In the pages of Directorate S, the story is delivered with a literary prowess that has been absent in previous western accounts of America’s longest running war. The dance of blame, with the US swaying at one moment towards Pakistan and the next towards Afghanistan, is a choreography familiar to CIA chiefs, US presidents and writers who have tackled the subject. Coll refuses to follow this tired tune, and the result is masterful ... In the 15-year story that Directorate S tells, Afghanistan has been built a bit and bombed a lot, the Taliban have been fought with and then courted, the Pakistanis embraced then abandoned. What the British tried to document in Curzon’s day the Americans refused to learn; there is indeed trouble on the Frontier again, and in Directorate S we have the definitive account of it.
Steve Coll has written a book of surpassing excellence that is almost certainly destined for irrelevance. The topic is important, the treatment compelling, the conclusions persuasive. Just don’t expect anything to change as a consequence ... In each chapter of this very long but engrossing book, Coll takes a deep dive into some particular facet of the conflict. Readers will eavesdrop on contentious policy debates conducted at the highest levels in Washington. They will also accompany soldiers and spooks in the field. Yet among policymakers and operators alike, the sense of futility is palpable. If Directorate S has a unifying thread, it’s this: Policies formulated on the basis of trial and error aren’t likely to work as long as they fail to take critical factors into account.
Few books delve as deeply into the personnel of the CIA and the Taliban, offering a daunting array of characters (the cast list alone runs five pages) ... Directorate S delivers a magisterial chronicle, so much of it newly reported and deeply nuanced. Coll shuns literary varnish, relying instead on windowpane clarity to achieve his complex exposition. The narrative, which follows the calendar, replays the events blow by blow, in the style of a Hollywood blockbuster ... Yet for all the precision, a blind spot remains ... Although Directorate S begins by tracing the Pakistani puppet masters behind the Taliban, and ends with the American search for a peace deal with the militants, their Pakistani patrons—with rare exceptions—remain at a remove.
Coll’s meticulous research and well-placed sources combine to create a play-by-play drama portraying the personalities and relationships that drive public policy and shape world events ... While Coll is not the first to question Pakistan’s double game, Directorate S is the most comprehensive unclassified account to expose it by leveraging numerous sources across the domestic and international government and intelligence communities ... His relentless reporting and fastidious cultivation of sources is his hallmark, and Directorate S is no exception.
Coll himself is, in the venerable tradition of newspaper reporting, absent from the narrative, although his harsh judgment of U.S. policymakers is pervasive. Absolutely nothing works ... Directorate S is one of the most unrelentingly bleak assessments of U.S. policy of recent years, and it shows, regrettably, that American errors have accumulated beyond recovery ... This companion volume is also definitive, if different in effect. Ghost Wars struck a tragic tone, with a disastrous conclusion known to the reader. The conclusion of the policy blunders chronicled in Directorate S is not known. But because the errors so often look, in retrospect, unforced, they are just as painful to contemplate, and they should induce shudders as we consider the conclusion to which we might be hurtling this time.
Coll has interviewed players in the Bush and Obama administrations, Afghan and Pakistani officials, spies, diplomats, and soldiers on the ground. With his evenhanded approach, gift for limning character, and dazzling reporting skills, he has created an essential work of contemporary history.
...[a] masterpiece ... In this era of fake news, Coll remains above it all, this time delivering an impeccably researched history of 'diplomacy at the highest levels of government in Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul.'”
...perhaps the most comprehensive work to date on the U.S. war in Afghanistan ... Among the book’s many virtues, it avoids adopting a U.S.-centric view. The policies, interests, and important figures of the three nations and (to a lesser extent) the Taliban are all given appropriate weight. Coll’s vital work provides a factual and analytical foundation for all future work on the Afghan War and U.S. policy in Central Asia.