The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014by Carlotta Gall
Carlotta Gall has reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan for almost the entire duration of the American invasion and occupation, beginning shortly after 9/11. She knows just how much this war has cost the Afghan people, and how much damage can be traced to Pakistan and its duplicitous government and intelligence forces. Now that American troops are
Carlotta Gall has reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan for almost the entire duration of the American invasion and occupation, beginning shortly after 9/11. She knows just how much this war has cost the Afghan people, and how much damage can be traced to Pakistan and its duplicitous government and intelligence forces. Now that American troops are withdrawing, it is time to tell the full history of how we have been fighting the wrong enemy, in the wrong country.
Gall combines searing personal accounts of battles and betrayals with moving portraits of the ordinary Afghanis who endured a terrible war of more than a decade. Her firsthand accounts of Taliban warlords, Pakistani intelligence thugs, American generals, Afghani politicians, and the many innocents who were caught up in this long war are riveting. Her evidence that Pakistan fueled the Taliban and protected Osama bin Laden is revelatory. This is a sweeping account of a war brought by well-intentioned American leaders against an enemy they barely understood, and could not truly engage.
Gall (Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus) pulls no punches in criticizing U.S. ally Pakistan, who, she writes, "has proved to be perfidious, driving the violence in Afghanistan for its own cynical, hegemonic reasons." In her travels, she encounters Taliban recruits in seminaries in Quetta and stiff-necked mujahideen in Kandahar as she chronicles the missteps and failures that exacerbated the violence in Afghanistan, namely that the U.S. grossly underestimated the extent to which the Taliban and other militant groups are influenced by the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI. She also documents how Pakistan arrested and executed the more moderate elements of the Taliban, with whom peace negotiations would have been possible, while providing for the more extremist leaders, and how the wave of suicide attacks in Kabul in 2008 had the dual mission of striking fear in the heart of the capital and eliminating Indian and Baluch targets, who were incidental to the Taliban but sworn enemies of the ISI. In particular, Gall decries the decision to disarm Afghanistan's regional and ethnic militias in the hopes of creating a national army, which she calls "as grave an error as the policy of de-Baathification and the demobilization of the Iraqi army in 2003." (Apr.)
A longtime New York Times war correspondent delivers a moving, on-the-ground chronicle of her years covering the Afghanistan War. During two decades of thorough journalistic coverage in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gall (co-author: Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus, 1998) has developed important contacts, observing closely how, in many cases, the "deserving cause for self-determination" was co-opted and transformed by extremist Islamist groups. She has seen enormous suffering on all sides but especially by the Afghanis, the pawns of superpower struggles. She chronologically delineates how this has happened in Afghanistan, where the Americans walked into the "Islamists' trap"—not unlike the Soviets before them—playing a 13-year cat-and-mouse game with the Taliban, who continue to successfully resist through sheer attrition and ferocious determination to expel the foreigners. Moreover, Gall clearly implicates the Pakistan military intelligence, ISI, for sheltering and protecting Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, especially Osama bin Laden, since their expulsion from Afghanistan in late 2001. Indeed, this is the leitmotif of Gall's work: that Pakistan has used "proxy forces" from the beginning to "project its influence beyond its borders"; these have included not just the Taliban, but also Kashmiri militants in India. Gall offers vivid portraits of the key players—e.g., Taliban commander Mullah Omar and American-backed Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai—and many of the Taliban fighters she tracked down and interviewed in exile, consolidating their power from the wings. Gall sees a terrible lost opportunity by the United States in not offering a safe haven for many of the former Taliban fighters: Americans imprisoned important leaders and thereby left a dangerous vacuum. Heavy-handed U.S. military presence did not win the trust of the Afghanis, and jihadism, suicide bombings and assassinations ensued. The author offers a compelling account of the attack on bin Laden's compound, the repercussions of which are still being felt. Gall admirably never loses sight of the human element in this tragedy.
“A valuable contribution to a hefty body of work on the American war in Afghanistan that has become stale and somewhat hackneyed. It provides a raw, unvarnished and important look at one of the darkest and least understood parts of the Afghan war . . . Ms. Gall, a reporter for the New York Times in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade, beginning shortly after September 11, is in an extraordinary position to write this important and long overdue book.” — New York Times “The Wrong Enemy is a timely survey of a military and diplomatic undertaking that has exacted a stiff tribute from Afghans and NATO forces in lives, treasure, and national prestige. Gall is right to confront the uneasy truths involving Pakistan’s double-dealing while also identifying coalition shortfalls . . . When it comes to informative, credible reporting from Central Asia over the past decade, Gall ranks with journalists like Dexter Filkins and David Rohde who have written about Afghanistan with authority and context. But Gall is perhaps uniquely positioned to tackle the troubling questions she raises about Pakistan’s alleged support of terrorism . . . As the US and NATO prepare to possibly withdraw all forces from Afghanistan at the close of this year, Gall’s book qualifies as a must-read.” — Christian Science Monitor “Gall's long years of reporting for the New York Times from the front lines of the war are clear in this book, particularly in her vivid reconstruction of how things went rapidly downhill after the easy U.S.-led victories over the Taliban at the end of 2001 . . . To her credit, Ms. Gall gets the most important thing right. She underscores the danger of the U.S. turning its back on Afghanistan, which, while still fragile, shows more signs of modernity than ever before. The repercussions of the U.S. drawdown ‘are already inspiring Islamists, who are comparing it to the withdrawal of the Soviet Union’ after its defeat at the hands of the mujahedeen. Unlike the Obama administration, Ms. Gall recognizes that radical Islam can’t be ignored or wished away.” — Wall Street Journal “A strong, well-crafted account by an informed observer.” — Economist “The author offers a compelling account of the attack on bin Laden’s compound, the repercussions of which are still being felt. Gall admirably never loses sight of the human element in this tragedy.” — Kirkus Reviews
Just in time for our final withdrawal from Afghanistan, here's a thoroughgoing report from New York Times reporter Gall, based in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout most of the American invasion and occupation. Gall reveals the suffering of the Afghan people while arguing that much harm can be attributed to Pakistan's double-dealing. Having survived live fire and assault by Pakistani intelligence agents, Gall knows her stuff. With a 50,000-copy first printing.
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Read an Excerpt
I arrived in the town of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan on a cold evening in November 2001, just days after the Taliban had fled. Two months had passed since the attacks of 9/11 and one month since America had gone to war in Afghanistan. The U.S. Air Force had been bombing Afghanistan since October 7, set on chasing down al Qaeda and toppling the Taliban government that harbored its leaders. I had crossed the strictly controlled border from Uzbekistan thanks to an Afghan friend. I had not seen him for six years, but he had helped my father travel into Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and decided to help his friend’s daughter cover this war. It was one of the reasons I came to love the Afghans. Friendship and loyalty mattered.
I had visited Mazar-i-Sharif several times in the 1990s and knew it as a busy trading town, its streets spanning out from the glorious turquoise dome and tiled walls of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali in its central square. I was shocked at how impoverished the city and its inhabitants had become. They had suffered two terrible massacres in four years under the Taliban and lived under virtual blockade. Thousands of families, displaced by the war and Afghanistan’s worst drought in decades, had moved to the city in search of work and food. The streets were clogged with horsecarts, street stalls, and laborers pulling loads through the potholes. Families carrying children in their arms stepped through the mud to the central hospital. Scores of women begged on the mud-slicked streets, their faces hidden behind the lattice screen of the burqa, the head-to-toe pleated veil that turned women into soulless beings. The only part of their body visible was a calloused hand stretched out to passersby. Everyone was cold and hungry. The restaurants and tea shops were empty because of Ramadan. Street stalls sold imported fruit juice and stale biscuits, but there was not an egg to be had in the whole city.
I was reporting for the New York Times, one of two dozen correspondents scrambled and sent to the region in the weeks after 9/11. I would end up staying for over a decade, engrossed in America’s struggle in Afghanistan. The Afghans would overthrow the Taliban and embrace peace, only to falter and slip back, dragged into a fight that few of them wanted. I packed up and left my previous post in the Balkans and went to live in Kabul, staying with the story even as the world’s attention was drawn away to Iraq. For me, Afghanistan was always the most important news story of the time. It was where 9/11 began and would finally be answered. It was where my reporting life had started, and from where rose this great wave of Islamism that has powered many of today’s wars.
By 2001, I had been reporting on wars for nearly eight years: five in Russia where I covered the war in Chechnya closely, and three in the Balkans, chronicling the war in Kosovo and the fall of Slobodan Milošević for the New York Times. At the time of 9/11, I was reporting on NATO’s most pressing concern, an incipient guerrilla movement in Macedonia on the border with Kosovo. I watched the attack on the twin towers with fellow journalists in a hotel bar in Skopje. I knew immediately that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks. I knew the story would lead back to Afghanistan, and I felt dread for the Afghans.
Afghanistan had featured large in my life for nearly twenty years, ever since the early days of the Soviet invasion. As a Russian language student, I had met drunken Red Army soldiers back from Afghanistan in a Soviet bar. The war was never officially acknowledged, but those conscripts told hair-raising stories of Afghan guerrillas mutilating soldiers caught on the battlefield. I heard the other side of the story from my father, a British television journalist who was in Afghanistan with the mujahideen, and brought back pictures of refugees pouring out of the country along donkey trails, villagers taking up arms against Soviet jets and helicopters, and Russian prisoners talking about drug-taking and hazing in the ranks. It was the Soviet Union’s Vietnam — I was fascinated. In the 1990s, I traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan and saw for myself the harsh mountains and emerald valleys of the Hindu Kush, and met the Afghans, resilient and gracious even in the destitution of the refugee camps.
I came across international jihadis in the Pakistani city of Peshawar then, too. We called them Wahhabis, after the fundamentalist Islamic sect that has its roots in Saudi Arabia. They were rough fighters, Arabs and North Africans who would run us off the roads, and Egyptian and Kuwaiti doctors who showed a hostile arrogance to us Westerners. We did not realize then, but they were the beginnings of bin Laden’s al Qaeda. They were often a menace to the Afghans with their militaristic ambitions. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, they were looking for a cause.
I saw Wahhabis turn up in Chechnya in 1995 and watched how they transformed the Chechens’ deserving cause for self-determination into an extremist Islamist struggle. Determined to spark a greater conflagration across the Muslim North Caucasus, the Arabs set Chechens against each other and helped provoke the second war in the republic in 1999, bringing more disaster and destruction down on the small territory. They wrought even greater havoc in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They dreamed of creating an Islamic caliphate stretching across South and Central Asia, home to some 500 million Muslims. Pakistan, the first nuclear-armed Muslim state, would be at its core. Some of us saw and wrote about the extremist trend as it unfolded, but no Western government seemed concerned.
Now, by going to war in 2001, the United States was walking into the Islamists’ trap. It was just what al Qaeda wanted: for Afghanistan again to serve as a battleground for Muslim fighters against a superpower. The Afghans once more were their unlucky pawns.
It would become America’s longest overt war. Thirteen years later, there is no swift resolution in sight, and support at home has waned. Few Americans seem to care anymore about Afghanistan, and I decided I owed it to all those caught up in the maelstrom of Afghanistan to put down a record of events as I had seen them from the ground.
The war has been a tragedy costing untold thousands of lives and lasting far too long. The Afghans were never advocates of terrorism yet they bore the brunt of the punishment for 9/11. Pakistan, supposedly an ally, has proved to be perfidious, driving the violence in Afghanistan for its own cynical, hegemonic reasons. Pakistan’s generals and mullahs have done great harm to their own people as well as their Afghan neighbors and NATO allies. Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has been the true enemy.
The U.S. and NATO response has always been behind the curve, “trailing” the insurgency, as the military terms it, and ignoring it to wage war in Iraq. It was a fatal error to allow the insurgency to grow so strong that defeating it would be brought into question and cost so many lives. Politicians and diplomats, barring the exceptional few, were mealymouthed, pleading that they had no leverage over Pakistan, and downright negligent.
I watched the resurgence of the Taliban with mounting alarm and, ultimately, great sorrow since it could have been prevented. I witnessed many of the scenes in this book, met most of the participants, and heard their accounts firsthand. In retelling these events, I am offering a first brush of history. It is a partial record, as war reporting always is, but it is as I and many Afghans saw it. I lived in Kabul, with a foothold in Islamabad, from 2001 to 2011, traveling all over Afghanistan and through much of Pakistan too. I returned for nine months, from 2012 to 2013, to write this book. Over twelve years, I lost friends and acquaintances in suicide bombings and shootings, and saw others close to me savagely maimed. I do not pretend to be objective in this war. I am on the side of the victims. The human suffering has been far too great, and we have a duty to ponder the reasons for such a calamity.
Meet the Author
Carlotta Gall has worked for the New York Times since 1999, including over ten years in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She previously worked for the Financial Times and The Economist. In 2007 she was featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.
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This is a comprehensive look at America's involvement in Afghanistan after 9/11. Ms. Gall connects with the Afghan people and shows how they have been caught between Pakistan and a superpower of the decade. Hamid Kharzai may be a great politician, but I think Afghanistan needed him to be a better statesman. The most effective American military leaders in Afghanistan were those who tried to understand the Afghani people. Pakistan has tried to play all the opposing forces against each other, for their own benefit, and to the detriment of the people of Afghanistan. An enlightening look at the situation in Afghanistan.
This is an EXCELLENT book that should be read by all who want to know why the Afghanistan War went horribly wrong.