Book: Ghost Wars

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Book:

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden

Author: Steve Coll
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Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The

Looming large in the minds of the American people since the devastation of September 11, 2001—and perplexing their political analysts, media, and elected leaders—are two unsettling questions: To what extent did America’s best intelligence analysts grasp the rising threat of Islamist radicalism? And, Who tried to stop bin Laden and why did they fail? Steve Coll, managing editor of the Washington Post, provides answers in an exhaustively researched account of U.S. involvement in the covert wars in Afghanistan that fueled Islamic militancy and gave rise to bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

For nearly the past quarter century, while most Americans were unaware, Afghanistan has been the playing field for intense covert operations by U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies—invisible wars that sowed the seeds of the September 11 attacks and that provide its context. From the Soviet invasion in 1979 through the summer of 2001, the CIA, KGB, Pakistan’s IST, and Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Department all operated directly and secretly in Afghanistan. They primed Afghan factions with cash and weapons, secretly trained guerrilla forces, funded propaganda, and manipulated politics. In the midst of these struggles bin Laden conceived and then built his global organization.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Coll provides the only comprehensive account to date of the secret history of the CIA’s role in Afghanistan, including its covert program against Soviet troops from 1979 to 1989, and examines the rise of the Taliban, the emergence of bin Laden, and the secret efforts by CIA officers and their agents to capture or kill bin Laden in Afghanistan after 1998. Based on extensive firsthand accounts, Ghost Wars is the inside story that goes well beyond anything previously published on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, chronicling the roles of midlevel CIA officers, their Afghan allies, and such top spy masters as Bill Casey, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al Faisal, and George Tenet; heated debates within the American government; and the often poisonous, mistrustful relations between the CIA and foreign intelligence agencies.

Reviews

Amazon.com

Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 offers revealing details of the CIA’s involvement in the evolution of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the years before the September 11 attacks. From the beginning, Coll shows how the CIA’s on-again, off-again engagement with Afghanistan after the end of the Soviet war left officials at Langley with inadequate resources and intelligence to appreciate the emerging power of the Taliban. He also demonstrates how Afghanistan became a deadly playing field for international politics where Soviet, Pakistani, and U.S. agents armed and trained a succession of warring factions. At the same time, the book, though opinionated, is not solely a critique of the agency. Coll balances accounts of CIA failures with the success stories, like the capture of Mir Amal Kasi. Coll, managing editor for the Washington Post, covered Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992. He demonstrates unprecedented access to records of White House meetings and to formerly classified material, and his command of Saudi, Pakistani, and Afghani politics is impressive. He also provides a seeming insider’s perspective on personalities like George Tenet, William Casey, and anti-terrorism czar, Richard Clarke (“who seemed to wield enormous power precisely because hardly anyone knew who he was or what exactly he did for a living”). Coll manages to weave his research into a narrative that sometimes has the feel of a Tom Clancy novel yet never crosses into excess. While comprehensive, Coll’s book may be hard going for those looking for a direct account of the events leading to the 9-11 attacks. The CIA’s 1998 engagement with bin Laden as a target for capture begins a full two-thirds of the way into Ghost Wars, only after a lengthy march through developments during the Carter, Reagan, and early Clinton Presidencies. But this is not a critique of Coll’s efforts; just a warning that some stamina is required to keep up. Ghost Wars is a complex study of intelligence operations and an invaluable resource for those seeking a nuanced understanding of how a small band of extremists rose to inflict incalculable damage on American soil. —Patrick O’Kelley

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