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

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The news-breaking book that has sent shockwaves through the Bush White House, Ghost Wars is the most accurate and revealing account yet of the CIA's secret involvement in al-Qaeda's evolution. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll has spent years reporting from the Middle East, accessed previously classified government files and interviewed senior US officials and foreign spymasters. Here he gives the full inside story of the CIA's covert funding of an Islamic jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, explores how this sowed the seeds of Bin Laden's rise, traces how he built his global network and brings to life the dramatic battles within the US government over national security. Above all, he lays bare American intelligence's continual failure to grasp the rising threat of terrorism in the years leading to 9/11 - and its devastating consequences.

712 pages, Paperback

First published February 23, 2004

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About the author

Steve Coll

15 books682 followers
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 the Street, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the SEC's battle with Wall Street (with David A. Vise, 1991); On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia (1994), Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004); and The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (2008).

Mr. Coll's professional awards include two Pulitzer Prizes. He won the first of these, for explanatory journalism, in 1990, for his series, with David A. Vise, about the SEC. His second was awarded in 2005, for his book, Ghost Wars, which also won the Council on Foreign Relations' Arthur Ross award; the Overseas Press Club award and the Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book published on international affairs during 2004. Other awards include the 1992 Livingston Award for outstanding foreign reporting; the 2000 Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Award for his coverage of the civil war in Sierra Leone; and a second Overseas Press Club Award for international magazine writing.

Mr. Coll graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Cum Laude, from Occidental College in 1980 with a degree in English and history. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 2 books247k followers
July 5, 2019
"Oh, okay, you want us to capture him. Right. You crazy white guys.”

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1979 is certainly a dividing line in my life. It was the year that Iranians stormed the embassy in Iran and took Americans hostage. This was quickly followed by the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. I can remember thinking to myself, Why do the Iranians hate us so much and why would anyone want Afghanistan? Like most Americans, before I could actually formulate an opinion about Afghanistan, I first had to go find it on a map.

If the hostage crisis didn’t sink Jimmy Carter’s presidency, certainly the utter failure of the rescue attempt hammered in the final nail. As a nation we were not used to feeling helpless in the face of a threat. We have always been a nation who firmly believes in never leaving a man/woman behind. It was disconcerting, maddening, to see Americans held hostage, and also to come to the realization that our government was helpless. The days became months and then years. 444 days. Americans would not have any significance as hostages if we didn’t value our own citizens.

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As a nation, we were all held hostage. Our faith in our government to protect us may not have been completely shattered, but it was most certainly compromised.

Steve Coll masterfully picks up the story in 1979 and brings it forward to 9/11. War, as we knew it, had changed. Even the Cold War, which was the byproduct of the dementia of two superpowers, had somehow satisfied the needs of those in power to wage war without actually, officially declaring it. As baffling as that time was, it is strange to feel so much nostalgia for it. It was an arms race, a war of brains rather than brawn. The invasion of Afghanistan changed the rules and left the Soviet Union vulnerable to fighting a lot more than a few ragged, underfed, undereducated poppy farmers.

The Players:
William J. Casey was the head of the CIA at this time. He still saw the Russian Bear as the greatest threat to America, and it was the reason he joined the organization. Ronald Reagan, as president, is a fervent anti-communist, as can be seen from many of his speeches going way back to when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild. The final piece to the puzzle that had to fall in place was one alcoholic, charismatic representative from Texas in need of a cause by the name of Charlie Wilson.

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You’ve heard the term Charlie Wilson’s war? Well, he gave it to us.

America went to war with the Soviet Union. Well...not technically. They funnelled money, loads of money into Pakistan. (Carter offered President Zia of Pakistan $400 million, which he rejected. Reagan offered him $3.2 billion, which he accepted.) The region was choking on all the money. America was intent on buying an embarrassing defeat for the Soviet Union. The CIA had to get creative though, because it wasn’t like we could outfit these Afghanistan rebels with weapons stamped with MADE IN AMERICA. Somebody had the bright idea, later during the 1992-1996 push towards Kabul against Soviet supported Afghanistan troops, to go scoop up all those Soviet tanks and weaponry that Saddam Hussein left scattered all over the desert when he retreated from Kuwait. They refurbished them and handed them off to “our allies” in Afghanistan. I always enjoy a good recycling story.

Of course, the turning point came when we decided to let the rebels use Stinger missiles.

What this all really adds up to is a destabilized region that has become ripe for a lunatic with an endless supply of money and an ego the size of Jupiter to take over. Need more hints? He was frogmarched out of his native country of Saudi Arabia and stripped of his citizenship. The average height of a man from Saudi Arabia is 5’6”. He was almost a foot taller. He’s kind of an a$$hole.

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The one and hopefully only Osama Bin Laden.

In the 1990s, America was going through a crisis of faith with the CIA. They were forcing veterans into early retirement and reducing the level of government commitment to the spy service just as Islamic terrorism was on the rise . If not for the emergence of George Tenet, the spy service might have slowly circled down the drain. He was exactly what the CIA needed, a gregarious, likeable man who knew how to talk politics.

Despite distractions from other world crises, including a near career ending domestic crisis involving a cigar and a blue dress, President Bill Clinton made several attempts to capture Bin Laden. He shot cruise missiles at him. He had the Persian Lion contacted, Ahmed Shah Massoud, possibly our best ally in Afghanistan, about a plan to take Bin Laden out. Unfortunately, American politics played a big part or most of us might never have known the name Bin Laden.

America relied too heavily on their two closest allies in the Middle East. ”Instead at first out of indifference, then with misgivings, and finally in a state of frustrated inertia--the United States endorsed year after year the Afghan programs of its two sullen, complex, and sometimes vital allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.” These were two countries that had their own agendas with Afghanistan. Sometimes they helped America, and sometimes behind the scenes they were working against them.

Bin Laden wasn’t really interested in the squabbles going on in Afghanistan. He couldn’t care less about Russia or the other European powers. He wanted to go after the country that would give him the biggest bang for his buck. The United States of America. “Like bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri (current leader of Al-Qaeda) believed that it was time for jihadists to carry the war to ‘the distant enemy’ because, once provoked, the Americans would probably reply with revenge attacks and ‘personally wage the battle against the Muslims,’ which would make them ripe for a ‘clear-cut jihad against infidels.’”

Power was achieved through attention. It makes me doubt that their true intentions were as purely religiously motivated as they would like us to believe. They wanted to provoke the United States into attacking them. It wasn’t about revenge as much as it was about achieving glory through blood.

The brains at the CIA were, meanwhile, realizing a few things as well. ”A lesson of American counterterrorism efforts since the 1980s was that the threat could not be defeated, only ‘reduced, attenuated, and to some degree controlled. Terrorism was an inevitable feature of global change.”

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Richard Clarke the American guru on terrorism.

As the Clinton administration was winding down, it became easier to start kicking decisions regarding terrorism and other policy issues down the road. Clinton didn’t want to make decisions that George W. Bush would have to live with. Bush, on the other hand, was almost punch drunk with a narrow presidential victory. Richard Clarke, the guru of terrorism under Clinton, had a hard time getting the attention of Bush or his National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, about the pending threats of terrorism. 2001 turned out to be a bad time to be switching administrations.

Steve Coll, step by step, takes us through the minefield of the Middle East. He shows the mistakes and why they happened. He explains the intent and why sometimes America was right and sometimes very wrong in their approach to problems. We were slow to understand the motivations of certain individuals. Sometimes we were too proud to see how vulnerable we were. Sometimes we meddled in things best left to a regional conflict. You will see each president, possibly in a different light, as Coll explains the politics and the underlying concerns behind their decisions.

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The Persian Lion had a vision for his country.

This is a book that, as I was reading it, I heard the snap of so many missing blocks of information fall into place. My understanding of how and why things happened the way they happened expanded exponentially. Our relationship with the Middle East is a complex and convoluted mess with misconceived and misinterpreted intentions on both sides. This is a serious book, well written, and meticulously researched.

Two days before 9/11 a Saudi Arabian man posing as a reporter blew himself up, sending shrapnel into the chest of Ahmad Shah Massoud. Bin Laden knew that once those planes hit those towers that America would come to Massoud. It was a huge blow to Afghanistan because finally everything would line up for Massoud to eventually control the country (with US backing), and Massoud could finally put into place the country he always dreamed of. As someone said: ”What an unlucky country.”

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten or you can catch some of my reviews on http://www.shelfinflicted.com/.
Profile Image for Matt.
898 reviews28k followers
October 16, 2021
“The downward spiral following the Cold War’s end was no less steep in, say, Congo or Rwanda than it was in Afghanistan. Yet for Americans on the morning of September 11, it was Afghanistan’s storm that struck. A war they hardly knew and an enemy they had barely met crossed oceans never traversed by the German Luftwaffe or the Soviet Rocket Forces to claim several thousand civilian lives in two mainland cities. How had this happened…?”
- Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 11, 2001

If you want to read about the road that led to September 11, 2001, there are a lot of options to pick from. Many of these options – such as Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower – are quite good. With that said, Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars might be the best. Though it was published all the way back in 2004 – and has since been updated – I have little hesitation in saying that it will likely remain one of the best for years to come.

The reason is that Ghost Wars is not simply the tale of how it came to pass that nineteen hijackers used four airliners to topple two of the world’s largest buildings, triggering a military response that destabilized nations, killed hundreds of thousands, and cost trillions of dollars. Instead, it is a sweeping history of a beautiful and ancient country that has been cursed by geography to sit at the crossroads of empires.

To be sure, Coll’s opus is first and foremost about America’s Central Intelligence Agency, their response to the growing threat of terror in South Asia, and the many failures and shortfalls that marked this endeavor. Just as importantly, however, it is about the Afghanis themselves, and their struggle to win the peace after throwing the Soviet Union back across their borders. Their ultimate failure stemmed not only from ethnic and religions divisions within, but by power-players from without, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

The tale told within these pages is epic in every sense of the word. It is big and complex, it is exciting and exhilarating. There are pitched battles, ambushes, and assassinations. There are flawed heroes and complicated villains and the weight of a long and bloody history resting upon the shoulders of all participants. At the end – concluding on September 10, 2001, at the sunset of our hopes for the 21st century – it is profoundly frustrating and heartbreaking. Ghost Wars is nearly 600-pages long, but with vivid writing and excellent pacing, it reads much shorter. When I came to the last page, I wanted more.

Ghost Wars is divided into three major sections. The first covers the Afghan-Soviet War that commenced with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve of 1979. The war became a vortex, drawing in Arab fighters, Saudi money, and – in a gradual escalation – American weaponry. For the U.S., the goal was to embarrass the Soviet Union, to give them their own Vietnam. In the short term, they were successful; in the long term, there was a distinct lack of an endgame.

The second section covers Afghanistan in the post-Soviet period with various factions vying for power. During this period, the Taliban rose to the fore, committed to an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam. Backed by elements of the ISI – Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Service Intelligence – the Taliban consolidated authority under the one-eyed Mullah Omar.

The third and final portion of Ghost Wars follows Osama bin Laden as he is forced from Saudi Arabia and the Sudan, and takes refuge in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. There, he begins to focus on “the distant enemy,” meaning the United States. Hiding in plain sight, Coll narrates the many opportunities that America had to potentially capture or kill bin Laden, while also reminding you that – had such an opportunity been acted upon – the potential blowback was extremely high.

Everything about Ghost Wars works at the highest level. The organization is first rate, and despite the veritable sea of information presented, I never struggled to keep my head above water. The writing is excellent, and Coll shows himself able to devise a crackling set piece (he does a great job with the siege of the American embassy in Islamabad), marvelously describe the various settings, and to credibly interpret the actions and motives of the major players. Even though three different intelligence agencies were weaving a skein of deceptions and lies, Coll somehow manages to lead the reader through it without getting lost in “the wilderness of mirrors.”

The characterizations are excellent, reminding you that this is foremost a human story (a dramatis personae is provided, to keep everyone straight). I especially liked Coll's depictions of Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi intelligence chief who moved smoothly between east and west, playing both ends against the middle, and CIA Director George Tenet, a people-pleaser and compromise choice to lead the agency, who was suddenly thrust into one of the most important positions in American government. Most memorable of all is Ahmed Shah Massoud, the famed “Lion of the Panjshir,” a multilingual warrior-intellectual, who waged armed resistance from the north of Afghanistan, but who also enjoyed his trips to Paris. On the event of bin Laden’s fateful “planes operation,” Massoud was the target of a coup d'état, removing him from the chessboard at the moment he was needed most.

Underlying the sheer force of the storytelling is an enormous amount of research. There are seventy-seven two-columned pages of annotated notes, attesting to hundreds of interviews that Coll conducted himself. This is further girded by his travels in the region, which adds to the sense of place. It’s not simply that Coll gathered so much, it’s that he has such a sure grip on this information.

By the end of Ghost Wars, all the mistakes have been laid bare. Some errors are clear only with hindsight. For example, knowing what bin Laden would eventually do, it’s obvious that stronger efforts should have been made to neutralize him, regardless of the cost. Of course, at the time, bin Laden had not yet executed his infamous deed, and it would’ve been a lot harder to justify – for instance – laying waste to his Tarnak Farm compound, which would’ve killed many noncombatants. Other failures came from an inability to focus on or prioritize Afghanistan as an issue. President Clinton's impeachment, for instance, fatally weakened his administration and kept kept him from taking certain actions that probably should’ve been taken.

(Since I brought up Clinton, it’s worth noting that Coll does not exhibit any specific political grudges. Every American President in this timeframe – Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and G.W. Bush – contributed to the catastrophe. Coll does not let anyone skate, though he does not necessarily condemn anyone either. He mostly tells the story, and leaves the conclusions to the reader).

As Coll makes clear, it would be ludicrous to chalk everything up to American ineptitude. There were other players involved, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both of which played a double game. The Saudi Royal Family was happy to keep U.S. military muscle on hand, but also had to placate the intense religious feelings of their people. The result is that bin Laden – instead of being arrested – was allowed to quietly leave the country. Pakistan played an even bigger role in events. While acting the part of an American ally, they were also busy funding Afghani training camps, hoping to use those fighters to do battle in the Kashmir region. While America can be faulted for its choice of friends – Coll suggests that the U.S. would’ve been better served strengthening ties with India – it is also a fact that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were independent agents making their own decisions for their own ends.

By the time I reached the final page, I felt a certain resignation. I was not convinced that things could have been changed, even if we sent someone back in time to do things differently. There are simply too many factors, too many variables, to say that the outcome could’ve been altered. Even killing bin Laden might not have been enough, as it was Khaled Sheikh Mohammed who truly masterminded the 9/11 plot. To read this history is to feel a sense of dark destiny hovering over Afghanistan. In his novel Kim, Rudyard Kipling wrote that “when everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished.” Part of me wonders if he might be right.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 2 books5,408 followers
November 20, 2019
There is absolutely no surprise that Steve Coll won the Pulitzer for this extraordinary book about the CIA and Afghanistan up to 9/10/11. This a plethora of well-researched data here about the mistakes and miscues that characterized the US strategy towards first the Russian invasion of this sad, destroyed country and later how the US dealt with the groups left after the Russians left for good.
The hunt for Bin Laden takes up a good part of the latter third of the book and makes for exciting if somewhat depressing writing. You would think that after the disasters in Vietnam and the various messes in Central and South America we were involved in, we would have learned something about supporting local corrupt cronies and turning a blind eye to particularly untrustworthy allies, but unfortunately, this was absolutely not the case. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are largely responsible for the rise of radical Islam including of course the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the vacuum that consumed Afghanistan following the Russian pullout. It is particularly striking when one thinks of the rich and varied history of this part of the world that has endured non-stop conflict for nearly 40 years now leaving its cities in rubble and its people in eternal crisis. I am impatient to start the sequel Directorate S which I will, of course, review here as soon as I finish.
In the meantime, I picked up A Line in the Sand by James Barr to better understand how the Middle East was drawn following the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI which could reasonably be argued as the initial spark for the burning fire that is the whole region now from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,284 reviews119k followers
April 24, 2014
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.
Profile Image for W.
1,185 reviews4 followers
February 3, 2021
A hefty book,and it took me a good long while to finish it.But despite its sheer length,it kept my interest right through.

Steve Coll's research is exhaustive,and his insights worth reading.It won the Pulitzer Prize and deservedly so.

It gets off to a dramatic start as an angry mob attacks the US embassy in Islamabad,in 1979.The embassy had to be rebuilt later.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the event that would prompt the US to enter the conflict and heavily arm the Afghan resistance.
The CIA's covert support was massive,and the influx of arms into Afghanistan was huge as General Zia ul Haq became a key ally of the US.

The Saudis,fearful of the Soviets,entered the fray as well and matched American funding for what were then called the "Mujahideen." The weapons being supplied to the Afghans became more and more sophisticated,without regard for future consequences.The CIA later had to repurchase Stinger missiles,fearing their misuse.

There's an in depth account of the activities of Afghan commanders including Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbadeen Hekmatyar,as they vied for power in the post Soviet vacuum.Neither could succeed as the warring factions were suddenly upstaged by the rise of the fundamentalist militia,The Taliban,headed by its one eyed leader,Mullah Omar.

US energy company Unocal sensed an opportunity to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.They tried to cultivate the Taliban,but without stability in Afghanistan,that pipeline would remain a pipe dream.

Meanwhile,Osama Bin Laden had arrived in Afghanistan during the Soviet war,and had become an influential figure.His criticism of the Saudi royals did not endear him to them.He fled to Sudan,and eventually had to leave that country as well,with Afghanistan once again becoming his destination.

The US repeatedly tried to kill him.The Clinton Administration fired Cruise missiles which passed through Pakistani air space before reaching Afghanistan.Bin Laden remained safe.Clinton was at the time embroiled in the impeachment proceedings.

On another occasion,Arab Sheikhs from the UAE were with Bin Laden,as the CIA contemplated killing him.But that would have killed the UAE royals,too.Nothing came of that plan as well.

In desperation,the US turned to Afghan Northern Alliance commander,Ahmed Shah Massoud to try and kill Bin Laden.Massoud was by now working with future Afghan President Hamid Karzai against the Taliban.

And then,just two days before 9/11,Ahmed Shah Massoud was assassinated by two Arab suicide bombers posing as journalists.That's where the book comes to an end and the author tells the story of later years in a subsequent volume.
Profile Image for Brett C.
768 reviews156 followers
May 2, 2021
This is an excellent book about modern Afghanistan. The author does a good job at highlighting the information, noting key players, and the various multidimensional problems that have existed in Afghanistan. Coll delivered a lot of information to include the Soviet invasion, the Northern Alliance, the violent power struggles that followed the exit of the Soviet Union, the CIA, the rise of the Taliban, and eventually the role of Osama bin Laden. This was full of knowledge. Sometimes it was slow and dry but I still finished it in a few days. I would highly recommend this as one of the top reports about modern Afghanistan and involvement from the West. Thanks!
Profile Image for David.
638 reviews229 followers
December 8, 2012
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 bow-tied pundits were telling us that school uniforms were a matter of life and death, the unhappy few with shards and shreds of advance information about the upcoming attacks by a monster of our own creation were stuck like mid-level-bureaucratic bugs in amber. If watching a disaster head your way in painful slow motion gives you a headache, keep a pile of hot compresses and an economy-sized bottle of aspirin nearby while reading.

Author Steve Coll has all the details, and I have a great deal of respect for his thorough gathering of fact and his painstaking explanations. But I'm also going to do some sorehead carping about the way he gives space to an unseemly team higher-level government self-servers who, retrospectively, want us to be aware that they were actually a voice of reason in the wilderness. I am skeptical of the claimers, but I'm inclined to cut the author some slack. It was probably impossible, writing immediately after the 9/11 attacks, to get access to documents that would support or torpedo the retrospective claims to foresight of executive-branch mandarins like Karl Inderfurth and Richard Clarke.

However, when Coll says (p. 299) that Colorado Senator Hank Brown tried to change State Department policy toward the Taliban in the mid-90's but was defeated by a “wall of silence”, I have to get up on my hind legs. First, unlike executive-branch mandarins, a Senator should lead enough of his life in public so that any concern of this type should have left a public trail of paper and/or witnesses, which the author could then include in the book's footnotes. If such documents or witnesses exist, they are not cited here. Second, Coll is enough of a Washington insider to know that any Senator can set a member of his staff to make the State Department's life a living hell if he so wishes. The Senator would still have plenty of time and energy left to fundraise until the world looks level. In this case, Coll should have shown some good Washington journalistic sense, meaning, he should assume that every word a member of Congress says is a lie, including “and” and “but”, unless there's convincing evidence to the contrary. Again, there actually may BE convincing evidence to the contrary in this case, but it's not presented. In the footnotes to this part of the book, Coll quotes Brown in a post-9/11 interview saying that the whole matter gave him (Brown) “a lump in my throat” (p. 613). Reading this gave ME a lump in the throat as well, but it's the type I get when I'm throttling the impulse to yell at the book loud enough so that the author will hear my voice through the copy that's sitting on his bookshelf at home.

While I'm on a roll of sorehead carping, let me also join in the small chorus of detractors here on Goodreads and elsewhere who have noticed a certain patience-trying wordiness, in which, for example, someone “perished in a fusillade of gunfire” (p. 47). Occasionally, this tendency can be distracting, as when (p. 46) an Afghan leader is described as “a former failed graduate student at Columbia University”. If he was a former failed graduate student, does this mean that he tried being a failed graduate student and gave it up to complete graduate school successfully? (To be clear, the answer is “no”. His dissertation was rejected.) In the same sentence, the same man is called a “leading architect of Afghanistan's 1978 Communist revolution”. Were there so many architects that some had to be “leading”?

There are many other examples like this.

But I really liked this book. I swear. I read negative reviews of this book here on Goodreads and elsewhere and I thought, “Wow, how discouraging it must be to labor for years to pin down a recent but still-ambiguous and -controversial historical period and have your labors greeted by a chorus of buttheads saying, variously, that you were unqualified to write about this period because you were a left-wing American-hater, or perhaps a tool of the left-wing Washington establishment, or simply because you were a white American.” (OK, so I didn't think it just like that, but you get the idea.) It was especially ironic to read criticisms of Coll's prose style by writers who themselves seemed to labor mightily to write as clichéd and unintelligible prose as possible, often including unexplained references to people and events barely touched on in this book, presumably so we all would be awed and intimidated by the volume of the critic's knowledge.

“You can judge a man by the quality of his detractors.” This thought occurred to me in embryo also while riding a train. (This was a different train, with lamentable lack of friendly women on it.) I had to say various approximations of above out loud before arriving at what I believe is the most elegant variation. This discomfited those around me. It was too late to pretend that I was talking on a cell phone. Unwilling to further alarm my fellow travellers, I ruminated silently: “That sounds much too profound to have been unthought-of until this moment.”

This nugget of wisdom apparently was thought of previously, but Google cannot reveal by whom. “You can judge a man by the quality of his enemies” is attributed to Doctor Who, but I just can't believe that a science-fiction character was the first one in history to voice this opinion.
Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,682 reviews1,217 followers
August 9, 2017

It's easy to be an armchair analyst and tsk, tsk at all the missteps leading up to this or that disaster. After all, everyone doing so has the benefit of hindsight. We can see with perfect clarity what might have prevented 9/11. The problem is that not only do the principals involved in policymaking not have perfect foresight, but neither they nor we can know all the bad things that might have happened, but didn't, because a certain course of action (what in hindsight we see as the "wrong" course) was taken. Once a giant disaster happens, everyone who warned against it is elevated to the level of seers. But if a different giant disaster had happened, a different set of people would receive our hosannas. Was it wrong for the U.S. foreign policy focus to be more on restraining nuclear ambitions than on quashing small terrorist groups before they metastasized? I can't say.

There are several examples of instances where the Clinton administration could have executed a cruise missile strike on some location where Bin Laden might have been. But the intelligence never came with a high degree of certainty; there was usually only one source, the source was not 100% trustworthy, it was more likely to be 40% certain than 90% certain, and the Clinton people argued fairly credibly that strikes which failed to kill Bin Laden, but possibly killed lots of civilians, would damage U.S. credibility and have the anti-American parts of the world snickering and cheering.

And while it's easy to cringe at the details of the covert U.S. support given to the Afghan mujahedin during the Afghan-Soviet war, such as the fact that all of the money and weapons were channeled through Pakistan and its anti-American, corrupt secret military intelligence police, sowing the seeds for al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it's also true that the U.S. abandoning a presence or a policy in Afghanistan as soon as the Soviets pulled out sowed terrorist seeds. The U.S. can't win either way.

It wouldn't be quite accurate to call this a book about how the entire U.S. government failed to prevent 9/11 and the rise of al-Qaeda. The focus is fairly tightly on the CIA, with State Department diplomats and Pentagon officials entering the narrative only as they interact directly with CIA principals or operatives.
361 reviews67 followers
December 15, 2012
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 aspects of American understanding of and response to the 9/11 attacks.

First off, there were less than 3000 people killed in Bin Laden's attacks. In our bombing our nuclear attacks on Japan, we killed at least 90,000 people in Hiroshima and at least 60,000 in Nagasaki 3 days later. 1940's error nuclear technology killed 50x the number of people that Bin Laden attacked. Nuclear technology has improved and in many urban centers population densities are much higher than in Imperial Japan, so death tolls would be far higher.

Second, there have been 9000 American soldiers killed in the War on Terror in Iraq and Afganistan, and 25,000 local allied soldiers killed. 76,000 Islamists have been killed and more than 110,000 civilians have been killed. All combined, a total of at least 227,000. In other words, Americas response to terrorism has been to kill 75X the number that Bin Laden killed.

Third, more than 12,000 people in the US are killed by firearms per year (not including suicide!) and more than 30,000 people in the US are killed each year in traffic accidents. We're talking about more than 40,000 people dying needlessly EVERY year, more than 14X the number that Bin Laden attacked in ONE YEAR, ONE TIME. Multiply that be the number of years that we've been at war with terror.

Coll's play by play of presidential administrations and the CIA missing the boat on 9/11, by focusing on nuclear weapons and other geopolitical issues, is just playing lapdog to an american public that has been led to believe 9/11 was both IMPORTANT and PREVENTABLE. I disagree on both counts, and I'm certain that history will prove me right. Terrorist attacks will continue, but the death tolls wil continue to be small. Meanwhile, the American Imperial response to terrorism has destroyed our economy, curtailed our civil rights, and created far more enemies --- setting us up for a far bigger Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire next time around.

More importantly, the US is now in a far worse position if there were to be a REAL WAR, not just hunting down peasants in 3rd world countries.
Profile Image for Judith E.
521 reviews187 followers
August 19, 2020

Stephen Coll’s Ghost Wars is a stellar portrait of the events leading up to 9/11. It is a massive and intense read that, by the end, you will have an understanding of how Usama bin Laden was able to successfully attack the U.S. Here are my lightweight comments.

- I have been completely re-educated about the U.S.’s knowledge and involvement of terrorists and bin Laden prior to 9/11. The intrigue and back channel work was complicated and intense for decades.

- After the Iran-Contra affair, the CIA turned to the Justice department to interpret legal actions they could take. This induced lengthy, excruciating debates from the President on down as to how bin Laden could be snatched or killed.

- Early on, Mavis Leno (Jay’s wife) and the Feminist Majority Foundation (of which she is chair) recognized the Taliban’s human rights violations, particularly against women.

- Simply put, no one at the top level of U.S. government (President, CIA, National Security, FBI, Pentagon, Counterterrrorist Center) could or would act to eliminate the terrorist threat on American soil. The debating, discussions, planning, memos, legal briefs, bickering, second guessing, and meetings were unproductive and stifling. No one could produce a perfect scenario for an UBL kill.

- When you get in bed with a rat, they will chew off your ear. As much as we paid Pakistan to be our friend, they were not.

This is not an easy read but it is an excellent view inside international politics.
Profile Image for Erin.
1,257 reviews18 followers
October 5, 2009
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 country. That's all you need to know. (Clearly this is going to be a scholarly review.) From there, things get worse for Afghanistan. And then worse. And then worse. And then, again, worse.

Now when I was in high school, I wasn't very into politics. I was more into staying on top of my nearly-4.0 at all costs. To an amazingly navel-gazing extent. But if you had asked me about Bill Clinton, I probably would have said that the whole Monica Lewinsky thing was right up there on the list of Most Important Things For America to be Worrying About.

The important thing about that being, I was in high school. And whoever was making all that brouhaha probably should have been a little smarter than I was, because according to this book, there were about a million other things that were more important. One of which was Osama Bin Laden ratcheting up the crazy in a very public way.

Steve Coll does a great job of presenting the facts without being partisan. However, as we all know (and by we I mean the postmodern feminist deconstructionists out there, so basically everyone reading this blog), all writing is political. Certain people, they don't look so good at the end of the book. When Bill Clinton says, "Well you know I really tried. That Osama sure is slippery though," (or something to that effect) you can't help saying, really Bill? Because maybe if you hadn't been such an asshole things would have worked out differently.
Profile Image for Clif.
430 reviews114 followers
May 25, 2013
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 civilian deaths kept attacks from being mounted. Ghost Wars is a testament to the difficulty of bringing government to bear on any problem because of the turfs that are protected, the egos involved and the challenge of managing a priority list that all can agree on.

Readers of Ghost Wars are advised to remember the ease of seeing with hindsight where the course of history is known, the goal is clear and it appears that everything conspires to thwart good intentions.

There are dangers in going all out to head off threats and we are seeing this after 9/11. There are problems with marking enemies and acting against them before they do the deeds we expect them to do. We may think the world is filled with malign intentions but they are nothing compared to the malign intentions we can imagine being directed at us. Striking first may seem to be wise and the only sure bet against threats, but unless you wait until an act is made against you, there is a great risk of creating the kind of insecure and chaotic world we all want to avoid. At the moment I write, the bogeyman is Iran, and war is thought by some to be preferable to allowing just the possibility that one more country might eventually possess a nuclear weapon.

Ghost Wars is richly descriptive of individuals, from the halls of Washington to the caves of Afghanistan. Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Tajik leader of the Northern Alliance, is a protagonist as he first holds off the Russians and then willingly cooperates with the CIA to the extent that he can while under pressure from the Taliban. And did you know the Taliban has been in Afghanistan for ages? The book describes how the incarnation that we know came about from the historic Taliban.

And Pakistan...how can that country and the US be allies when they are so far apart in their objectives? Zia, Musharraf, Bhutto, Sharif are all here in living color as is the ISI. The insecurity of the civilian politicians, cowering before the might of the military, is fully explainied.

There are so many technical details that I found fascinating. You'll read of the development of drones, the Predator in particular, that I had always thought would have been the magic bullet for bin Laden. It's not so simple! You'll read of Massoud's forces keeping decrepit Soviet helicopters running, even going so far as to cram the engine from one type of chopper into another - to the horror of Americans who occasionally were flown to see Massoud in them. You'll read of the ways in which denial of US involvement is gained by purchasing Russian and Chinese weapons in massive quantities to equip friendly forces.

Ghost Wars is a huge book and I had left it on the shelf for some time because of that, but from the first pages I was snagged into a great read.

UPDATE: I've just read Peter Tomsen's "The Wars of Afghanistan" and want to recommend it as a companion book to "Ghost Wars" as the two are complimentary. Tomsen's book is written from the point of view of a State Department employee challenged with promoting a policy at odds with the operations of the CIA that Steve Coll describes. Tomsen's book is far better at portraying the Afghans, the geopolitical situation of the country, and the non-American actors, while Coll's account excels in depicting the details from inside the CIA and the American actors. The result is a comprehensive look at the situation with no feeling of the same ground being covered twice.

Profile Image for Szplug.
467 reviews1,193 followers
April 11, 2011
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 maneuver itself into such close association with the Taliban and the Pakistani ISI as has yet been published. It provides an illuminating picture of the limitations of intelligence gathering by the CIA and other organizations when dealing with languages, cultures, and histories that they do not understand, the perils of concentrating defense funding upon a military and intelligence apparatus that continued to view the world through a Cold War lens, and the tortuous legal labyrinth that had developed subsequent to the congressional investigative committees of the mid-seventies. The frustration of the handful of US actors who knew what was going down is palpable—and Coll is objective enough that even his grim forboding of the eventual fate of Mohammad Najibullah, the last communist president of Afghanistan whose brutal torture-execution encapsulated the savagery at work across this wounded land, sends a chill down the spine and hinted at the probability that with the downfall of Russia's puppet administration the violence would continue on wreaking havoc in this graveyard of empires.

There are better books on the turbulent history of the Afghan nation; better books depicting the bloody Soviet invasion; perhaps better books about the American support of, and interaction with, the Mujahideen; better books about the creation and rise of the Taliban, and their influence on Central Asia; and better books about the origins and machinations of al-Qaeda and books on the expansion and deflation of jihadist Islam; but for a grand synthesis of all these strains—written with a thoroughly competent, if not literary flair—Coll's thick, detailed, engrossing Pulitzer-Prize winner cannot be bested.
Profile Image for Leftbanker.
770 reviews281 followers
July 29, 2020
This book has an overwhelming amount of information, mostly regarding Afghanistan and the early years of Al Qaeda. If there is one thing that I took away from this avalanche of material, it is the opinion that the USA has done a miserable job on intelligence gathering in the region, and our policies were even worse.

If pressed, I’d have to put more blame on the American military than the intelligence services. Like the old saying goes, when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Our military elite represent the worst elite in the entire nation. They are even worse than the Wall Street thieves because at least those guys were successful concerning their own self-interests. Our military just can’t seem to understand that few of our international problems have a military solution.

Take a look at the Stinger Missile program in which we supplied the Afghani Mujahedin with the missiles to fight the Soviet invaders. After the war, we had to frantically work to buy back our own missiles so they wouldn’t be used against American civil aviation targets. We were also heavily funding religious lunatics who would go on to put the USA in their sights.

We can never seem to look more than one move ahead on the board. We are losing.
Profile Image for shakespeareandspice.
340 reviews537 followers
September 8, 2016
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 room and the men on the other. I never found petty gossip about other women as compelling as petty gossip about politicians so I often peaked into my uncles’ conversations and because of that, a lot of earlier information in Ghost Wars had already been made aware to me via the conversations they had. Particularly the relationship between Pakistan-US and Pakistan-India. Depressing but intense.

But despite that, Ghost Wars is a small treasury of lots of new information (names, events, organizations) that I was not familiar with. While I never attempted to memorize all of it, the relationship between certain countries and how they mutated over the years did shed a lot of light on the on-going politics today.

Overall, this was a fulfilling experience but also one that makes me crave more. While I am now satisfied with knowing the origins of Al Qaeda, the rise of ISIS has peaked my curiosity as what America has been doing in the Middle-east with Israel and Palestine nowadays. Growing up in America, I was constantly encouraged to stroke the American ego by blinding myself to all else but thanks to racial discriminating white America, I learned fairly quickly America is not the paradise it claims to be. It is the round-bellied, morbidly obese, utterly revolting, white bully I met in high school. Ignorant of all else but what it wants, willing to step over as many foreign lives as it takes as long they’re making money over it. Ah Capitalism! Thou art such a fucking bitch.

I would recommend this to people who genuinely want to learn the truth about current affairs. If you are incredibly patriotic to the point where you blind yourself to all the negative sides of America (or any country really), this is not the book for you. If you are easily offended by religious beliefs and how they play into politics, this is not the book for you. Read this with an open mind and you’ll learn a lot about this world.

Yours truly,
An incredibly cynical pessimist who has no sense of patriotism (to any body or country), no religious beliefs, and no faith in humanity what-so-bloody-ever.
Profile Image for Athan Tolis.
309 reviews564 followers
June 8, 2020
If you want to understand why the senate voted down Obama’s veto 97-1 last week, pick up this 400 page book and start reading it. It will grip you so hard, you’ll only be able to put it down when you’re done.

It is difficult to discuss “Ghost Wars” and avoid hyperbole.

What we have here is not just a level-headed, comprehensive and exhaustive account of Afghan history from 1980 to 2001. This masterpiece of a book is nothing less than the full and definitive account of the manner in which overt and covert American foreign policy mixed with Pakistani and Saudi domestic politics (and their projection on foreign policy goals) to directly foster the gestation and development of Islamic terrorism as we know it today.

You find out about the events in Afghanistan leading up to the Soviet invasion, the rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s struggles between Islam and secularism, the Soviet invasion, the puppet government the Soviets installed, the Afghan resistance and its protagonists, the pact with the devil between the CIA and the ISI to support the religiously most radicalized factions of the resistance, the donations to the cause that the US actively solicited and obtained in the Gulf on behalf of the ISI, the routing of the Soviets chiefly by Tajiks warriors under Ahmed Shah Massoud, Uzbeks under warlords like Dostum and the Pakistan-assisted Islamists of Haqqani and Hekmattyar and their American-supplied Stinger missiles. Next you move to the almost equally bloody struggles between them all, the subsequent total abandonment of Afghanistan by the West to the interests of Pakistan, all the way through to the disgraceful period when US policy to the region was dictated by inconsequential interests of second-rate players in the oil industry and the misrule the west tolerated in Kabul after the departure of the Soviets.

From there you move almost naturally to the rise of the morally virtuous, home-grown, ethnically Pashtun, Wahhabi-educated, Pakistan-armed and Pakistan-supported Taliban, their intolerance of diversity and the hijacking of their cause by Osama Bin Laden, who not only bought their way into Kabul but very carefully cultivated and won the support of their leader, the one-eyed mullah Mohammed Omar.

After that, the author gives a full account of the terrorist activities of Osama Bin Laden up to September 11 and takes care to set them within the context of other Middle Eastern terrorism, secular and religious, while in parallel documenting in full the CIA-led efforts to fight it. George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, especially, do not come out if this account smelling of roses. Clinton, in particular is accused of first mistrusting the CIA and then of being incapacitated by his need to manage public opinion in view of his personal scandals, but also of his famous tendency to “triangulate” between getting results and keeping a distance from any collateral damage.

It really is all there!

All of the above, while true, is still not the best thing about this book.

What makes this an unbelievable read how it gets hold of you. Steve Coll has managed to convert this very convoluted history into a gripping narrative with character development and a clear storyline. By the end of the book, you feel you really know the Uzbeki Massoud, Americans Casey, Shroen and Berger, the Saudi Prince Turki, Pakistanis such as Zia-Ul-Haq, Musharraf and all the heads of the ISI; you get to see a darker side of Benazir Bhutto, too. Special care is given to understanding the motivations of all the players, the multiple levels on which they were acting, the multiple goals they were pursing at the same time and the physical terrain in which they operated.

It is fair to say that there isn’t a single character in this play who’s not having to make a number of compromises. The author tells you enough about everybody so you can judge where he’s coming from. Pakistan’s ISI needed to fight the Soviets, for example, but only if it could be beaten by its own proxies. And it also needed to secure secret bases from which to train guerrillas for its secret war in Kashmir. And all this it needed to do while still receiving financial assistance from the US and while pretending the country was on a path to democracy. The Saudi princes’ motivations are explained in similar detail, as are the sundry resistance fighters’. And you are left with zero doubt that western interests at some point simply went absent without leave.

You ride with all these guys. You climb on their helicopters with them, you dodge bullets with them, you watch them hang their enemies from the high mast, you feel the shrapnel tear through you when they fall.

If this was a novel, basically, you’d find yourself unable to put it down. Except, of course, it’s all documented fact. From the first skirmish at the US Embassy in Pakistan all the way through the development of our now favorite means of delivering “justice,” the dreaded Predator, and to the last chapter of the book (not unlike the last scene in the Godfather, except it’s Osama Bin Laden sitting in the –figurative- opera house while his opponents are eliminated) what you have here is a truly educational thriller.

I have no idea how anybody can put together such a tremendous book within three years of the event that gave rise to what could easily have been a lifelong project for a lesser author. But Steve Coll, managing editor of the Washington Post when he wrote this book some thirteen years ago, pulled it off.

And now I’ve read “Ghost Wars,” it’s clear to me that the US Congress has only really covered half the bases here. An equitable decision would also have cleared the way for US citizens to sue the Pakistani state, perhaps over and above Saudi Arabia.

Then again, the American way is to sue for money. When will we all learn?
505 reviews1 follower
July 24, 2011
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 compared to the best. With the aforementioned, I believe what holds those narratives together are “main characters,” a unifying point of view. With this I found it hard to grasp a common thread of experience. Not that it’s a knock against the book – it spans 20+ years, details four administrations, follows hundreds of agents and Islamists – but you could say that the mind-numbing number of sources and players made it hard for me to follow and thus affected the enjoyment of my reading. I’m glad I read it, I feel like I understand the history way, way more than I did, but it was just a lot of work to get through, like analyzing a text book for a modern history class, slogging through at a pace of 20 pages an hour. I don’t know how I would have done it if I wasn’t a teacher with all summer off, recovering from knee surgery, confined to a chair while the wife and daughter take off for 10 hours Monday through Friday. Maybe I’ll continue with my “positive spin” on this “lost summer,” call this my own private history course, and grant myself 3 credits.
Profile Image for Cwn_annwn_13.
467 reviews67 followers
March 9, 2010
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 administration. Sorry but I have a much more conspiratorial view of what went on with the Mujhaden, the Taliban and Bin Laden/CIAlqueda than what is presented in this book. I just don't trust this book. The upside of Ghost Wars is it is well written and interesting, almost reading like a novel at times. Also even though this is a whitewash some of what makes it into this book would shock the average American who gets their info from controlled news sound bites so its not completely useless as long as you know your not getting the full story when you read this.
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
551 reviews1,849 followers
May 1, 2021
Impressive and important account of how Cold War policy elicited the CIA driven covert proxy war in Afghanistan between USA/USSR, ultimately ending in the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent overt war in Afghanistan.

Its also an enlightening view into how the shifting sands of partisan politics played out between the 1960’s -1990’s, shaping and reshaping the CIA and their mission.

This is a great book.

I feel enriched having read it.

But it was boring, and I just have to give the book a lower rating, because the experience of reading it was so dang tedious.

I understand that this is not a fault of the text.

The people over there at the Pulitzer didn’t make a mistake.

This is clearly my problem.

But it’s also my review.

So 4 stars (3.5 if it were an option).
Profile Image for Patrick Brown.
141 reviews2,458 followers
November 10, 2013
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 interesting thought experiment that came out of my reading this book:

* If the Monica Lewinsky scandal never happens, does 9/11 happen? This is a bit of a stretch, but follow me here: In the late 90s, the CIA had several chances to kill Bin Laden with cruise missiles and/or commando raids, but Clinton -- embroiled in the Lewinsky scandal and weakened by the impeachment hearings -- didn't have the political capital to pull the trigger. I'm oversimplifying here, to be sure, as there were a lot of other factors going into whether to attack Bin Laden on Afghan soil, but it's an interesting thought experiment.

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in South Asia and American relations with it in the last part of the 20th Century, as well as anyone hoping to better understand how the CIA works and how it interacts with the rest of the Washington machine. And in a strange way, I think this book should be taught in business school, as it's a tremendous case study of how large organizations with many different stakeholders make decisions (or fail to make them).
Profile Image for Book Clubbed.
144 reviews145 followers
January 14, 2021
A compelling and thorough history of US involvement in the Middle East, detailing the rise of a spindly young lad named Osama Bin Laden. Any notions about US construction of democracy are quickly demolished. Jack Ryan, aka Jim from The Office, is not unveiling super-villain plots. These are overworked desk jockeys trying to track bearded men in grainy photos, politicized CIA heads positioning for retirement plaudits, and US presidents with no interest in the region unless they can extract oil seamlessly.

These sort of comprehensive books are damn-near required reading to understand our current political quagmire. The US did not fall from "shining beacon on a hill" to "are we actually the shithole?" overnight. Yes, information is more readily available now, and the narrative of linear patriotism has been disrupted, but all ideations of corruption, infighting, and violent displays of superiority are all present and accounted for. This type reading gave me, personally, a deeper understanding of Q and the wildfire spread of conspiracy in current US culture.

Listen to the full review, among others, at:
Profile Image for Huyen.
140 reviews183 followers
March 7, 2008
When a dictator called Dr David Capie took over a country called Human Security Class, he imprisoned 108 rebels and put up a brutal regime called Book Review, which denied and robbed all the citizens of their basic human rights such as: partying through the night, sitting on their ass watching youtube or lying on the beach etc. This regime also went against their basic religion, i.e Being-total-scum-ism and caused a wave of resentment and horror. Due to geographic isolation and ethnic cleavages, there was little cooperation among different rebel groups of the country, or not much as far as I was concerned.
To wage a war against this regime, I had to collaborate with this guy Steve Coll and his army dubbed Ghost wars, a well-equipped army of 588 hard-core militiamen and about 200 irregular guerrilla warriors mainly from two ethnicities Bibliography and Notes. At first, Steve Coll appeared to be well-behaved but then turned out to be more and more radical, clinging to a perilous ideology called Fundamentalist Sleepiness-ism. With lethal weapons such as long and complex paragraphs, a thousand unpronounceable names, this army started to inflict violent attacks of excessive sleepiness on me. However, there was no consensus within different parts of my body what to do with this group. My hands were tempted to strike the book against the wall, my stomach protested and voted for going down the kitchen eating some snack hoping the book would get better, my brain, meanwhile trying get over the Le-whiskey scandal, was uncertain what to do when there were other important issues such as: essays proliferation, nuclear (physics) test and so on. Initially a compliant friend, energy drinks turned out to be a very unreliable alliance, which even seemed to collude with my adversary in causing more sleepiness. Whereas, my brain constantly received torrents of threats of doze attacks from Steve Coll and his forces. Desperate and confused, I turned to Coffee, a rebel that I had never trusted, as an ally in combating drowsiness. However, after a major attack called “Chapter 32”, Coffee was finally assassinated. The worst disaster for me (i.e, an F for the book review) was yet to strike...

me ~ the USA
my hands ~ the CIA
my stomach ~ the State Department
Steve Coll + the book ~ Bin Laden + Al Qaeda
Energy drink ~ ISI (Pakistani Intelligence)
Coffee ~ Massoud
David Capie ~ Brezhnev
The above fiction might mislead you to think the USA supported Al Qaeda at early stages. Not quite, but they didn’t object to or care about Bin Laden very much. I hope my gentle readers pardon me for any misunderstanding of the book. I only had 3 days to write a crappy book review for this mammoth book.
Profile Image for Krishna Prasanna.
9 reviews34 followers
June 2, 2021
This isn't a review. I cannot write one, for this book's worth is impossible to access or critique.

What an unlucky, unlucky country...

Steve Coll has done a brilliant job in condensing almost two decades worth of multi-national, multi-organizational, a bitter and an incessant conflict in a 600 pager. I cannot even imagine the research that must have gone into creating this book. There were many actors who played their part in tragic history of Afghanistan - and their acts have repercussions even today.

A recommended read for anyone who wishes to understand the origins and course of the Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan and the role of CIA in its wake, as presented by an American author.

This book ends with the World Trade Center attack. It's sequel Directorate S covers the aftermath of 9/11 attacks.
Profile Image for Steve Slocum.
Author 2 books6 followers
October 18, 2021
This book describes in detail the sequence of events that produced an inflection point in world history: when the Cold War turned into the War on Terror.

It's a gripping account of the inner workings of CIA Cold War strategies in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and how these machinations directly led to the emergence of terror organizations that could do some serious damage. I loved the play by play of the American political scene from Carter to Reagan to Bush I to Clinton, to George W showing the colossal failures that led to the events of Sept 11, 2001. Very, very relevant as we process the pullout of US troops after 20 years in Afghanistan. It's all connected.

American foreign policy is racist at its core. We never cared about the people of Afghanistan - when arming them to get the Soviets out, when invading them ourselves 12 years later, and when pulling out 20 years after that.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
4,983 reviews1,082 followers
November 18, 2020
After the spectacle of the book and movie, 'Charlie Wilson's War', this book serves as a sobering corrective, being a history of the CIA's covert involvement in the destabilization of Afghanistan and paradoxical responsibilities for the rise of reactionary Islam.
Profile Image for Tariq Mahmood.
Author 2 books1,023 followers
May 6, 2021
Steve argues that the USA's government indecision to tackle Bin Laden allowed him to execute 9/11, which is true but could the global call for Jihad would have died down after Bin Laden's arrest without the 9/11 bombing? I think the sequence was critical, before 9/11 terrorism was considered to be harmful but manageable. The definition 'a few casualties but a lot of publicity was tolerated, but 9/11 changed the attitude. 9/11 changed the definition to ' loads of casualties with a lot of publicity, raising terrorism's status to 'war'. So not only was 9/11 necessary evil for the West but ISIS conducted atrocities that were critical for the Middle East to force the world (West and Islam) to start taking the new definition of terrorism seriously. This brings me to the present-day political situation in Pakistan. Pakistanis are clearly becoming more Islamic. It's a moral version, Islam for an average Pakistani is emotional, they will defend the Prophets honour with their lives; just wondering what sort of damage will sufficient to make them see the fallacy in their moral argument?
Profile Image for Bilal Sahir.
10 reviews2 followers
December 24, 2021
Ghost Wars is the most detailed and meticulous account of Operation Cyclone, the covert project of arming and funding Afghan mujahideen co-opted by CIA, ISI and GID(Saudi Intelligence). The research is stunning. Steve Coll deserved something greater than Pulitzer for this but World has not yet conceived any reward for such a gigantic feat of bringing the minutes of the most successful covert ops during the Cold War that ultimately played a decisive role in the fall of the Soviet Union.

It has three major chapters:
1. Blood Brothers (1979-1989)
2. One-Eyed man was King 👑 (1989-1997)
3. The Distant Enemy(1997- September 11, 2001)

Commencing from November of 1979, Steve narrates the tale of three terrible incidents across the Muslim world. Religious zealots attacking U.S embassies in Islamabad and Tehran with the Seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by insurgent extremists who wanted to overthrow the House of Al Saud. The author illustrates the Iranian Revolution, the state of rising religious extremism under General Zia in Pakistan who had allied with Jamat_e_Islami and the dangling balance of power in Saudi Arabia between Al Sauds and rigid Wahabbi Clergy.

Coming to Afghanistan, the author states the Russian failure to stabilise their communist puppets in Kabul. Interestingly, Moscow was worried that the Kabul government was way more serious about implementing communism than even the Soviets themselves. Politburo had realized the implications of disrupting the centuries-old tribal system. Instability and Resistance led to several coups one after the other from 1973-79, from Daud Khan, Nur Muhammad Tarkai, Hafizullah Amin to Babrak Kamal, an era marked with just slightly successful economic reforms but rampant use of force to suppress the anti-communist Islamic resistance rising from Herat in Western Afghanistan, under Ismail Khan. The regime massacred more than 20,000 souls in Herat alone in the spring of '79 while thousands were arrested and tortured as well.

The author also unfolds how the Americans and especially the CIA, was keenly observing the growing Soviet involvement and trying to convince the Carter Administration to covertly arm and sponsor the resistance, mainly to avenge the U.S defeat in Vietnam as Moscow had heavily supplied arms and munition to North Vietnam. It also reveals the surprising fact that even days before the Russian Intervention, both KGB and CIA had not clear intelligence on the motives of the other side. Another revelation(at least to me) was the towering support from the hardcore conservatives in Congress to the Afghan mujahideen, so massive that CIA's Director William Casey( who was also a Catholic Anti-Communist) would often hear complaints from the Hill that Central Intelligence was not doing enough to assist the rebels. As mentioned earlier, the edge this book has over all others written on the subject is its detail of the classified information it reveals. The private conversations between the intelligentsia of the United States of America, Pakistan and Saudia Arabia are quite revealing.

Apart from that, it also uncovers the ups and downs happening on the ground in the Afghan War for decades. Growing tensions between Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Massoud, Pakistan's endless support to the Gulbuddin, CIA, ISI and GID going behind each other backs to secure their vested interests, details of different weapons delivered over the year and the role of congress' majority and especially of Charlie Wilson in advocating for handing out better weapons to resistance including the Stringer missiles which ended any leftover hope for the Russian Fotienth Army.

At last, it offers the account of the rise of the Taliban from the outskirts of Kandahar, their undulating support to Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, the saddening inability of Central Intelligence, FBI, NSA and the rest of the counter-terrorism infrastructure during the Clinton administration on
a) realising the true scope of Bin Laden Threat
b) unearthing the operational details of Al Qaeda that led to the U.S embassy bombings in Kenya & Tanzania, the USS Cole Suicide attack in Yemen and ultimately the most horrible of all, 9/11 that cost thousands of American families their loved ones and which ultimately altered how the United States and rest of the world would perceive the threat of terrorism and religious extremists for the coming decades.

I'll end the review with which Steve ended his marvel.
Karzai's Brother said it was confirmed, Ahmad Shad Massoud was Dead.
Hamid Karzai reacted in a single, brief sentence as his brother recalled it: “What an Unlucky Country”

Note: Review states the claims made in the book, based on the author's research, not solely on my personal opinions.
Profile Image for Loring Wirbel.
284 reviews78 followers
July 9, 2018
While waiting for the eventual paperback edition of Steve Coll's 2018 book on the Pakistan ISI, Directorate S, it seemed a good time to catch up with the 2004 updated edition of Ghost Wars, his work on the covert history of Afghanistan prior to Sept. 11, 2001. Even though Coll addresses the initial efforts of Mohammed Atta and others to assemble the team that flew planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the book deliberately closes with the jarring events of Sept. 9/10, 2011, centered on the suicide bombing of Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance in the Panjshir Valley. This strategy held a lot of personal validity for me, as I distinctly remember flying to Atlanta early on the morning of Sept. 10, 2001, reading online about the murder of Massoud, and thinking, "This isn't the end. This is only the beginning of something huge and horrible."

This comprehensive and engaging book falls just short of a solid five stars because in the end, there are no explosive revelations regarding the fights between Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the differing goals of Pashtun and Tajik tribes in Afghanistan, or of the rise of the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden himself. Instead, Coll gives us an excellent and detailed recap of a story that is fairly well-known. Given the endless nonsensical conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, it's probably a good thing Coll didn't aim for the explosive. Instead, he gives us the kind of single-book sober-headed recap of the Soviet invasion, CIA-funded jihad wars, and Taliban/al-Qaeda plots, that mirror what Robert Fisk accomplished for modern Lebanon in his Pity the Nation book.

What is interesting and sad about Coll's book is that its conclusions are direct and simple, and did not change the trajectory of 9/11. He does not try to blame Saudi Arabia or Pakistan for directly financing the 9/11 hijackers (for which there is no direct evidence), but he makes it clear that because the mainstream politicians in both countries were solidly in Wahhabist (in the Saudi base) or Sunni jihadist (Pakistan) camps, there were no good politicians in either country. Not Benazir Bhutto nor Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan in the 1990s, 2000s, or today, and not Mohammad bin Salman or the so-called "modernizers" in Saudi Arabia in 2018. For all practical purposes, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and most of the emirate microstates could be considered enemies of the United States, but of course, oil, economics, and nuclear-weapon policies guaranteed that those nations would never be considered overall enemies of the U.S. Keep in mind, this conclusion, as well as the bulk of Coll's newest book, was completed prior to the accession to power of Trump and similar populists worldwide. Major parties of the familiar liberal world order sleep with dictators all the time, but feel terrible about it in the morning. Trump and his brethren worldwide love fascists like the Saudi royal family and the Pakistani army, and do not feel the slightest problem in touting some of the world's creepiest characters.

From the earliest pages of the book covering the late 1970s and early 1980s, Coll makes clear that covert warfare was a bipartisan affair, initially in response to Cold War impressions of Afghanistan. Zbigniew Brzezinski supported a covert CIA program months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Bill Casey, Reagan's CIA director, was willing to risk outright war with the Soviet Union by sponsoring attacks in the Tajik and Uzbek socialist republics. (While it was not mentioned in Coll's book, Casey also was encouraging the SS Caron to attack Soviet Navy ships in the Black Sea at the same time.) These actions were as provocative and dangerous as any of Reagan's nuclear-missile games. In the waning days of the Soviet invasion in the late 1980s, Rep. Charlie Wilson led an effort to put the Democrats in the forefront of insisting that aid to the Afghan rebels (this time in the form of Stinger missiles) continue even as Soviet forces withdrew. In Reagan's final two years, and throughout the single term of Bush the Elder, Democrats were at least as hawkish as Republicans, if not more so.

During this period, Pakistani and Saudi covert support of Afghan rebels did not matter to U.S. policymakers, because it coincided with U.S. interests, except when the ruthless and bloody warlord Hekmatyar was supported to a greater extent than Massoud. The problem arose when the Taliban gained power in the mid-1990s, touting just the kind of message that the Pakistan ISI and Saudi Intelligence Director al-Turki wanted to hear. Coll provides details of the rise of Bin Laden through the formation of foreign-jihadist camps in Kandahar in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and on through Osama's growing influence with the nascent Taliban government. Coll and the CIA Counterintelligence team are right to criticize Washington insiders, particularly within the State Department and NSC, for continuing to search for "moderates" within the Taliban. It was obvious by 1997 or so that the Taliban was Wahhabist by nature, and could never be anything but an adversary of the U.S. Some may say this is "profiling" of Islamic politicians, but it is a clear-eyed assessment of the degree to which the entire Pakistani and Saudi establishment supported (and continues to support) Wahhabist forms of devout Islamic belief.

While the coverage of the latter days of the Clinton administration bogs down in bureaucratic quibbling at times, Coll addresses interesting topics. Key among them was the development of the Predator drone to include an armed version firing Hellfire missiles. Most students of drone technology know that the Predator began as an Air Force program that was turned over to the CIA, but the intent was not to revive targeted assassinations within CIA under a new name. Rather, the Predator was jury-rigged to handle Hellfires which they were never intended to carry. In fact, many in both the CIA and Air Force were skeptical of Hellfires on a drone because of the potential of the recoil of a rocket launch disrupting a drone's flight. The first drone assassinations took place in 2002 after the 9/11 attacks, not because of looser rules of engagement promoted by Dick Cheney, but because the Hellfire-armed Predator simply was not ready in early 2001. An interesting question to ask is, would a successful drone takedown of Osama Bin Laden have made a difference to the eventual trajectory of 9/11? I'm inclined to answer in the negative, because al-Qaeda had become fairly decentralized by 1999, and the Atta air team was in full engagement by early 2001. A drone assassination of Osama Bin Laden may have made al-Qaeda operatives more committed to carrying out 9/11 atrocities.

Coll leaves us with the feeling that under both Democrats and Republicans, the handwriting was on the wall by the turn of the millenium because of the Washington establishment's failure to truly challenge the Pakistan or Saudi governments, or name them as an adversary (or "enemy combatant" in Cheney-speak). In that sense, nothing has changed, and conditions have become worse under Trump, in the new full-throated support of the Saudi war in Yemen, for example. We all get the 9/11 we deserve, one might say. I can hardly wait to continue the story in Directorate S.
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