Fickle foes

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Author Carlotta Gall’s book deserves a read for its thorough research and information
Carlotta Gall’s book deserves a read for its thorough research and information

As dawn broke, American and Afghan soldiers surrounded the village and advanced on foot, searching houses and detaining people. “When they came right into the village and saw the dead women and children they were very sad and their attitude changed towards us … they told me through a translator that they had made a mistake. They said ‘we are sorry, but what’s done, we cannot undo.’ … ‘They were collecting body parts in buckets’, the governor told us … Four days after the bombardment, the place was still a scene of unspeakable gore. Blood stained the ground and putrefying flesh was still entangled amid the bright scarlet blossoms of a pomegranate tree.”

“The wedding party bombing (at Kakrak), as it came to be known, was not the first deadly mistake U.S. forces had made in Afghanistan.”

War torn, complex and in a circular state of flux, Afghanistan, unfortunate as it may be, has become the dream destination for many conflict journalists. The closest most people ever get to Kabul is through a bearded, bandana wearing, Special Forces virtual persona in Medal Of Honour on gaming consoles. But journalist Carlotta Gall, has well and truly lived the conflict in real life.

Having spent over a decade reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan, her book The Wrong Enemy — American in Afghanistan 2001 2014, gives readers a front row seat to the complexities of the latest phase of the Afghan conflict. What is most striking is the timing of the book — even as the US is busy withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, Gall’s book gives a full history of the conflict and raises the pertinent issue that America was fighting the wrong enemy, in the wrong country.

Through her vivid descriptions of clothes, facial hair and mannerisms, she beautifully captures the myriad communities that make up the Afghan jigsaw, effectively bringing to light the complex social realties that compound the political issues.

“The men on guard were a mixed crowd. The United Front was a coalition of ethnic groups from northern and central Afghanistan. There were stocky Uzbeks with Asiatic features in long corduroy tunics … who wore mustaches rather than beards; small wiry, Hazaras wearing checkered headscarves, members of a Shiite group that had fought ferocious battles against the Talibans; and Tajik commandos of the Northern Alliance, in combat fatigues and army boots, the best trained men of the anti-Taliban forces.”

Gall also succinctly captures the contradictions within the Afghan society — to be pro-US or anti-US, the old Taliban vs the new Taliban, to endorse suicide bombing or steer clear — all this gives the uninitiated a deeper understanding of how and why peace has eluded the Afghan people.

While Gall questions the US’s ham-handed approach in dealing with the surrendered Taliban — sending troops into Iraq rather then ensuring the Taliban were taken out when they were on the back-foot, the core theme of the book, which is America’s misplaced trust in Pakistan as an ally in the ‘war on terror’, should strike a special chord with India. One of the main thrusts of the book is to highlight the fact that despite receiving more than $23 billion of aid and American assistance since 9/11, Pakistan only pretended to cut ties with the Taliban and instead, the ISI waged a proxy war against NATO in Afghanistan. For years the links between the ISI and terror outfits operating in India as well as the Afghanistan had been a ‘known secret’ in Indian security circles. “In their war on terror, America is caught between a rock and a hard place. They need Pakistan to open the doors for them to operate in Afghanistan, so they pour in funding and assistance, and at the same time they are forced to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s nefarious activities,” says a senior Indian security official, a statement that is validated by Gall’s book.

In fact, the book states that the car bomb that detonated outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul on 7 July 2008, killing 54 people, including an India defence attaché, was organised by an operative of the Pakistani ISI.

The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 Carlotta Gall Houghton Mifflin 329 pp; Rs 1,376
The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014
Carlotta Gall
Houghton Mifflin
329 pp; Rs 1,376

However, in the same vein, she talks about the complexity of establishing the link between the ISI, the religious parties and the Taliban. She writes of the “S” Directorate of the ISI which handles Pakistan’s covert operations outside the country, namely proxy operations in Kashmir, Afghanistan and the Sikhs in India (something that should be a cause of alarm to India — the risk of a resurgence of the Khalistan movement).

“A former western diplomat told me ‘It is truly deniable… They do not use serving officer … retired army officers and special forces commandos tend to work for the “S” wing … They provide the Taliban with fuel, ammunition and other logistical support … The headquarters of the “S” Directorate is in Camp Hamza, the ISI compound in Rawalpindi.”

Speaking to the brother of a suicide bomber, she writes, “I asked Daoud’s elder, Alla Dad, if it was Taliban or the ISI who were responsible, and, he said ‘All Taliban are ISI Taliban,’ he said. ‘It is not possible to go to Afghanistan without the help of the ISI. Everyone says this.”

But that is the problem with her evidence. The crucial bits of evidence come from unnamed sources or are based on local eyewitnesses. Even the so-called withdrawal of Pakistani resources on Afghani soil — troops, vehicles, weapons and so on — was based on accounts from locals who watched multiple flights taking off. So it is hard to say if the book hammers the proverbial ‘nail in the coffin’, but it would be nonsensical to discount Carlotta’s research and information.

Considering the evidence at hand, her observations and logical links, the chapter on Osama bin Laden seems to strongly drive home the point that Pakistan was in the know. Gall breaks down the system of safe houses used by the ISI, the fact that Osama was next to a military station, that the house was never investigated, that he moved around freely and that his safe house had no escape route. Or that he never fired his guns because he was very sure he would be warned well in advance by the special desk run by the ISI to watch over the al Qaeda leader. Hence the CIA opted not to bring the ISI in on their plan to raid the compound.

At the same time, she writes that the women of that safe house later explained how Osama was sure it was the Americans who had come. He knew he was protected by the Pakistanis but he also knew that at one point the protection would run out.

“Pakistan had often complained that America was a fickle friend, showering it with financial assistance and military cooperation when it needed something but cutting off the aid and slamming on the sanctions when it did not. That is true … Pakistan was a junior partner in the relationship but no less fickle, even while receiving billions of dollars of aid and enjoying the status of major non-NATO ally. For surely the ultimate test of loyalty is this: Are you harboring my enemy? Are you trying to hurt me?”

This particular chapter highlights the fickle nature of the relationship between the US and Pakistan, as well as Pakistan and the al Qaeda leader.

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