5 Questions: Steve Coll on Post 9/11 Wars

February 05, 2018
Steve Coll with his elbows on a desk talking to people across from him.

Photo by Piotr Redlinski

In addition to his day job as dean of Columbia Journalism School, Steve Coll is a writer for The New Yorker and the author of five books. His newest, Directorate S, is about America’s secret wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan after 9/11. It takes up where his last, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars, left off. Coll also won a Pulitzer for his reporting at the Washington Post in 1990.

Q. You have chronicled aspects of the story of terrorism, in one form or another, in Ghost Wars, The Bin Ladens, and now in Directorate S. What is there about the topic that has captured your interest?

A. In many ways it was an accident of professional history. Directorate S ties off a body of work that's been part of my life for almost three decades now. I was assigned as the South Asia correspondent for the Washington Post a decade before the September 11 attacks. I covered Afghanistan and then the rise of Al Qaeda during the 1990s. I also spent time in Saudi Arabia. I wrote Ghost Wars to try to chronicle how the attacks emerged from the Afghan wars. I've remained captivated by both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Q. Are we, and our allies, doomed to be mired in that part of the world indefinitely, an area that has bedeviled Western and surrounding countries for centuries?

A. I hope not. Unfortunately, our aims in Afghanistan have been a muddle, laced with contradictions, since the retaliatory war that overthrew the Taliban and sent Al Qaeda scattering to Pakistan in the fall of 2001. We've trapped ourselves through our own incoherence and illusions. We have an interest in trying to foster peace and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan but we haven't gone about it very well.

Q. What broader lessons are there to be gleaned from U.S. involvement in foreign wars and regime building?

A. We forgot the lessons of Vietnam, that our capacity to fight expeditionary counterinsurgency wars in very poor countries, in an age of saturated media, is limited. We squandered peace in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, then failed to recognize that Pakistani intelligence - the "Directorate S" of the book's title - had decided to quietly revive the Taliban, until it was too late.

Q. How is it that the U.S. keeps getting itself embroiled in unwinnable and unmanageable wars?

A. Too often since 2001 our counterterrorism strategy has been driven by military action. Our military is the strongest in the world but it is a hammer that sees every problem as a nail. With the exception of Special Forces and other specialized units, the military is not well equipped for the asymmetric problem of terrorism, yet it has often dominated policymaking at the White House.

Q. What does your reporting tell you about how further conflicts might be handled under a new administration?

A. The Trump Administration has essentially turned its foreign policy over to the military. Defense Secretary James Mattis is a thoughtful, reasonable character, so it could be worse, but once again, our approach to the challenge of small wars and terrorism is unbalanced. The State Department is shriveling and we have pulled back from humanitarian aid. Within the military, a belief has settled in that we will be fighting small wars with Special Forces around the world for a long time; that belief will persist long after the Trump Administration.

—Interview by Bridget O'Brian