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.