“Iused to say it would be a splendid little war if it weren’t for Washington,” Robert L Grenier, former Central Intelligence Agency chief of station in
Islamabad, said, speaking of America’s involvement in
Afghanistan — which he described as the First American
War in Afghanistan.
Grenier was speaking at an event organized by New
America NYC, a wing of the Washington, DC-based think
tank, the New America Foundation. The talk hosted by former Pakistan ambassador Hussain Haqqani was to promote Grenier’s book, 88 Days to Kandahar.
“I wrote the book essentially as an adventure story...
bracketed by the story of how it was we won, as I thought,
the First American Afghan War, how we lost the second,
and how we may yet be drawn into a third,” said Grenier.
More than an adventure, Grenier’s account is, perhaps
self-servingly, that of a foot soldier frustrated by a bunch of
politicking policymakers who ought to have understood the
realities on the ground before issuing orders, most of them
delivered on the basis of internal or public expectation.
Grenier described the unreal moment when then CIA
director George Tenet woke him in Islamabad a few days
after 9/11 and asked him what to do.
‘Should we bomb empty camps?’ Tenet asked his man in
Islamabad, who was still befuddled with sleep and the
novel experience on being asked for advice.
When he heard Tenet asking him what to do, Grenier
recalled he told himself, ‘If we didn’t know we were in trou-
ble before, I knew we were in trouble now.’
Recovering, he tried to convince Tenet, it was a political
problem, not a military one.
‘We need a responsible governing authority in
Afghanistan that can control this territory, that will deny
this as a safe haven for terrorists,’ Grenier recalls telling
Tenet. ‘That’s it. That’s all we need. If the Taliban can be
that force, well then fine. Or if (not) the Taliban leadership,
then some other faction within the Taliban can be that
force, that, too, should be fine. We should be able to accept
that, unlovely though (the options) are.’
If the US made common cause with the Northern
Alliance to fight the Taliban, Grenier said it would unite the
tribals under the clerics. Instead, he said, the local
Pashtuns had to be recruited into the effort to get rid of Al
‘If this looks like an American invasion, it looks like we
are trying to conquer their country, to establish permanent
bases, this will go very bad for us,’ Grenier recalled telling
‘We saw how it went with the Soviets (in 1979). We saw
how it went with the British (in the 19th century). We could
reprise that history if we were not very, very careful.’
Going by what he says now, Grenier certainly tried.
He described frenzied efforts to lobby the Pashtuns, who,
battle-hardened by the fight against the Soviets as they
were, were terrified of the Taliban.
“Most of the tribal leaders wanted to see how things
would go before sticking their heads,” he said. Finally, only
two leaders, Hamid Karzai and Gul Agha Sherzai, were left
to take up the fight to a successful conclusion 88 days later.
He described the highs — the rescue of some aid workers
and the military victories —and the lows — such as the
death of rebel leaders Ahmad Massoud and Abdul Haq,
and the escape of Osama bin Laden, the man responsible
for 9/11, from Tora Bora, where the Arab elements of Al
Qaeda made their last stand before fleeing through the
porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Grenier described the CIA’s fears that a group of
Pakistani scientists may have given a nuclear bomb — “or
at least nuclear material” — to Al Qaeda. It got people’s
attention in Washington, he said.
Grenier, who has described his indebtedness to the
Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence in his
book, described the ‘war hysteria’ that resulted in Pakistani
and Indian troops facing off across their common border in
The face-off came five months after terrorists attacked
the Indian Parliament, and soon after Pakistani terrorists
entered an Indian Army camp in Kashmir, killing 31 people
and wounding 47, many of them wives and children of the
As he described in his book, Grenier felt ‘US counterter-
rorism policy was encouraging and emboldening the
Indians to deal with the problem of Pakistani-supported
terrorism once and for all.’
He also describes how earlier, in April the same year,
when an aide of then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld
asked him, ‘Say, isn’t this stuff that is going on in Kashmir
Describing himself as aghast by this pronouncement of
someone uninstructed on South Asian history, Grenier said
he responded to this by saying, ‘There’s a long history
behind this, which dates back to 1947 and beyond. It would
be a big mistake to deal with terrorism in Kashmir in isola-
tion from the underlying dispute. We can’t think about
addressing terrorism unless we’re willing to seriously
address this dispute.’
In a later conversation with Haqqani, he conceded that
bin Laden only wanted the US military to leave the Islamic
world, but did not argue for using history as a reason to
“The victory that we thought we’d won actually came far
too easily,” Grenier said, speaking about the defeat of the
Taliban. “I never thought it would be that easy. It was
seductive, so much so that we did not know why and how
we had actually won this war, as we thought. Our attention
shifted. America went off to Iraq.”
Grenier went off himself to lead the CIA effort in Iraq for
two-and-a-half years. By the time he returned, as director
of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center in 2005, to focus
once again on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Already, the situation was beginning to slip from our grasp,”
he said. “We didn’t fully realize it yet, but the Taliban was
beginning to reassert itself. And the reaction of America at
that point was very unfortunate. By that time we’d forgotten
all of the lessons, (lost) all of the keys to our success in what
I’d like to call the first American Afghan War.”
“We did everything that we said we shouldn’t do at the
outset. It was no longer an Afghan-led effort. It was an
American-led effort. We had up to 100,000 US troops,
40,000 additional troops from NATO countries. We were
spending a $100 billion a year. We completely over-
whelmed the small, primitive, agrarian country, achieving
what no Afghan government can conceivably sustain...”
‘Say, isn’t this stuff that is going on in Kashmir terrorism?’ In New York, Robert L Grenier, the CIA chief in Islamabad during 9/11, spoke about American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. P Rajendran listened in.
A scene from Afghanistan.