In early February 2009, Richard Holbrooke, the newly named Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, took me aside at the State Department to tell me he was getting panicky messages from Pakistan’s generals about President Obama’s decision to appoint me chairman of a special review of American policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. Richard said the generals in Pakistan were concerned that I would be too tough on them. I told Richard I had every intention of exposing the generals’ connections with the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda during the review, an exposure which seemed essential to any serious policy review of what had gone disastrously wrong for America in the war in Afghanistan.
Now we have a dramatic and in-depth expose of Pakistan’s double-dealing and duplicity in the Afghan war written by a veteran American journalist. Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 lays out in detail how Pakistan’s intelligence service, the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, first helped to build the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s and then to rebuild it after the American intervention to destroy the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 2001. The ties between the Taliban and ISI have been known for years—but never in this depth and clarity.
The author uses her years of interviews and visits to remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to tell the story of how the ISI helped Mullah Omar and his lieutenants escape from the Americans in 2001, regroup in Quetta and Peshawar, Pakistan in 2002 and then stage a fierce come back in Afghanistan after 2003. In the process, Ms. Gall sketches the most detailed portrait yet written of the elusive Mullah Omar and his relationship with ISI and Pakistan’s generals. Her reporting makes clear the generals can’t fully control their protégé, but Omar cannot survive without their patronage and help.
It is a complex relationship but one in which the ISI has the upper hand and calls the shots. Strategy for the Taliban’s war is made in the ISI’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, not in Quetta or Peshawar. The Wrong Enemy also clearly establishes who is the godfather of the ISI-Taliban resurgence in the last decade. Pakistan’s policy of rebuilding the Taliban after 2001 was the brain child of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, according to the book, who first as Director General of the ISI and then Chief of Army Staff directly oversaw the resurrection of the Afghan Taliban and its offensives against American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Kayani’s goal was to “tip up” America in Afghanistan to ensure it did not put in place a stable regime dominated by Pakistan’s historic enemies in the country, the non-Pashtun minorities that had fought the Taliban in the 1990s. Kayani advocated a “formal strategic assistance” relationship with Omar and his Quetta Shura governing council. President Pervez Musharraf went along with Kayani’s policy of abetting the Taliban’s come-back. The Wrong Enemy also lays out in frightening detail how close the ISI came to victory in Afghanistan. Ms. Gall’s reporting from Kandahar, southern Afghanistan’s biggest city and the Taliban’s de facto capital before 2001, between 2006 and 2009 shows the rebels were on verge of seizing control of the city more than once. The small Canadian NATO garrison was outnumbered and isolated until President Obama’s surge in 2010 finally curbed the Taliban. Ms. Gall argues the Obama surge inflicted serious and perhaps crippling blows on the Taliban but she acknowledges that it is too early to count them out, especially with American and NATO combat forces ending their mission this year.
The book devotes a chapter to the mystery of Abbottabad and how al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden successfully hid in a safe house there less than a mile from Pakistan’s Kakul military academy for six years. Ms. Gall reports that several of her sources told her the ISI had a special desk, devoted to the protection of high value target number one in his hide out, that was outside the normal ISI chain of command. She argues that Kayani and his successors as DG/ISI, Generals Nadeem Taj and Ahmad Shuja Pasha almost certainly knew where bin Laden was hiding and were complicit in his escaping justice for so long. It is a powerful case. The bin Laden complex was known in the neighborhood as the Waziristan Haveli or Waziristan Mansion, a reference to the border lands of Pakistan where the Taliban and al Qaeda have long operated. The al Qaeda emir corresponded with several of his long-time allies in Pakistan from Abbottabad like Mullah Omar and the head of Lashkar e Tayyiba, Hafez Saeed, who are among the ISI’s closest collaborators. One of bin Laden’s wives who had been detained in Iran after 9/11 was able to find his hideout easily enough in 2010. Ms. Gall recounts how normal it is for the ISI to run safe houses like the Waziristan Mansion to hide people it wants to keep under its scrutiny and out of public. She suggests bin Laden, in turn, sought to persuade Pakistani jihadists to focus their animus on America and not Pakistan.
Officially the Obama administration has adhered to the argument that there is no smoking gun of ISI complicity in hiding bin Laden. Pakistan’s own investigation also found no smoking gun although it found it hard to believe there was no ISI complicity. The Wrong Enemy makes a powerful case but it too does not solve the mystery definitively. That challenge remains. What The Wrong Enemy does effectively establish beyond doubt is the ISI’s and Army’s dominance of the Afghan Taliban. As the long war in Afghanistan enters a new phase after 2014, it is critically important to understand who is calling the shots on the other side of the hill.
(Bruce Riedel is the Director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. His next book, What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989, will be published in July.)