Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll

by Joshua Foust on 4/8/2007 · 2 comments

Ghost Wars was probably one of the most frustrating books I have ever read, ever. Not that it’s poorly written—no, Steve Coll has a few decades of reporting behind him, and as managing editor of the Washington Post it’s safe to say he is more than fair at writing. Rather, the story Ghost Wars tells—of how a combination of indifference, myopia, and bureaucratic intertia combined on September 11, 2001—is frustrating because of how preventable it was.

Ghost WarsMuch as it would be fun for me, I won’t rehash the history Coll tells beyond a brief summary. After the communist take over of Afghanistan in the late 70’s, Zbignew Brzezinski had the brilliant idea of funding a non-communist guerilla campaign against the government. When the USSR invaded in 1979, the need for a resistance was heightened, and later vastly intensified under Reagan. When the USSR withdrew in 1989, George H.W. Bush stopped caring about the country, and it never entered the minds of U.S. policymakers again until we pressured Sudan to evict Osama bin Laden. He promptly set up shop near the famed battlegrounds of the previous decade—near Khowst. He then ingratiated himself to Mullah Mohammed Omar, and the two groups—al Qaeda and the Taliban—forged a deep bond. Bin Laden used Afghanistan as a staging area to mount increasingly deadly attacks on American targets, from barracks to embassies to warships (I didn’t realize how close they came to sinking the USS Cole). All the while, there was a deep divide between both the CIA and the rest of the Clinton Cabinet, and within the CIA itself, where the bin Laden unit was derided as being crazy and obsessive.

Whew. Now for the interesting bits.

It is interesting to see who Coll elevates as heroic and to whom he denies the privilege. Richard Clarke, for instance, comes off as a sort of lone voice in the wilderness, continually tilting at the windmills of the Presidency until he gives up in frustration. Same with Gary Schroen, the former Islamabad chief of station with the CIA, is portrayed with extraordinary favoritism—despite his apparent inability to get basic facts right in his own book on the subject.

Ahmed Shah Massoud is an Afghan figure exalted as near-holy. Now, I respect the man a great deal, and found his stern refusal to be lectured to by the Americans quite laudable, especially in light of the blinding incompetence the government showed over decades. But his other activities, which may have been necessary but are nevertheless black marks of his records, include a massive opium smuggling operation (to raise funds), some unbelievable massacres (which were why many U.S. government officials were loathe to ally with him, even in the late 90s), and his disastrous role in the Kabul government in the early 90s.

So, though the book is written in fairly objective language, as one would expect from a reporter, Coll isn’t shy about picking his heroes. In part this is because there aren’t that many. In fact, everyone in Afghanistan has blood on their hands—from Hamid Karzai, who seemed to stop supporting the Taliban only after the murder of his own father, to the State Department and CIA leadership, so seemingly in bed with ISI that they were never willing to do what they knew should be done to stop Osama bin Laden’s network from maturing.

Indeed, the most interesting bits of Coll’s work is how much insider-y information he dug up. This was partly through the access granted a senior reporter at the Post, but also some good investigative digging—including his assistant, Griff Witte, who is now the Post’s Kabul bureau chief. A big surprise for me was the CIA’s use of Uzbekistan going back to the late 90’s as a launching pad for intelligence liaisons in the Panjshir. I had heard of their presence in Dushanbe, but I honestly didn’t realize that such cooperation with Islam Karimov extended years before September 11.

The image of American fecklessness that shone through was deeply frustrating. And I don’t just mean Clinton’s (in)famous indecisiveness. Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Bush consistently downplayed the risk of well funded stateless Islamic militants, going so far as to hound certain officials out of office who kept trying to sound the warning bell (including one mid-level diplomat who was accused of being a homosexual because he dared to investigate outside the bounds of the CIA’s contacts with the Pakistani military). Prince Turki, then the chief of Saudi intelligence, comes off as sympathetic but deeply shady for the way his country funded and supported the Taliban. And so on.

Benazir Bhutto helped to fund and support the establishment of Taliban rule in Kandahar. Her successors were beholden to ISI’s designs on the country, despite their protestations that they couldn’t control the beast they created. The madrassas of Pakistan, to this day a source of violent extremism, were left to grow and mature withouto government intervention. Pervez Musharraf seemingly enjoyed lying to our face as he claimed his country had nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Coll himself neatly summarizes up the gigantic squishy mess of American policy in Afgahnistan, near the 600th page.

Largely out of indifference and bureaucratic momentum, the United States constructed its most active regional counterterrorism partnerships with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, despite evidence that both governments had been penetrated by al Qaeda… Unwilling to accept the uncertainties and high political costs of a military confrontation with the Taliban, American diplomats also suspended disbelief and lazily embraced Saudi and Pakistani arguments that the Taliban would mature and moderate.

In the end, Coll’s work isn’t a deep resource on the politics or culture of Afghanistan or Pakistan. It is, however, an inside glance at how monolithic and immovable the American foreign policy bureaucracies are—including the DoD, which does not come across kindly as the weakest and most fickle agency. Everyone on the ground seemed to feel deep frustration as the Americans decided they had better things to do than clean up the mess they made—and even when they thought of doing something about it, they just relied on Pakistan to pinky swear it would do a good job.

It is an sad parallel to today, where George W. Bush seems not to have learned any of the lessons of Bill Clinton. We continue to be over-reliant on ISI and the Pakistani military, we continue to underutilize India in our regional goals, and we continue to demonstrate a marked insouciance over developing deep local language and cultural skills. That is why so many people worry that after November 2008, current policies won’t matter, as they’ll be re-written and possibly withdrawn with a new administration.

Coll’s book is a must read for anyone who wants to see up close how foreign policy is crafted, bungled, and short-handed. It is an incredibly frustrating read, but then again, so is any honest look at our policy toward Afghanistan.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 2 comments }

Afghanistanica April 8, 2007 at 2:26 pm

I got a similar feeling after reading the book. It’s amazing how ignorance and incompetence transfer semmlessly from one administration to the other.

Coll is not quite on the mark when assigning blame to those inside Afghanistan, but he does do a fairly good job of implicating just about every external actor. There is plenty of blame to go around externally for Afhganistan’s current condition.

My only problem with Coll’s research is the “inside scoop” aspect to some of his interviews. In this situation a reporter often happily allows themself to be played by the interviewee in order to “get the story.”

Although I am satisfied with this work as a book that has not been wrung through a university press. By mainstream publishing standards it is quite good.

Joshua Foust April 8, 2007 at 2:51 pm

That last bit is absolutely true. Coll had incredible access: both a good thing, and a bad thing. He takes some people, like Schroen, at their word, when he would have been better served not to (as you noticed when you dug through his book). As a result, some of the people involved have their own fault in Afghanistan’s current condition white washed. I wasn’t sure how best to express it, though, so I’m glad you brought it up here.

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