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‘Directorate S’ traces Pakistan’s role at the heart of the Afghanistan war

The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan for more than 16 years, and mostly against the Taliban, a group that exists in large part due to the intelligence services of Afghan neighbor Pakistan. Steve Coll’s new book "Directorate S" is perhaps the definitive story of the war’s aftermath and tense U.S. relations with Pakistan. Coll joins Nick Schifrin for a conversation.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for more than 16 years. It's a war fought mostly against the Taliban, a group that exists due in large part to the intelligence services of Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan.

    Nick Schifrin speaks now with the author of a new book who charts Pakistan's shadow war and its tense relations with the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. So goes the saying that describes why the U.S. has faced a seemingly impossible task since 2001.

    But the fact is, the fate of the U.S.' longest war was never preordained. The U.S. has made many mistakes and has struggled with Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan.

    And perhaps the definitive version of that story is in a new book, "Directorate S: The CIA and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan" by Steve Coll, the dean and Henry Luce professor of journalism at the Columbia Journalism School.

    Steve Coll, welcome to the program.

  • Steve Coll:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This is a book about 9/11, the aftermath of war in Afghanistan, and it is titled "Directorate S."

    What is Directorate S, and why is it at the heart of this story?

  • Steve Coll:

    So, it's the covert action arm of the Pakistani intelligence service known as ISI.

    And it's the arm that has supported the Taliban both before and after 9/11, that has worked at times in collaboration with the CIA during the 1980s war, and then against American interests after 2001, to try to seek influence for Pakistan in Afghanistan through these Islamist militias.

    And it is at the heart of the war because the sanctuary the Taliban have enjoyed in Pakistan and the support that they have been able to get covertly from ISI has been one of the major reasons why the U.S. has not been able to stabilize Afghanistan, despite sending tens of thousands of combat troops to the country along with NATO allies.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As you say, Pakistan has been doing this for a long time. But there was a moment in 2004, you write, that it seems like Pakistan could have once and for all kind of turned its back on the Taliban, and it didn't.

    Why not?

  • Steve Coll:

    Well, it's interesting.

    There was this period of relative peace after the fall of the Taliban government in December 2001. And by the time you get to 2004, in Afghanistan, you have a successful presidential election. Parliamentary elections are on the way. A constitution has been restored. Many Afghans have come home from exile.

    But Pakistan is still trying to see what kind of neighborhood they are going to be in after the Americans are gone. The United States goes off and fights in Iraq, quickly gets bogged down there. And then I think another factor that motivated Pakistan and its intelligence service was that the United States cut a strategic nuclear deal with India around this period, essentially forgiving India for breaking out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and building atomic bombs.

    And it told Pakistan at the same time, you're not getting that deal, and because you're not trustworthy. Pakistani high command basically looked at this and said, look, we can't rely on the United States, and they're not going to stay in Afghanistan for very long. We have to prosecute our own interests.

    They feared an Afghanistan that was consolidating its independence and might become an ally of India, which, for Pakistan, that's what it's all about.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You write about this extraordinary moment in 2014 which is a reflection of some of the tensions perhaps in Pakistan and some of the U.S. fears in Pakistan.

    How close did some disgruntled Pakistani navy people and Al-Qaida get to seizing a ship with nuclear weapons?

  • Steve Coll:

    Well, it's an underpublicized episode. And I hope we will learn more about it over time.

    But I came across some really stunning material about these young Pakistani naval officers who had lashed up with Al-Qaida in the tribal areas of Pakistan and had decided to seize control of a Pakistani missile ship, take it into the Arabian Sea and attack U.S. vessels there.

    And they had a very — they had keys. They had a sense of how the ship was organized, how they could store weapons aboard. They stored weapons in advance of their plan. And then they moved to seize the ship.

    They were defeated by commandos. Later, India's government circulated a report that this particular ship that they'd attacked contained nuclear weapons as part of Pakistan's seaborne deterrent, nuclear deterrent, against India.

    Now, I don't know whether that report is fully accurate. It comes from India, so it has to be taken with a grain of salt. But it's the first time we have had circulated reporting that terrorists attacked a facility where there were, at least in this report, some nuclear weapons.

    And, you know, this has been the nightmare scenario all along, and it's one of the contradictions in the U.S. war. When we went into Afghanistan, the Obama administration sat around in the Situation Room as it escalated the war, and it debated, what are the really vital interests that we have that justify putting young American men and women in harm's way?

    They identified two. One was Al-Qaida and its international terrorism menace. But the other was the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. The trouble is, the more we escalated the war, the more we destabilized Pakistan, which leads to episodes like the one we just discussed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Obama administration pushed for talks with the Taliban. And you have details that certainly I have never come across. Do you feel like the talks with the Taliban were bound to fail because the relationship between the Obama administration and Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, had deteriorated, or did they fail for other reasons?

  • Steve Coll:

    Well, the failure of the talks was partly related to the problem of the relationship with Hamid Karzai during the Obama administration.

    As you say, Karzai really blew up the talks at a moment when they looked like they might be fruitful. But there were other complications. One was, it wasn't really clear what the Taliban wanted from these negotiations. That was never tested before the talks blew up.

    Secondly, the relationship with ISI in Pakistan was again complicated. The Taliban secret representative, this man named Tayabaga (ph), remarkable character, you know, he kept saying to the Americans in these safe house where they were negotiating, I don't want to be a client of Pakistan. We're Afghans.

    We want to negotiate independently with you. You're in our country. We'd like to talk about how we can get you out of our country slowly, in a transition. But I don't want Pakistan to speak for us.

    But the Pakistanis told the Americans, you can't do this negotiation without us. And they started to act — essentially act as agents for the Taliban. At one point, they delivered messages to the Americans in Mullah Omar's name. And the Americans could never quite figure out what the relationship between ISI and the Taliban leadership was in these negotiations. It made it very difficult to succeed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And one more thing about how U.S. soldiers fought this war.

    You talk about how U.S. soldiers went blind into battle, to a certain extent, not understanding the kind of historic nature of the Taliban's relationship with the people, and also a level of hubris that came from how easy the first few weeks or months of the war was.

    Did the U.S. ever really understand what to do on the ground in Afghanistan?

  • Steve Coll:

    Well, they fought a counterinsurgency war at the peak of U.S. military presence there, and there was kind of a fashionable bubble of doctrine around counterinsurgency theory that was applied to the Afghan war, after the perceived success in Iraq in 2007-2008.

    And Hamid Karzai warned the American generals who were arriving to carry out this counterinsurgency campaign that he didn't think it would work, he didn't think it was the right strategy, and he worried that all of this patrolling in villages and kicking down doors was going to alienate the Afghan people.

    But he really wasn't in a position to stop the American-led juggernaut at that point. And, ultimately, the war settled into a stalemate. And the Taliban held their ground. The CIA used to produce every six months — maybe still does — these classified maps with different colors indicating which district the Taliban controlled, which district the government controlled, which were contested.

    And they had different sort of unfurlings of them at the Situation Room. And, essentially, the colors didn't shift much, despite 150,000 international combat troops in Afghanistan fighting to roll the Taliban back. And even today, the map doesn't look much different, with U.S. troops down to 10,000 or 15,000, the Afghan forces in the lead.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The book is "Directorate S," the author, Steve Coll.

    Steve, thank you for being here.

  • Steve Coll:

    Thanks, Nick. Appreciate it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You can see Nick's entire interview with Steve Coll on our home page, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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