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

4.26 of 5 stars 4.26  ·  rating details  ·  7,495 ratings  ·  547 reviews

With the publication of Ghost Wars, Steve Coll became not only a Pulitzer Prize winner, but also the expert on 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.
Paperback, 712 pages
Published December 28th 2004 by Penguin Books (London) (first published 2004)
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Hank No. The Taliban's oppressive practices towards women are discussed, but there are no specific details regarding rape.…moreNo. The Taliban's oppressive practices towards women are discussed, but there are no specific details regarding rape.(less)
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared DiamondThe Looming Tower by Lawrence WrightThe Guns of August by Barbara W. TuchmanThe Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard RhodesA Problem from Hell by Samantha Power
Pulitzer Winners: General Non-fiction
6th out of 58 books — 184 voters
Diplomacy by Henry KissingerGhost Wars by Steve CollThe Looming Tower by Lawrence WrightThe Cold War by John Lewis GaddisThe Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria
American Foreign Policy
2nd out of 259 books — 152 voters

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Community Reviews

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Will Byrnes
This is probably the definitive work on the history of US involvement in the Afghanistan war against the Soviets and the resulting blowback.

Coll begins with the Islamabad riot of 1979, in which thousands of Islamic militants laid waste to the US embassy while Zia was riding about on a bicycle distributing unrelated leaflets, and accompanied by much of his military. Did he know about the plan and make himself deliberately unavailable? It is clear that he had an agenda of his own in dealing with t
I got this book for free by reviewing a chapter of a writing textbook for some publisher. It sat on my shelf for a year and a half while I scraped together the courage to actually read it. At 500 pages, this is one long piece of nonfiction. The title alone is exhausting. But it won a Pulitzer! So away we go.

The book begins shortly before I was born, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and erected a Communist leader. I don't remember this guy's name, but he never really had a strong grip on the
A woman got on the train and saw me reading an old-school library hardcover edition of this book. She asked me what I thought of it. Unused as I am (sadly) to sudden unsolicited displays of friendly distaff behavior, I stammered, oh, uh, ur, bluh, well, it's very good, it reads like a novel, it won a lot of awards and “I am catching up on stuff I should have been paying attention to all along.”

“We all should have,” the lady replied.

You said it, honey. While we were snug in the roaring '90's and
Coll's book—a dispiriting read, as much for the countless missed opportunities, bungled efforts, internecine squabbling, and an all-around short-sightedness that was endemic to every party involved, as for the fact that the entire world knows the brutal manner in which the final act was played out—is about as good a summation of what went wrong in Afghanistan in the eighties and nineties, the various ways in which the United States was implicated and involved, and how al-Qaeda managed to maneuve ...more
Ghost Wars provides an extensive history of “War on Terrorism,” outlining all the mistakes CIA and the American government has made and how they’ve ignored the results of their own decisions. But while this is a good non-fiction book I would recommend everyone read, a surprising amount of information in here is not very astonishing.

I guess I have the men in my family to thank for discussing politics during those summer vacations and days-long visits where the women would be in part of the living
Quite similar to Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid, except I enjoyed "Taliban" quite a bit more.

Coll wants to counterfactually state that the Clinton administration was wrongheaded in their effort to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation, stating that since Bin Laden successfully attacked the homeland. From Coll's perspective, obviously the real problem was Bin Laden and terrorism, not nuclear weapons.

I'm sorry, but I've got to call bullshit on most
The CIA was created by Harry Truman in an attempt to prevent a surprise like Pearl Harbor from happening again.

Ghost Wars is a detailed and fascinating book about how the CIA tried but failed to carry out that assignment before 9/11

They knew about bin Laden, they followed him as best they could with a special unit that was so engaged in their job they became known around the CIA as "The Manson Family" (many of them were female). Yet bureaucracy, technical limitations, logistics and concern about
Patrick Brown
This is a fascinating look at the US and specifically CIA involvement in Afghanistan from the late 70s to early 2000s. Each of the major players -- Bin Laden, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Prince Turki, Pervez Musharraf, William Casey, George Tenet, Mullar Omar, etc. -- get their own mini-biographies. Coll does a tremendous job of contextualizing each major moment in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union and the subsequent radicalization of the region and blowback against American involvement.

One int
Oct 28, 2014 Horza added it
Welcome (Zom)Boys and Ghouls to the most spookily scarifying tale of them all: Ghoulitzer Prize-winning BURNalist Steve KILL's G-G-G-Ghost Wars!

[ed- Readers who want Cryptkeeper to continue this review please chip in with your own Halloweenish takes on Osama bin Laden, Prince Turki al-Faisal ibn Saud, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency etc., they're giving him a struggle.]


A persistent theme of this book is the lack of any serious
I have to consider this book a CIA whitewash. The author, who was an editor at the Washington Post, which more or less tells me he's a system controlled propagandist, got access to "classified documents" and interviews with CIA agents that were on the ground in Afghanistan to the high level guys. He just takes peoples, who should be some of the last on the planet you should trust, word for it. He passes the buck, glosses over or ignores the key facts about Afghanistan going back to the Carter ad ...more
It won a Pulitzer, I doubt anyone can argue its journalistic integrity, thoroughness, or detail, and its scope, understanding, and layering of history is unequivocal – but it was a complete bear to get through. Some non-fiction reads like a movie screenplay that I can’t put down: Black Hawk Down, See No Evil, Night, Homicide. This wasn’t among the worst in terms of readability – seeming like a compilation of names, dates, and short, declarative, newspaper-style sentences – but I didn’t think it ...more
Stephen Shifflett
If you thought you knew anything about the origins of radical jihad and bin Laden, you need to read this book.

Turns out we pretty much funded our own problems through our dependence on oil--especially in the 70s and 80s--and that we overtly funded the radical Islamists to fight against the Soviets (watch CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR).

Then we didn't heed the warnings concerning the jihadists' new enemy--the US (one of their principal financiers--Saudi Arabia being the other). Yet we stayed in bed with
I was prepared to dislike this somewhat enormous 2004 book on the CIA's involvement in Afghanistan, mostly because many other writers of books in this general topic area CAN'T SHUT UP ABOUT HOW FRIGGIN' GREAT IT IS. It is so often referenced in other books about the developments related to 9/11, Al Qaeda and military involvment in Iraq and Afghanistan that it's practically ubiquitous, and every time someone mentions it they have to mention it's oh-so-great. I was prepared to despise it, because ...more
Very interesting history of warlords, diplomacy, intelligence and covert action in the region. I offers a gripping, excellent account of the 1979 attack on the US Embassy in Islamabad, an event I had never heard of before. According to Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program, the Uzbek air base from which the CIA flew the Predator UAVs was Tuzel.
All those Afghan communists were educated in the USSR, right? Nope. many were actually indoctrinated in the US. Here's a breakdown of the
Wow - every 20-30 pages of this book something happens where you say to yourself "I can't believe that happened." Ghost Wars is a history of US involvement in Afghanistan from the anti-Soviet uprising in the 1980s up to the day before the WTC attacks. I think it's essential reading for anyone to understand what's going there. There are so many twists and turns, so many parties involved and alliances forming and breaking, and so many dollars and arms changing hands. If it were written in a more l ...more
Alper Bahadir
Finally; it took me about 3 months but I finished it.

This was one of the best nonfiction books I have read in a long time. I have no idea how Coll got access to that much information and how he was able to organize it that well. But just trying to imagine how much research must have gone into this book makes me want to shake his hand. It's really a phenomenal collection of information and the language is accessible and intelligent at the same time. Some of the analysis is a bit superficial but
uuugh. Could not force myself to read this. I have read many other military history books and I just plain hated this one. I do sometimes have issues with falling asleep though...and this worked like a charm. If you like REALLY detailed info on the past couple hundred years in the'll love was just WAY too much info for me.
Joseph Stieb
One could call Afghanistan a cursed land for many reasons, but the one that emerges from Steve Coll’s epic “Ghost Wars” is that what happens in Afghanistan is rarely about Afghanistan, at least not in a direct sense. For the USSR, Afghanistan was a place to shore up a southern border and gain a long-desired foothold in the Central Asia. For the US, Afghanistan was about sticking it to the bear and preventing him from romping into more valuable allies’ neighborhoods. For Pakistan, Afghanistan was ...more
Nathan Moore
This work is the most comprehensive historical narrative of any event that I've ever interacted with. An endorsement on the back cover by The New York Review of Books notes "The CIA itself would be hard put to beat his grasp of Global Events." To me, this seemed overstatement... until I read the book.

The scope of this book is beyond even my ability to follow. Its easy to see why he was awarded a Pulitzer for his effort. I feel like I should get some sort of award just for reading it. But due to
This is a somewhat difficult book to read with it's detailed analysis of how "we" got to 9-11. The many mistakes that were made by every administration beginning with Reagan and ending with George W. Bush are mind boggling and makes one want to scream at the so-called leaders of our country. While understanding the geopolitical complexities at work, one is left with the notion that stepping on the toes of our oil producing "friends" might have been more important than our national security. I wi ...more
Fantastic synthesis of several other books I've read on the subject of terrorism in the past few years. The sourcing is impeccable; indeed, about a sixth of the book's considerable heft is the notes at the end.
The book reads like a sad movie you know the ending to. The irony is just maddening: there were all sorts of plans and opportunities to prevent the 9/11 tragedy, but prior to that day, there just wasn't enough political will to do the things necessary to stop the attacks.
Another thing I le
Theresa Leone Davidson
Reading about the world's real-life monsters, like Osama bin Laden, makes it sort of unnecessary to read about fictional monsters; nevertheless, those books are more fun because they are not real. Ghost Wars is about bin Laden's rise to power, what the United States did to facilitate that rise, and what we did, eventually, to stop him. The book is very long and I thought included too many details that weren't necessarily relevant. It certainly is thorough, though, and the history it captures, pa ...more
Author: Pulitzer-prize-winning guy, managing editor of Washington Post

Story: the long tragedy leading up to 9/11

If you want to learn about the CIA and/or the war in Afghanistan and/or bin Laden and/or 9/11, this is a good place to start.

I am confessing I haven't QUITE finished this, because I keep having to stop and throw it at the wall and yell at officials who should be able to see that ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES. Good God, all the sound bites about "IslamoFascists" and "they hate us for our fr
Some fun quotes/points:

1 - There is a ton of tension between CIA/State dept/White House/NSC.

2 - Bill Clinton had to deal with a lot of shit at once.

3- "Terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people listening and not a lot of people dead. Terrorism is theater"

4 - Terrorism (in the late 90s) was an inevitable feature of global change. "Pillar saw terrorism fundamentally as "a challenge to be managed, not solved".

5 - George Tenet seems like a cool guy.

6 - I think I want to be a CIA o
It is hard to find another account of the events leading up to 9/11 that matches the complexity and comprehensiveness of this one.

The author relies on hundreds of interviews, ranging from high officials (even presidents) and intelligence directors to case officers and mujahedins. For this book he also obtained previously classified material from American and Russian agencies. The work on documentation is simply astounding. It is worth mentioning that the author wrote this book before the 911 Com
Kym Andrew Robinson
#I listened to the audio book#

I found that this was an in depth look at essentially what the title suggests. The book investigates the problems and innovations that came about from the CIA's operations in Afghanistan.

The authour addresses early funding issues, legalities of targeted killings early on, the genesis of the deployment of drones. I found the book to be interesting and with a good level of detail . For that it has been praised though in some areas I found it to be a little irritating
It is one of the finest books I have read and explains a lot of things that have always intrigued me. The sad manner in which Ahmed Shah Massod died is also an event that had serious consequences for the whole world...I fail to understand when the US Govt. will learn its lessons... their support to Pakistan proves that their policies are still not what they should be... I only hope that our coming generations do not have to suffer due to the stupidity of US foreign policy...
Feb 23, 2014 Brian rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Brian by: Patrick Brown
(4.0) Extensive. Lots of looking back at how the on-the-ground agents pushed to pursue bin Laden but were frustrated by higher ups

Found it interesting that Charlie Wilson wasn't as central as he probably saw himself in the pro-mujihadeen strategy against the Soviets in Afghanistan. And that drones were used rather ineffectively in Afghanistan in the past, but their development and use probably made them as effective as they are today.
Bharat Shetty
This fascinating book captures the complex and perplexing geo-political issues that haunt the Afghan peninsula since 2001 to 2011 and continues unabated today. CIA had gotten it right in soviet, but acted lazily allowing several Mujahid to misuse the agency funded stingers, military equipment and other tactical information.

The central pieces of this book is Ahmed Shah Massoud who was killed just two days before the unfathomable september attacks. He ran a tight intelligence network in Afghanist
Aug 31, 2007 Aaronc rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Everyone
I cannot tell you how much I learned from this book. Many things I read lately, in the paper or elsewhere, have been effected from reading this book. If you want to understand the horrors of modern times and generally the politics of the middle east - this is a good place to begin. But beware, once you read this book - it will only make you more curious and this door will lead to many other doors.
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Steve Coll is President & CEO of New America Foundation, and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. Previously he spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent and senior editor at The Washington Post, serving as the paper's managing editor from 1998 to 2004.

He is author six books, including The Deal of the Century: The Break Up of AT&T (1986); The Taking of Getty Oil (1987); Eagle on t
More about Steve Coll...
Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century On the Grand Trunk Road The Deal of the Century: The Breakup of AT&T The Taking of Getty Oil: The Full Story of the Most Spectacular & Catastrophic Takeover of All Time

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“Even President Reagan couldn’t understand him. During an early briefing Casey delivered to the national security cabinet, Reagan slipped Vice President Bush a note: “Did you understand a word he said?” Reagan later told William F. Buckley, “My problem with Bill was that I didn’t understand him at meetings. Now, you can ask a person to repeat himself once. You can ask him twice. But you can’t ask him a third time. You start to sound rude. So I’d just nod my head, but I didn’t know what he was actually saying.”
Such was the dialogue for six years between the president and his intelligence chief in a nuclear-armed nation running secret wars on four continents.”
“Still, the Pakistanis beat the CIA’s systems. In Quetta in 1983, ISI officers were caught colluding with Afghan rebels to profit by selling off CIA-supplied weapons. In another instance, the Pakistan army quietly sold the CIA its own surplus .303 rifles and about 30 million bullets. A ship registered in Singapore picked up about 100,000 guns in Karachi, steamed out to sea, turned around, came back to port, and off-loaded the guns, pretending they had come from abroad.” 0 likes
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