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The Graveyard of Empires?
How Many More Graves Will It Take?

Review by James Edward Reid

Directorate S:
The C. I. A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Steve Coll

One of Steve Coll’s earlier books (2004), Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, shed much needed light on an often dark area of the world. Ghost Wars also received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. In 2008, Coll introduced readers to more of the Bin Laden family in The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century. At that time, I stayed clear of the introductions. Late in 2018 he published Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Directorate S clearly presents an in depth, and sometimes incredible picture of the continuing dirty wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as an overview of what is left in some of the still habitable areas in these countries.

The USA, Pakistan, India, Russia, and other countries are all involved in this part of the world, to varying degrees and for different reasons. And troops from these and many other countries must now avoid new and deadly adapted weapons. Cell phones have provided new weapons for the mujahedin, the Taliban, and other local forces who are at war with each other, while each of them are intent on killing American, Canadian, British, Dutch, NATO, Russian, and other forces with new explosive devices.

Cell phones now provide the Taliban with hidden, deadly, and accurately timed bombs. The phones are wired to explosive charges, and hidden along heavily used roads. The Taliban then watch with binoculars from a safe and remote distance, until foreign troops are driving or walking past the buried explosive cell phone. Then the Taliban place a call to the cell phone, which detonates the explosives. The size of these deadly cell phone bombs varies, depending on whether they target foreign troops on manoeuvres, armoured vehicles, innocent people shopping in a marketplace, or the suburban residence of an enemy or enemies. War is always hell, but these remotely triggered cell phone bombs have changed the face of war in Afghanistan, and in other war zones.

Two years ago, in Toronto, I met a young Canadian man who had returned from service in Afghanistan. His left arm had been injured in the war, and he would never regain full use of this arm. The Canadian government had assisted him in his return to civilian life by finding him a job in British Columbia in a sawmill. I worked in a sawmill once. It is one of the last places where someone with one still functioning arm should work.

Directorate S is, of course, sometimes difficult reading. After all, Steve Coll is providing current and wide ranging history about an area of the world that has been long known, with accuracy, for Russia, Britain, and other ill prepared interlopers, as The Graveyard of Empires. How many more graves will it take? With the present scattershot and gormless administration in Washington, it is unlikely that anyone will ask or answer one of the most important questions about this war: “Where is the United States War in Afghanistan going?” The Diplomat asked this question two years ago in 2017. So far, no one has answered it. Steve Coll’s fine and informative book is a good place to begin establishing more appropriate questions and some thoughtful answers. Examples of the current chaos in the White House may also be found in a few quotations from Bob Woodward’s 2018 book, FEAR: Trump in the White House:

“the constant disorder at the White House wasn’t helping anyone…” (p. 145).
“Everybody’s trying to get me,” the president ranted. (p. 165).
“Trump’s behavior was now in the paranoid territory.” (p. 166).
…the president had the understanding of a fifth or sixth grader.” (p. 308).

The previous four quotations which appear in FEAR: Trump in the White House, are not rare examples, but typical of much of this important book.

Good maps of Afghanistan are very helpful while reading Directorate S. The Wikipedia entry for Afghanistan provides maps of the country in 1992, 1996, 2011, and the end of 2001. Wikipedia, as well, provides the locations on other maps of major armed militias fighting for control of areas in Afghanistan in the above years.

The lead editorial in The New York Times, May 13, 2019, summarized part of the recent report of the special inspector general for Afghanistan in these terms: “The monthly average number of [enemy] attacks, more than 2,000, was up 19 percent from last November through January, compared with the monthly average over the previous reporting period, ending in October. (“The Unspeakable War,” The New York Times, May 13, 2019, p. A18). How many more lives will it take?

James Edward Reid is a Canadian writer who lives in Ontario. He has been writing for 12 years for The Sarmatian Review, a triannual publication of the Polish Institute of Houston, at Rice University in Houston. The Sarmatian deals with Polish, Central, and Eastern European affairs. His Sarmatian Review publications are archived at the Central and Eastern European Online Library at

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #25