‘The US in Afghanistan: A case of mistaken identity’

Lailuma Nasiri

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Book: The Wrong Enemy - America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014
Author: Carlotta Gall
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First edition (8 April 2014)

“The Taliban cannot work for a single day without our patronage, cooperation, and support; they are being protected here, equipped, and trained with the support and assistance from ISI and Military Intelligence,” Mahmood Khan Achakzai, a Quetta-based Pashtun nationalist leader and a longtime opponent of the government’s support of Islamists, told Gall on her visit to Quetta.

‘The Wrong Enemy, America in Afghanistan 2001-2014’ investigates the US’ invasion of Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban after the 9/11 attacks. It focuses primarily on one important premise: that the war in Afghanistan has been waged against the wrong enemy. The book is an honest journalistic work by Carlota Gall, a reporter for the New York Times, who has reported on Afghanistan and Pakistan for over a decade, since 2001. The title of the book, ‘The Wrong Enemy’ is a reference to the former US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009 - 2010), the late Richard C. Holbrooke’s statement, “we may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.”

In this book, Gall attempts to prove that the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had been providing financial, military and intelligence support to the Afghan Taliban, first towards founding the movement in the 1990s and later, towards re-invigorating them after the US’s 2001 intervention in Afghanistan to destroy the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Gall uses her years of interviews and visits to different parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to narrate the story of how the Pakistani military and intelligence were involved in supporting, controlling and directing the Taliban. The relationship between the Taliban and the ISI has been known for years but Islamabad has consistently denied this.

In ‘The Wrong Enemy’, Gall is critical of policies of both Pakistan and the US. She is critical of Pakistan for supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda and criticizes the US Government for their disorderly war effort in Afghanistan over the past decade. Gall illustrates her analysis by identifying the US’ errors in Afghanistan. One such error she identifies is that of Washington’s non-pursuance following the fall of the Taliban government and their escape in 2001. Gall states in her book that the surviving members of the Afghan Taliban moved base to Pakistan after their 2001 defeat but the US never pursued them in Pakistan.

The Bush Administration never gave instructions to its intelligence officials in Pakistan to follow the Taliban. “The Taliban were defeated much more quickly than we expected. I was looking at them as spent force,’’ Robert Grenier, the CIA station chief in Pakistan, told Gall.

Another mistake the US committed in Afghanistan was that Washington and its allies focused on stopping the terrorist activities of al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters in Afghanistan, while the focus should have instead been on hostile forces in Pakistan. Gall reasons that the Taliban continued existence; Osama bin Laden’s ability to survive for long inside Pakistan; and Mullah Omar’s residence in Pakistan until April 2013, was because the Pakistan Army and the ISI provided aid to them. Quoting leaders from the region, Gall argues that the US should have fought al-Qaeda and the Taliban inside Pakistan as opposed to invading Iraq in 2003, while had already started a war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan not only kept its hold on the Taliban by providing military support but also managed to keep the US and its NATO allies dependent on it for logistics supply into Afghanistan.

Gall argues that Pakistan played double games with the US and its NATO allies by committing support in public and simultaneously providing covert support to Islamists terrorists and Taliban in Afghanistan via the ISI.

The author also reveals that, for two decades, Pakistan had used proxy forces, the Afghan mujahideen and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Kashmiri militants against India, to project its influence beyond its borders. The facts gathered in this book contribute to the reader’s knowledge regarding what had transpired and how; but the book might not contribute to the reader’s knowledge of Afghanistan as it mainly discusses Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan conflict. What make this work unique is Gall’s long term experience of working in Afghanistan and Pakistan and her firsthand account of Taliban leaders, Pakistani intelligence officials, US Generals, Afghan politicians, and the many innocents who were caught up in this long war to prove her case of the ISI’s upper hand in the Afghan conflict. Her evidence that Pakistan fueled the Taliban and protected Osama bin Laden is revelatory. This is an extensive interpretation of a war brought by well-intentioned US leaders against an enemy they hardly understood, and could not truly engage. What Gall has not predicted in her book is the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) as a new threat to the world and its possible presence in Afghanistan, once a safe haven for al-Qaeda.

In the concluding chapter, the author argues that the US is turning its back on Afghanistan because the former’s leaders are tired of war and mistakenly view Afghanistan as lost. She says “…Pakistan is still exporting militant Islamism and terrorism, and will not stop once foreign forces leave,” making the case for the US and its NATO allies to not walk away from Afghanistan with the job only half done.

The book provides many facts supporting Gall’s identification of Pakistan as the real enemy and explains how the US went to war against the wrong enemy in a wrong county. The book, however, may not get the US to change its plans to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, as it has been published at a time when Washington is actually coordinating its troop withdrawal; the Taliban continue to exist; and Pakistan's military and ISI continue to provide them with aid. Gall, in her book, provides specific information and highlights errors but does not provide any suggestions for the US government and/or its NATO allies to consider before they completely withdraw from Afghanistan.

Overall, ‘The Wrong Enemy’ is a useful source of information and an interesting read both for those who follow developments in Afghanistan closely, as well as for those who are interested learning the details of the same. This book is an exhaustive account of how Afghanistan has been a victim of strategies formulated by its neighbors and friends. For anyone who wants to understand what went wrong, this is a go to source.

Lailuma Nasiri is Vice President, Afghanistan Justice Organization. Over the past 12 years, she has worked for both national and international organizations in Afghanistan.

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