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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 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.


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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 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.

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

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Keeten

    "Oh, okay, you want us to capture him. Right. You crazy white guys.” 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. "Oh, okay, you want us to capture him. Right. You crazy white guys.” 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. 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. 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. 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.” 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. 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/.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Michael Finocchiaro

    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 s 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.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Will Byrnes

    This is probably the definitive work on the history of US involvement in the Afghanistan war against the Soviets and the resulting blowback. Coll begins with the Islamabad riot of 1979, in which thousands of Islamic militants laid waste to the US embassy while Zia was riding about on a bicycle distributing unrelated leaflets, and accompanied by much of his military. Did he know about the plan and make himself deliberately unavailable? It is clear that he had an agenda of his own in dealing with t 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.

  4. 5 out of 5

    W

    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 C 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.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Manuel Antão

    If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review. Vietnamisation: "Ghost Wars - The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001" by Steve Coll Essential, bloody, real and tragic. One important underlying issue is what this means for the future, because there are similarities between the inflation of the Afghan government with western cash and the situation in South Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s. Does an Afghan security If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review. Vietnamisation: "Ghost Wars - The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001" by Steve Coll Essential, bloody, real and tragic. One important underlying issue is what this means for the future, because there are similarities between the inflation of the Afghan government with western cash and the situation in South Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s. Does an Afghan security force left to fend for itself go the way of the South Vietnamese military after "Vietnamisation"? Before you say you don't care, ask the family of every casualty in Afghanistan what their sacrifice was for.

  6. 4 out of 5

    David

    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 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.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lobstergirl

    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" cours 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.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Yasser Kazemi

    What an Unlucky Country ...

  9. 5 out of 5

    Judith E

    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 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.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Erin

    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 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.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Erwin

    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 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.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Szplug

    Coll's book—a dispiriting read, as much for the countless missed opportunities, bungled efforts, internecine squabbling, and an all-around short-sightedness that was endemic to every party involved, as for the fact that the entire world knows the brutal manner in which the final act was played out—is about as good a summation of what went wrong in Afghanistan in the eighties and nineties, the various ways in which the United States was implicated and involved, and how al-Qaeda managed to maneuve 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.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Clif

    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 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.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Cyndi

    This book was well researched and well executed. I have to admit I had to keep a flow chart to track all of the incestuous relationships. I will also say that my patriotism about America and our government took a severe ass whipping. Don't get me wrong, I hold no illusions, nor am I a head in the sand (no pun intended) type, but by the Goddess this book left me in a state of such shit that being a hermit started looking like an option. The lies, the machinations, the thievery, the dishonesty and t This book was well researched and well executed. I have to admit I had to keep a flow chart to track all of the incestuous relationships. I will also say that my patriotism about America and our government took a severe ass whipping. Don't get me wrong, I hold no illusions, nor am I a head in the sand (no pun intended) type, but by the Goddess this book left me in a state of such shit that being a hermit started looking like an option. The lies, the machinations, the thievery, the dishonesty and the blame game; all on display and minutely detailed. The intensity and the twists of a great noir novel, made all the more horrifying in its truth. Left me with so much impotent rage I started having road rage! I recommend the read, just be ready to indulge in some self therapy when its done.

  15. 4 out of 5

    shakespeareandspice

    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 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.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Leftbanker

    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 mili 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.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Brown

    This is a fascinating look at the US and specifically CIA involvement in Afghanistan from the late 70s to early 2000s. Each of the major players -- Bin Laden, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Prince Turki, Pervez Musharraf, William Casey, George Tenet, Mullar Omar, etc. -- get their own mini-biographies. Coll does a tremendous job of contextualizing each major moment in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union and the subsequent radicalization of the region and blowback against American involvement. One int 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).

  18. 5 out of 5

    Brett C

    This is an excellent book about Afghanistan. The author does a good job at highlighting the information, noting key players, and the various multidimensional problems that have existed in Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion, the Northern Alliance, the CIA, the rise of the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden. A tome of knowledge and sometimes was slow and dry but I still finished it in a few days.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    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 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.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Cwn_annwn_13

    I have to consider this book a CIA whitewash. The author, who was an editor at the Washington Post, which more or less tells me he's a system controlled propagandist, got access to "classified documents" and interviews with CIA agents that were on the ground in Afghanistan to the high level guys. He just takes peoples, who should be some of the last on the planet you should trust, word for it. He passes the buck, glosses over or ignores the key facts about Afghanistan going back to the Carter ad 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.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Athan Tolis

    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 an 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?

  22. 4 out of 5

    Tzu

    At last I finished it... I'm still amazed at how much research went into this recount. It's a complex situation by all means, but Coll somehow made it all very clear! At last I finished it... I'm still amazed at how much research went into this recount. It's a complex situation by all means, but Coll somehow made it all very clear!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Loring Wirbel

    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 t 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.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Wayland Smith

    Really detailed exploration of the whole nasty history of the CIA in Afghanistan, al Qeda's rise to power, and the many, many times America could have possibly prevented the 9/11 attacks. There's a lot of detail and history here. This a richly researched book. It's heartbreaking at times how politics, greed, and an unwilingness to change led to a lack of results. There's so much more in this book than I could hope to cover in a review. I give the author points for not taking sides on Democrat vs Really detailed exploration of the whole nasty history of the CIA in Afghanistan, al Qeda's rise to power, and the many, many times America could have possibly prevented the 9/11 attacks. There's a lot of detail and history here. This a richly researched book. It's heartbreaking at times how politics, greed, and an unwilingness to change led to a lack of results. There's so much more in this book than I could hope to cover in a review. I give the author points for not taking sides on Democrat vs Republican. He gives credit and blame where it's due on both sides. And there's blame on both sides. Don't think otherwise. Recommended to anyone who wants to learn more about how intelligence (the field not the trait) and politics collide, the modern history of Afghanistan, and the development of drones among other things.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Alper Bahadir

    Finally; it took me about 3 months but I finished it. This was one of the best nonfiction books I have read in a long time. I have no idea how Coll got access to that much information and how he was able to organize it that well. But just trying to imagine how much research must have gone into this book makes me want to shake his hand. It's really a phenomenal collection of information and the language is accessible and intelligent at the same time. Some of the analysis is a bit superficial but Finally; it took me about 3 months but I finished it. This was one of the best nonfiction books I have read in a long time. I have no idea how Coll got access to that much information and how he was able to organize it that well. But just trying to imagine how much research must have gone into this book makes me want to shake his hand. It's really a phenomenal collection of information and the language is accessible and intelligent at the same time. Some of the analysis is a bit superficial but the rest of the book makes up for it enough to deserve 5 stars.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jarrod

    I wasn't expecting this. Having lived through 9/11 and knowing what life was like both before and after, this book even still was eye opening. Every Presidential administration - Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II all failed. None of them took the leadership needed to keep the Americans safe. Afghanistan, and many times Pakistan were always "distractions" that the administrations didn't know how to handle. They didn't get in there and get their hands dirty so to speak. It was easy to ke I wasn't expecting this. Having lived through 9/11 and knowing what life was like both before and after, this book even still was eye opening. Every Presidential administration - Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II all failed. None of them took the leadership needed to keep the Americans safe. Afghanistan, and many times Pakistan were always "distractions" that the administrations didn't know how to handle. They didn't get in there and get their hands dirty so to speak. It was easy to keep them and our allies in Saudi Arabia at arms length. To use them but not really help them. For that we paid the price in lives and legacy on 9/11/01. When the planes hit their targets on 9/11, everyone in the US knew that life as they knew it had changed. It's the pearl harbor of my generation. Yet, the American public had no idea that they were a target for this type of attack. Much of the intelligence in this book leads us to believe that no one in the country knew we were a target for this type of attack either. Not one source leads credence to the idea that planes would be used as weapons by anyone on any day by any set of people or circumstances. Everyone was caught off guard. Knowing what we know now, it's easy to look back and point fingers. What Coll does in this book is point fingers (and rightly so) emphatically at everyone from 1979 to 9/11 for missing all of the clues and warnings. For not engaging Ahmed Shah Massoud and his band of warriors, for ignoring the middle east politics and not taking advantage of alliances and leverage that could have propped up a great state to eliminate al Qaida. Everyone seemed to have other things on their mind to listen to intelligence. Either that, or the political expediency requires that Presidents "do nothing". Coll explains this ad-nauseum through out the Clinton administration. It was never something he could take advantage of politically, so he did nothing and thousands of Americans died as a result. Regardless of taking advantage of times when he COULD have done something, he didn't put his administration and resources in a place to actually do something about the situation and growth of Al Qaida. Coll doesn't do enough here to take Clinton to task over his failures and missing the warning signs. This book also shows the dangers of partisan politics. It seems like much of the dis-jointed alphabet groups were at odds with each other and looking "to be on top" much the way the R's and D's were looking to not give credit or take all the credit. Who was going to get the cookie and take all the credit? Yet in looking for the cookie, they missed the warning signs that lead to American deaths and a long drawn out war. Coll does a great job in first hand sources and documentation. Though there is some political bias in the book, it's not daunting or pervasive. He gives credit where due and does an even job where admonishments are expedient. History is one of those things where we learn from it or repeat it. As I look around and see the division and partisan politics going on today, I wonder what warning signs are we missing or ignoring for political expediency?

  27. 5 out of 5

    Horza

    Welcome (Zom)Boys and Ghouls to the most spookily scarifying tale of them all: Ghoulitzer Prize-winning BURNalist Steve KILL's G-G-G-Ghost Wars! [ed- Readers who want Cryptkeeper to continue this review please chip in with your own Halloweenish takes on Osama bin Laden, Prince Turki al-Faisal ibn Saud, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency etc., they're giving him a struggle.] SPECIAL "ACTUAL REVIEW" EDITION: A persistent theme of this book is the lack of any serious Welcome (Zom)Boys and Ghouls to the most spookily scarifying tale of them all: Ghoulitzer Prize-winning BURNalist Steve KILL's G-G-G-Ghost Wars! [ed- Readers who want Cryptkeeper to continue this review please chip in with your own Halloweenish takes on Osama bin Laden, Prince Turki al-Faisal ibn Saud, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency etc., they're giving him a struggle.] SPECIAL "ACTUAL REVIEW" EDITION: A persistent theme of this book is the lack of any serious appreciation of Afghanistan among US decision makers. In Coll's telling, the absence of a coherent picture of the country and its importance to the region as a whole lead to simplistic thinking and a largely incurious policy of reliance on strategic partners Pakistan and less directly, Saudi Arabia, buffeted every decade or so by the heroic visions produced by the mid-life crises of Congressman Charles Wilson and the board of Unocal, for whom Afghanistan became a means of restoring meaning to their lives, with maybe a little profit and glory on the side.* At times this is almost two seperate books, one a history of Afghanistan from 1978-2001, the other chronicling the rise of al-Qaeda and the storied efforts of 90s US counterterrorism policy. Coll is across both and makes a good fist of bridging the material but these are huge, complex topics and it isn't always seamless. This perhaps fitting, as per the title, much of the story remains buried. Coll's use of unnamed sources is unsurprising given the amount of material that remains classified and the impossibility of getting the Saudi and Pakistani deep states on the record, but it does leave open the question of to what extent these accounts amount to a minority report from the losers of various intramural policy struggles. Of these, there was no shortage; they make up a large chunk of the second half of the book, which looks at the slow rise of bin Laden as a US counterrorism priority and the Clinton-era covert ops world. Coming from the age of signing statements and the United States Navy Special Warfare Development Group this makes for astonishing reading, with a risk-averse post-Mogadishu Pentagon offering brigade-sized snatch teams to an equally cautious US administration, willing to authorise lethal force provided there was minimal risk of US or civilian casualties (this changed somewhat after Nairobi and Dar es Salaam). Unsurprisingly opportunities that met the stated and implied preferences of all the actors involved were very limited. As far as Afghan policy goes, Coll doesn't outright suggest that the US should have backed Ahmed Shah Massoud, acknowledging his flaws and covering the apprehensions of US policymakers towards him. Nonetheless, when put against the course of '90s US Afghan policy and its implicit beneficiaries (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar! Jalaluddin Haqqani! Mullah Mohammed Omar, come on down!) he and his faction don't suffer from the comparison and the book carries the implication that this was an area where US policymakers were unwilling to seriously examine and weigh alternatives, possibly at a very steep price.** The Massoud and the bin Laden debates play out in the shadow of book's overarching argument that the US's twin policys of realising a post-Soviet Afghan peace accord and interdicting the nascent al-Qaeda network were incongruous with the goals of the strategic partners it was relying on to secure them, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, producing a fundamentally incoherent set of policy responses. Ten years after publication, as a decade-spanning US Afghan operation winds down and a seemingly endless covert war rages against bin Laden's successors, the case Coll mounts in this book seems more relevant than ever. *Wilson managed both, securing Soviet withdrawal and a post-politics gig lobbying for the Pakistani government (and by extension its Afghan proxies - yes, those guys.) Unocal, a middling producer staring at acquisition (bought out by Chevron in 2005) pumped a lot of money into lobbying Turkmenistan, US and the Taliban for a pipeline project (with a shadowy Saudi firm pocketing commissions) that everyone outside its Exploration Division counselled would never get off the ground, producing some nice Christmas snaps with a Taliban delegation, a well-subscribed conspiracy theory and little else. **How such a shift would have played out in Islamabad is another question; this book serves well to outline the extent to which Afghanistan's misery has its origins in the bitter wounds of Partition.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Stefan

    I'm not 100% sure what to make of this book. The first half, roughly until 1990 or so, is a great read on the Afghan war against the Soviet. It it interesting to read between the lines that only when the mujahedeen turned out to be pretty resilient insurgents, did the CIA ratchet up its support for the Afghans. Supported by the Saudis, the CIA relied mainly on the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI, and failed to see how ISI was pursuing its own version of the common agenda with the CIA and Saud I'm not 100% sure what to make of this book. The first half, roughly until 1990 or so, is a great read on the Afghan war against the Soviet. It it interesting to read between the lines that only when the mujahedeen turned out to be pretty resilient insurgents, did the CIA ratchet up its support for the Afghans. Supported by the Saudis, the CIA relied mainly on the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI, and failed to see how ISI was pursuing its own version of the common agenda with the CIA and Saudi money. When the Soviet were defeated, the CIA dropped Afghanistan. Meanwhile private Saudis and ISI continued their support for hardcore islamist fighters, and - later - for the Taliban. That noxious environment proved a great breeding ground for fanatics, in Osama's training camps and in Pakistan's madrassas - fanatics to be used in Afghanistan against moderates, in Kashmir against the Indians, and in ROW for terrorist attacks. The second half, roughly from 1990 to 2001, to me felt mainly as a count-down to September 11. There is a lot of confusion in Washington about the Taliban's support for Osama, many failed ideas and some failed attempts to take him down. In between the lines, it is suggested that this is due to a lot of CYA'ing: the CIA floods Washington with vague/unactionable threat reports, lawyers draft authorizations that are either unworkable or overly vague, and politicians dare not order action for fear of headlines in case of failures. This sounds very plausible. After all, risk-aversity is a by-product of overcomplexity and/or overconnectedness (a highly poisonous by-product, though). As I wasn't too absorbed in the second half, questions started popping up that weren't all answered in the book: - did India have a much larger role in supporting Massoud than suggested? That would seem a logical response, given that ISI was promoting the Taliban and jihad with an eye to Kashmir; - was there a regular communication channel between Iran and Washington? - Washington was apparently aware that Iran was supporting Massoud's Northern Alliance; - How 'Afghan' was the Taliban actually? The Taliban apparently started from Pashtun roots with a heavy Arab influence, but later Pashtuns started to criticize the Taliban while Mullah Omar continued to head it; - what was Al Qaida actually? - did its 'hundreds' or 'thousands' of adherents really all focus on jihad? - did the US put as much efforts into limiting Bin Laden's funding from Saudi as in trying to kill him, or is there any particular reason why that would be impossible? - (speculative) would eliminating Bin Laden really have eradicated Al Qaida, or would a second-in-command just have taken over?

  29. 4 out of 5

    Andy

    Wow - every 20-30 pages of this book something happens where you say to yourself "I can't believe that happened." Ghost Wars is a history of US involvement in Afghanistan from the anti-Soviet uprising in the 1980s up to the day before the WTC attacks. I think it's essential reading for anyone to understand what's going there. There are so many twists and turns, so many parties involved and alliances forming and breaking, and so many dollars and arms changing hands. If it were written in a more l Wow - every 20-30 pages of this book something happens where you say to yourself "I can't believe that happened." Ghost Wars is a history of US involvement in Afghanistan from the anti-Soviet uprising in the 1980s up to the day before the WTC attacks. I think it's essential reading for anyone to understand what's going there. There are so many twists and turns, so many parties involved and alliances forming and breaking, and so many dollars and arms changing hands. If it were written in a more literary style about less well-recognized events, you might be excused for thinking it was some kind of spy novel. The biggest lesson of all is that the Middle East never was and never will be an "us against them" story. There were and are the Taliban, al Qaeda, Afghan communists, Massoud's Northern Alliance, Saudi royals, Iranians, the CIA, the Defense Department, the State Department, Soviets, countless mujahedin warlords, etc. At various points many of the parties involve either change their allegiances outright or shift their focus from one enemy to another. And embedded in every friendship was some difference of motive, to the point where one's friend's friend could easily be one's enemy. In any case, the book was really amazing, a touch on the wordy side in its efforts to be comprehensive but that's all. Through exhaustive research, Steve Coll gives you an omniscient, bird's eye perspective, giving a steady authorial guide through the geopolitics by sprinkling a little history with a careful recounting of the events and quotes from people on all sides. You can really see the clashing motives, the decisions made and left unmade, and a steady unfolding of events towards the crushing ending. The book stops short a day short of 9/11 but sadly provides a hard finish that is all the worse because everyone knows what is to come next. The quote on the cover, from the NYT, is spot on: "...makes the reader want to rip the page and yell at the American counterterrorism officials... and tell them to watch out." If your knowledge of American involvement in the Middle East and South Asia is murky and vague like mine was, this book will have your eyes about a million times wider when you finish.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Jacob Jr.

    Wow. This book is something else. The breadth and depth of Steve Coll's reporting is difficult to comprehend. Ghost Wars relays the trials and tribulations that befell the CIA spanning the years from the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the bombing of the American embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan in 1979, straight through to the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the courageous Tajik guerrilla leader and leader of the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban military operations in Afghanistan, just days be Wow. This book is something else. The breadth and depth of Steve Coll's reporting is difficult to comprehend. Ghost Wars relays the trials and tribulations that befell the CIA spanning the years from the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the bombing of the American embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan in 1979, straight through to the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the courageous Tajik guerrilla leader and leader of the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban military operations in Afghanistan, just days before the attacks on 9/11. Throughout these pages we are witness to poor decision making, in-fighting and bickering amongst various chiefs of staff and various state departments, and various lapses in judgement that helped lead to the eventual rise of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda. Several passages of the book, primarily at the tale's bookends, are quite suspenseful in the manner of their telling, whilst sandwiched in between rolls a cavalcade of intriguing personalities from throughout the CIA, the Pakistani ISI, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan, and several other big players in this decades-long story. This is a long and occasionally arduous tome. Part II in particular largely lacks the scenic locales, engaging personalities, and suspense of Parts I and III. However, Steve Coll's achievement here cannot be understated. Given almost unfettered access to previously clandestine documents, speeches and information, Coll manages to spin a linear narrative that is at once both engaging and occasionally horrifying. While it can be difficult to keep all the major players in check, and the narrative itself is not always racing at full speed like in the beginning and ending chapters, Ghost Wars is a monumental work, and an ideal primer on the decades-long struggles of this particular region as seen through the vantage point of one of the key forces in determining its future. While it does not offer much in the way of analysis beyond its endpoint of September 10, 2001, as far as I am concerned this book should be required reading for anyone with the gall or the audacity to comment on the ongoing crises in the Middle East, particularly Afghanistan. Highly recommended.

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