Skip to main content

After 16 Years, Afghanistan War Is 'At Best A Grinding Stalemate,' Journalist Says

America's war in Afghanistan is the longest war the U.S. has ever fought. Beginning a month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the initial mission was to remove the Taliban from power and destroy the al-Qaida terror network. Now, nearly 17 years later, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll points out that the war's goals have changed.



TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The longest war Americans have ever fought is entering its 17th year. It's a war we can't seem to win and can't seem to withdraw from, and it's a war a lot of Americans have forgotten about in spite of the fact that thousands of our troops are still fighting and still in harm's way. That war in Afghanistan crossed the border into Pakistan, our ostensible ally, and pitted Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, against the CIA.

The CIA and America's secret wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan and how the wars fostered a revival of al-Qaida and other terrorist networks is the subject of my guest Steve Coll's new book "Directorate S." "Directorate S" is the wing of Pakistani intelligence that has secretly trained and armed the extremist Islamic group the Taliban.

Coll is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His new book is a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize winning book "Ghost Wars: The Secret History Of The CIA, Afghanistan, And Bin Laden, From The Soviet Invasion To September 10, 2001."

Steve Coll, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So...

STEVE COLL: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: You're critical of some of the things the CIA did or didn't do in Afghanistan. What are your reactions to how President Trump is challenging the intelligence agencies on Russian interference in the election and calling the Mueller investigation a witch hunt?

COLL: I think it's unhealthy. I think the intelligence services and the FBI are made up of civil servants, career independent analysts and investigators. Presidents of very diverse political views have relied on them for the facts. And what's most bothersome about the way the Trump administration, particularly President Trump, has called out the CIA and the FBI is that he's undermining the integrity of what are meant to be independent agencies that provide the truth to the White House, whether it's welcome or not. And I - it's part of a series of institutions in this country that the president has attacked and sought to undermine, apparently in this case because he is trying to disrupt the investigations that are underway about what happened during the 2016 campaign.

GROSS: Have any of your sources in the CIA spoken to you directly about the impact this is having on the agency and its ability to do its work?

COLL: Yes. They're concerned about politicization at the agency. They're concerned that the intelligence may be skewed to suit the president's preconceived desires. They're anxious that an agency that they grew up in, that they were told from their first day of training was meant to be independent, to call it as it sees it, to rely on the facts, to make hard calls is now becoming an instrument of White House politics. And they're not saying that the agency has been ruined in this way yet, but the concern is significant.

GROSS: Well, let's get to your new book, "Directorate S: The C.I.A. And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan." Let's start with, where are we now in the war in Afghanistan?

COLL: Well, we're in a stalemate. We're in a muddle. We have something like 10,000 troops there, maybe growing a little higher over the next year or so. There are actually two wars that we're fighting in Afghanistan. I'm not sure most Americans appreciate that. One is a direct combat war against remnants or elements of the Islamic State that have popped up in eastern Afghanistan. And there, President Obama initiated and President Trump continued a return to direct combat in Afghanistan after previously, at the end of 2014, saying we were done with the war.

The second war is the one that we transitioned to in 2014, which is to advise and assist the Afghan Security Forces - the Afghan army and police - in their combat against the Taliban, an indigenous Afghan movement that we're all too familiar with after all these years and which, you know, controls significant swaths of the Afghan countryside.

So our kind of muddled war aim or war policy is that we're directly at war with the Islamic State, but we're not directly at war with the Taliban except to the extent that we're supporting Afghan forces. But what that means as a practical matter is that we're their air force. We have the planes. So when the Afghan forces need bombs dropped on Taliban positions, that's generally us doing the bombing. And the number of bombs that we've been dropping on Afghanistan has increased significantly in 2017 over the year before.

GROSS: So your book is about what the U.S. did in Afghanistan and Pakistan after 9/11 and what Pakistan did to support the Taliban. When we started bombing Afghanistan after 9/11, what was the Bush administration's goal?

COLL: To disrupt al-Qaida, to prevent follow-on attacks by forcing whoever had planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks to scatter, to be worried about life and limb and to try to disrupt what was unknown at that time. You know, are there three or four other plots of that character moving now? And so the focus was just to retaliate and disrupt and then, as the campaign went along, a strong focus on trying to destroy al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration had to confront another question. The one about al-Qaida was pretty clear. We should disrupt them. We should get after them. We don't know what else is coming. But they were a little more flummoxed by the problem of the Taliban, who had harbored al-Qaida. But the Taliban hadn't participated in the September 11 attacks. The Bush administration demanded that they turn al-Qaida over for justice. The Taliban refused. And so the Bush administration declared war on them, too. But their heart really wasn't in it. I mean, they overthrew the Taliban, but they were there from the beginning not to wage war against the Taliban but to disrupt and destroy al-Qaida.

GROSS: But the two were pretty connected, so it was maybe hard to do one without the other.

COLL: Well, yes. One is an indigenous movement that makes up - you know, draws from a substantial part of the Afghan population. That's the Taliban. The al-Qaida is an international movement of foreign volunteers largely Arab but also Uzbek, Chechen, who had come into Afghanistan and who had ambitions outside Afghanistan's borders - the Taliban much less so.

And so from the very beginning, the point you make was argued about inside the Situation Room. How are the Taliban and al-Qaida connected? If they're connected, do we really want to wage war against them for the same purpose, with the same aims? Wouldn't that take an awfully long time?

There were some who argued, you know, when you defeat a government like the way we defeated the Taliban in December 2001, the smart thing to do is to then of course call out war criminals and leaders who are culpable for terrible acts of violence or terrorism but, for the great majority of foot soldiers, try to reintegrate them into the peace the way we did with Nazi members in Germany after the second world war or in Japan. And that's the way you get a durable bargain. We didn't do that.

As in Iraq where we dissolved the Ba'ath Party and created an insurgency by refusing to integrate Sunnis into the postwar order, in Afghanistan, we did the same thing with the Taliban. We called them all, you know, candidates for Guantanamo and basically made no distinction between them and al-Qaida. And that was really where the loss of the peace after the fall of the Taliban government began. They scattered. They went into Pakistan. And they began to regroup.

GROSS: One of the Bush administration's goals - its primary goals was to, you know, like, disrupt al-Qaida. And the surviving members of al-Qaida fled, as did many of the Taliban - fled across the Afghanistan border into Pakistan, where they took refuge in this very harsh territory that's, like, mountainous and, you know, not very populated. And they hid out there very effectively. But that leads to, like, the heart of your book "Directorate S," which was a secret part of Pakistan's intelligence service that was dedicated to protecting the Taliban. Tell us what Directorate S is.

COLL: So it's the covert action arm of Pakistani intelligence, comparable to the operations - National Clandestine Service at the CIA or the paramilitary division at the CIA. It's a secret set of units inside a much larger intelligence service that works with guerrillas - basically friendly guerrillas to try to promote Pakistan's interests as they're seen by the army, which is to have influence in Afghanistan and in Kashmir and to keep India in check.

And so the relationship with the Taliban which, as you pointed out, goes back to the 1990s was well-established by the time all these Taliban remnants came flooding back into Pakistan after the U.S. bombing. And so ISI made contact with them again. They were well-known to one another. They settled down in Quetta and Karachi and other cities. And for a while, it looked like they were beaten and that they would just become refugees.

But as Afghanistan consolidated, a constitutional government held successful presidential elections that brought Hamid Karzai formally to power as a constitutional president, held successful parliamentary elections, established itself as an ally, if also a ward, of the international system, Pakistan's generals seemed to conclude that this was not going their way, that Afghanistan was going to become an ally of India with international backing and that they needed to encourage the Taliban, support the Taliban as they sought to make themselves a factor in the new Afghanistan. And so this starts around 2004. 2005, it really gets serious.

There were other reasons why Pakistan seems to have decided to change course and really support the Taliban's revival. Around that time, the Bush administration cut a really big agreement with India about its nuclear program. We basically forgave India for having a nuclear weapons program and offered significant nuclear assistance. And we told Pakistan at the same time, you're not going to get that deal; you're too much of a rogue state; you sell weapons abroad without permission. Anyway, we don't trust you enough. And it was around that time that the high command in Pakistan really thought, you know what? The Americans are not reliable. They're really going all-in with India, our arch enemy. The Americans are saying they're going to leave Afghanistan. They're really concentrating on their war in Iraq. Let's get back to work finding a way to have influence in Afghanistan through the Taliban. And that's when the war really started to deteriorate. And we did not see it coming.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Coll. His new book is called "Directorate S: The C.I.A. And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Coll. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "Directorate S: The C.I.A. And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan." It's a sequel to his book "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, And Bin Laden, From The Soviet Invasion To September 10, 2001."

So what were some of the methods that Pakistan's secret intelligence agency had for supporting the Taliban?

COLL: Well, they could afford to be passive in a lot of ways because Pakistan was a sanctuary for the Taliban guerrillas. And they had used it in the war against the Soviet forces in the 1980s in a way that was similar to what they did when the Americans were the force in Afghanistan. So they had hospitals in Pakistan. They had families in Pakistan. They rotated in and out of the war on fixed tours of, you know - seasonal tours or six-month tours. They acquired weapons there. They trained there. They formed units there. They planned campaigns there. They held political meetings there.

And ISI turned a blind eye to this from the very beginning and then became more actively involved. The Americans who started to study the war, who went out to secretly kind of review what was going on either for the secretary of state or for the CIA - by 2006, they were seeing Taliban units that looked as if they had been trained by the Pakistan army. They had sniper rifles. They had uniforms. They had rank. They were not a ragtag band of guerrillas. And they started to report these facts into the National Security Council.

But there was a reluctance to believe that Pakistan would do this. After all, Pervez Musharraf was running the country at the time. He was a popular international figure. President Bush liked him personally, trusted him. And he had done a lot to arrest members of al-Qaida, leaders of al-Qaida on Pakistani soil. He hadn't arrested any Taliban, but he had arrested dangerous al-Qaida leaders. So when these facts started to be reported in - hey, looks like they're back to their old tricks over at Directorate S - it took really a couple of years before the U.S. system reckoned with them properly.

GROSS: So when Pakistan starts supporting the Taliban and then the U.S. actually finds out about it, it puts the U.S. in a very complicated situation because we'd been supporting Pakistan as our ally in the war against al-Qaida and other terrorists. And also, Pakistan has nuclear weapons, so we want to make sure that those weapons are secure, which means having a good relationship with the Pakistani government and helping them keep those nuclear weapons safe. So give us a sense of the discussions within the Bush administration when they find out that Pakistan is supporting the Taliban and the Bush administration has to figure out, what are they going to do about it?

COLL: That's exactly right. When the Bush administration went into Afghanistan right after September 11, in those conversations, they said, well, what are our really important, vital interests that justify this war? And they said there are really two. One is al-Qaida. We've got to disrupt them, got to destroy them. And the other was, we've got to keep Pakistan stable so that its nuclear weapons don't fall into the wrong hands.

So when they found that Pakistan was undermining the Afghan War, even supporting units that were directly attacking and killing American soldiers, they confronted the contradiction that they wanted Pakistani stability, but they also wanted to pressure Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban. So there were meetings where the CIA arrived and said, well, we've got a partial solution. We've got these armed drones that we can fly in the mountainous areas where there aren't a lot of people around, and we can attack Taliban units there as well as al-Qaida units there. And so we'll have a little secret air war to support our war on the ground in Afghanistan.

But there was a meeting toward the end of his presidency where the president looked to his advisers and said, well, OK, but why can't we just go into Pakistan and really attack the Taliban directly in Quetta? And I think it was Michael Hayden, who was then the director of the CIA, said, Mr. President, you can't do that. I mean, we will set off a hornet's nest, and those cities are impermeable to us. Even if we went in, it would be Black Hawk Down all over again, and we would destabilize Pakistan and set off the very nightmare that we pledged to prevent when we got started with this war. So it revealed a kind of entanglement in our war aims and in our planning that was very difficult to resolve.

GROSS: And in the meantime, we continued to give Pakistan military and financial aid.

COLL: Hundreds of millions of dollars and some of it in a kind of direct subsidy, through a program where the Pakistani army would move into areas where militants were present and they would then report back to the United States. Well, these are the number of days we fought. These are the number of missiles we fired. These are the number of ships we sent out to patrol the coast to make sure the terrorists didn't escape. And here's your bill, $500 million.

And there's a very vivid scene or two with a colonel - the U.S. colonel who was in the U.S. embassy at the time processing those bills. And he would ask the Pakistanis for a little bit of documentation. Like, OK, well, where did you fire these missiles? Can I see photographs of anything? They'd say, no, no, this is our bill; pay it. And he would go up the chain in the Pentagon and say, really? And they would say, just be quiet, and pay the money.

It was a kind of legalized bribery of Pakistan's generals to try to incent them to stay on the American side of the war as much as possible, especially against al-Qaida. And it just went on and on for years. There were other forms of aid that were, you know, more traditional and more supportable humanitarian aid, aid for Pakistani education and energy projects. But this counterterrorism aid was really at the heart of the relationship, and it was corrosive. It was a kind of trap for both sides.

GROSS: So we were talking about how, you know, the U.S. has tried to maintain a good relationship with Pakistan in part because Pakistan has nuclear weapons and we don't want those weapons to get into the wrong hands. How close has the world come to a terrorist - you know, a rogue agent getting their hands on one of Pakistan's nuclear weapons?

COLL: Too close. And let's start with the big picture. The consequence of the war in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 was that thousands of international al-Qaida operatives crossed the border into Pakistan. Then they looked - they linked up with local radicals and undertook the worst terrorism campaign that Pakistan has ever known internally inside Pakistan - truck bombs in big cities, car bombs at hotels, in places that had not known this kind of violence. And these groups got stronger and stronger.

Meantime, Pakistan's nuclear program was moving toward a strategy of smaller and more portable weapons. So you have a country that's engulfed in chaos, that has literally dozens of terrorist groups, some of them listed at the U.N. and in the U.S., many others just splinters of those. And then you've got an army and a navy that are starting to build a nuclear force with smaller weapons that are easier to steal.

So there's an episode that I describe in the book that occurred in 2014 when a Pakistani Navy frigate was attacked by a couple of young officers who had become radicalized by contacts with al-Qaida. And they're - they had a plan to seize the ship. They had stored weapons aboard beforehand. They were going to take the ship into the ocean and fire missiles at U.S. ships. And they were thwarted by commandos as they tried to seize control. But Indian intelligence later reported that this was one of the ships that had tactical nuclear weapons on it. I don't think if their - if the Indian report is correct, I don't think the guerrillas knew that those weapons were aboard. But if they had succeeded, they might have found themselves in possession of them.

Now, that's the kind of scenario that has always seemed like a Hollywood thriller nightmare and that we haven't actually had reports about, you know, al-Qaida attacking a known facility where stored weapons are located. But here's an example, if this intelligence report is accurate, where something like that might have happened. In any event, whether that's reliable or not, the broader picture of rising domestic instability, growing numbers of terrorist groups and more and more nuclear weapons is really a frightening one.

GROSS: My guest is Steve Coll, author of the new book "Directorate S: The C.I.A. And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan." After we take a short break, we'll talk more about those secret wars, including why President Obama wanted to end the war in Afghanistan but was unable to do it. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Steve Coll, author of the new book "Directorate S: The C.I.A. And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan." Directorate S is the name for the branch of Pakistani intelligence that trained and harbored the Taliban. The book, which starts just after the 9/11 attacks, is a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Ghost Wars," which is about the CIA's attempts to stop bin Laden before 9/11 and why they failed. Coll is a staff writer for The New Yorker and dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

So once the CIA becomes aware that Pakistan is actually helping harbor the Taliban and they're doing it for their own strategic - for Pakistan's own strategic reasons, then the CIA and Pakistani intelligence start spying on each other. Tell us an interesting story about that spy game between the two countries.

COLL: You had two things going on at once. And to some extent, it was a deliberate decision to have both a secret CIA track that would pressure the Pakistani intelligence service and at the same time, try to smother the Pakistanis with love, with support, with aid. This was during the first couple of years of the Obama administration. The Obama administration came in and decided to try to really embrace Pakistan's leaders, even while the CIA tried to run around unilaterally and spy on them and put pressure on them with direct drone operations against their clients in the tribal areas along the Afghan border. So you had this dual-track policy.

Yes, President Obama said, let's try both things at the same time. But on the ground, the reality was one of two different governments fighting two different wars. You had the CIA fighting its war and then you had the State Department and the White House trying to negotiate an understanding with Pakistan that would make the CIA's war unnecessary. And this got very messy. It got particularly messy during 2011 when a CIA contractor in the city of Lahore named Raymond Davis, who was out on a surveillance operation to set up a meeting with a spy, detected a couple of robbers behind him with guns on the streets of an otherwise very busy and peaceful Punjabi city.

And he stopped and he pulled out a pistol and he shot the two Pakistanis dead, tried to run away, ended up being arrested by Pakistani police. And the CIA sent a chase car out to try to rescue him. That car ran over and killed a Pakistani shop owner. It was a really ugly scene. Davis ended up being a hostage in Pakistani custody for a couple of months at a very sensitive time because it was when only a handful of people in the Obama administration knew that the CIA had detected a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where it thought Osama bin Laden might be hiding.

And so they were planning options to go after bin Laden. They couldn't afford to have a CIA contractor in jail while they did that. But they couldn't afford to tell the Pakistanis the truth about either thing. So it was really a mess. And, you know, if first you practice to deceive, you can't get too much more entangled than we were in 2011. And the relationship really blew up that year. You know, we killed bin Laden without asking permission. We flew in and out of Pakistan without telling them, exposing the weaknesses in their air defenses, a weakness that certainly India would take note of, humiliating the Pakistani army, who we had told were strategic partners, major allies of us.

And by the end of the year, they had closed down our supply routes to the Afghan war and had really told us, you know, we're finished with you know, no more illusions that we're allies. We may have some transactions that we can do together, but we're going to turn to China, which we think is a more reliable ally.

GROSS: Candidate Obama wanted to end the war in Afghanistan. How come he was unable to follow through on that?

COLL: Well, he came in at a time when the war was really deteriorating by the month. And it was a little bit - as in the Johnson administration after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, almost the first thing that happened when he settled into the Oval Office was his generals, wearing four stars, having been involved in the Afghan war for many months before he arrived, came to him with a sense of urgency and said, you need to put more troops in because we've got a big presidential election coming next summer.

We've got to get troops out there to secure the countryside so the voting can proceed. And also, we need these troops to try to knock back the Taliban. The president barely had weeks to decide. Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke, two of his civilian advisers, were worried that he was being basically had by the generals. But Obama decided that what they were telling him about securing the election was important, so he would go ahead and authorize these troops. So before he knew it, he was escalating the war.

Then he oversaw, quite diligently, two different deep strategy reviews of the war - many meetings inside the situation room, many papers - intelligence papers, intelligence briefings. You know, why is the war going badly? Who's our enemy there? What's worth fighting for? Again, the Pentagon kept saying, we need more troops, we need more, we need more. And then when he would say, yes, they would come back a few months later and say, you know, we're going to need some more.

And as the reviews went along, the Obama administration came back to the same question of war aims that had really befuddled the Bush administration. The reviews concluded that there were really only two vital interests in Afghanistan, the kinds of interests that would justify putting young American men and women in harm's way. One was al-Qaida and the other was the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. But in 2009, when these reviews were taking place, neither of those problems really existed in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida had left Afghanistan and was now in Pakistan in a serious way.

And of course, Pakistan's nuclear weapons were across the border. So they talked themselves into fighting a kind of indirect war. Well, we'll go to Afghanistan, we'll fight the Taliban to prevent Afghanistan from collapsing because if it collapsed, al-Qaida would come back. And the general instability of that war might mess up Pakistan and jeopardize the security of its nukes. So it's a very convoluted conclusion. And at the heart of it was President Obama, who really did not want to fight a war against the Taliban.

Some of his generals did. President Obama saw that that was a very long slog, and he didn't see that the U.S. public would support such a war indefinitely. We were in the middle of the recession at that point. So...

GROSS: But if you're trying to, like, prop up the government in Afghanistan and prevent it from collapsing, that's a really long-term commitment, considering the instability in Afghanistan.

COLL: It is. And then remember what happened. The president in December of 2009 made a big nationally televised primetime speech at West Point when he announced the final escalation of U.S. combat troops. And at the time, he said, and we'll start coming home in 2011. So he announced that he was going in and that he was going out. And the reason he did this was that he wanted to hold the Pentagon accountable for what it had said during these secret reviews, which is, well, if you give us a couple of years, we can knock the Taliban back and consolidate the Afghan government.

He also wanted to signal to the Democratic Party and the American public, we're not in this forever. I'm not Lyndon Johnson. But the other consequence of announcing a withdrawal date before you even begin the war is that the other side, the Pakistani intelligence service and the Taliban, already know that you're leaving. So it gives them an incentive just to wait you out. And I'm afraid that's what happened. And the other rationale of going in and going out was to buy enough time to train the Afghan army and Afghan security forces so that they could fight the war. Now, what other episode of American history does this remind you of? Vietnam.

Richard Holbrooke, who was the senior adviser to the president at this time, used to point out this comparison. It's like Vietnamization. We're buying a decent interval. And the president really rejected that comparison. And I remember talking to Holbrooke once as he recounted the president's kind of harsh sort of this is not Vietnam statement in private. And Holbrooke told me, he said, they shouldn't be so afraid of history. And I think he was right about that.

You know, there's a lot of these patterns of investing in big counterinsurgency wars overseas and expecting stability to be the result. I mean, we have a lot of history to tell us that that's rarely the case, especially in our time with such saturated media and so many factors in a war like that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Coll. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "Directorate S: The C.I.A. And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Coll. His new book "Directorate S: The C.I.A. And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan" is a sequel to his book "Ghost Wars: The Secret History Of The CIA, Afghanistan, And Bin Laden, From The Soviet Invasion To September 10, 2001." The new book picks up right after 9/11. Did the Obama administration try to negotiate with the Taliban?

COLL: They did, and this was another initiative that President Obama supported, you know, really boldly. It was Holbrooke's idea that we would justify...

GROSS: And Holbrooke was functioning as a national security adviser?

COLL: He was the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan based on the State Department...

GROSS: Right.

COLL: ...But he was the senior U.S. envoy to the war. And he had, of course, been instrumental in negotiating an end to the Bosnian war in the early 1990s. And he had a long history in American diplomacy, he served in the Mekong Delta as an adviser, as a young diplomat in Vietnam. And so - and he'd been ambassador to the U.N. during the Clinton administration. And it was his vision that with the right channels, that he could help to negotiate an end to at least much of Afghanistan's combat by talking directly to the Taliban.

The Pentagon was skeptical about that initiative. The CIA was skeptical about it. The small cell that negotiated with the Taliban kind of had to prove that they could deliver something before anyone was going to take them seriously. So they proceeded, they identified a man named Tayyab Aga, who the Taliban had designated as the head of their political commission, their chief negotiator. And the main objective in the first round of talks is - they say to him in the first meeting, you know who we are.

You know who our boss is, President Obama. Who are you? We don't even know that you know who Mullah Mohammed Omar is or that you have anybody's authority to be doing this. How can you prove to us that you have authority to really negotiate toward an end to the war? And so they work out these secret protocols where he places messages in the Taliban's media system in the name of Mullah Mohammed Omar.

He brings them a proof-of-life video of Bowe Bergdahl, the Army specialist who had been captured by part of the Taliban, the Haqqani network. And even at one point, he brought a letter from Mullah Mohammed Omar addressed to President Obama. It was sort of on Taliban stationery. But it wasn't, you know, very formal stationery. And the gist of the letter was, Mr. President, you know, I've had to take a lot of hard decisions to talk peace. You should take some hard decisions. Let's get this done.

And the negotiations went on for, let's see, three years or so until they reached a point where there was a deal to open a Taliban office in Qatar, which was the step that would proceed what the Americans hoped would be very serious negotiations to end the war and find a settlement. And the whole negotiation over that office was a fiasco. It alienated President Karzai. It blew up and the Taliban walked away from the whole deal.

There have been fitful attempts since then to try to get back to negotiations, but the Trump administration has said it's not interested.

GROSS: Do you have any idea how much of al-Qaida is left in Pakistan and how powerful the Taliban is in Pakistan now?

COLL: Well, Pakistan has two kinds of Taliban on its territory. It has Afghan Taliban, who base there and who are Afghans and who see themselves as Afghans and who kind of resent their dependency on Pakistan and who want to be fighting in Afghanistan and want ultimately to live in Afghanistan. And they would, you know, even consider some kind of arrangement to be part of Afghanistan's political future, although a lot of people think all they want is to win and to conquer Afghanistan, as they did in the '90s.

So that's one set of Taliban. But then Pakistan has Pakistani Taliban, who are focused on overthrowing the Pakistani state. Now, that has been the real concern of the Pakistan army and its intelligence service. They want to put those guys out of business. They're not so concerned about the Afghan Taliban. There's this long distinction in Pakistani policy between good Taliban and bad Taliban. So what's happened - where we are now is that there are 25,000, 30,000 Afghan Taliban guerrilla soldiers fighting the war, going in and out of Pakistan but fighting the war on Afghan ground.

Those units include these suicide bomber, truck bomber units that occasionally kill scores of innocent civilians in Kabul, as we've seen over the last couple of weeks, couple of horrific attacks. And then inside Pakistan, the effort by the Pakistani Taliban to overthrow their government has really faltered. The Pakistani state has restored security over the last couple of years to a significant degree - not entirely. I think 500 civilians died in terrorist attacks in Pakistan last year - but that compared to many thousands a few years ago when the country looked like it might collapse. So what you have now is a picture of Pakistani stability relatively and Afghan instability getting worse. And one of the ways that's happening is that al-Qaida - little elements of al-Qaida or international terrorist groups - the Islamic State - have migrated back to Afghanistan from Pakistan.

So one of the effects of the Pakistani approach to the war has been - they've more or less finally managed to kick out a lot of the people who came into their country after 2001 that they don't - that they didn't want because, you know, they're revolutionaries. And so this is why the United States is back at war in Afghanistan. It's why President Obama was not able to end the war as he had hoped to do at the end of 2014. It's because along the eastern frontier of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, there are groups of - either affiliated with the international ambitions of the Islamic State or other international terrorist groups, including al-Qaida.

GROSS: My guest is Steve Coll, author of the new book "Directorate S: The C.I.A. And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest Steve Coll is the author of the new book "Directorate S: The C.I.A. And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan." It's a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Ghost Wars." Coll is a staff writer for The New Yorker and dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

I want to quote something that you've written. You write, the most rational course now is one for which Trump would seem poorly suited - to work closely with allies, prioritize high-level diplomacy, be smart in pressuring the ISI, the intelligence service in Pakistan, and accept that in Afghanistan, a starting point for any international policy is humility. Can you elaborate on that?

COLL: Well, when you look at intractable conflicts around the world and the history of resolving them at least partially, what's the objective here? I mean, the objective is not a grand peace ceremony on some aircraft carrier that forever ends the war in Afghanistan or forever incorporates the Taliban into Afghan politics. It's to reduce the violence in Afghanistan, to reduce the suffering of innocents in Kabul, to support the constitutional government that we invested in after September 11 so heavily in money and in American lives and sacrifices on the battlefield.

So how do you best do that? Well, you know, most of the generals will tell you who go out there - they'll say in public, there's no military solution to this war. We can't beat the Taliban on the battlefield, especially not when they have a sanctuary in Pakistan, especially not when they can self-finance through the opium trade. This is at best a grinding stalemate. And yet we prioritize military action at the expense of diplomacy, at the expense of negotiating.

The Chinese have an interest in a stable Afghanistan. It's their neighborhood. They've got terrorism problems in western China. Russia doesn't want Afghanistan to return to the chaos of the 1990s, generating militancy in Central Asia that could rock its territory. Even Iran next door to the west, you know, has always been opposed to the Taliban and has sought to stabilize Afghanistan in coalitions with Russia and India. Of course they don't want the United States there either because they think the military bases we have are designed to give an option to attack Iran.

But these are the kinds of things professionals negotiate about, and you just would expect, given the stakes in Afghanistan, that we would be very active in this way. You know, and in truth, in Iraq, we are much more active that way. We're constantly negotiating strategies that involve diplomacy and economic aid and political settlements and constitutional reform alongside the hard fights.

In Afghanistan, for some reason, we just don't seem to have the capacity - haven't had the capacity to do that. And I do fear that the Trump administration, which doesn't seem to think the State Department is a very important part of its foreign policy, is pretty much the last administration that's going to take on the really complicated and uncertain challenges of that kind of negotiation.

GROSS: I mean, the Taliban are such extremists and such, like, religious extremists. It's hard to imagine them finding a way to compromise on anything.

COLL: Well, you know, the negotiations that the Obama administration did hold never resolved that question. Tayyab Agha, for his part, the Taliban negotiator, kept saying, look; we've learned our lessons. We don't want to be outcasts in the international system. Our daughters - our leaders' daughters are in school in Pakistan. We're not fighting to prevent women from going to school. We recognize that our government failed because we didn't have capable people in it. We have to find capable people. We don't want to be in an ethnic war with other factions in Afghanistan. We aren't even sure that we could afford to have you leave militarily. We need a peacekeeping force there to try to get this organized.

All right, so is that just propaganda? Is that, if tested, something that would prove to be completely false? Well, we don't know, but we never tested it. And even if, as is probable, the Taliban are such extremists that only revolutionary success would ever appeal to them, by negotiating, by identifying factions that will settle, by trying to split the movement, you can reduce the violence in the war. This is tried and true over so many different conflicts in so many different parts of the world.

And moreover, you know, sometimes when I talk to generals in Afghanistan - American generals who's out there, you know, to get an ending for the book - and they said, you know, what - you really have to think of this as being like as, say, Mexico or Colombia or Nigeria. That is, there is going to be an embedded insurgency in this country for an indefinite time. There's a very legitimate international government in the capital that we support, and our mission is to try to help that government make as much progress as possible in their war until they decide to negotiate an end, as just happened in Colombia.

Well, if that's the model, first of all, you have to admit that we may be in Afghanistan for 20 or 30 or 40 years. And secondly, why not get started now with complementing military action, which has been a grinding stalemate for a decade or more, with other kinds of action - negotiations, diplomacy, great power diplomacy, talking to the Chinese, talking to the Russians? How do we move this to a different outcome? So I don't think that it's a contradiction to observe that the Taliban are extremists who may never settle and to also argue that we should be out there trying to talk as well as fight.

GROSS: Since you have so many sources in the CIA, I wonder what you've been hearing about Mike Pompeo as head of the CIA.

COLL: Well, I think, you know, certainly with those who served in high positions during the Obama years, they see him as a much more politicized figure than the directors who have come before him. You know, the tradition of the CIA, although it's - you know, it's the action arm of the president, and so it gets itself involved in a lot of political matters. But it sees itself like the FBI sees itself - as an independent, professional service. You know, many directors who have come through there have said, we ought to have a 10-year appointment like they do at the FBI to prevent this from becoming a political wing of the White House with intelligence capabilities, which can be quite dangerous as we know from our own history.

You know, Mike Pompeo comes out of Congress. So even though he's a top-of-his-class West Point graduate, is rated as very smart and capable, you know, he has no sense of himself as a independent professional. His sense of himself is as a congressman. And you actually have now - someone I was talking to pointed out that you have a former member of Congress at the CIA. You have a former member of Congress, Dan Coats, at the - who's the director of national intelligence, the White House intelligence arm. And you have a former member of the Senate, Jeff Sessions, running the Justice Department. So no wonder it's politicized. (Laughter) I mean, these are political creatures, and that's their profession. So I think that's the main take I've heard.

GROSS: Well, Steve Coll, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

COLL: Thank you, Terry. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Steve Coll is the author of the new book "Directorate S: The C.I.A. And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jordan Klepper, host of Comedy Central's "The Opposition," a satirical political show in which he delivers commentary in his persona as a far-right conspiracy theorist whose views are in sync with Alex Jones and Breitbart News.

JORDAN KLEPPER: It's all about creating enemies. It's drawing a line. It's them versus us. They hate me, and I am under attack.

GROSS: I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue