Commentary Magazine

The Right Enemy

The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001–2014
By Carlotta Gall
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pages

Has any foreigner spent as long a time in Afghanistan over the past decade as the New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall? She arrived in the fall of 2001, as the Taliban were falling, and did not leave until 2011. She then returned for nine months in 2012 and 2013 to write this book. Her connections to the country stretch back even further: Her father, a British television journalist, reported from Afghanistan in the 1980s and later set up a charity for disabled Afghans. Gall herself had traveled to the country in the 1990s while the Taliban were coming to power.

She did not limit her travels to Afghanistan: In the past decade she regularly visited Pakistan, which, as she argues convincingly in her powerful new book, The Wrong Enemy, is deeply enmeshed in supporting the Haqqani Network, the Taliban, and other insurgents making life miserable for the people
of Afghanistan.

Long years spent reporting on both sides of the Durand Line exposed Gall to considerable danger. In February 2006, she was at a police station in Kandahar when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the gate. Later that year, she was beaten up by Pakistani intelligence agents in Quetta because they didn’t want her reporting on the links between the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Islamist militants.

Gall has been lucky; those around her have fared far worse. She knows Pakistani reporters who were “beaten, strung up, and often sexually abused” by the ISI. Some were killed. Times photographer Joao Silva lost both his legs to a Taliban mine when he and Gall were accompanying U.S. troops on patrol in 2010.

Gall’s daring reporting has yielded a plethora of fascinating stories from the frontlines, as well as a Pulitzer. What they have not yielded is a clear thesis. The Wrong Enemy takes its title from a comment made by the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke: “We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.” In other words, Afghanistan is not our enemy; Pakistan is. This is true, up to a point, but the implications of the idea are far from clear, and Gall does nothing to explain what a focus on the “right enemy” would entail.

Her contribution is to lay out in painstaking and undeniable, if not always novel, detail just how deeply Pakistan has been implicated in the Taliban movement from the beginning. She particularly focuses on the role of “Colonel Imam,” the nom de guerre of Brigadier Sultan Amir, a Pakistani Special Forces officer who trained Mullah Omar and many other Taliban leaders starting in 1994. “Omar,” she writes, “always addressed the colonel by the honorific title of ‘Ustad’ or ‘teacher.’”After the 9/11 attacks, she writes, Colonel Imam urged Omar not to hand over Osama bin Laden and instead “to resist the American campaign by retreating to the mountains and waging what the Afghans did best, a guerrilla war.”

By 2006, thanks to ISI support and the incompetence of Hamid Karzai’s government in Afghanistan, the Taliban were once again a full-blown menace. Their attacks were more vicious than ever, featuring suicide bombers for the first time. “Those bombers that could be identified turned out to be mostly Pakistanis or Afghans living in Pakistan,” Gall writes. “They were being recruited through mosques and madrassas and some through connection to Pakistan’s banned militant groups.” ISI maintained close links to those same groups, and its fingerprints were all over the suicide-bomber networks.

Gall even builds a strong circumstantial case that the ISI was sheltering Osama bin Laden. His refuge in Abbottabad, after all, “stood within a few hundred yards of the brick perimeter walls of the Kakul Military Academy.” Plainclothes military agents would regularly check all the houses in the neighborhood before dignitaries visited the military academy. “That they did not check” on Bin Laden’s house, Gall writes, “was almost certainly because someone from within the security agencies vouched for the place.” She notes, moreover, that “a Pakistani source told me soon after the raid on Bin Laden’s house that the ISI chief, [Ahmad Shuja] Pasha, had known of Bin Laden’s presence in the house in Abbottabad.” This is hardly conclusive evidence, but Gall’s reporting is disquieting enough that a Pakistani newspaper that partners with the New York Times removed an article based on Gall’s book from the front page of the Times distributed in Pakistan on March 22 (leaving a big blank space on the front page).

What is not clear from The Wrong Enemy is what exactly we would or could do if we were to acknowledge that Pakistan is backing the wrong side in the War on Terror. Send hundreds of thousands of troops to fight there? Nobody wants another ground war, nor does Gall advocate one. Perhaps stop providing aid to the Pakistani state? Gall doesn’t advocate that either, and policymakers in Washington have shied away from that option because of their fears that, however bad the current military-dominated regime may be, an Islamist successor would be worse. Instead of attacking Pakistan, or cutting it off, those who advocate prioritizing Pakistan ahead of Afghanistan have often suggested continuing or even increasing aid but linking it to clear measures of performance. This has been tried, too, and found wanting: Pakistan pockets our money ($26 billion from 2001 to 2013) but fails to do our bidding.

This is an exasperating policy dilemma, and Gall does not address it. The most she will say is that the United States “should have built a relationship with Pakistan for the long term that encouraged democratic and economic development.” Agreed, but that was and is easier said than done, and she never presents any useful suggestions for how to achieve that worthy goal now or how it could have been achieved then.

Oddly enough, to the extent that Gall offers a recommendation at the end of her book, it is to continue doing what we have been doing: aiding the Afghan state to resist the Taliban. She writes that the troop surge ordered by President Obama in 2010 “had routed the Taliban in much of Kandahar province,” and had made local leaders in areas such as Panjwayi district confident enough to rise up against the Taliban on their own. Yet for all the progress made in the last decade—“the rebuilding, the modernity, the bright graduates in every office”—she notes that Afghanistan still has “a weak state, prey to the ambitions of its neighbors and extremist Islamists.”

She holds out hope, but only if the United States stays the course. “Few Afghans believe that their government and security forces can keep the Taliban at bay,” she writes. “I believe they can, but they will need long-term financial and military support.” She concludes by urging the United States to continue providing such aid, because “militant Islamism is a juggernaut that cannot be turned off or turned away from soon.” She sounds a clear warning: “The repercussions of the U.S. pullout are already inspiring Islamists, who are comparing it to the withdrawal of the Soviet Union after its 10-year-long debilitating war in Afghanistan. They are the real enemy in this war and they have not finished fighting. They fully intend to reclaim Afghanistan and have set their sights on horizons beyond.”

Gall is to be commended for reaching a conclusion that flies in the face of today’s conventional wisdom, fervently espoused by the editorial page of her own newspaper, which holds that Afghanistan is a lost cause and the United States can pull out with impunity. But her conclusion is at odds not only with advocates of withdrawal; it is also at odds with the title of her own book. Gall’s conclusion suggests that, in the final analysis, the United States has been fighting the right enemy all along—the Islamist fanatics who are trying to take over Afghanistan with Pakistan’s support.

About the Author

Max Boot, a regular contributor to Commentary, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (Liveright).

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