Two months after the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Vice President–elect Joe Biden sat with Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, in the Arg Palace, an 83-acre compound in Kabul that had become a gilded cage for the mercurial and isolated leader. The discussion was already tense as Karzai urged Washington to help root out Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, implying that more pressure needed to be exerted on Pakistani leaders. Biden’s answer stunned Karzai into silence. Biden let Karzai know how Barack Obama’s incoming administration saw its priorities. “Mr. President,” Biden said, “Pakistan is fifty times more important than Afghanistan for the United States.”
It was an undiplomatic moment for sure, but also a frank expression of the devastating paradox at the heart of the longest war in American history. In 16 years, the United States has spent billions of dollars fighting a war that has killed thousands of soldiers and an untold number of civilians in a country that Washington considers insignificant to its strategic interests in the region. Meanwhile, the country it has viewed as a linchpin, Pakistan—a nuclear-armed cauldron of volatile politics and long America’s closest military ally in South Asia—has pursued a covert campaign in Afghanistan designed to ensure that the money and the lives have been spent in vain. The stakes in Pakistan have been considered too high to break ties with Islamabad or take other steps that would risk destabilizing the country. The stakes in Afghanistan have been deemed low enough that careening from one failed strategy to another has been acceptable.
Even so, the post-9/11 years have seen the slow dissolution of the shotgun marriage arranged between the U.S. and Pakistan in the quest to rout al-Qaeda. As Steve Coll recounts in Directorate S—which picks up the narrative where his Pulitzer Prize–winning 2004 volume, Ghost Wars, left off—the seeds of mistrust were planted early, and mutual recriminations steadily accumulated. Weeks after the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a demoralized Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the head of Pakistan’s army, likened his “helpless” country to a mortgaged house, with the United States playing the role of banker. For American officials who dealt with Pakistan, another domestic analogy might have seemed more apt: Pakistan was the spouse who had drained the family bank account and then slept with the sketchy neighbor.
The anger on the American side was fueled by the gradual realization that Washington had, since the very beginning of the war, allowed Pakistan to wield too much influence over U.S. strategy. As the Taliban retreated from Kabul and Kandahar in late 2001, the CIA station chief in Islamabad wrote cables channeling the Pakistani military’s perspective. A Northern Alliance takeover of the country, the message went, could lead to a bloodbath for Afghanistan’s Pashtuns (Pakistan’s traditional allies) and undermine Pakistan’s readiness to broker a political settlement there. What Pakistan wanted most of all, of course, was its own favored groups, and not its rival India’s, in power.
George W. Bush’s war cabinet was already jittery about the “nightmare scenario” of the new conflict: violence spilling over into Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf’s government collapsing, and the country’s nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of Pakistani generals with Taliban sympathies. Musharraf himself spent years masterfully stoking these fears. He often warned American officials that the more he acceded to Washington’s demands, the more his support inside the military would erode and the better the chances would become of the nightmare scenario playing out.