Review: Robert L. Grenier’s ‘88 Days to Kandahar’

88 DAYS TO KANDAHAR: A CIA Diary. Robert L. Grenier. Simon & Schuster. 442 pages. $28.
88 DAYS TO KANDAHAR: A CIA Diary. Robert L. Grenier. Simon & Schuster. 442 pages. $28.

Post-9/11 CIA memoirs keep coming with a frequency that must elevate the blood pressure of those Langley traditionalists who believe that the agency’s past should be forever entombed. Former CIA directors, division chiefs, station chiefs, lawyers, case officers and analysts have all offered their takes on recent history. The work, collectively, tends toward a forgiving affection for the CIA, offers tantalizing but never entirely satisfying glimpses behind the agency’s institutional secrecy, and — almost always —wields the knife to settle some old bureaucratic scores.

Robert L. Grenier’s 88 Days to Kandahar is an admirably frank addition to the bookshelf. A CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, before and after 9/11, Grenier has a sweeping story to tell, which he does in a sharp, straightforward style while pausing to let us in on the ad hoc decision-making of the sometimes absurd world he inhabited.

His focus, as the title suggests, is largely on the immediate campaign to topple the Taliban, run down a scattering al-Qaeda and insert new Afghan leadership into the country — the “smooth, regal” and often prickly Hamid Karzai.

The centerpiece of the book, the evolution of the improvised, chaotic assault on southern Afghanistan by teams of CIA officers and Special Operations forces alongside hastily mustered Afghans, is vividly told. (The focus is on the Pashtuns, not the Northern Alliance nor the fall of Kabul.) But there is also a large measure of disappointment with U.S. mistakes in Afghanistan, those of a blundering colossus. “We triggered massive corruption through our profligacy; convinced a substantial number of Afghans that we were, in fact, occupiers; and facilitated the resurgence of the Taliban,” he writes. Grenier, now retired, is not optimistic about Afghanistan after the U.S. drawdown and is bluntly angry about the lost lives that achieved so little.

As the al-Qaeda threat grew with the attacks on U.S. Embassies in East Africa in 1998 and on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, Grenier had an extraordinary perch from which to watch the group’s evolution and the uncertain U.S. response. His station, just over the border from Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan, had been given secret, lethal authority to pursue the al-Qaeda leader, but it was not, as Grenier notes, a licence to kill. The agency’s tribal allies were told that “they could kill bin Laden if he resisted arrest, which he certainly would, but that nonetheless they could not set out to kill him” — a distinction that simply confused Grenier’s Afghan interlocutors.

That cautious legal parsing, designed to avoid an executive order banning assassinations, did not survive 9/11. In today’s world, bin Laden’s spawn are often deemed continued and imminent threats who cannot be captured, and therefore can be killed under the authorization of military force by Congress or as a matter of national self-defense.

When the towers fell, Grenier had two overlapping responsibilities: get the Pakistanis on board in the fight against al-Qaeda and gin up some kind of Afghan force to challenge the Taliban in its heartland. There is an almost comic element to some of the maneuvers of the fledgling Afghan fighters challenging the Taliban as they “raced pell-mell” across the landscape — and just as soon turning tail before being rescued by American airpower and the tactical stupidity of their opponents.

Equally haphazard and also fascinating were secret attempts to reach some kind of deal with the Taliban to turn over bin Laden. Failing that, Grenier’s station toyed with fomenting an internal coup that would topple Mohammad Omar, the Taliban chief, and incorporate some elements of the movement into any new political structure led by Karzai. It came to nothing. Grenier also recounts lost opportunities to kill the Taliban leadership and large numbers of al-Qaeda fighters because the military would not act unless there were “U.S. eyes-on” to confirm targets.

Grenier’s story moves swiftly from the field in Afghanistan to the machinations between Washington and Islamabad, where mutual suspicion, intrigue and fear defined the relationship. Grenier can be sympathetic to the calculations of the Pakistani establishment, so often dismissed as simply duplicitous in Washington. “Given American interests, the nature of the Tribal areas, and the limitations — physical and moral — of the Pakistan army and its nominal civilian masters, the course of subsequent events seems inevitable,” he concludes. “So long as America remained in Afghanistan, Pakistan was condemned to erupt in flames, and then as now, there was nothing to be done about it.”

Grenier believes that continued, small-scale engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan is in the U.S. national interest but doubts that American leaders have the “wisdom and steadfastness” to sustain the effort. “We may think we are finished with Afghanistan,” he warns. “But Afghanistan may not be finished with us.”

Peter Finn reviewed this book for The Washington Post.