The South Asia Channel

The Spy Who Tried to Stop the Afghan War

In his new book, 88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary, Robert Grenier reminds his readers that seemingly inevitable victories are actually decided by slim and sometimes arbitrary margins.

Obama And Afghan President Karzai Hold Joint News Conf. At White House
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 11: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Afghan President Hamid Karzai speak to the media during a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House January 11, 2013 in Washington, DC. Karzai is in Washington for face-to-face meetings with Obama and senior members of his administration about the future of American commitment to Afghanistan and when troops may leave the country after more than 10 years of war. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The history of Afghanistan — or at least its contemporary reality — may have been decided by a few feet.

On Dec. 5, 2001, when a 2,000-pound smart bomb fell from the sky, Hamid Karzai was standing in an Afghan schoolhouse. He was not yet the president of Afghanistan, a subject of consternation from American diplomats, or the reported recipient of tens of millions of dollars from the CIA. He was simply the leader of a meager force of perhaps 120 Afghans trying earnestly to defeat the Taliban.

An American accompanying Karzai was carrying some sort of controller which malfunctioned and called a strike on its own location. Karzai was lucky when the bomb hit — he only suffered a minor cut when a mirror fell from a wall. Nearby, 40 people were wounded or killed, and a man was decapitated. Had Karzai been standing in a different position, he would have been unable to answer the phone call the next day that informed him he had been elected chairman of Afghanistan’s interim administration. Soon, Karzai became president.

This anecdote is one of many in 88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary, which chronicles Robert Grenier’s time as the CIA station chief in Pakistan before and after 9/11. The book focuses on Grenier’s efforts to drive al Qaeda and the Taliban out of Kandahar in the 88 days after the attacks in New York and Washington.

What makes Grenier’s memoir unique is that it depicts the war in real time. Like the incident with Karzai, successes often come down to luck, and tragedy is decided at random. The book provides a useful reminder that inevitable victories are actually decided by slim and sometimes arbitrary margins.

Readers of 88 Days to Kandahar can’t help but to hypothesize what might have happened had one or two details changed. For example, if Karzai had been killed in the airstrike, who would have led Afghanistan?

Painfully, one of the biggest “what ifs” in the book might have avoided war all together, saving thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. Just days after the Twin Towers fell, Grenier flew to Pakistan’s Baluchistan province to meet with Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Osmani, the Taliban commander of southern Afghanistan. Osmani was the Taliban’s de facto second-in-command and Grenier tried to convince him that the group should expel Osama Bin Laden from Afghanistan. Osmani was ready to do so, but couldn’t convince his boss, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Grenier went for broke, urging Osmani to depose Omar. Amazingly, Osmani agreed. But the coup never happened; Osmani changed his mind.

What would have happened if Osmani had followed through on his bid for power and ejected bin Laden from Afghanistan? It would have certainly changed the course of the war, and perhaps the face of the entire region. Once again Grenier reminds his readers that the line between one profound fate and another is paper-thin.

In Grenier’s estimation, the best spies — the ones who operate in the shadows — are those who understand what drives an individual to act. For some, it is money. For others, it is respect. It is from this perspective of human desires and needs that 88 Days to Kandahar is highly critical of U.S. government policy in Afghanistan. The United States overwhelmed a primitive country with a tribal culture, Grenier says. We became the latest occupier in a country that had seen many of them, and somewhere along the way we forgot what was best for Afghans.

He pulls no punches with decisions he views as politically motivated, calling U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement in 2009 of a surge of forces in Afghanistan, while simultaneously stating that the troops would pullout 18 months later “criminal.” Instead, Grenier says, the United States should have committed a small number of troops to stay in Afghanistan in the long-term, such as in Germany and South Korea. This strategy seems politically unrealistic — even Grenier points out that Americans do not have the patience for long wars.

This tension between Washington’s politics and Afghanistan’s realities is a narrative woven throughout the book. But this week, a piece of Afghanistan came to the United States, as the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, visited Washington, D.C. Ghani appears to be more politically savvy than his predecessor, Karzai, but that won’t guarantee smooth sailing. Obama has committed himself to pulling out nearly all U.S. forces currently in Afghanistan before he leaves office in 2016, though he did announce earlier this week that he would keep more troops in the country until then. This was likely welcome news to Ghani, as he has called for a re-examination of the timeline for withdrawal, but many others are opposed to the pullout all together. Indeed, Grenier calls the current strategy an “abandonment.”

Afghans in many ways have grown accustomed to being abandoned. Between the British, the Soviets, and the Americans, it seems to be a cycle of war and departure. It is notable that back when Grenier was trying to convince Osmani to take control of the Taliban, he used the exact word, “abandonment.”

“We realize we made a big mistake when we abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviets left. We will not make that mistake again,” he told Osmani.

Is abandonment what drives Afghans like Osmani? If it is, then future spies and policymakers will be well advised to read 88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary. Unless current policy changes, America will leave Afghanistan behind in 2016, and the cycle of war could well be renewed.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Justin Lynch is the associate editor of Fifth Domain, which covers cybersecurity for Sightline Media. He was previously based in South Sudan and has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Daily Beast. Follow him on twitter @just1nlynch.

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