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The Moby Dick Problem of War: An Interview with Steve Coll

The NBCC nonfiction award winner on Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan

In March, The New School hosted this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards, which honor literature published in the United States in the previous year. The awards are presented in six categories — autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and are the only U.S. literary awards chosen by critics themselves.

Daniel Goulden, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Steve Coll about his book Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Penguin Press), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.

Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the story of a seemingly endless war. A month after the September 11th attacks a shaken United States invaded Afghanistan, overthrowing the Taliban government that had been providing Osama Bin Laden safe harbor. 18 years later, the war is still going. Many soldiers currently serving there have no memory of 9/11 attacks. Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, former Managing Editor of the Washington Post, and the Dean of the Columbia Journalism School, began his career as the Post’s South Asia correspondent, long before the September 11th attacks would put the region at the center of international affairs. Directorate S is a follow up to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, which recounts the events leading up to 9/11, ending on September 10th. Directorate S begins on September 11th. Initially the United States saw Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan, as an ally in the war on terror. However, the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) was secretly funding the Taliban and other terrorist organizations, through its directorate tasked with supporting these organizations, Directorate S. On the American side, the CIA, caught off guard by the September 11th attacks, desperately scrambled to identify future threats, resorting to torture to do so. Directorate S is the sobering account of how the Afghan War turned into the longest war in American history. It recounts the mistakes and missteps that led to the situation today. It is a definitive account of the war and essential reading for anyone who wants to know how the tragedy of the war unfolded. I interviewed Steve Coll about his work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Goulden [DG]: In your prologue, you describe watching the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and realizing that Al Qaeda, an organization you had been covering for years, was behind them. You must have been one of the first civilians to know what was going on. What was it like coming to that realization?

Steve Coll [SC]: It was a strange day. I drove downtown and the sense that the city was under attack was familiar to me from war coverage, but for so many Americans it was a new experience. It wasn’t until noon that it was clear there would be no more planes coming down. The main thing that I was focused on was trying to get our coverage at the Washington Post right. It did help to have some confidence that it was Al Qaeda. We could get our reporters to see if there was information in the intelligence system, cargo manifests and so forth, that would lead us in that direction. By the end of day it was clear [that it was Al Qaeda], because of the two guys on the plane that struck the Pentagon were well known Al Qaeda people under surveillance before.

DG: What was the process like of capturing a narrative from this? It sounds like you had to let the material determine the narrative?

SC: I had some principles that I knew I would follow and reported into those. I wanted to work in the triangle formed by Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul and I like intervals, so I wanted to go back and forth. Not too much time in Washington, then Pakistan, then Kabul, then back to Washington. I knew I wanted to narrate as much of the book through the three intelligence services as I could and that would be my way of avoiding a kind of pure military history of the Afghan war. So then it was a question of: how do I sustain deep reporting and certain characters across that outline, and what else needs to be in there besides that? There are certain things you just can’t ignore. I couldn’t write a book that intended to be definitive about this period if I didn’t treat heroin and opium. That doesn’t really fit anywhere. It’s not a CIA story, it’s not an ISI story. So I came across arguments in the intelligence community about measuring what the significance of the opiate economy was for the Taliban and I built a chapter around that.

DG: Why did you pick ISI and the CIA to be the center of the story?

SC: Well, partly it’s an extension of the history that’s in the first volume, but partly it was because the book is really about why the United States failed in Afghanistan from an American perspective. The biggest single reason was that the Taliban and Al Qaeda enjoyed geographical sanctuary in Pakistan and the reason they enjoyed sanctuary was ISI’s role in defining what Pakistani regional security needs were, which included keeping these militias alive to counter India. The US was blind to that for a while. Eventually they realized what was going on and it was almost too late to recover because the guerrilla war had acquired such a momentum inside Afghanistan. There were no good answers. Pakistan was not an easy problem, but the fact that they didn’t solve it, and that it kept on going on despite all their pleadings to the Pakistanis to do something different, just embittered people as the years went on. There is still so much bitterness in the system about the reason the war failed, even though the war failed for many reasons, not just ISI. But that’s the one that’s at the heart of it, sort of the Moby Dick problem of the war.

DG: A lot of what we find so controversial about the Middle Eastern wars, particularly the “enhanced interrogations,” or torture, and the drone strikes originated in the CIA. How did the history and culture of the CIA lead to the birth of these practices?

SC: The CIA has a long history of abusive interrogations going back to the 50s, experiments, weird experiments in coercive interrogations, some of them even worse than waterboarding. The agency was in an existential crisis after the September 11th attacks. The whole purpose of an intelligence service is to give strategic warning of attacks and when you miss one on that scale everything is at issue. The leaders felt like they could lose their whole place at the table in the American system if there was another one. They really were in a panic for about 2 or 3 years and they didn’t have any good information. The main thing after 9/11 was that they told every intelligence service in the world: “If there’s anyone who’s ever been on your radar as a radical extremist, arrest them on anything you can get them on and interrogate them.” So you get all this really bad information. You’re basically asking people to tell you about made-up threats.

DG: Or sell out their neighbors.

SC: Yeah. Or sell out their neighbors. And so it was a mess. When they finally caught a couple of people who they thought would know what was coming next, they decided they had to proceed this way. There was a core in the middle of the agency that just felt like they couldn’t afford to miss something, particularly when they had Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. They thought that he was the one who could, prevent an attack.

I think the drone strikes were a different beast. Those were fully authorized by President Obama. It was basically a secret air war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. There’s something unsettling about the hovering tech, the fact that they’re like dragons circling the sky, but their basic function against these militias and cells was no different than the air forces bombing. And the fact that it was carried out by the CIA made people uneasy and it was done in secret. Obama was trying to figure out how to transfer authority for these strikes to the military so it could be handled in a normal, accountable way, but it wouldn’t have changed the experiences of civilians on the ground.

DG: President Trump has recently declared that he will withdraw troops from Afghanistan, which his critics say is a rash decision. What do you think about his decision and is there a right way to withdraw from this war?

SC: The right way to withdraw is to attempt to find a negotiated path forward, one that doesn’t leave behind a civil war that causes a massive humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and destabilizes the region and then creates the potential for more radical groups to carry out violence. That’s what Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s special envoy, is trying to do, but the situation is very difficult partially because the president keeps undermining the project by randomly tweeting stuff that is hard to evaluate. And the funny thing is the main leverage that the US has in this negotiation is Trump’s unreliability, because everyone involved realizes they could wake up one day and he could be tweeting something like “we’re all done it’s over.” It’s not in anybody’s interest to have another civil war. Not in Pakistan’s interest, not in China’s interest, not in Russia’s interest. We’ve seen that movie in the 90s and the instability and the violence and the migration of refugees just spills across borders. It would be like Syria in the region. But trying to prevent it is complicated. In a perfect world, you would take two or three years to work on this, but there’s a clock ticking, which is Trump’s thumbs.

DG: The Afghan government under Ashraf Ghani have has felt boxed out of the negotiations with the Taliban. This sounds a lot like Obama’s earlier attempts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban, when then President Karzai felt excluded. Is history repeating itself?

SC: There are really close similarities and partially it’s because both Karzai and Ghani are in a relatively weak position as presidents. There constituency is largely the international community, they don’t have a solid power-base inside of Afghanistan, Ghani even less so than Karzai and Karzai was a weak figure. And so they feel especially vulnerable when they can’t control what’s going on because they don’t have their own base to rely on to protect them. And a second reason why it’s happening the same way is because the Taliban have not shifted their negotiating position which is “we’ll talk go the Americans about leaving and we’re not going to talk to this puppet government, maybe ever, but certainly not first.” It sounds like Khalilzad has in principle gotten the Taliban to agree to a framework in which they would talk to the Afghanistan government, but they have to agree to a bunch of things that are onerous to the Taliban. Not just that, but also a long-term ceasefire. To make it even more complicated there’s a presidential election coming in Afghanistan this year and the whole politics of what to do about the Taliban is part of that contest.

DG: You describe in your introduction the tragedy of Afghanistan wasted potential. What do you see for the future of the country? What would an Afghanistan at its full potential look like?

SC: You can see it there today in the cities. There’s a young generation that grew up in Afghanistan after 2001 that is very nationalistic and determined to hold onto the gains they have made. That country was absolutely shattered in 2001. You wouldn’t even call it a third world country. You would call it fourth world. It was at the very bottom of all of the tables. And today the country is connected, it has a multi-ethnic urban culture that includes, what are those talent contest that we have on Fox?

DG: America’s got talent?

SC: Yeah. And there’s women in the workplace and a lot of people in school. There’s a real national feeling. One thing that Pakistan has done for Afghanistan, apart from foment war, is to strengthen Afghanistan national identity in opposition to Pakistan. And the neighborhood has changed a lot. You have China and India, these huge economies. they’re looking to influence the region and build alliances. India’s relationship with Afghanistan was there before 9/11, but now India is a much different country. It has got real wealth and it’s the fastest growing economy in the world. China has a long alliance with Pakistan, but it wants a stable economically integrated central Asia it can prosper from. So there is opportunity there for a gradually transition to a more natural regional state, where Afghanistan is more of what it’s always been, a bridge country in between great powers. It’s at least possible.

Steve Coll is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars and the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and from 2007 to 2013 was president of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington, D.C. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and previously worked for twenty years at The Washington Post, where he received a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1990. He is the author of seven other books, including On the Grand Trunk Road, The Bin Ladens, Private Empire, and Directorate S.

Daniel Goulden is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn, NY. His work has been featured in Asymptote Journal, Europe Now, and elsewhere. He is working on a novel loosely based off of the life of Zeppo Marx that examines Jewish life in America throughout the 20th century. This interview was first published on the Creative Writing at The New School blog. It has been edited.

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