The War Without End

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
An Afghan soldier praying near Tora Bora during fighting against the Taliban, December 2001

What may someday be remembered as the First, or the Great, or the Endless American-Afghan War is now entering its seventeenth year. Three days after the attacks in September 2001 that made the war inevitable, the CIA officer Cofer Black told a roomful of analysts at the agency’s Counterterrorist Center not to fear the outcome. “We’re the good guys,” he said, “and we’re going to win.” What happened next is the subject of Steve Coll’s intensely interesting book about the small victories and intractable delusions of America’s longest war, Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But before getting into this complicated story, we ought to note what we have obtained for the something-over-a-trillion-dollars and 2,400 dead soldiers the war has cost the United States so far, leaving aside the much more numerous Afghan civilian casualties. The facts are easily found online: the number of American troops in Afghanistan reached 100,000 in mid-2010, dropped below 10,000 under Obama, and has now crept back to about 15,000. In the first year or so of the war the Taliban government was overthrown, and al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the September 11 attacks, was chased into Pakistan. But the Taliban has risen from the ashes, is determined to regain power, and now challenges the Kabul government for control in about 45 percent of the country. A decade ago, Coll tells us, the CIA estimated that the Kabul government controlled “about half” of the country. The sunniest interpretation of the numbers is that our side is holding its own. The deeper meaning of this long struggle resists clear and simple statement.

Directorate S is the second of Coll’s long books about Afghanistan. The first, Ghost Wars, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005, described the struggle of the Afghans to end Russian occupation and the rise of the Taliban after the Russians left. The CIA was at the center of that first book, but it plays a lesser part in the new one. That there would be a war after the September 11 attacks was never in serious question; the provocation had simply been too great. When al-Qaeda hijackers destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, more Americans were killed than died at Pearl Harbor. Compounding the offense was the Taliban government’s refusal to arrest or turn Osama bin Laden over to American authorities, or even to admit that it bore some responsibility for what he had done. The overthrow of the Taliban and seizure of Kabul came quickly, but then, with baffling abruptness, President George W. Bush and his administration turned their full attention to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, drew off troops and funds for that war, and allowed the…

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