The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan

Carlotta Gall, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan: 2001-2014. Haryana: Penguin Books Ltd, 2014, pages 329. 

United States fought its ever-longest war in history in Afghanistan. The al-Qaeda, Taliban terrorists, and militants were not completely washed out, however. Carlotta Gall is an American journalist worked for The New York Times during 2001-20014. She closely watched events inside Afghanistan and Pakistan and reported. She coined the title of the book from the remarks of the late U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Hollbrooke, who remarked that ‘we may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country’. Gall indicates that the ‘right enemy’ was Pakistan’s, its trainings camps for Jihadis, and madaris, and its intelligence agencies.  

Gall also observes that the war in Afghanistan was fought for thirteen years without solution (p.xiii). In foreword, she described her experience as a journalist working in Pakistan facing many arduous situations. She throws blames on security agencies disrupting her reporting. However, some of her observations were based upon exaggerations. In fact, Pakistan has developed more freedom of press during the American war in Afghanistan than many other countries. While reporting from war zones, there are hazards.

The work has been divided into fourteen chapters ranging from surrender of the Taliban 2001 up to the events in Zangabad in 2013. Gall narrates the events in detail that how the Taliban were defeated and how the American collaborated with the United Front formed by the late Ahmed Shah Massoud driven by Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Tajiks, also known as the Northern Alliance, the staunch enemy of the Taliban. Gall says that Pakistan was having a proxy war inside Afghanistan particularly in Kunduz and rescued two thousand people through military flights but the remaining one thousand were left behind in lurch (p.8).

Gall describes that Hamid Karazi needed the support of the Americans. He carried large sums of cash from the Americans and distributed ammunitions to fight the Taliban and clear many strongholds of the Taliban. Gall interestingly notes that how came Mullah Omar became the resistance force from 1994 to 2001 – a man never seemed marked for leadership (p.39). He wanted to overthrow the Kabul government and establish an Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan (p.47). Gall wonders how Pakistani establishment considered Omar as able leader.

Quoting an interview of the author with Amrullah Saleh taken in Kabul on 30 September 2012, Gall mentioned that ‘Pakistani diplomatic cables found in Kabul in 2001 warned that the Arab militants in Afghanistan were growing “too big to handle”.’ (p.51). Lt. General Ziauddin Butt, the then Director-General of the Inter-Survives Intelligence (ISI) travelled to Kandahar and told Omar to get rid of Osama bin Laden but Omar could not move against Osama. (p.51). It is a very revealing point, which shows that the ISI was not behind Osama as was portrayed in media, books, analyses, and comments. Osama was Omar’s guest and he found difficult to send him back under Afghan’s traditions of hospitality. This point was highlighted in the media when Americans were ready to bomb Afghanistan.

Gall doubts about General Pervez Musharraf’s support to the United States extended after 9/11. She says that Musharraf was not ready to dismantle thousands of home-grown fighters especially those fighting for Kashmir (pp. 60-61). He, however, handed over Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, Taliban’s Ambassador to Pakistan, to CIA onward detention in Guantanamo Bay. The writer also narrates the story of Sufi Muhammad of Swat and the formation of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a religious political group assisted the regime of Musharraf while he ousted main political opponents in exile. Gall, however, did not throw light on the missing persons case of Pakistani nationals handed over to America.

Gall also suspects that ‘al-Qaeda had spread its tentacles into Pakistani armed forces’ (p.84). She, however, could not come with evidence and elaborate such accusations. These accusations continued throughout the war and operation in Afghanistan by many quarters while Pakistan continued its efforts against terrorism. In fact, Gall came up with a wrong assumption and she could not appreciate Pakistan’s role against terrorism.

Gall tells interesting episodes about the invention of the suicide bombers. She says that they were unknown before 2001 in Afghanistan. A number of militant organizations were involved in training the suicide bombers. They were Harkat-u-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Hesbe-Islami etc under the command of al-Qaeda and supported by the Taliban. The author says that religious madaris were the starting point of producing suicide bombers with the assistance of a middleman, al-Qaeda, and ISI (pp.154-5). The author tells that many Taliban leaders were detained by ISI in order to control them and keep them away from contacting the Karzai Government (p. 161).

Citing one of Osama’s wives, the author says that Osama moved to Haripur after 2004, short while in Swat, and then to Abbottabad in 2006 (p. 91-2). Again, the author did not elaborate the crucial event leading to the end of Osama’s life – the Abbottabad action taken by US Navy SEAL commandos in May 2011. Quoting her interactions with a number of people, she was convinced that Musharraf knew about Osama’s presence in Pakistan but again she did not forward solid evidence.

Gall also describes militancy in Pakistan in her own style following the Afghan war. Against this context, the controversial Red Mosque backlash was discussed. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto ‘spoke out more than any other Pakistani politician about the dangers of militant extremism’ Gall writes. (p. 174). Extracting information from multiple sources, Gall notes that Benazir was killed by al-Qaeda and Baitullah Mehsud, a militant commander from South Waziristan (p.181).

The work is a blunt story and minor details of war events rather than a well researched study from the point of view of an American journalist actively watching the American-NATO-ISAF actions and political and social developments inside Afghanistan and Pakistan over a number of years. The author’s narratives were largely based upon her conversations rather than dwelling on strong arguments. They, however, were penetrating, drawing the attention of readers to make their analyses.

By Dr Ahmed Rashid Malik

The writer is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.