The historian Herodotus gave us the saying “circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances” to warn us away from the illusion that we are wise and powerful enough to make the world bend completely to our expectations.
The generals and CIA operatives who populate journalist Steve Coll’s Directorate S would have done well to heed Herodotus’ advice. Coll’s hefty book picks up where his Pulitzer Prize–winning Ghost Wars left off, giving us the twisting story of top-secret operatives, both American and Pakistani, and the cat and mouse game (an obligatory phrase when writing about spies) played in reaction to the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent bid to control the Taliban and reshape Afghanistan. Afghanistan suffered through change, surely, but not in the way that American forces intended. After nearly two decades of violence and squandered resources, Coll attempts to give an at least provisional theory of why the cause was lost.
That means countless hours of interviews with people on the ground and massive document dumps alongside masterful control of a complex, sweeping narrative. Wars are such complicated endeavors that there’s always something more to learn, always another fact to be recovered from the miasma of violence and degradation. One of the most shocking takeaways was how the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, used its titular Directorate S to manipulate the Taliban by keeping them agitated enough to lure American forces into expanding a war which was, by 2004 at least, almost an afterthought to the action in Iraq.
As elucidating as Directorate S is, its real strength is the complexity of the human drama itself. Coll gives us portraits of the actual people wrapped up in this insane drama, from eccentric but skillful American operatives such as Rich Blee, the second-generation intelligence officer who had been warning higher-ups about an impending attack from Bin Laden, to Amrullah Selah, the boy-wonder intelligence chief of a northern tribe stuck in a vice grip between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Americans. There’s a literary majesty to the way Coll portrays this sad parade of tragic figures in tight spots, the rag dolls of fate.
And yet despite the ambitious scope of the book, there’s something fundamental missing. Just as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t contain a definition of sanity, Directorate S doesn’t clearly articulate what our nation should have done. This isn’t necessarily Coll’s fault; he conveys by insinuation that hubris and overreach were baked into the project from its very beginnings, and that eventual failure is an unavoidable reality for every imperial project. Herodotus might have warned us of the outcome, but only a staggering and dramatic shift in how we conceive of nationality, power, and foreign affairs might have prevented it – or prevent it happening again.