Coll convincingly shows that those few al-Qaeda scalps, delivered by the ISI at a time when the Bush administration had already begun to ignore Afghanistan and focus on the looming war in Iraq, bought years of American inattention to the ISI’s more secretive activities: arming and financing the Taliban and other Afghan militant groups sympathetic to Pakistan rather than India. The United States had stumbled into an informal, unspoken bargain, accepting help from Pakistan in the fight against al-Qaeda in exchange for tacitly enabling, while feebly contesting, Pakistan’s efforts to sabotage the American-led campaign in Afghanistan. Intermittent U.S. demands that the covert efforts stop went unheeded.
The deal was stunningly lucrative for Islamabad. Each year, the Pentagon transferred hundreds of millions of dollars in cash to Pakistan, ostensibly to reimburse its military for counterterrorism operations. In fact, Coalition Support Funds were a “kind of legal bribery to Pakistan’s generals,” Coll argues. The Pentagon would receive bills for air-defense expenses, even though al-Qaeda had no air force. One Special Forces colonel, Barry Shapiro, recalls invoices from Pakistan’s navy listing per diem pay for sailors “on duty fighting the Global War on Terrorism.” Shapiro tried to question some of the expenses: Was there any proof that the Pakistani army had indeed shot off the missiles it was asking to be reimbursed for? But he was told by his superiors to be quiet and pay up.
The arrangement was effectively on autopilot as the Iraq War consumed the Bush administration’s attention. Congress approved the funding with few reservations, and years passed before lawmakers seemed to comprehend their role in the farce. During one congressional hearing in 2012, a top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Gary Ackerman, lamented that Pakistan had become “a black hole for American aid.” “Our tax dollars go in. Our diplomats go in, sometimes. Our aid professionals go in, sometimes. Our hopes go in. Our prayers go in,” he said. “Nothing good ever comes out.”
Members of Congress began calling for a strategy to put pressure on Pakistan by cutting annual aid to the country, but policy makers faced another quandary: As the goals the United States set in Afghanistan grew more ambitious, Washington’s need of Pakistan’s help to achieve them grew too. The swiftness with which the initial military campaign fulfilled its comparatively modest aims—to avenge the September 11 attacks by destroying al-Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan, expel the Taliban from cities, and install a more competent government in Kabul—led to hubris about what was possible in a hopelessly poor country wracked by decades of war.
The enterprise of nation building meant, in no particularly consistent order, quixotic attempts to root out corruption, lean on Karzai to sack unsavory warlords, and reengineer Afghanistan’s opium economy by getting farmers to plant crops far less lucrative than poppies. In 2004, I traveled with a team of Green Berets through gorgeous, flowering poppy fields to meet with the elders of various villages in Kunar province. “The government in Kabul wants you to plant wheat” was high on the list of the soldiers’ talking points. During the meeting, one of the elders duly declared, “Next year we will plant wheat!” Many of the others sniggered.