Humans who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes: Nowhere has that dictum proved truer than in Afghanistan, where America is mired in its 17th year of conflict, where citizens have been dodging rockets and landmines since the 1979 Soviet invasion, and where the Trump administration seems hell-bent on replicating and magnifying blunders of the Bush and Obama administrations. Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll tunnels into US involvement there in the timely “Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” with a clear-eyed perspective informed by exhaustive research, new reporting and more than 550 interviews conducted over a decade.
Unknotting and weaving together all those stories is a mission for which Coll is abundantly equipped. The son of a lawyer father and a Protestant minister mother, Coll grew up in greater Washington, DC, and majored in English and history at Occidental College in Eagle Rock (“hugely valuable” for journalistic training, he said in a recent interview). After graduating in 1980, he learned the journalistic ropes at California magazine and Music Connection, and was also involved in startup discussions for the nascent Pasadena Weekly (alongside fellow Oxy grad Rick Cole, who served as Pasadena mayor from 1992 to 1994, and attorney Pierce O’Donnell, per his recollection). By 1985 Coll was back in DC, reporting for the Washington Post.
He spent three years hopscotching “from one guerrilla war, coup d’état, and popular revolution to another,” as he explains in the book, as the paper’s South Asia correspondent, and eventually became the Post’s managing editor. Those experiences provided invaluable resources for his later books, including 2004’s Pulitzer-winning “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.” Titled after a shadowy, far-reaching department deep within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, “Directorate S” resumes the “Ghost Wars” narrative and follows it almost to the present day, beginning with Al Qaeda’s assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the still revered “Lion of Panjshir,” on Sept. 9, 2001.
Now the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and a staff writer for the New Yorker, Coll remains the investigative reporter’s investigative reporter. He masterfully guides an intercontinental cast through “Directorate S” — over 70 larger-than-life warriors, generals and diplomats, cynical politicians, earnest officers, brutal militants and CIA contractors, and duplicitous allies engaged in nuclear brinksmanship — while conveying the humanity of all.
The quiet wit occasionally tucked into his lucid prose (“Rare is the general who does not love a map”) makes it feel engagingly present.
More than anything else, what emerges from the fascinating pages of “Directorate S” is that our leaders have tragically neglected history’s lessons. That heightens the urgency of questions Coll poses, especially one haunting soldiers who returned from Afghanistan and families of those who didn’t: Why hasn’t the war shut down Al Qaeda and the Taliban? Or, for that matter, ISIS, which claims responsibility for recent attacks in Kabul? It’s worth remembering that for much of the 20th century, Afghanistan was weak but relatively peaceful.
Last week, Coll spoke with the PW about the war, its history’s effect on present-day policy, and the future of journalism.
Pasadena Weekly: The spirit of Ahmad Shah Massoud haunts both “Ghost Wars” and “Directorate S” — he comes across as a great lost hope. How substantively do you think outcomes would have differed if he had taken leadership of Afghanistan?
Steve Coll: It’s a good question, and I don’t think that it would have made Afghanistan peaceful and stable, but it might have strengthened the restoration of an independent Afghanistan after Taliban’s fall, and protected that fragile project from a fragmentation that has really undermined it. It was so striking when I went back to the Panjshir a year ago September to get the epilogue on the ground. The movement that he led, and the influence that he had, lives on, but in a way that is a little bit sad because it’s only his photograph that actually unifies people. There’s no successor who had that charisma, that record, and also that ability to cross out of military leadership into political and cultural leadership.
Do you think Massoud’s son has a realistic chance of achieving his goal of being “part of a generation of peacemakers”?
I hope that he and his generation have an opportunity to reshape Afghan politics. It’s not just him, and I don’t think he sees himself as a savior, but what he represents is very important because there is a generation of young people who have come of age since 2001 in Afghan cities, and their experience of the world has no precedent in Afghan history. They’ve been plugged into the world, they’ve got cellphones, they’ve got Facebook accounts, they know what’s going on outside of Afghanistan, they have access — in the cities, in many cases — to education and modernity of a sort. … They also are infected by the same viruses of radicalism and ethnic polarization that everyone else is, but they are definitely different from their parents’ generation, and they’ve grown up in a more modern society and they have a vision for what they’d like to attempt to do with it. They’re one of the most hopeful parts of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the war is so badly stalemated and grinding on and on that they may never have that platform.
If President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld had allowed Hamid Karzai to accept Mullah Omar’s terms in 2002 before he escaped into Pakistan, instead of doubling down on their hardline stance, what might have happened?
Counterfactual history is a tough field, because it’s a little bit like the butterfly effect: if you change one thing, what else changes? But … the best opportunity that wasn’t attempted was to really resource a strategy of reconciliation with the defeated Taliban in the peaceful atmosphere, and in the atmosphere of international support that was present, in 2002, 2003. The wise course, when you win a war, is to reconcile, to build a reconstruction program that is inclusive of the greatest possible number of the defeated population … We incorporated lots of Germans and Japanese who had participated even wholeheartedly in the Second World War effort into reconstruction. That’s the model that works. Unfortunately, the Bush administration [rejected that model]: in Afghanistan, with consequences that took a few years to bubble, and Iraq, where they eliminated the Ba’ath Party and fired all these henchmen of Saddam Hussein who promptly went home and started an insurgency.
There’s a recurring theme of people not learning from history, which makes it intensely frustrating to read about decisions made.
I agree. As a writer it was also frustrating because American decision makers kept making the same decisions and expecting different outcomes. [Chuckles] You wonder. These are well-trained, smart, well-intentioned, hardworking people. But the system, for whatever reason — politics is one, I guess — made it difficult to break out of the repetitious decisions kicking the war down the road.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a serious student of history, but most Americans do not receive adequate history education. Do our soldiers? The cultural insensitivity of some in the book is appalling.
I think the senior office corps of the Army and the Marines tries to be a learning machine. It certainly has prioritized, in some cases, trying to deepen their knowledge of the region and of history. But Mattis is more exceptional. He is a deeply well-read amateur military historian, and a very reflective character. The military has some smart people in it who are trying to figure out where cultural competency comes from, but that’s not what the machine is built to do. The machine is built to break things and take territory and hold territory, so we can’t be surprised when it doesn’t act subtly.
You write that about 85 percent of CIA personnel who conducted interrogations after 2001 were outside contractors. That percentage is shocking, as was torture conducted.
The CIA had no capacity for interrogation at the time of the 9/11 attacks. It had no capacity to hold prisoners. It didn’t have any specialists in that. That’s a whole industry. The military has always had to plan for taking and managing prisoners; that’s why it has a handbook on interrogation that has been carefully reviewed and revised and complies with the Geneva Convention, partly because it’s something the military does and partly because the military is aware that its officers and men will be taken prisoner from time to time by the other side, and they’re looking to reinforce the system of reciprocity under international law that involves the humane treatment of prisoners. The CIA was in a completely different position … contractors were all they could think of to do.
We did that in Iraq too. Relying on outside contractors does not seem a sustainable way for a country to maintain its defense.
No, I share the same skepticism. There are lots of different reasons why it’s unhealthy. There’s a kind of Republican Party tradition of favoring privatization of government services. There can be efficiencies in areas, but when you’re talking about holding prisoners, fighting wars, interrogating terrorist suspects — these are core governmental functions. When you privatize them, you create a whole weird set of incentive structures and also the appearance of bad incentives that everyone in the world can see, so that just the blowback in public opinion is a very high cost to pay for any economic and personnel efficiencies you think you’re achieving. And by the way, the economics of contracting has been demonstrated to be not very efficient at all when it comes to military and support interrogation type of programs.
Does the US still need the CIA?
Yes. The CIA does lots of things other than fight paramilitary wars in faraway countries where civilian leaders [chuckles] have sent us for reasons of their own. The CIA is part of counterterrorism strategy because you need an overseas arm; you can’t really ask the FBI to operate overseas the way the CIA does. It’s hard to have the role in the world that the US inevitably does, given the size of our economy and population and the history of the world since the Second World War, without having some eyes and ears of the sort that the CIA provides. … President after president finds that agency indispensable.
Forces of globalization have contributed to the worldwide rise of authoritarian movements; how much has that intersected with America’s destabilization of the Middle East through its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq?
I don’t think there’s a tight connection, but I don’t think it’s irrelevant. A lot of European populations and a lot of Americans lost faith with elites that delivered the world that they’re in. That disillusionment includes issues of inequality and opportunity, but it also includes these failed wars.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a diplomacy neophyte, has fired most of our most experienced diplomats or encouraged them to retire. How is that affecting decision-making about Afghanistan and America’s diplomatic authority?
It has a significant effect. You already have a White House that is dominated by military men in civilian roles. They are interesting characters and they’re not all one dimensional, but they’re not experienced in diplomatic strategy; they don’t have the imagination of professional diplomats or the skills. Normally in an administration that’s at war, especially a low-grade war that requires some kind of political strategy, policies are shaped by the thinking of the negotiators, the political visionaries, the diplomats, and the military men. Here the equation’s all out of balance. … It’s a really demoralized time at the State Department and a lot of people are leaving for different reasons, but mostly because they know that this administration isn’t really interested in their work or their expertise.
There’s renewed interest in investigative journalism now. As dean of Columbia’s journalism school, are you seeing a greater influx of students, and are they inspired by everything happening in the world?
The students that we attract are definitely idealistic, and there’s been a strong increase in investigative reporting specialized programs that we offer. There was a significant increase in all applications last year. But I worry that the international component of our applicants this year is gonna be down. It’s happening at every university in the country; it’s just not an attractive place to go if you’re not an American right now. The best thing about the tension around journalism and the attacks on the press by the president and his allies has been [that] it has really clarified what journalism is about, what we’re supposed to be doing. And why we enjoy some constitutional protections and some protections under state law, and why the founding fathers thought a really healthy press was important.
The fundamental act of news collection has always been a very human art, but do you think automation will affect journalism the way it is upturning other industries?
Yes, I think AI will likely create automation in some news coverage. It’s happening now a little bit, but there’ll be more of it. Some of it may be positive in the sense that it might free up professional journalists to do more enterprising, more original work and escape some of the more routine functions that are necessary in a digital newsroom. Some of it may not be so productive. Already you can see that AI is going to make the problem of deliberately manufactured false news even more difficult, because the smarter the machines that make up things get, the harder it will be for us to tell when they’re fake and when they’re real. So I tend to worry that the real problem of artificial intelligence is not going to be automation, but the confusion that bad actors can create by using these techniques.
Do you foresee a time when journalists will have to support their journalism with other jobs?
No, I think there’ll be a strong cadre of professional journalists in this country. I think people need the news and will pay for the news. We’re still restructuring the way that happens and we will continue to. There’s always been a life of freelancers and self-made writers and journalists who kind of cobble together a life and maybe do some other jobs as well. The rise of nonprofit journalism has been a significant factor in the last 10 years. But I don’t think we’re at the end of the road. When I look at the big Silicon Valley platforms — Netflix, Apple, Amazon — I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up moving into the news business at some point over the next 10 years. Netflix is pretty much already there as a documentary commissioner, and they’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars in content for their platform. This journalism school was started by Joseph Pulitzer more than 100 years ago, before radio, so the function of journalism and the idea of being a professional journalist — being paid, working in a newsroom, informing the public — has been around for a lot of technological disruptions: TV, cable, the web. So I think we’ll survive.
Steve Coll discusses “Directorate S” at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13; free admission. Info: (626) 449-5320. vromansbookstore.com