Thinking About Afghanistan and Steve Coll’s New Book, ‘Directorate S’

Last year I officially graduated university with my Bachelor of Arts in History with International Relations and Political Science. I was one of the few people in my friend group that never changed academic pathways and always knew what I wanted to study, very luckily. I’ve always been fascinated by the way people treat each other on both a macro- and micro-level (the micro-level helps explain why I love bartending so much), and I’ve always been especially fascinated by the dynamics of war and terrorism.


My plan while in university was to earn a degree in Political Science (but I later realized I loved history much more), then go on to earn a Masters in what I realized was International Relations with a focus on security studies. My dream job, or more accurately, what used to be my dream job was a Policy Analyst with the Department of Foreign Affairs (what is today known as Global Affairs Canada). Things have changed since then and I’m not earning my Masters at the moment, but my fascination and passion for current events and international affairs is as powerful now as it was while I was studying.


During my undergraduate studies I took the Honours History (with International Relations) program and, as part of the program, I had to write a thesis. While in university (2012-2017) the Syrian War was in the headlines almost everyday and I knew I wanted to study the Syrian conflict while earning my Masters. In order to gear myself up for that study I wrote my undergraduate thesis about the Afghan Conflict. More specifically, I wrote about the structural differences between three separate groups in Afghanistan from 1989 to 1996 (the Communist Government, the Mujahideen, and the Taliban, in order of governance) and why, ultimately in 1996, the Taliban were able to ascend to power. My conclusion was that the Taliban were able to gain control of (most of) Afghanistan because 1. they had a central system of governance under Mullah Mohammad Omar (while other groups were splintered and divided), and 2. they were receiving lots of money and arms (via the ISI and CIA) with which to wage their conflict while the mujahideen were not and the Communist Party was running out of money (the Soviets were becoming less and less willing to fund them).


While researching my thesis project and learning the intricacies of Afghan history during this period, and prior to the period I wrote about, I read a variety of materials. From textbooks by leading Afghan historians and professors (i.e. Ahmed Rashid, Barnett Rubin, Steve Coll) to declassified CIA, NSA, State Department, and translated declassified Soviet memos and documents, I learned just how complicated the Afghan Conflict really was. Not only is Afghan history a result of the ethnic diversity and geographical texture, Afghanistan has had foreign ruler after foreign ruler try to govern unsuccessfully. The successions of foreign rulers, from Alexander the Great to the British and Russians later on, has meant that indigenous Afghan governments have rarely had the abaility or capacity to arise. When it came time to look at the history of the Taliban, by reading declassified documents and published histories, I learned how the Taliban were funded by both the United States government (via the CIA) and the Pakistani government (via the Inter-Services Intelligence, the equivalent of the Pakistani CIA). I learned how the movement began as an indigenous, religious movement emerging in Kandahar and built of Pashto-speaking Afghans. Over the years the Taliban also included large numbers of foreign fighters, primarily from Saudi Arabia, but it began as an indigenous movement that began most notably funded by the ISI.


One incredibly interesting thing, and something that irks me most, is that while we hear of the Afghan conflict and the Taliban in world news, for some reason journalists report that the conflict began in 2001. It did not. The Afghan Conflict has been going on since at least 1979. In 1979 the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in order to more effectively support and bolster the communist government in Kabul (in later years headed by Mohammed Najibullah). The first authorization of American money to Afghan rebels, fighters, mujahideen occured under President Jimmy Carter, in response to the physical Soviet entrance into Afghanistan. The conflict in Afghanistan has been going on for nearly forty years—this means longer than a generation.


The brutality of the Syrian Conflict and the alarm raised by the ‘Islamic State’ group has people questioning the effects of war. I like to think that this questioning began earlier with the American-Iraq War, but when it started isn’t the important issue here. The important issue is how the experience of war affects individuals. There is a generation in Afghanistan that has never known peace—their parents grew up when the war was beginning, and kids, adolescents, and young adults have grown up in an environment of instability, lawlessness, and chaos. What is the societal effect of the accumulation of those terrifying individual experiences? For someone who is 40 years old in Afghanistan, they will have never really known peace. And for someone who is my age, 23, they will have never known peace either. So my question is, how can you build a solid system of security and governance when you have never known what that really looks or feels like? How do you come to terms, both as an individual and as a society, with the debilitating impacts and memories of war?


A few days ago I listened to a podcast by the BBC World Service (‘The Documentary’ Series, available on the Podcast App on iPhones) called ‘Madness of War’ (broadcast on February 8 2018).

“In a small cold courtyard in Herat in Afghanistan, two former enemies sit chained together. One is a former warlord, the other a Taliban fighter. Both men are dangerous. Both men are suffering from severe psychiatric conditions. The courtyard is where all 300 inmates of Afghanistan’s only secure psychiatric spend their day; men and women who are too dangerous to be treated in a general hospital. Nearly four decades of war have left a terrible legacy of mental health problems in Afghanistan. In a country where mental illness is often viewed with suspicion and stigma, the challenges of dealing with it are immense. For Assignment, Sahar Zand, gains unprecedented access to the institution, the only one of its kind in the country, where she meets the medical staff trying to deal with Afghanistan’s mental health emergency and the patients, traumatised by decades of conflict.” (via BBC website,

Zand interviews a handful of individuals suffering from psychiatric conditions as a result of the experience of war, and shows the varying and lasting impacts on cognition. Each individual experience of the war is different, but underlying each experience is trauma.


That individual trauma becomes expressed on a macro-level as a societal trauma. One thing I loved about this particular podcast was that various individual voices were given to a conflict that has so often just become viewed as something that always has been, like ‘Afghanistan has always been at war.’ Any country in the world is made up of the individuals within it, and one sad fact about coverage of the Afghan War is that the Afghans themselves have been most affected by the war, but they’ve also received the least amount of attention by media outlets which appear to be documenting the conflict.


Steve Coll, one of the foremost academics researching Afghanistan and the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, very recently (as in January 2018) published a book entitled Directorate S: The C. I. A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016. He spoke about this new book with Democracy Now! on February 8, 2018 (watch or listen to the episode here: His previous Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Ghost Wars, was an essential read for me while working on my thesis. Ghost Wars ends on September 10, 2001, the day before the 9/11 attacks. It documents the history of how the Taliban emerged and the also tells the history of Soviet and American engagement in Afghanistan during the Cold War. This new book analyzed American and Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan, with a primary focus on the Pakistani ISI and their role in Afghan affairs. I haven’t read Directorate S yet, but as a fervent student of Afghan affairs, it’s high on my reading list. I can, however, say that Ghost Wars was an enlightening, eye-opening, and on-the-while easy-to-read book, and I have extremely high expectations that Coll will write a history that pays attention to the human impacts of the Afghan conflict while accurately and objectively documenting the governmental meddling in that country’s affairs.


For anyone interested in Afghan affairs or if this post has raised any questions, I would be happy to answer or discuss any questions below. If you’d like any recommendations for books discussing recent Afghan history I can definitely think of more than a handful. Happy Saturday!

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