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Dial S for Suspicion

A recent book by Steve Coll that gives the reader a box seat in the theatre of violent absurdities that Af-Pak has become post 9/11

Dial S for Suspicion

In many ways Directorate S could be considered a natural sequel to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars. But it could just as easily be construed as a piece of literature not just completely detached from its prequel, but from a completely different geopolitical galaxy where the narrative treads a whole new path, leaving behind a trail of distrust, deceit and duplicity – the bedrocks of US-Pakistan relations post September 11, 2011.

Directorate S – The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the account of three states fighting one imaginary war against a supposed common enemy, but in reality they are embroiled in a three-legged race, where one leg of each of the three participants is tied together and the other three are trying to kick each other.

The book compiles investigative reporting and first-hand narratives of all the major players steering US, Pakistani and Afghan policymaking in the Af-Pak arena of jihad between 2011 and 2016, with the fulcrum of it all being the Directorate S, Pakistani “units devoted to secret operations in support of the Taliban, Kashmiri guerrillas, and other violent Islamic radicals”.

Coll initiates a detailed pounding of the Pakistani intelligence agencies by the token disclaimer: “If the army and I.S.I. did not misrule Pakistan, in alliance with corrupt political cronies, the country’s potential to lift up its own population and contribute positively to the international system might today rival India’s.”

And yet, unlike many others, this isn’t a book that batters Pakistan policymaking alone, but thoroughly picks apart the CIA with facts and accounts woven together in 757 pages carrying one damning verdict on American failures in Afghanistan.

Warning reports in the lead up to 9/11, writes Coll, “carried the headlines BIN LADIN ATTACKS MAY BE IMMINENT and BIN LADIN AND ASSOCIATES MAKING NEAR-TERM THREATS,” as the book zooms in on the World Trade Centre attacks after opening up with the assassination of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The book then delves into the now (in)famous ‘with us or against us’ warning sent to Pakistan by the George Bush administration, with Gen Musharraf acquiescing to it, after his initial demand.

“He said he was willing to cooperate with the United States, but he would require help to explain his betrayal of the Taliban to the Pakistani people,” Coll recounts of Musharraf. The acquiescence eventually merged into the double play that not only became a pain for the US, but more critically resulted in Pakistan being pulverised by boomeranging jihadism. Musharraf’s argument: “If Pakistan did not manage this moment of crisis [in Afghanistan] to its advantage, India would” – which of course is the very foundation of Islamabad’s interests in Kabul.

Towards the end of Musharraf’s time at the helm, US and NATO intelligence, however, was certain about the Directorate S and its role in the revival of the Afghan Taliban post-2007. That was the year that Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani took over as the army chief, and indeed the same year when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto died. “The twin pillars of the Bush administration’s reformed policy in Pakistan—Musharraf and Bhutto—were gone,” believes Coll.

And that’s when US-Pakistan confrontation began to become more public.

Gen Kayani was also adamant that the US had got the ISI’s ambitions of getting “strategic depth” in Pakistan all wrong, which the former army chief told the then Vice President Joe Biden, “was merely the search for a peaceful neighbour where Afghan Pashtuns were adequately accommodated in Afghan politics.”

Dubbing the first phase of the Kayani years as ‘The Best Intentions, 2006-2009’ (Part Three of the book) Coll moves to the final and decisive part entitled ‘The End of Illusion, 2010-2014’. In a PowerPoint presentation given to US officials Gen Kayani would make the most of an opportunity to regain mutual trust by extolling the Army.

Coll’s narration of the Raymond Davis’ incident coincides with the claims in the man’s own account in The Contractor: How I Landed in a Pakistani Prison and Ignited a Diplomatic Crisis. It narrates in detail Pakistani officials’ tireless efforts to get Davis out of Pakistan.

Incidentally that was the same week that Panetta had begun reviewing evidence that Osama Bin Laden was hiding near a Pakistani military academy.

Directorate S tracks Bin Laden’s journey into Pakistan after 9/11, claiming that his youngest wife Amal gave birth to four of his children in the country after 2002, and that the family had been living in Abbottabad since August 2005. And yet Coll fails to dig out conclusive evidence that the Pakistani intelligence hierarchy was aware of the then al-Qaeda chief’s presence in Abbottabad in May 2011 when the Naval Special Warfare Development Group and CIA SAD/SOG operators took him down.

The closest he comes is a 2010 letter where Bin Laden warns against allowing his sons to pass through the custody of a contact in Balochistan because “people that he knows work for the Pakistani intelligence”. But Pakistan’s predicament during and after the raid was summed up by Gen Kayani’s comments on why he didn’t try to stop the US infringement inside Pakistan: “You can’t shoot down an American helicopter with an American plane”.

While Directorate S doesn’t assert that the ISI was aware of Bin Laden’s presence, it does indicate knowledge of the Mumbai attacks within the organisation, even if not their intensity, with the book narrating details of Hafiz Saeed’s motivational lectures to the perpetrators of the 2008 attacks, alongside Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi.

Other than trying to make sense of the trilateral intelligence hotchpotch in the region, Directorate S also puts light into Pakistan’s domestic politics, especially the civil-military relations through some revealing anecdotes. In one dinner meeting Panetta joined Pasha and then President Asif Ali Zardari, where jokes about ISI’s pervasive surveillance of him flew across the table. “Ahmed [Pasha] knows everything I think and everything I say. I walk into my office every morning and say, ‘Hello, Ahmed!’”

Similarly, then Pakistan Ambassador Husain Haqqani once pointed to the ceiling while talking to a US official, indicating the presence of listening devices, going on to say with unnatural loudness: “Pakistan’s army is determined to fight the Pakistani Taliban”.

Of course the folks in Pakistan would challenge almost all the claims made in Directorate S but the book gives the reader the box seat in the theatre of violent absurdities that Af-Pak has become post 9/11. And while the book puts the spotlight on Pakistan as the most dubious character in the four act play, it established the US as the producer – albeit inadvertent.

Directorate S — The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016 Author: Steve Coll
Publisher: Allen Lane, 2018
Pages: 720
Price: Rs1,526

KK Shahid

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