88 Days to Kandahar: The CIA in Afghanistan

02.03.15 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Following the 9/11 attacks, the Central Intelligence Agency was tasked to lead the campaign against Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. There were some initial successes, as the Taliban was driven from its strongholds and a new Afghan government rose to power. Yet the process was often chaotic, confused and haphazard.

“Operating at full throttle, constantly improvising, we seldom had occasion to stop and consider what we were doing, or how.”

That sentence from the new Afghanistan War memoir “88 Days to Kandahar” by Robert L. Grenier, the former CIA chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, could serve as a summary of much of the book (Simon & Schuster, 2015).

Although Grenier claims to find romance in the profession of intelligence, there is little or nothing romantic about the experiences he describes here. Instead, it’s one damn thing after another, often coming at an excruciating cost. Far from clandestinely orchestrating events, he and his fellow CIA operatives are mostly at the mercy of circumstances beyond their ability to control.

Miscommunication, petty jealousy, equipment failures, manipulative colleagues, bureaucratic rivals, and fickle allies all make an appearance in this blow-by-blow account of the opening CIA campaign in Afghanistan.

“The truth was that I was caught, once again, in the fog of mutual incomprehension between Washington and Islamabad.”

Mr. Grenier himself seems like a decent sort, competent, and well-intentioned. But his story is mostly sad, and disturbingly fatalistic.

“As I look back, I fail to see how the history of the past dozen-plus years could have been different,” he writes.

Those initial successes against the Taliban were both fortuitous and easily misunderstood. “There was hardly any genius at work in defeating a primitive army, employing primitive tactics, with uncontested airpower and precision-guided munitions.”

With the Bush Administration’s subsequent decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003, U.S. policy making became ever more incoherent and misguided, in Grenier’s telling.

As the CIA representative to the NSC Deputies’ Committee, “I had a front-row seat on some of the most disastrous foreign policy decisions in our history. It was a deeply disillusioning experience.”

“The meetings I attended at the pinnacle of the foreign policy bureaucracy were notable for what wasn’t said, rather than what was: mendacity and indirection were the orders of the day,” Grenier writes.

It only got worse as operations in Afghanistan dragged on. Yet the Obama Administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces on a fixed, predetermined schedule regardless of other strategic considerations is a fateful mistake, he says.

“The whole enterprise, in my view, was criminal:  Hundreds of U.S. servicemen lost their lives, their limbs, or suffered debilitating head injuries to IEDs while on patrol in Kandahar or Helmand, taking territory that their superiors should have known could never be held by Afghan forces.”

“After a span of a dozen years, the longest war in American history, we had succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden and degrading the organization responsible for the attacks on our shores. But regarding arguably our most important objective—to deny South-Central Asia as a future safehaven for international terrorists—a combination of unwise policies, inept execution, and myopic zeal had produced a situation arguably worse than the one with which we started.”

“For all the billions spent and lives lost, there is little to show, and most of that will not long survive our departure.”

Mr. Grenier’s relentlessly grim tale includes a passing portrait of “Greg,” the newly appointed director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (as noted last week in the Washington Post). It also provides various insights into CIA bureaucratic culture.

We learn, for example, that “the Directorate of Operations [now the National Clandestine Service] does not tolerate profane or abusive language in cable traffic.”