In 2012, I rode in a white Toyota Corolla past upscale villas and cafes to the outskirts of Islamabad, arriving at a hidden complex that was home to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s chief intelligence agency. In my many previous trips to the country, including several in 2010-11 while working at the White House National Security Council, I had witnessed a drastic deterioration in security. This trip revealed a Pakistan under siege by Islamist militants. Militants had recently shot 14-year-old schoolgirl and education activist Malala Yousafzai. Mullah Fazlullah, the Pakistani Taliban commander who ordered the attack, had found safe haven in Afghanistan. The shooting underscored what many Pakistanis increasingly believed to be true: Afghanistan was complicit in Pakistan’s destabilization.

The driver skillfully navigated through at least a dozen jersey barriers and multiple checkpoints to the building’s entrance, where I met an ISI general who had another take on the crisis facing Afghanistan and Pakistan. He told me that “the U.S. cannot win in Afghanistan” and should look to Pakistan to be America’s guarantor of security there.

Journalist Carlotta Gall shreds the Pakistani general’s blueprint in her book “The Wrong Enemy” by arguing that Pakistan is “perfidious, driving the violence in Afghanistan for its own cynical, hegemonic reasons.” She writes of a Pakistan that is more an active participant in the conflict than an invisible hand governing by proxy, the more common perception among most of those who have followed the diplomatic wrangling in the region.

In November 2001, American planes bombed Taliban front-line positions in northwestern Afghanistan while, according to Gall, “hundreds of Pakistanis: scores of military advisors and trainers, members of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence” secretly assisted the Taliban. As many as 3,000 Pakistani troops and advisers were trapped at the Kunduz airfield, a 12-hour drive from the Pakistani border. Pakistani military airlifts evacuated most of them, while “nearly a thousand low-level Pakistani fighters were left to fend for themselves.”

Gall’s attention to detail partially lifts the veil on the shadowy operations of the ISI, best known for its clandestine support of anti-Soviet Afghan fighters during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But “The Wrong Enemy” reduces a decades-long national security strategy to a tactical level, oversimplifying the psychology of Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban and distracting from the real question at hand: Why does Pakistan want to influence Afghanistan?

‘The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014’ by Carlotta Gall (HMH)

Gall rightly says that Pakistan supports the Taliban as a hedge against pro-India Afghan groups but neglects to provide important context for such actions. For example, she does not mention major Indian investments in the Afghan economy and the proliferation of consulates in Afghanistan since 2001 that serve to provoke Pakistan. Nor does she consider the cash and arms being exported to Afghan groups by Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. Thus, she misses the critical role that regional dynamics have played in the 13-year, NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan and most certainly will play in the country’s future.

Although Pakistan has never been the lone player in Afghanistan’s proxy conflicts, it remains the most problematic one for the United States. Gall asserts what many privately think: Washington looks the other way when Pakistan supports militants as long as those militants don’t threaten the United States. The American pattern of dealing with this double game is to mollify Pakistan in public but keep stronger messages private. This changed in May 2011 when the United States discovered and killed Osama bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

While convinced that the ISI protected bin Laden, Gall struggles to provide proof. She offers only one plausible example of Pakistan’s alleged complicity. Documents in the Abbottabad compound contained communications among bin Laden, Afghan Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and Hafiz Saeed of the jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Given that the ISI closely monitors the two latter men and their organizations , Gall argues, it must have known of their interactions with bin Laden.

Most of her other evidence relies on shaky hearsay at best and her sources’ gut feelings at worst. A former Pakistani domestic intelligence chief told Gall, “Nobody can believe he was there without people knowing.” A retired Pakistani general “got a feeling” that former president Pervez Musharraf knew that bin Laden had moved to Abbottabad during his term. The evidence? The way Musharraf said something on television.

Failing to unlock the bin Laden case does not detract from Gall’s broader chronicling of the war in Afghanistan, which she masterfully conveys through stark images and gritty war reporting. In 2004, Gall traveled to the pro-Taliban village Shurakai, where “there were no roads in this part of the country, and we relied entirely on the mujahideen who knew every track and ambush spot. They led us along dry river beds and desert tracks across a moonscape of fine white sand.” She shares chilling firsthand images of Afghan suffering: “Putrefying flesh was still entangled amid the bright scarlet blossoms of a pomegranate tree.” If you have never visited Afghanistan, “The Wrong Enemy” will take you there.

Gall’s Afghanistan will always have a Pakistani bogeyman, and for good reason. Pakistani militants are stronger and closer to both al-Qaeda and Afghan militants, making the security of Afghanistan and Pakistan more intertwined. The United States, too, remains indefinitely present in this hyphenated part of the world, where, Gall presciently warns, militant Islamism is “a juggernaut that cannot be turned off or turned away from” and will tie the United States to the region for decades to come.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is a senior adviser at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation.


America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014

By Carlotta Gall

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 329 pp. $28