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The treacherous relationship between Pakistan’s intelligence agency and the CIA

How Pakistan has played a deadly game with the US.

There are no bigger victims to the clichés surrounding Afghanistan than the Afghans themselves. Tragically, the country is infested by glib non-truisms bandied around by foreigners, many of which help perpetuate the conflict rather than untangle it. That Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires” is the biggest lie of them all.

Until 1840 Afghanistan, repeatedly and easily overrun by invaders, was known more plausibly as the “highway of conquest”. Rather than being a graveyard of empires it is in fact the graveyard of the thousands of Afghans killed by empires, or by the interference of the country’s more powerful neighbours. Steve Coll was in a prime position to address the issue of regional interference in his latest book, Directorate S. The author rightly won a Pulitzer prize for Ghost Wars, which charted the CIA’s covert programmes in Afghanistan from the invasion of the Soviets in 1979 to the rise of Osama Bin Laden.

Directorate S, which takes over in 2001, is a sequel. Named after the department of Pakistan’s intelligence agency (the ISI) that oversaw operations – rivalling those of the CIA – in Afghanistan, the book was hoped to be the definitive account of all that followed as US policy in the country, so heavily driven by the interplay between intelligence agencies, veered from one crisis to the next. Yet this time the author has overextended himself, relying too much on the collation of documents by his researchers and less on his own analysis and reporting skills, which were such key ingredients of the success of Ghost Wars. The result is a disappointing, dense compilation of names and events in which key themes and evolving trends are often excluded, or smothered by a mass of raw detail. The reader is left wading through chapters, laden with the same question that has so often burdened foreign troops in Afghanistan: how did we end up here (and how do we get out)?

Some of the omissions are bizarre. Take the case of Humam al-Balawi, the Jordanian double agent who set up a meeting with his CIA handlers in December 2009 to brief them on a supposed intelligence breakthrough. Balawi, a doctor, claimed to have been appointed as the personal physician to Osama Bin Laden’s right-hand man, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, chief of al-Qaeda operations at the time and today the head of the organisation. This momentarily made Balawi one of the CIA’s highest-value sources in the region, and caused such excitement that the agency’s director, Leon Panetta, hurried to the White House and briefed President Obama in person.

Yet Balawi had double-crossed the Americans. When he arrived for the rendezvous at a small, heavily fortified CIA compound on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, he detonated a suicide vest, killing ten people, including five CIA officers. Among the dead was one of the agency’s top al-Qaeda specialists, Jennifer Matthews.

This cataclysmic counter-penetration was the heaviest single loss for the CIA in a quarter-century of operations. So it was only to be expected that Coll might devote some space to the incident. Yet he never mentions it at all. This omission, one of many, represents a critical failure in a book that held such high expectations.

The title suggests it will examine two of the most vital factors affecting the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan: the complex, enemy-of-choice, ally-of-necessity relationship between the ISI and CIA, and the ISI’s equally complicated relationship with the Taliban. Yet Directorate S gives scant space to the ISI compared to the swathes it cedes to walk-on, walk-off American officials, who do little to explain why Directorate S operators managed to give direct support to the Taliban while duping the US.

Coll is a skilled journalist with experience of Afghanistan. In Ghost Wars he clearly explained how, between them, the CIA and ISI managed to seed radicalised militants into the heart of the anti-Soviet resistance, with disastrous consequences. Directorate S lacks a similar structured argument.

It does have moments of flourish. Coll’s cold, dense detail lends itself extraordinarily well, for example, to the emblematic murder of Abdul Wali, an Afghan detainee beaten to death during repeated interrogation by CIA contractor David Passaro at a base in Kunar province in 2003. Coll uses this killing to examine the CIA’s own perverse deviation into the world of torture and pseudoscience, whereby some officers sought to control the minds of prisoners by interrogation techniques that rendered them into a state of “learned helplessness”: so wretched as to be beyond hope.

Similarly, he uses the 2012 insider killings of two US officers – both murdered by an Afghan soldier in heavily secured offices near the coalition command centre in Kabul – as another case study of an emerging war trend. His description lingers with the reader long after we leave General John Allen, the US commander in Afghanistan, kneeling in prayer beside the sprawled bodies of his dead men, dressed in full battle gear, just a short walk from his headquarters.

Yet too often Coll drops his catch. The extensively documented four-hour meeting in Afghanistan between the ISI’s then director-general Mahmud Ahmed and the Taliban’s Mullah Omar on 17 September 2001, for example, should have been the moment for the author to nail down the narrative exposing top-level Pakistani complicity with the Taliban insurgency. Multiple testimonies from those present describe Ahmed instructing Omar to fight on against the Americans. Indeed, the ISI dispatched specialist assets quickly to help Omar do so. Coll misses the significance of this, writing it up as little more than a meeting in which the ISI chief presented the Taliban with the US demand to hand over Bin Laden.

Iran, the fourth pillar in the US-Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship, gets barely a mention, despite Iran’s Qods Force – a branch of the Revolutionary Guard Corps – playing a vital role in the resurrection of the Taliban.

Directorate S is a confused first draft of history, with evidential gaps. The war in Afghanistan is not a clichéd spiral of violence generated by some national love of bloodshed. War there is not inevitable, but the result of specific foreign policies. Authors need acute focus in exposing these, if they are not themselves to contribute to the overall sense of muddle that feeds the conflict. 

Anthony Loyd, a correspondent for the Times, has reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than 22 years

Directorate S: the CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001–2016
Steve Coll
Allen Lane, 784pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war

The Isle of Man, from where author Zoe Gilbert hails. CREDIT: GETTY
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Zoe Gilbert’s original debut novel Folk feeds our new appetite for myth

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says so, but I’m not sure.

I’ll put up my hands and make an admission: I don’t read many contemporary novels. Most of them seem, well, too contemporary. For a long time, much “literary” fiction has skated along the surface of modern urban life, engaging with the “interiority” of the middle-class mind and whatever cultural brouhaha is currently in fashion among the progressive literati.

The result is a kind of placid, smug dullness about which it’s mostly impossible to care: an Ian McEwan-isation of the soul. For years, writers shunned or simply ignored the old storytellers’ realms of mythology, image and the collective unconscious; the strange, magical depths which underlie all things, but which our society prefers to pretend is not really there.

But something is stirring. In recent years, novelists have begun to venture out beyond the shores of reason, beyond the city and sometimes beyond the human, too. The result is a small blooming of books, and of films and music, which are exploring this strange otherness again. Writers such as Daisy Johnson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sylvia Linsteadt and Ben Myers are pushing the boundaries of what has been called “folk horror”. They, in turn, are drawing from a thriving underworld of eeriness, folk culture and myth that is perhaps unparalleled in Britain since the 1970s.

What is going on here? Well, people are hungry. Hungry for real meat, and missing what they don’t know they have lost. What we might call the “folk soul” still undergirds our vision of the world, however many gadgets we use to navigate it. Why else would the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings continue to grip the popular imagination?

The surface is not enough. Our culture is starving people of spiritual and mythic nourishment. We barely even know what these words mean any more, so how would our writers know how to engage with them? Yet when our stories remain stuck in a permanent present, something is missing – something old, strange and sacred. “Fantasy” novelists such as Alan Garner, M John Harrison and the late Ursula K Le Guin, have long known this better than their “literary” counterparts.

In this vein comes Folk, the debut novel by Zoe Gilbert, a past winner of the Costa Short Story Award. It draws deeply from the old tales of the Isle of Man, from where the author hails, to give us a book which is genuinely original, disturbing, beautiful and gripping. It is both a joy to read, and –always a bonus – a tricky book to pin down

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says it is, but I’m not sure. It has recurring characters, but no single storyline; each chapter could stand alone. So is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but no: the same characters recur throughout, popping in and out of each others’ tales and adding to the weight of the whole. That whole makes up a convincing world peopled with distinctive characters, a verdant, living landscape and a liminality of strange beings who regularly intrude upon the everyday lives of the humans.

Perhaps Folk is neither a novel nor a collection of stories; perhaps it is a map. Indeed, one of its attractions for me is that a map of Neverness, the fictional village in which the stories are set, is the first thing you see when you open the book. (I am a sucker for books with maps in the front: I grew up on fantasy novels, and the cartography was always part of the attraction.) Folk can be read as a map of the British mythic imagination: of the river under the river. Starkly original and expertly written, it draws you, like a faerie song, into a kingdom from which you may never escape, and may not want to.

Gilbert’s writing has shades of Le Guin and Angela Carter, and like both of those authors she knows that real mythology, real folk culture, has a core of darkness to it; a core that both repels and entices. True fairytales are not fluffy, and they often do not have happy endings. There is an undercurrent of earthy danger here; a raw sexuality too, unashamed of itself.

A young boy is burned alive in a gorse bush, seeing visions of angels; a girl’s father kills and skins her pet hares; a woman is kidnapped by a water bull and ravished beneath the waves; a girl drowns her father by mistake; a woman murders her sister to steal her lover. But the darkness is not revelled in or overdone; it is intrinsic to the book’s realism. “Realism” might seem a bizarre word to use about tales set in a mythic land in which men are born with wings for arms and women become hares. But in a book like this, it is imperative that the newly-minted world has an internal logic and consistency.

Folk succeeds triumphantly in this regard. Reading its chapters – which have titles like “The Neverness Ox-men”, “Fishskin, Hareskin”, and “A Winter Guest” – is like sitting by a fire with some old storyteller, listening to the strange tales of his people. The work that has gone into creating the world of Neverness has paid off. These seem like stories from a real place.

This is the marker of the novel’s success: that immersion in its world makes that world seem, for a while, more real than the one you are living in. More appealing, too. When you turn the last page, you may find yourself looking out of the window, or at the screen of your phone or laptop, with a pang of regret and a sense of loss. Then you might find yourself returning to Neverness, like the children return to Narnia. It beats what passes at the moment for “reality”, and it is more human, too. 

“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth is published in paperback by Faber & Faber

Zoe Gilbert
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game