Monday, November 28, 2016

Left of Boom by Douglas Laux with Ralph Pezzullo (Book Review #67 of 2016)

Left of Boom: How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Qaeda
(This book was one of several I reviewed in 2016 related to the US war on terror. See list below.)

This book had a lot to do with why I couldn't vote for Evan McMullin, even as a protest vote, in the 2016 election. I recommend reading it with Ali Soufan's Black Banners, which details the FBI's run-in with the CIA and their illegal, ineffective methods at interrogation and complicitness in terrorist activities by way of not sharing information the FBI could have used to prevent attacks. Laux's account of the CIA backs up Soufan's account for me. I have not yet read Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, Michael Morell's memoirs, and others, but I feel like I have seen and heard enough. Like Soufan's book and Mohamedou Slahi's Guantanamo Diary, much of this book is redacted by the CIA. Laux seems trying to blow the whistle on CIA incompetence but still does enough to glorify the CIA lifestyle that I'm certain the book will be a movie. What appears to be a highly-valuable field agent almost dies of an alcoholism-induced heart attack at age 29 from the stress of his work.

CIA officers are liars and killers trained and rewarded by your tax dollars and with little public oversight or accountability. They are not "bad" people, indeed recruits are generally disqualified if they drink or have smoked marijuana-- finding recruits that pass with such a clean record has become difficult in recent years. Hence, agents are made up of largely conservative people, it's easy to understand why a Mormon like McMullin would be an ideal fit. You just have to chuck your identity and morals at the door-- Country First. Surprisingly, most of the CIA is risk-averse, they are career-minded agents that are looking forward to retirement and pension just like any government worker. Hence, as Laux describes it, this culture contributes indirectly to one of the most inept operations in US government history--Afghanistan. (Maybe if it wasn't for all the other CIA follies such as Vietnam and not forseeing the fall of the Shah in Iran, etc.)

Laux gets an offer out of a college job fair and away he goes. Much of Laux's recruitment and CIA orientation is redacted, but he spends four months "on the farm" in Virginia doing interrogation training.  He comes across as the arrogant and immature type described by FBI agent Ali Soufan who decried CIA interrogators. He basically demands an action/hardship assignment and gets it. Laux has multiple romantic relationships in this book, all of which he has to keep his job as CIA officer secret. He's spent the last 10 months studying Pashto and can't explain that other than being a "contractor." In most cases, they're wise, but they want to be let in on a life he can't share. So, he becomes a good liar. Combine that isolation with the stress of keeping up with multiple, detailed, identities and passports and living in a hostile environment every day and you have the inevitable psychological self-destruction that occurs by the end of the book. Laux at least has the good sense to see a psychologist, who can't completely help him because Laux can't say exactly what he does. But the rapid spiral into very deep alcoholism is saved only by a angel-woman who does not know him but takes pity on him and saves his life. (Laux is probably a fascinatingly mysterious and physically strong specimen that attracts women, I imagine college students reading this and thinking "Jason Bourne-like life killing 'bad guys' while having romantic and dangerous rendezvous in Paris and drowning all your sorrows by hard-partying with alcohol sounds like an ideal life, sign me up!" After all, he's made the newspaper headlines in this book being courted like a Hollywood star.)

The author gets an assignment in Afghanistan in 2010 shortly after a bomber the CIA had thought was an Al Qaeda informant blew up a base and killed nine CIA officers. He's left at a remote Southern base (Wahid) with little info and from which the US military rarely ventures out. Alas, his Pashto training was for a Northern dialect and it takes him a while to get up to speed (but he does get to operate some in the North, which helps). "We haven't been in Afghanistan for ten years, but one year ten times," Laux writes of the one-year tours of duty that destroy any hope of policy continuation. Everyone wants to do their year as safely as possible, then punch out to their desk job in DC. Some CIA agents are simply learning names of wanted Taliban agents from locals who were learning names from US military radio broadcasts, and then selling them to the CIA agents for cash, who would then include the names in their reports back to Langley. Amazing incompetence. If an operation you helped design went bad, your "head rolled," so there was little risk in not actually doing anything.

Laux wanted to go after the Taliban itself, which were more dangerous, but the US had declared war on Al Qaeda so they were the target. As Richard Holbrooke would say about the war, "We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country." Laux recruits a Pashto driver to spy on Taliban activity and begins developing a network of informants, giving the military valuable intel on roadside bombs. He writes of pedophile warlords and other such things that have made the news in this quagmire. However, his own agency undermines him; one of his high-valued contacts is treated badly in Kabul by incompetent CIA officers and an opportunity is lost. The highest-value target that Laux identifies, codenamed Wolverine, is unmasked in a scene that is redacted-- Wolverine is funded by _______ and the government will not believe reports that connect him to _________, and he is eventually released. The reader is left to guess who the ____ is. Possibly Pakistan's ISI, possibly the Saudis, or someone else? The supply chain through Pakistan was frought with problems. At one point, 600 trucks carrying weapons and supplies from Pakistan and Afghanistan were either hijacked or stolen from and the government did nothing.

There are trips back to DC and rendezvous with one of his girlfriends in Paris, in which he's tailed by some counterintelligence. Relationships are all built around lies and emails are obviously difficult. At one point, he has emergency surgery that he refuses to let slow him down. He has so many identities in his head that his life is a maze of confusion and he basically tries to destroy himself. A woman named Emma, who was keeping bar during one of his benders, sees how hard he's trying to kill himself and vows to help him.

Laux ends his career working on Syria, he was on a team meeting with Syrian opposition in an undisclosed country (he needs a translator, suggesting to me this really happened). After Sec. of State Clinton visits Turkey and claims the US is considering a no-fly zone, the US lost all credibility. Barack Obama's "red line" was crossed and all hope was lost; the Syrians refuse to meet with him or the CIA any longer. He writes that the Free Syrian Army has lost all faith in the US. Supposedly, a plan Laux had worked on was eventually presented to Obama. In the book, his policy advice on Syria is to either get all the way out or get all the way in, don't muddle around and stick our fingers in the dike like we have been doing making false promises. Getting all the way in would mean setting up a multi-national decades-long occupation that can keep peace and rebuild in Syria and Iraq, something no one has the stomach or desire to do-- so the US should stay out, as hard as that may be for Syrians and others.

Much of this book is redacted, if you've read other CIA-redacted works then this won't surprise you. But some of the redactions are more tantalizing than I've seen in other works, which actually make me question their authenticity or purpose--mystery makes things more attractive. I give this book 3.5 stars. It contributes a good chapter to the failed campaign of Afghanistan and takes a shine of the CIA's work as an opaque agency, even if it seems to make the work the agents do sound "cool" to a generation raised on video games. But take Laux's testimony to heart, the demons of his work almost robbed him of life at age 29, they certainly ended his career.
Other related books reviewed in 2016:
Foreign policy/Americans traveling in Middle East and Central Asia:
Between Two Worlds - Roxana Saberi (2.5 stars)
Children of Jihad - Jared Cohen (4 stars)
The Taliban Shuffle - Kim Barker (4 stars)
A Rope and a Prayer - David Rohde and Kristin Mulvihill (3.5 stars)
Left of Boom - Douglas Laux (3.5 stars)
Fault Lines - ...Understanding America's Role in the...Middle East - Don Liebich (2.5 stars)

Other Al Qaeda and ISIS-related books reviewed in 2016:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll  (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
Jihad Academy: The Rise of the Islamic State - Nicholas Henin (4.5 stars)
ISIS: The State of Terror - Jessica Stern and JM Berger (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed  - Erick Stackelbeck (2.5 stars)
Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow and David French (1 star)

Also useful for perspective on Afghanistan/Pakistan:
Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid

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