The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014
Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy takes its namesake from a comment by the late American ambassador Richard Holbrooke, purportedly made to a fellow diplomat sometime around 2009: “‘We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.’” “We” in Holbrooke and Gall’s assessment is the United States and NATO forces, who, as everyone knows, have been fighting the Taliban (the “wrong enemy”) in Afghanistan (the “wrong country”) for some time. The right enemy in this book is Pakistan, where, Gall argues, the Pakistani army and the government’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) have protected the Taliban and other Islamic militant organizations since 9/11. Not only has Pakistan welcomed terrorists—including Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network—they have, in fact, orchestrated their operations. Gall, who as a longtime reporter for The New York Times has reported on Afghanistan for more than a decade, wagers that this “open secret” of Pakistan’s leadership in perpetuating the conflict in Afghanistan will surprise her readers; indeed, the book believes it has a new story to tell about the war, and for some readers these pages might be a revelation about Pakistan’s duplicity. For other readers who have noticed books like Husain Haqqani’s Magnificent Delusions (PublicAffairs, 2013) or Daniel S. Markey’s No Exit from Pakistan (Cambridge University Press, 2013), the putative controversy is a bit of a retread of a Pakistan problem (I thought) we had already agreed upon. How could a neutral Pakistan be possible after Osama Bin Laden was found in 2011 living in Abbottabad, just down the street from the Kakul Military Academy (commonly referred to as Pakistan’s West Point)?
The Wrong Enemy is therefore original not for its central claim but for its perspective on the evidence. To be sure, I am persuaded by the argument (even if I was already sympathetic to it beforehand) because of how Gall communicates her years of experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan as if she were the lone curator of the war. Names and places matter to her—all of them are important lest they disappear from the record. At times the myriad of characters and their networks of influence become so dense that the effect is as if we are reading her field notes rather than a history, and yet I understand the impulse to be comprehensive, especially in a book ambitiously subtitled America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014. Over fourteen years and almost three hundred pages, a landscape of the war emerges that is historically accurate yet also individually remembered. As I write this review, I vividly recall accounts of the Pakistani city of Quetta, where Mullah Mohammed Omar escaped after the Taliban’s ousting in 2001, and where a glut of suicide bombers would train in madrassas in subsequent years. Also Highway One, the key supply route that connects Kabul in the north to Kandahar in the south and which was a constant target of the Taliban (it sits in Gall’s geography as a symbol of American failure and futility insofar as the U.S. military could not even keep a road open). Or Mahaljat, the suburb of Kandahar that proved to be a key victory after Obama ordered the Surge in 2010, and Zangabad, the first among many villages to turn against the Taliban in early 2013 on its own, without American encouragement or assistance.
What intrigues most about Gall’s book, however, is not the many local lessons it offers but rather how it wants to construct and control a broader narrative about the war. This impulse is smart insofar as no coherent national narrative about Afghanistan seems to circulate, and The Wrong Enemy realizes its opportunity to address the vacuum. The absence of a dominant Afghanistan war story is peculiar. The war in Iraq, which began two years after combat in Afghanistan had started, was quickly packaged as a Fiasco (the title of Thomas E. Ricks’ 2006 book), or the tragic consequence of an incompetent administration that became bogged down in a political culture and an area of the world it did not fully understand, all the while lying about the motivations and strategies of the war to the American public. That “quagmire” story resonated so easily because the nation already recognized its shape in the stories that survive about Vietnam—a similar moment when America betrayed its most cherished values and started a war it should never have started. Or so the story goes. There are other narrative angles about Vietnam that have some resonance with Iraq if not also Afghanistan, such as the hawkish view that the United States could have won the war in Vietnam (if not also Iraq and Afghanistan) if it had not been hamstrung by political cowardice and lack of civilian support back home to give the military everything it needed, and Reagan’s salutary appraisal as a presidential candidate in 1980 that Vietnam was a “noble cause,” which was just a clever way to cover up the pain that comes from saying America had actually lost a war.[i]
Especially as wars age (and the war in Afghanistan has aged substantially) the stories that last tend, like Reagan’s, to be comfortable rather than controversial. Thus the Civil War at the end of the nineteenth century could be imagined as Lincoln’s image of a house divided—a tragic family tiff that reconciled itself in the literature of romance and reunion (to borrow the words of cultural historian Nina Silber), and World War II still survives as The Good War fought by The Greatest Generation. In a similar fashion, we tell ourselves that 9/11 happened because the terrorists “hated our freedoms,” not because they hated our heathenish lifestyle and “lack of faith” (to quote Adam Gopnik in the July 7th and 14th, 2014 issue in The New Yorker about all the memories the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero gets wrong). My point here is to underscore how every American war reaches a point where it turns into narrative—or narratives, as the case often is—and how these stories usually happen quickly and usually tend to oversimplify the causes, consequences, and complexities of human suffering. Yet Afghanistan is singular insofar as it hasn’t really reached that moment, and The Wrong Enemy signals that the time is upon us. It is a significant transitional document that wants to memorialize the war but also fears the costs of memorialization—hence the volume of sources, events, and places that read in their totality as a frantic last measure to slow the transformation of Afghanistan into just another blunt catch phrase like “quagmire” and “noble cause.” Nonetheless, like any writer, Gall has narratives of her own that she is selling.
Especially as wars age (and the war in Afghanistan has aged substantially) the stories that last tend to be comfortable rather than controversial.
The first is that marketable title, “The Wrong Enemy.” It communicates so much—that the U.S. has been “wrong” in its intelligence and strategy (to the point of foolishness), that there is alternatively a “right” enemy somewhere out there that we just don’t know about (in this case, Pakistan), that the abstract category of “enemy” is a coherent and recognizable identity (we will know him once we see him), and that there must exist a singular, monolithic “enemy” rather than multiple “enemies” (the threat therefore must be organized rather than diffuse). I am skeptical of the last two assumptions in particular, yet Gall is admirably certain in her convictions about why Pakistan would undermine U.S. efforts in Afghanistan:
“Pakistan was a young nation and paranoically insecure about defending its territory. Since its formation and partition from India in 1947, Pakistan had fought three wars with its larger neighbor, India, and lost half its territory when Bangladesh broke away in 1971. … For allies Pakistan had favored Islamists, who could be counted on to resist non-Muslim foes such as the Soviet Union and India, and ethnic Pashtuns in Afghanistan, who were affiliated to Pakistan’s own large Pashtun population. Besides external threats, Pakistan was concerned about controlling Pashtun nationalism. Some Pashtuns supported the creation of Pashtunistan, a separate state for themselves.”
In Gall’s narrative, Pakistan is the broker of fragile power, with the non-Muslim threat of India to the East (and in disputed areas such as Kashmir) and the nationalist threat of Sunni Muslim Pashtuns to the West in southern Afghanistan (the birthplace of the Taliban). Fair enough. But the list of potential enemies does not end there, even though The Wrong Enemy is satisfied to consolidate responsibility solely within Pakistan. What about the history of Western colonialism that Gall introduces but does not critique? Could the real enemy have its origin in the actions of the United Kingdom and and Partition?
“The British had divided the Pashtun tribal lands in order to defend the empire’s northwest frontier, and Pashtuns had never accepted the artificially drawn Durand Line. The creation of Pakistan in 1947 absorbed a large part of Pashtun lands, reinforcing the division. Roughly 26 million Pashtuns now reside in Pakistan and 14 million in Afghanistan. Ghaffar Khan opposed the partition of India and wanted an autonomous Pashtun state [Pashtunistan, mentioned above] within an independent India, if not full statehood separate from Pakistan.”
Does it sting too much to ask the question if the West is its own enemy? War stories do not quite know what to do with an irony such as that, and there are many ironies about Afghanistan, beginning with U.S. support of Osama Bin Laden and the mujahideen during the 1980s in the Afghani fight against the Soviet Union. Loyalties switch and strategies backfire. Gall is sharp to point out how the Taliban strategy after the Surge was to let the Americans “alienate most Afghans, as they had done repeatedly over the last decade;” that strategy of attrition worked for a while until 2013 when the Taliban became overconfident of their welcome in places such as Zangabad, and Afghanis turned on them for being too oppressive and demanding. To win the war in Afghanistan, just wait a while and let the other side get hoisted by its own petard.
Each side is its own worst enemy, but what about the other external enemies? For example, Saudi Arabia, long suspected of funding the Taliban and militant Islam, gets a free pass (just as they do with 9/11).[ii] To my mind, whoever funds the Taliban would seem to be enemy number one, but money is not a character in The Wrong Enemy. Instead, the secretive ISI becomes the leading man in the script, an archetype and an archvillain who is seemingly unstoppable and always one step ahead of the stubborn Americans. Caricature is perhaps too strong of a word to describe the mood, but Pakistan has a power in Gall’s book that we cannot understand nor unravel, and this general attitude of fear and futility is in tension with the individual stories themselves that present the war in terms of contingency and human frailty rather than ideology and abstract bogeymen. Take one of America’s most prominent bogeymen, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed “father” of the Taliban, who the United States fears so much we placed him on the same list of most wanted terrorists as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Sirajuddin Haqqani; yet in Gall’s rendering, Omar is little more than a simplistic dupe easily manipulated by the ISI and the Pakistani Army Colonel Imam. Omar is dull-witted and prone to vice, not cunning and religiously devout as we have imagined. He flies Russian helicopters on personal errands. He takes four wives, “which is permitted under Islam but frowned upon among Afghanistan’s middle classes. He also broke a taboo in Pashtun culture when he forced a family to give him their daughter even though she was engaged to someone else.” In contrast to the image of Pakistan as a closed off central brain, the Taliban are imperfect people. In these moments, the war seems less incomprehensible. As a Canadian general says about the Taliban and their ability to blend into native populations, “‘But they are not the superstars people make them out to be. They are capable fighters but defeatable.” Omar and his followers are petty, foolish, and scrambling for their survival just like American politicians. And none of this has anything to do with Islam (on this point I would be interested to hear what Gall would have to say to Gopnik).
Gall understands the war not as a Clash of Civilizations (in the Samuel P. Huntington sense) but as a tragicomedy of errors and a series of near misses, among them Hamid Karzai refusing to accept Omar’s formal Taliban offer of surrender in November, 2001, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s humiliation of President Karzai in October 2009 after the election that gave Karzai victory. Voting irregularities prompted the Obama administration to order a second round of voting, and Karzai never forgave the U.S. for this public embarrassment. Contrary to Gall’s belief that we sabotaged an effective leader, the American press often writes up Karzai as a corrupt opportunist. Nonetheless, Gall persuades me that corruption is a matter of perception. Yes, warlords were kept on the government’s payroll and cronies filled regional offices, but that is how the peace was kept—everyone gets a taste so that no one tries to take all the food. Afghanistan is a country that has endured multiple generations of constant warfare, both internally and against foreign aggression. “Karzai kept unsavory characters close because he needed the political and militia power they commanded as faction leaders,” writes Gall, to maintain a fragile sense of order. Besides, after more than thirty years of violence, no one has clean hands. Karzai was America’s best chance, yet the U.S. failed to recognize his leadership just as the U.S. failed to listen to him as he repeatedly called out Pakistan and the ISI for controlling events in Afghanistan.
Who are we to believe—Karzai or the Americans? I will not fall for the trap of assuming war stories have morals, but if there was one final story being told in The Wrong Enemy, it is that readers should be skeptical about all levels of the American military. The book is mostly reserved in laying specific blame or debating policy; Obama, for instance, doesn’t really have a personality here, nor do high-level commanders that we have come to know such as Petraeus, McChrystal, and Eikenberry. The individual names matter less than the collective ignorant policies they endorsed. The U.S. got rid of Karzai just as it did the mujahideen earlier in the war, and the results were similar. The mujahideen also were “unsavory,” like Karzai or the Ba’ath Party in Iraq, but as in the de-Ba’athification of Iraq in 2003, effective leaders were removed from power with no one to replace them. Lawlessness ensued. “Since 9/11 it had become popular to blame the problem of Islamic terrorism on the U.S. policy of the 1980s of supporting the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation. I had always rejected that theory since the vast majority of Afghan mujahideen were moderate and did not support terrorism,” writes Gall. I am not saying she is right or she is wrong about the friendliness of the mujahideen and the short-sightedness of American command; I am just saying I imagine some readers would not agree with that story.
I also imagine some readers would be allergic to her representation of enlisted troops as arrogant and indifferent to local populations. In one instance, the Canadian army blazes a road straight through a village, destroying homes and other structures in the process, rather than take the time to find a route around town. “I saw it time and again in Afghanistan: foreign troops taking actions for their own protection, alienating the local population, and thus undermining their security,” Gall states. Or when American bombs (accidentally) target an innocent wedding party, it is the Americans who seem the real enemy because they lie and cover-up. “The military often questioned the veracity of the Afghan accounts. Yet whenever I or other reporters managed to reach the scene and interview eyewitnesses, we found their accounts were straightforward and checked out. Soldiers, we found, were not always truthful in their reports.” An Afghani translator told Gall that American soldiers were not interested in speaking or getting to know the local populations. “‘You have to wait until they ask [to translate anything]. If you say anything, or translate anything, they say ‘Shut up, motherf—ker, or I’ll shoot you.’’” This strain of cold indifference eventually leads to the torture of Dilawar, a taxi driver, at Bagram Airbase, which ominously was led by the same military intelligence team who would be responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib in 2004. There is little “noble” about this particular “cause,” and if readers are looking for optimism or solutions, they will have to find another book.
Americans just don’t get what happened and who is the real threat, which I suppose is why Gall wrote The Wrong Enemy as a harsh exposé. Arguments, of course, could be made that some Americans do get the threat, at least some military minds. The Wrong Enemy chronicles little of the ongoing drone war being waged in Waziristan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, yet both areas are in Pakistan. The legality and wisdom of drone warfare aside, the fact that it happens at all, and in Pakistan, suggests that not everyone is oblivious to the Pakistani threat (although it must be said that drones operate with Pakistani consent). Pakistani permission wasn’t sought in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden (Gall’s discussion of it is alone a reason to pick up the book), and in fact the ISI was purposefully not forewarned for fear that Bin Laden would be tipped off. Bin Laden is a rich image to end on since he brings me back to the problem of war stories and which ones we should believe—is it Gall’s impression that we should have known about Bin Laden sooner, or Kathryn Bigelow’s depiction of daring and competence in Zero Dark Thirty, or Mark Owen’s (née Matt Bissonnette) first-hand account in No Easy Day, or what? All that can be said with certainty is that The Wrong Enemy represents the beginning of a struggle over the meaning and memory of the war. I’m reminded of President Obama’s confidence from February, 2009 in front of a crowd of marines at Camp Lejeune. “Today, I have come here to speak to you about how the war in Iraq will end.” There’s little sense that we know how the war in Afghanistan—let alone the stories we tell ourselves about that war—will end.