The upshot, he said, is that Afghanistan is again lapsing
into civil war.
“And having created tremendous problems by having
tried to do too much between 2005 and the present, now I
think we are making a mistake,” Grenier said.
“We are compounding our error by doing too little. I’m
very concerned about the future of the government in
Kabul, and I very much fear that at some point in the not
too distant future we may be called again to fight the Third
American Afghan war.”
After discussing his book, Grenier went on to a question-
and-answer session with Haqqani, who at one time was
arrested and tortured, and finally exiled from his home
“How (much does) Washington intrigue and politics actually shape, more than what’s happening on the ground, the
decision about when America goes to war, to what extent,
and for how long?” Haqqani, a friend of Grenier, asked.
Grenier said that he wished he could disagree with him,
but that he often felt like the one-eyed man in the land of
“It was almost as though the whole point of being a superpower was that it really didn’t matter what foreigners
thought,” he said.
“As the ambassador said, they tended to see the world in
a very binary way. There were people who were doing
things the way that we wanted, and other people who either
had to be suborned or coerced into doing what it was that
we wanted, when in fact people in a world where technology is tending to level the differences among us reliably will
not do things that they don’t think is in their own interest.”
The US, he said, had been trying to browbeat Pakistan
into doing what it wants with very limited success.
“During the course of the Afghan campaign dealing with
Washington was a great trial and a great challenge because
there was this tendency to think that everything has to flow
from (there),” Grenier added. “‘We’re going to make the
decisions at the end of the day,’ and it made life very uncom-
“I used to say it would be a splendid little war if it weren’t
He went on to describe his early efforts — on September
25, 2001 — to build a coalition around senior Taliban
leader Mullah Osmani.
‘We don’t like this bin Laden either. We didn’t know he
was going to do what he did. We certainly didn’t sanction it.
We have a (common) problem. We need to work together to
solve it,’ Osmani told him. Grenier pointed out that the
ulema — the group of Islamic scholars — had censured bin
But by October 2, 2001, the momentum for war was
building up inexorably in Washington, Grenier said. And,
against the tide, he tried again to convince the Taliban
leader to come over.
“I was convinced I was wrecking my career... I met with
Osmani... (at an ISI safehouse).”
“He knew that the Americans were coming, and he knew
that his leader would not make a deal. By the end, he was
in a corner. He’s a huge man and I could see him shrink in
front of my eyes. He took his turban off his head. I’ve never
seen a Pashtun do that (except in family circumstances).”
“He took off his turban and asked, ‘What should I do?’
That was exactly the moment I was hoping for.”
Grenier asked Mullah Osmani to seize control, includ-
ing the radio station, push top Taliban leader Mullah
“‘You have to say that for the good of the country, for the
good of the movement... I’m following the guidance of the
ulema and we are going to ban the Arabs, we are going to
ban bin Laden.’ And then quietly... he would hand bin
Laden over to us,” Grenier said.
“(Osmani) said, ‘I’ll do it’,” the former spy said. “He stood
up and hugged me. It was extraordinary. It was as if a great
weight had been lifted off his shoulders.”
Grenier said they gorged themselves on rice and mutton.
But then, once back among the Taliban, Osmani vacillated
again. Once the bombing began, he would do nothing.
Osmani died in a bombing raid in December 2006.
Haqqani quipped that he and Grenier agreed to keep
their differences to the minimum, and so would talk about
Pakistani intelligence last.
“The guy who is the CIA station chief and who has mutton and rice with them and the guy who ends up in their
prison. Um, different perspectives,” Haqqani said to some
laughter, referring perhaps to his arrest and incarceration
Haqqani went on to ask Grenier about people Jalaluddin
Haqqani (“who stole my family name. He’s actually
Jalaluddin of the Zadran tribe”), a former CIA friend who
demanded $80,000 just to meet Grenier. “How many of
these former Taliban were living in a different era and did
not know how American priorities had changed (after
funding the Afghans’ war against the Soviets in 1979),” he
Many of them, Grenier responded, actually had a lot of
experience with the Americans, knowing them to be good
“It’s often said you can’t buy an Afghan, but you can rent
him,” he joked. “If we could have rented them long
enough... back before 9/11, I would have been very happy to
strike that deal.”
Grenier spoke of the tension between tribal leaders and
clerics, which resulted in the former resenting the rise of
the Taliban and so being motivated to work with the US if
only they had not been crippled by fear.
“They knew what happened when you crossed the Taliban
and you lost,” Grenier said, citing first the example of
Najibullah, the last pro-Soviet Afghan president, who was
tortured, castrated, dragged behind a truck and finally —
perhaps mercifully —hanged, and then another Pashtun
leader, Abdul Haq, who went back into Afghanistan and
was killed by the Taliban for his pains.
He spoke of an officer who unsuccessfully asked a
Pashtun warlord who had been a hero against the Soviets to
go rally his troops.
“This CIA case officer — actually a very mild-mannered
fellow — finally became enraged. He told the man in Dari,
‘You’re not a man, you’re a woman. You’re a disgrace to your
tribe’,” Grenier said, adding that the Dari terms used sound-
ed much worse than it did in English. “This would have
been cause of a blood feud. And he sat there and took it.”
He said it took some time to find leaders like Gul Agha
and Hamid Karzai to take up the fight against the Taliban.
To another question about perceptions about the impiety
of the US having stoked a strong response in Afghanistan
and Pakistan, Grenier said even in the US, people responded to that with comments about those in the Muslim world
not liking American freedom, culture, or wanting to
Islamize the whole world.
“I don’t think they wanted to turn Ohio into an emirate,”
he said, to some tittering. “What they really wanted to do is
recreate the old Islamic emirate. They wanted to save the
Islamic world for Islam as they understood it. They saw a
United States whose power, I think, they greatly exaggerated, as standing in their way,” he said, asserting that these
people felt regimes like those in Saudi Arabia, Jordan or
others would fall like dominoes without American support.
Asserting that bin Laden had been clear that all he wanted was for the US to leave the Islamic world. “Basically he
was saying, ‘ We will attack you, we will go on attacking you,
we will go on killing Americans until you leave. It’s as simple as that.’”
Haqqani asked what Grenier would tell a Muslim like
himself (Haqqani) who also sees bin Laden and his kind as
the enemy because each group’s version of Islam is unacceptable to the other, resulting in more Muslims being
killed than Americans.
Haqqani argued if the US had also distinguished between
the two kinds of followers of Islam, it might ensure a better
reception for its policies in South Asia.
Grenier said it would be a big mistake to let the violent
elements define themselves as the defenders of Islam.
“At the end of the day, the struggle for the heart and the
future of the Islamic world is where people like the ambassador (nodding toward Haqqani) are fighting a death
struggle with others of a fundamentalist cast.”
While America has a stake in the struggle, he said, “We
are outside that struggle.”
People in Washington, Grenier felt, did not often under-
stand that it was not a PR problem, but a policy problem.
“It’s not just that they (those in the Muslim world) are
misperceiving us,” he said; “it’s what we’re doing.”
‘Say, isn’t this stuff that is going on in Kashmir terrorism?’
Robert Grenier with the Pakistani Frontier Corps at the Pakistan- Afghanistan border crossing at Saidgi in April 2002.