Will Byrnes's Reviews > Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

Ghost Wars by Steve Coll
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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 the USA. Fearful of India to his south and the USSR to his north he was eager to keep the Russians at bay, using Afghanistan as a buffer state. He was also beset from within politically, so made a decision that might seem right at home in Saudi Arabia, he enabled the fundamentalists. He was also eager to keep the Pashtuns who straddled the Afghani-Pakistani border from becoming too powerful, and forming their own country. Thus, aid to Afghanistan resistance fighters was focused on non-Pashtun players.

Channeling all aid through the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence, the primary intel entity in the country, the tail that wags the Pakistani dog. There are significant numbers of Taliban sympathizers within the organization.) meant that the USA was allowing that extremist entity to affect the future in all Central Asia, fomenting fundamentalist Islam throughout the region. Coll offers accounts of William Casey sponsoring actions that were well beyond his authority, and that risked conflagration, such as sponsoring incursions by the Islamists into the Soviet Union.

When the USA denied aid to Pakistan because of the nuclear bomb issue, Saudi Arabia stepped in and kept the money flowing, increasing their influence and the power of the ISI.

Ahmed Massoud was not a Pashtun, but a Tajik, hailing from the northeast of Afghanistan, the Panjshir Valley. He was not only a gifted strategist, but a politician as well. While fighting the Russians for years he was also bargaining with them, finally achieving a cease fire, to the chagrin of the other resistance leaders, most notably Hekmatyar, who regarded him as a Benedict Arnold for dealing with the enemy.

The role of the UNOCAL deal – the US wanted to provide a way for Central Asian republics to get their oil and gas to market without it having to go through Russia. Also Pakistan had an interest in buying petro from them. They needed a stable, unified regime in Afghanistan in order to make it possible to build a pipeline there.

Coll looks at the responses of four US administrations regarding Afghanistan, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush jr. He looks at the complications of governing this multi-ethnic society and how external politics affected its existence. Soviet pressure, Pakistan desire to use Afghanistan as a buffer state, the US wanting to pursue bin Laden, Saudi Arabia looking to spread Islam and contain Iran. He looks at some of the religious differences, noting that the Taliban was decidedly Sunni, despite Condeleeza’s mistaken notion that they were one with Iran.

This is a masterwork, covering a lot, A LOT of territory. If you have any interest in events in the Stans, in the Indian subcontinent or in US foreign policy, this is an absolute must read.

P 104
Drawing on his experiences running dissident Polish exiles as agents behind Nazi lines, [CIA chief William] Casey decided to revive the CIA’s propaganda proposals targeting Central Asia. The CIA’ specialists proposed to send in books about Central Asian culture and historical Soviet atrocities in the region. The ISI’s generals said they would prefer to ship Korans in the local languages…the CIA printed thousands of copies of the Muslim book and shipped them to Pakistan for distribution to the Mujahidin

P 132
[As part of their tactics, Afghani insurgents targeted Russians in Kabul] Fear of poisoning, surprise attacks, and assassination became rife among Russian officers and soldiers in Kabul. The rebels fashioned booby-trapped bombs from gooey black contact explosives, supplied to Pakistani intelligence by the CIA, that could be molded into ordinary shapes or poured into innocent utensils. Russian soldiers began to find bombs made from pens, watches, cigarette lighters, and tape recorders…Kabul shopkeepers poisoned food eaten by Russian soldiers.

P 134
Afghans…uniformly denounced suicide attack proposals as against their religion. It was only the Arab volunteers—from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria and other countries, who had been raised in an entirely different culture, spoke their own language, and preached their own interpretations of Islam while fighting far from their homes and families—who later advocated suicide attacks. Afghan jihadists, tightly woven into family, clan, and regional social networks, never embraced suicide tactics in significant numbers.

It is clear that there is a very real divide within Pakistan between the civilian leadership and the military. The latter is vastly influenced by Islamic extremists. Because the CIA was not interested in delving into local politics, they allowed the ISI to control the funds we were providing. This was not the same as allowing the Paki government to control it. Their interests were not identical.

There also developed a divergence between the focus of the CIA and the State department. CIA was wedded to the ISI, whereas State, particularly via reports by dissidents (Edmund McWilliams, Peter Tomsen) sent back through channels that bypassed the CIA, became more inclined to attempt to achieve some sort of rapprochement among the elements. ISI had favorites and was channeling resources to them. Those resources were turned on other mujahidin. Hekmatyar, for example, tried to wipe out all his opposition, and did a pretty good number on Massoud’s officer corps.

P 165
[In 1987] The CIA did not account for the massive weight of private Saudi and Arab funding that tilted the field (of anti-soviets) toward the Islamists—up to $25 milion a month by Bearden’s own estimate. Nor did they account for the intimate tactical and strategic partnerships between Pakistani intelligence and the Afghan Islamists, expecially along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. By the late 1908s ISI had effectively eliminated all the secular, leftist, and royalist political parties that had first formed when Afghan refugees fled communist rule.

P 168
A year before they left Afghanistan, the Soviet informed the US that they would be leaving [George’ Shultz was so struck by the significance of the news that it half-panicked him. He feared that if he told the right-wingers in Reagan’s cabinet that Shevardnaze had said, and endorsed the disclosure as sincere, he would be accused of going soft on Moscow. He kept the conversation to himself for weeks.

Shevardnaze had asked for American cooperation in limiting the spread of “Islamic fundamentalism.” Schultz was sympathetic, but no high-level Reagan administration officials ever gave much thought to the issue…the warnings were just a way to deflect attention from Soviet failings, American hard-liners decided.

P 475
[for Pakistan] The jihadist guerrillas were a more practical day-to-day strategic defense against Indian hegemony than even a nuclear bomb.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Caroline (new) - added it

Caroline An interesting review - but it shows me clearly that this book would be way to complex for my ageing walnut brain. I need something less all-encompassing.


message 2: by Wanda (new)

Wanda Caroline, I have read this book twice. During the second read, I found material which i had missed the first time reading. Once you begin reading, the pages turn themselves. Will's review did this book great justice. I hope you will read Ghost Wars - you will be rewarded.


message 3: by Ivy (new)

Ivy will your review is great


Will Byrnes Thank you, Ivy.


message 5: by Sidharth (new)

Sidharth Panwar Superb review, Will. My only proper introduction to this topic was a Discovery documentary, which was also a fascinating work. This goes into my TBR pile. :)


Will Byrnes Thanks Sid. This book is the real deal.


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