For His Book 'Directorate S,' Journalist Steve Coll Dives Into Pakistan's Spy Agency

Feb 15, 2018
Originally published on February 15, 2018 10:58 pm
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On a reporting trip to Pakistan a decade or so ago, I went to the headquarters of Pakistan's spy service. Several of the generals who run that agency, the ISI, sat on one side of a table blowing smoke rings. I sat on the other side, asking questions about the Taliban and al-Qaida and wondering what percentage of the answers were truth. Journalist Steve Coll has a long history of these kinds of meetings as well. He wrote about the ISI in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Ghost Wars." And he returns to the subject in his new book. It's called "Directorate S." I sat down with Steve Coll earlier this week, and I asked him about that title. What is Directorate S?

STEVE COLL: It's the covert action arm of the Pakistani intelligence service referred to as ISI. And it has, over the years, supported various Islamist militants operating across Pakistan's borders, either in Afghanistan or India. It was the force that enabled the Taliban's return to the battlefield and supported the Taliban in their sanctuary in Pakistan as they went to war with the United States after 2006.

KELLY: You make clear that one irony of U.S. policy in that part of the world is that the U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan for all these years; meanwhile, the U.S. has way more at stake across the border in Pakistan. Explain.

COLL: Well, there's this scene where the Obama administration comes in, and the president sends Vice President Joe Biden out to Kabul, and he meets with Hamid Karzai in the Arg palace. And Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, says, well, you really should be putting more pressure on Pakistan. That's where the war is coming from. And Biden says to him, Mr. President, Pakistan is 50 times more important to the United States than Afghanistan is. Now, Pakistan is a much larger population. It has a hundred-plus nuclear bombs. Its internal security is a matter of great interest to the United States because if Pakistan fell apart and its nuclear weapons fell into the wrong hands, it could be devastating. And so this was always the challenge.

And, you know, the book describes how seriously, especially, the Obama administration worked to try to come up with a common strategic understanding with Pakistan. And it just - it collapsed. It collapsed partly under the pressure of the events of 2011 when we discovered that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan and there was suspicion that maybe the Pakistanis were complicit.

KELLY: I have to - I can't let that go by without asking do you think Pakistan knowingly hid Bin Laden?

COLL: I'm entirely prepared to believe it. I'd worked very hard to try to find positive-evidence documents or on-the-record sources. There are other credible journalists who have quoted anonymous sources saying that they believe the Pakistanis did have a cell. I didn't find those sources myself. I do think - you know, you look at all the letters that bin Laden wrote that had been declassified since the 2011 raid, and he was very interested in having his sons come join him in Abbottabad over those years. And he was paranoid that they would run into Pakistani police and get arrested. He kept writing, don't drive on these days or stay away from that person. He's connected to Pakistani intelligence. So it suggested that he didn't have...

KELLY: Which suggests he didn't think he enjoyed full protection or any protection. Who knows?

COLL: Yeah, but that doesn't solve the case definitively because if the Pakistanis helped him, I'm sure it was in a state of great concern that they would get caught. And so whatever contact he might have had would have said don't call us, you know, we'll call you, and don't ask us for help with your children or your wives or anything like that. That's not - we're not going to get into that kind of exposure. But anyway, it's an ambiguous picture, but I don't see positive evidence that the Pakistanis knew he was there.

KELLY: Let me ask you a question just to take us back to the early days of this book, you know, right after 9/11 and right after the U.S. went into Afghanistan. And this maybe loops us back to Directorate S and its role in all of this. Remind us why Pakistan is so intertwined with that effort, what their role was in the days right after 9/11.

COLL: So on September 11 as the U.S. began to plan for a response, it had to confront the reality that the Taliban in Afghanistan were supported openly at that point by the Pakistani military, by ISI, by Directorate S and that this support had allowed al-Qaida to carry out the September 11 attacks, and the U.S. didn't know what was coming next. So they had to come to terms with whether Pakistan was going to support the U.S. retaliation against al-Qaida or whether it was going to be part of the enemy.

KELLY: As the war in Afghanistan evolves, how did Pakistan's role in all of this, with the U.S. in Afghanistan, evolve in those years after 9/11?

COLL: Well, initially, Afghanistan was relatively peaceful. The Taliban were beaten. They fled into Pakistan, but they settled quietly into the refugee camps and into the city of Quetta on the Pakistan side of the border. And ISI and President Musharraf cooperated with the CIA in the first couple of years after 9/11 to arrest al-Qaida leaders in Pakistani cities. And so the sense was that we were partners. That began to change around 2005, 2006 when the Taliban started to come back. What were the factors? One was that the Bush administration was distracted by the war in Iraq and was turning security in Afghanistan over to NATO partners, and the Pakistanis thought we better plan for a post-American war now and started to think that India had too much influence and that they needed to move.

The second factor was that we cut this big strategic nuclear deal with India around this time where we essentially forgave India for its violations of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. And we told Pakistan, you're not going to get that deal. And the Pakistanis' high command, I think, they thought to themselves, well, they've made themselves clear. India is their strategic partner for the 21st century. We're not. They're leaving this neighborhood. We're here. We've got to take care of our own interests. And I think that contributed to the gradual decision to support the revival of the Taliban.

KELLY: Let me fast-forward us to today. The Trump administration's policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, of course, is a work in progress. But President Trump began this year by tweeting about Pakistan. He woke up at Mar-a-Lago on New Year's Day and tweeted that the U.S. had foolishly - his word - given Pakistan billions of dollars. And then he said, quote, "they've given us nothing but lies and deceit," which was, of course, greeted with outrage in Islamabad, but does President Trump have a point?

COLL: Well, it's been a troubled relationship. Pakistanis have been deceptive, and they've also been cooperative. So it's a little more complicated than nothing but lies and deceit. But, yes, there's been plenty of lies and deceit. You know, I can certainly understand the frustration about Pakistan's conduct. It's cost Americans their lives. And previous efforts to persuade Pakistan to take seriously American security concerns in Afghanistan have failed.

KELLY: Do you finish this project, these two tomes, hopeful that U.S.-Pakistani relations will improve, that the next 17 years might be a sunnier picture than these last 17 have been?

COLL: You know, actually, I am kind of hopeful about that. Maybe (laughter) - maybe I'm foolish, but I am because, look, Pakistan is a successful nation. I mean, it's got a breathtakingly talented diaspora middle class. You know, it's been misruled by the army. Its intelligence service is a corrosive force. Its civilian politicians are often corrupt and feckless. It's not the only country in the world where you would say those things. And when you look at the history of U.S. relations with Pakistan, they've often suffered from these patterns of alienation, but they've also recovered. You know, we were very close partners during the Cold War. We were partners again in the '80s. I don't think either side romanticizes the relationship or will again. But the potential for greater cooperation and better relations is definitely there.

KELLY: Steve Coll, thank you.

COLL: Thank you so much, Mary Louise, really appreciate it.

KELLY: His new book is "Directorate S: The C.I.A. And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan, 2001-2016." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.