You cannot always pick where to fight: America’s decade-long military experiment in Afghanistan is a testament to that. Forbidding landlocked terrain, harsh winters that immobilize supply routes, and large swaths of land immune to government control are just a few of the impediments to the prosecution of war in Central Asia’s famed “graveyard of empires.”
But in her second book, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014, New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall posits that Afghanistan itself has never been the greatest 21st-century challenge facing the United States in Central Asia. Instead, Gall argues, it is Pakistan, America’s purported ally, that is the most significant guarantor of instability and violence in Afghanistan.
In her book, Gall presents credible evidence to support the charge that the Pakistani government – which received nearly $26 billion in US aid from 2001-2013 – spent those same years pursuing a duplicitous policy in support of Islamic terrorism.
“The Wrong Enemy” opens as a firsthand account of Gall’s experience as a journalist embedded with US forces in the fall of 2001, one of the only female Western reporters on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11. She has reported from Kabul and Islamabad ever since.
Early in Gall’s narrative she begins weaving the tale of Pakistani meddling, chiefly discussing its state intelligence service, the Directorate for Inter Services Intelligence, or ISI. Whether the ISI is issuing Pakistani passports to the suicide bombers who killed Ahmad Shah Massoud (the Tajik warlord widely considered the only man capable of uniting Afghanistan after decades of strife); using its operatives to direct militants during the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008; or stonewalling when asked by the West to arrest Taliban leaders or other suspected terrorists, Gall argues that Pakistan has consistently provided covert support to the very militant organizations that it publicly claims to be fighting.
It is hard, however, Gall notes, to tie specific accusations of wrong-doing to the Pakistani government, primarily because the various wings of the ISI that work with Islamic militants are careful not to employ sitting government officials or anyone in an official capacity. Rather, retired military officers, intelligence agents, and diplomats populate the ranks of these secretive sub-organizations, allowing the Pakistani government to deny involvement.
When it comes to the question of who in Pakistan knew of Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, Gall says more than one Pakistani official confirmed to her that someone in power must have been aware. “In a Pakistani village, they notice even a stray dog,” Ejaz Shah, head of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau from 2004 to 2008, told her.
But even as she accuses Pakistan, Gall levels harsh criticism at the US government as well, sharply critiquing its disjointed war effort during the past decade. Gall’s 13 years in Afghanistan endow her with an acute understanding of Afghan culture. For example, she points to President Hamid Karzai’s 2009 reelection as a watershed moment in US-Afghan relations. Few Americans are likely aware that the State Department’s backing of Karzai’s rivals in that contest, coupled with public accusations of corruption, meant that “[Karzai] did not believe anymore that the United States was a genuine partner…. I knew he would not forgive America for the humiliation.”
It is impossible to understand Afghan perceptions of American involvement in the country without considering the devastating effects the conflict has wrought on the population for more than a generation. Gall addresses the subject of civilian casualties perpetrated at the hands of NATO troops, each incident driving a widening wedge between coalition forces and the very Afghan civilians they were sent to protect.
“The Wrong Enemy” is a timely survey of a military and diplomatic undertaking that has exacted a stiff tribute from Afghans and NATO forces in lives, treasure, and national prestige. Gall is right to confront the uneasy truths involving Pakistan’s double-dealing while also identifying coalition shortfalls.
When it comes to informative, credible reporting from Central Asia over the past decade, Gall ranks with journalists like Dexter Filkins and David Rohde who have written about Afghanistan with authority and context. But Gall is perhaps uniquely positioned to tackle the troubling questions she raises about Pakistan's alleged support of terrorism.
As the US and NATO prepare to possibly withdraw all forces from Afghanistan at the close of this year, Gall’s book qualifies as a must-read.
Jackson Holahan is a Monitor contributor.