Steve Coll is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ghost Wars, a staff writer for The New Yorker and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. His new book is Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016.
In the tragedy of the American-led war in Afghanistan, a turning point was 2006, the year Canadian forces turned up in Kandahar expecting to keep the peace, only to become embroiled in a bloody fight with the Taliban. Neither NATO nor U.S. intelligence prepared Canadian commanders for what they encountered; if Ottawa had known how far the Taliban's comeback had progressed – and how ambitious its guerrillas had become – the minority government led by Paul Martin, which agreed to the deployment to Kandahar in 2005, might have declined the mission. Intelligence about the Taliban's revival and intentions surfaced too late, and even then, in too many quarters, it wasn't taken seriously enough.
Early in 2006, Amrullah Saleh, then the head of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country's principal intelligence service, decided to conduct a formal study of the Taliban's gathering resurgence, to inform Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his cabinet and allies of Afghanistan. He decided to interview active Taliban commanders personally. (There are few impermeable lines in Afghanistan's internal conflicts.) Mr. Saleh travelled to Zabul, Uruzgan, Helmand, Kandahar and other provincial capitals. His colleagues in regional NDS offices negotiated safe-passage agreements with Taliban commanders, who came in to talk to him. This sometimes involved paying the Taliban for their time and insights. Mr. Saleh's classified paper was completed in May, 2006, the same month Canada's Task Force Orion launched Operation Mountain Thrust, "to defeat the Taliban in their traditional areas." Commanded by Colonel Ian Hope, it was the first of a succession of operations intended to break the back of the Taliban's comeback around Kandahar, the movement's birthplace. Canadian forces fought hard, absorbed unexpected casualties and were often tactically successful, but trying to suppress the Taliban proved to be like "digging a hole in the ocean," as Canadian Major-General David Fraser, the top Canadian commander, put it.
Canada had run into a Pakistani covert operation to bring back the Taliban. In his paper, Mr. Saleh concluded that Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, had made a decision in 2005 to support the Taliban more actively, with cash and other aid, backed by covert subsidies from Saudi Arabia. The consolidation of Mr. Karzai's government between 2003 and 2005 – a period when a new Afghan constitution was ratified and successful presidential and parliamentary elections were held – explained the timing of this Pakistani turn in policy, Mr. Saleh judged. He regarded Pakistan as an "India-centric country." In essence, he concluded, Pakistan's generals feared that Mr. Karzai's legitimacy would steer Afghanistan toward a durable role as an Indian ally, with international backing.
His study predicted that the Taliban mobilization would intensify and that by 2009, the guerrillas would be advancing from rural strongholds to threaten major cities such as Kandahar. The paper forecast that the Taliban would mount a full-fledged insurgency that would bog down Afghan and international troops. This would turn out to be largely accurate, except that the Taliban drive on southern cities occurred even faster than that, at Canada's expense. The "Afghanistan government's legitimacy should not be brought down due to our inefficiency in knowing the enemy, knowing ourselves and applying resources efficiently," Mr. Saleh warned.
He passed his paper to the United States, and it seems likely that Canadian decision-makers and commanders saw it as well, but by then they were committed to the Kandahar campaign. They had to contend not only with the Taliban but with an Afghan President who discounted the seriousness of the insurgency. Mr. Karzai rejected the study's findings. He ridiculed its predictions and asked Mr. Saleh to never again call the Taliban "an insurgency."
For years, Mr. Karzai clung to the conviction that the Taliban were a problem of international terrorism solely attributable to the ISI and that there was no indigenous cause of the revolt against his rule. He told U.S. General Stanley McChrystal in 2009, as the United States took charge of the war from NATO allies and dispatched tens of thousands of troops to escalate the fight: "An insurgency, as I understand the meaning, suggests there are citizens of a country who are fighting against their government because they think the government is illegitimate. Now, we are a conservative, simple Muslim people. If they are fighting against an illegitimate government, then who are you, the United States? You are propping up an illegitimate government. No. There is no insurgency."
Mr. Karzai believed, like many other Afghans, that the true story of the war – the essential problem – was not his government's corruption or legitimacy but the mysterious unwillingness of the United States to challenge the ISI and Pakistan. By the end of his time in power, Mr. Karzai had sunk into conspiracy thinking, concluding that the United States must want the ISI to succeed in destabilizing Afghanistan in order to justify maintaining U.S. military bases in his country.
American diplomats tried to dissuade Mr. Karzai of this belief, but until the end, he refused to yield. During a 2013 meeting, recalled James Dobbins, then the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said to Mr. Karzai: "Mr. President, between Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, you have several million documents to examine – can you find any mention of such designs? Do you really think I would lie to you about this?"
"Maybe you don't know about the plan," Mr. Karzai replied, suggesting the existence of a "deep state" in America.
The truth was more prosaic. Distracted by the Iraq War and seeking to avoid deep entanglement in Afghanistan, the Bush administration was slow to recognize that it was being deceived by Pakistan's generals and spies. When it finally did wake up, toward the end of 2006, the Taliban had acquired momentum. The Bush administration and then the Obama administration conducted multiple reviews of strategy in Afghanistan but discovered few palatable options. If NATO launched an all-out war against the Taliban's sanctuaries in Pakistan, it would further destabilize a country containing dozens of nuclear weapons and at least that many terrorist groups. Instead, George Bush and then Barack Obama were sold on a counterinsurgency war against the Taliban inside Afghanistan, supplemented by a CIA-run drone war against Taliban encampments in Pakistan's western tribal areas.
Canadian forces held the line in Kandahar, of course, until the Americans poured in, in 2009. Some U.S. commanders were disdainful of Canada's "3-D" strategy of defence, diplomacy and development, which had suffered on contact with the Taliban early on, in 2006. Hubristically, the Pentagon believed that only American muscle could clear out Kandahar and other Taliban regions in the south and east. With greater numbers and a more unified command, the Americans did make some progress, at a high cost in lives and limbs, but gradually they also discovered that they were no better equipped than NATO allies to defeat the ISI's strategy – and that Maj.-Gen. Fraser's metaphor was apt.
Today, in the American-led war's 17 th year, U.S. and allied Afghan forces are still digging that hole in the ocean, hoping against all historical evidence that they can make enough progress on the battlefield to force the Taliban into a political settlement acceptable to most Afghans. The Trump administration has suspended aid to Pakistan in the hope that it will pressure the ISI to change course. The reaction in Pakistan since that announcement has been one of deep nationalist defiance.
Afghanistan has been at war for four decades. The only interlude of relative peace – apart from the years of smothering Taliban rule, which quieted many parts of the country – lasted from 2002 to 2006, years when many Afghans in exile came home to reclaim and rebuild their country. Counterfactual history is a fool's game, but if there ever was a chance to prevent Pakistan from interfering once again in Afghanistan through the ISI, and to incorporate significant numbers of former Taliban into constitutional politics, those were the years when it might have been done. And we can see now, in hindsight, that the framework of Canadian policy – security, reconstruction and active diplomacy to forge stable Afghan politics, backed by regional powers – was the right one. Instead, NATO failed to see what was coming out of Pakistan until it was too late and succumbed to hubristic American strategy dominated by a Pentagon that repeatedly overestimated its capacity to change the course of the war. In its blindness, the alliance failed the many Afghans who relied on its power and promises.