Jeffrey Keeten'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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it was amazing
bookshelves: politics, spies

"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.”

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Reading Progress

December 6, 2015 – Started Reading
December 6, 2015 – Shelved
December 15, 2015 – Finished Reading
May 4, 2016 – Shelved as: politics
May 4, 2016 – Shelved as: spies

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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Ivy Bookqueen Jeffrey great review

Jeffrey Keeten Ivy wrote: "Jeffrey great review"

Thanks Ivy! There was a lot of information for me to assimilate as I was deciding what to actually share with everyone. A book with so much great stuff!

Ivy Bookqueen cool

Ivy Bookqueen So what are you reading right now Jeffrey

Jeffrey Keeten Ivy wrote: "So what are you reading right now Jeffrey"

I hope to have time to finish All Souls tonight.

message 6: by Shahid (new) - added it

Shahid Raja "Somebody had the bright idea 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."
The above quote does not tally with the facts The Gulf War (2 August 1990 – 28 February 1991), codenamed Operation Desert Shield (2 August 1990 – 17 January 1991) for operations leading to the buildup of troops and defense of Saudi Arabia and Operation Desert Storm (17 January 1991 – 28 February 1991) in its combat phase, was a war - in the Persian Gulf region - By that time Soviet Union had left Afghanistan and had in fact ceased to exist ?

Jeffrey Keeten Shahid wrote: ""Somebody had the bright idea 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 hand..."

Sorry I wasn't clear. The tanks were used to fight the Soviet Union funded Afghanistan army after the Soviet troops left. This was in 1992-1996 mostly the tanks were used by Hekmatyar to attack Kabul. Coll jumps around a lot in this book. I realize that I jumped around as well in my review. The war didn't end when the Soviets left.

message 8: by R.a. (new)

R.a. Wonderful summary and comments. Much thanks.

Jeffrey Keeten R.a. wrote: "Wonderful summary and comments. Much thanks."

If you ever want to read a book about this particular subject this is the book to read. I was fascinated from start to finish. I'm a bit of a CIA/political junkie though. :-) Thanks R.a.!

Jeffrey Keeten Sabah wrote: "Jeffrey reading this review was a pleasure, you helped provide so much wealth of information which although the average person has some idea, much like yourself prior to reading, there are still bl..."

Hey Catwoman! That is one saucy avatar. :-) I just loved this book, so well written and so full of great information. I couldn't wait to get home from work everyday so I could dig in. Wonderful stuff! Thanks Sabah!

message 11: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 17, 2015 09:12AM) (new)

Great review. I had a roommate from Afghanistan. A gentleman in all way and very well educated; one of those people who just can't harm anyone. He hated both USA and Pakistan. I don't think one can blame him.

Jeffrey Keeten Sidharth wrote: "Great review. I had a roommate from Afghanistan. A gentleman in all way and very well educated; one of those people who just can't harm anyone. He hated both USA and Pakistan. I don't think one can..."

He might want to add Saudi Arabia to his list. :-) Did he return to Afghanistan or is he making his life elsewhere? Just curious. Afghanistan needs well educated gentlemen. I don't blame him a bit.

message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

:)He did return to Afghanistan, always intended to. He is a patriot, I remember how he used to support their newly formed cricket team. You are right about them needing educated people .... he said same thing and even added I should try to go there to find work. His anger though is mostly with governments.

I'm not sure what he would have said about Saudi Arabia - I don't think he ever looked deep enough into politics. Harm done by Pakistan and U. S. A. was just more visible to him - American soldiers and Taliban. One thing he said that I still remember is 'Terrorism is what USA defines it to be'. The only time Saudi Arabia got mentioned between us about some book sexual disparity in Saudi Arabia. He didn't thought there was much wrong with Arabia - there was a long debate. I don't think he knew much about Arabia.

I did learn a lot from our chats.

And oh! he might just be flattering us but he said Afghans love Indians.

message 14: by Shahid (new) - added it

Shahid Raja Why did Soviet Union invade Afghanistan is a wrong question to ask. Real question is why the Soviet Union took so long to accede to the request of Afghan government to send her forces to quell the insurgency which had been plaguing the interior of Afghanistan for the last several years. Two theories are very common among the western historians. First that the Soviet Union was just implementing the death bed wish of Peter in 15th century to go for warm waters, meaning thereby to extend the frontiers of the Russian empire to the coast of Arabian Sea. This was the meat of the so-called great game waged in the novels by the English writers and memos of the British Indian officers. Second that the Operation Cyclone of CIA to topple the Soviet Union- backed Afghan government was launched after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Both are myths. Nothing can be farther than the truth.

First the Warm water theory. Yes, the Russian empire had been extending its boundaries since its founding in 14th century but that is true for any civilisation which follows the lunar principle-if you cannot grow, you start receding. This is true for all the 23 civilisations mentioned by Toynbee. However Afghanistan was an off limit to Soviet Union as it was considered to be buffer zone for successive Russian rulers. Yes, they had their security reservations but never a intension to absorb it as one of their republics. It was poor, underdeveloped and Muslim a drain on their economy, difficult to govern and a potential source of creating trouble for their already restive and burgeoning Muslim population.

Second myth-USA responded to the request of the Mujahadeen for supply of arms and ammunition, funds and training after the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. They conveniently forget to notice that these covert operations started at least five years before the Soviet invasion which was a desperate attempt by a super power of the time to secure her soft belly which was under threat from another super power. Question is not why Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; real question is why they waited so long to enter Afghanistan which historically had been recognised as outer security parameter of Soviet Union. No super power can afford to be poked at her soft belly whether it is Tibet or Sri Lanka, Latin America or Yemen. Every country has her own version of Monroe Doctrine!

After realising that defeat was imminent in Vietnam, Americans started to destabilise Afghanistan to take revenge from Soviet Union for this humiliation. By 1973, CIA had recruited more than 5000 fighters from all over the Islamic world and started infiltrating Afghanistan under the command of Gulbadin Hikmat Yar and Rasool Siaf. This infiltration had the full support of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Pakistani Prime Minister Bhutto initially sided with this scheme and ouster of two provincial governments bordering Afghanistan by him should be seen in this broader geopolitical context. However he soon realised the destabilising impact of such an adventure and retracted. Rather he tried to curry favour with the then Afghan President Daud whom he invited to visit Pakistan. Later on Mrs Nusrat Bhutto visited Kabul, prompting the opposition leader Wali Khan to taunt Bhutto with resorting to Zanana (female) Politics. Cognizant of the crucial importance of Pakistan in their designs to lure Soviet Union in the killing fields of Afghanistan, Henry Kissinger specially came to Pakistan to convince him but Bhutto’s refusal to go along with the American scheme, cost him his life later on. It is incorrect to say that he was punished for his atomic ambitions; he paid the price for safeguarding the interests of his country.

Jeffrey Keeten Sidharth wrote: ":)He did return to Afghanistan, always intended to. He is a patriot, I remember how he used to support their newly formed cricket team. You are right about them needing educated people .... he said..."

I'm so glad he returned to Afghanistan. I hope he will have a long and productive life there. I know there is a lot of continued animosity between Pakistan and India, but I guess I never thought about how Afghans thought about Indians. I hope his impression of Indians is also shared by most of his fellow citizens. Thanks for sharing your experience meeting him Sidharth.

Jeffrey Keeten Shahid wrote: "Why did Soviet Union invade Afghanistan is a wrong question to ask. Real question is why the Soviet Union took so long to accede to the request of Afghan government to send her forces to quell the ..."

In my defense Shahid in 1979 I was 12 years old so though I may have been asking the wrong questions I think you need to give me a pass. :-)

Thank you for sharing your insights. I find them fascinating since they come with a Pakistani spin, not necessary wrong, but certainly with a different interpretation of motivations. I actually disagree with very little of what you have written. Of course some of what you are discussing goes beyond the scope of the book. Regardless, what you have shared will give me more to ponder.

I will say that given the amount of financial support that Pakistan has received from the United States that it was a blow to how we perceived our relationship when it was discovered that bin Laden was living quite safely in your country. I find it hard to believe that your government was not aware of his residency within their borders. Keeping him safe was the same as endorsing his actions.

I appreciate you adding further insight to my review. I do hope you get a chance to read the book.

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