t much sense to make


When the United States poured into Afghanistan to settle the score after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, its objective was simple – catch Osama Bin Laden and smash Al-Qaeda. Almost immediately though, that goal slipped to include toppling the Taliban. As controllers of a great deal of the country they had hosted the terrorist network, although were no great fan of it. For all the Taliban’s rustic weirdness and enthusiasm for banning everything they could think of (including centipedes, lobsters, billiard tables, sewing catalogues and masks) their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan hadn’t picked a fight with America, yet because of Al Qaeda’s abuse of their hospitality (they had not shared their global terror plans) it was their country the US invaded.

And then there was Pakistan – an ally of the United States, and a nuclear power, but whose meddlesome national security agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, was able to agree cooperation with the CIA while simultaneously sponsoring and encouraging some of the most extreme Islamic groups and regional guerrilla/business clans in Afghanistan in order to keep the Taliban in check. At times those same groups were energetically working to expel the infidel.

This subterfuge was the work of the eponymous Directorate S, and it also meant the region was no place for a “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” strategy – no test to tell the difference between friends and enemies in Afghanistan has yet been developed. America is still thrashing around in this thorn bush 17 years later, during which time those relationships have only enmurked further, with additional new players, such as a separate Pakistani Taliban and ISIS joining the chaos.

Steve Coll, a super-heavyweight of American journalism, is not afraid of a big subject, having previously written an enormous volume about the Exxon oil company (Private Empire), or this big subject: his book Ghost War dealt with the CIA in Afghanistan from the period of Russian occupation to September 10, 2001. His technique is classic American reporter – unstinting on detail, sources and accuracy, little time for colour. This is a man who describes the nostalgic, whimsical Yorkshirism of the sitcom Last of the Summer Wine – Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s favourite programme – as “three friends walking around a town”. At 700 plus pages though, featuring an immense, bafflingly-named cast and 17 years of intrigue, the addition of vivid description might have been an ingredient too far.

If you’re looking for a single word summary though, “mistrust” would do.

As cliques form and dissolve among the Afghans and Pakistanis with the speed and intensity of a girls’ secondary school, so the American military, intelligence agencies, diplomatic corps and political elite aren’t without their bitchy side too. President Obama deliberately times meetings to coincide with special representative Richard Holbrooke’s inability to attend. Early CIA initiatives to broker negotiated settlements with the Taliban founder against the Washington bluster of people such as President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld who want them “in jumpsuits” and rendered to Guantanamo. Years later they have to talk to them anyway, causing a by then paranoid, embittered and ungrateful President Karzai to lose his shit and come undone. Corruption deserves its own ministry.

The other big theme is so much intel, so little insight. When US operatives are basing the extent of their trust of opposite numbers in Pakistan on whether they drink alcohol or not, then near infinite budgets and all the acronyms an alphabet can provide are of little assistance to the cause.

Swaggering racist contractors treating locals like an underclass don’t help, and American appreciation of  sensitivities is at times moronic, such as a decision to burn some Korans, leading to deadly consequences. For all their spending, strategy, firepower and casualties, the US finds itself with an even shabbier reputation in Pakistan than India has – a level of negative PR that was previously not thought achievable.

By the end of the book, what felt like a war against some renegade zealots in a cave has spread to the point where other major players such as Saudi Arabia and China are hovering around, wondering where this all fits in with their interests. This mission hasn’t so much crept as disintegrated.

At one point, US ambassador to Afghanistan Cameron Munter is disparaging a CIA strategy of indiscriminate artillery barrages. “This is a never ending war,” angry CIA officers respond, depressingly. Then “Whose side are you on?” Does anyone in this entire conflict really know?

Directorate S, by Steve Coll. Allen Lane, £25