Wednesday, February 25, 2015

88 Days to Kandahar by Robert L. Grenier - Book Review

Robert L. Grenier's 88 Days to Kandahar (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 465 pages, $28.00/14.99) reads like two different books. When he's writing about the internal politics of the CIA, its relationships, internal rivalries, and policy debates within the vast U.S. Governmental establishment, the book reads like a political thriller, an exciting and engaging novel. However, he seems to delight in going deep into the mind numbing weeds of unpronounceable and unmemorable names of people and places that just won't stay in place in my mind. While both elements are important, it would appear that Grenier has two audiences in mind. The first is a general reader seeking to understand more fully the intricacies and ongoing importance of our engagement in Afghanistan during the late Clinton, Bush, and early Obama administrations. The second book seems to be more aimed at either a middle-east specialist or the kind of political junky who delights in finding error, or even hidden plots, in the minutia of the cloud of war. As a single volume, while at times terrifically engaging, the book is too long by at least a third for the general reader.

As a career CIA officer in the clandestine service, as Station Chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, and as director of Counter Terrorism Center, Grenier's perspective is one of recognizing the seams and stresses within an essentially tribal society and understanding the culture in such a way as to provide support for moving toward rational and effective self government. I've never read anything else that places Afghanistan and Pakistan in such a clear picture of the forces effecting the decisions and actions they take. This is particularly true in the rugged border territories called the Tribal Areas. The Taliban, particularly, is placed within a rational context of providing a counterweight for the unbridled greed and graft of the war lords in the tribal areas. As such, from their narrow, fundamentalist perspective, the Taliban often emerge as a force for good government and rationality, as men who operate out of a religiously motivated self-interest. They can be dealt with, but only within the context of subtle pressure to move in a more useful direction. Thus the cultural sensitivity and low profile are posited as moving in positively for the area. And then came September 11, 2001 turning the United States into a country driven my panicked populace and government seeking rapid, blunt hammer responses.

Much of the remainder of the book describes the internecine struggles between the political, military, and intelligence branches to achieve a victory which would include the elimination of Osama bin Laden and the destruction of Al Qaeda within a context of efforts to place politician/warlord Hamid Karzai in power, despite his all-to-obvious problems, because he appeared to be a pro-western alternative. During an 88 day period, Karzai moves towards Kandahar, Afghanistan's capital, with strong U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic support where he becomes the president of a still badly fractured Afghanistan, whose fortunes have vastly improved as American resources are focused on rooting out bin Laden hiding in the tribal areas. Grenier's posture is that if the US government would only leave matters to the pros, ire. the CIA, matters could be worked out. However, the bureaucratic infighting between branches of government and elements within the CIA itself make this impossible, creating chaos and the ultimate destruction of Afghan society as well as the radicalization of Pakistan's government, caught between American aggression to their west and Indian opposition to their east. When Grenier is writing about ther power struggles and clandestine operations, he is at his best, writing taught, driving prose that reads like a novel. Sadly, he sometimes gets lost in the weeds of too many names and places. I found that an occasional look at Google maps was helpful in getting a clearer picture of the geography involved.

Robert L. Grenier

Robert L. Grenier had a much decorated, twenty-seven-year career in the CIA’s clandestine service. A renowned Middle East expert, he has been deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. He organized the CIA’s Counter-Proliferation Division and headed the CIA’s basic training facility, “The Farm.” From 1999 to 2002, he was CIA station chief in Islamabad. Subsequently, he was director of the CIA’s Counter terrorism Center, responsible for all CIA counter terrorism operations around the globe. Currently, Grenier is chairman of ERG Partners, a consulting firm to businesses in the intelligence and security sector. (Publisher's Author Profile)

In 88 Days to Kandahar (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 465 pages, $28.00/14.99) has contributed a very useful addition to the literature of the middle east, serving to increase the understanding of the reader to the complexities of social, religious, and political nuances and forces in the region. He engages in a good deal of score settling with members of the George W. Bush administration, with particular ire aimed at Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and CIA Director Porter Goss, viewing military intervention as most useful when it is limited and focused. Grenier neglects to write about his eventual firing by CIA Director Porter Goss after his testimony in the CIA leak case and the Scooter Libby leaking trial. This flaw compromises some of the excellent observations he makes throughout the book. Whether it fully compromises the book I leave to the reader to decide. On balance, I found the book both interesting and informative, but needing to be read in context to obtain a fuller understanding. I read 88 Days to Kandahar in an electronic galley provided to me by the publisher through Edelweiss on my Kindle app.