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Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden,… (2004)

by Steve Coll

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1,903276,042 (4.14)44
"Comprehensively and for the first time, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll tells the secret history of the CIA's role in Afghanistan, including its covert program against Soviet troops from 1979 to 1989, and examines the rise of the Taliban, the emergence of bin Laden, and the secret efforts by CIA officers and their agents to capture or kill bin Laden in Afghanistan after 1998. Based on extensive firsthand accounts, Ghost Wars is the inside story that goes well beyond anything previously published on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It chronicles the roles of midlevel CIA officers, their Afghan allies, and top spy masters such as Bill Casey, Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki al-Faisal, and George Tenet. And it describes heated debates within the American government and the often poisonous, mistrustful relations between the CIA and foreign intelligence agencies."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)
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» See also 44 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
Until September 11th, Afghanistan would have been a pretty obscure area in which to be a subject matter expert. Afterwards, of course, we all found out a lot about the Taliban and the Northern Alliance and the Pashtun people, but honestly it was all so much so fast that I know I (and probably lots of other people) ended up more confused than anything else. Steve Coll's Ghost Wars tells the story of American involvement in Afghanistan, beginning around the Cold War and ending on September 10th of 2001, and it tied together a lot of the dangling strings that American involvement in Afghanistan after September 11th left me with. Deeply researched and very informative, this is a thorough portrait of how we got to where we are.

Geopolitics in Central and South Asia turns out to be really complicated! The CIA's involvement began as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the desire to have a firewall against the spread of Communism. It continued even after their withdrawal to both prevent a re-invasion and because of the US's relationship with Pakistan, which saw Afghanistan as a firewall of its own against India. And then there's Saudi Arabia, which had its own complicated relationships with not only Afghanistan, where it exported its brand of intense Islam, but of course the United States, as well as Pakistan. It's very messy, and trying to learn about it feels like intensely watching a magician to try to discern the sleight-of-hand...you've got your eye on one part of the stage, but to really understand the whole picture, there's something going on somewhere else that's going to be important to the way it comes together. And then of course there's the relationship of the CIA to their own government and the American public, which had a very real impact on how much, and how effectively, the CIA was able to actually do.

It becomes patently obvious while reading this book that there was very likely no one single factor that would have prevented terror attacks from taking place on American soil. There were too many forces that were all coming into alignment for it to be avoided entirely. But it does raise (without proselytizing about) issues that might have kept the particular 9/11 attack from coming to fruition that are, of course, all too easy to see in hindsight: US funding for the Northern Alliance, more willingness to heed the increasingly frenzied warnings that al-Qiada was eager and capable of an attack, a more forceful relationship with Pakistan, etc after etc. Coll doesn't try to lay blame at anyone in particular's feet, but he's also not interested in massaging or obscuring information that would let anyone claim absolution, either. He's interested in presenting as full a picture as he reasonably can, and he accomplishes that.

Considering that it's nonfiction designed to reach a mass audience, it's about as comprehensive as anyone should want/expect. In fact, if I'm being honest, its biggest flaw is that there is so much information being presented that it's overly dense. It's hard, because it never came off like there were details being dumped extraneously so it's not that it just needed a more diligent editor, but the reality is that it's a fact-heavy story, with a lot of new people/situations needing to be introduced to the reader with sufficient context, so the result is a book that ends up feeling kind of like a slog even though it's interesting and relevant. And honestly, I prefer that kind of approach to one that cuts out important bits to dumb itself down for the reader. To sum up, I do recommend this book if you're interesting in learning about the history of the US in Afghanistan. It's well-written and a very good resource. But if fact-intensive non-fiction isn't your jam and this isn't a subject of particular interest to you, there's no need to torture yourself. ( )
1 vote GabbyHM | Jun 24, 2020 |
This book chronicles the rise of the jihadist movement, starting with mujahedin fighters in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. It continues with the rise of the Taliban and the influence and collaboration with bin Laden. The book ends on September 10, 2001. When reading this book you’ll find yourself continually asking why THEY didn’t listen to THOSE who were shouting warnings. ( )
  LamSon | Apr 27, 2018 |
Interesting and important reading even in 2017 with the basic facts leading up to 9/11 pretty well known by anyone who has devoted even modest attention to the subject. Where the book excels in my opinion is in describing just how U.S. policy is crafted at the highest levels. And it does not make for reassuring reading. Competing agencies, agendas, philosophies and personalities at the highest levels of the U.S. Government make policy really, really difficult to get right or to change. That is just the nature of our system. The big takeaway from this book is how little has changed since those years. We remain tethered to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in a way that almost defies belief. They were both shown in this book to have had huge roles in the rise and success of Islamic extremism whether through support of the Taliban or the funding of ideological madhouse madrassas that generated countless volunteers for the worldwide Jihad. Neither of those salient facts have changed in 16 years. The Saudis (and others) continue to fund Wahabist thought worldwide, the Paks (ISI) still support the Taliban and the U.S. continues to pretend both are our 'allies'. They say that generals like to fight the 'last war', especially if they won. The U.S. seems to still want to fight the last war (Cold War) as a national strategy, i.e. vs. the Russians. The only war that matters in the world today is the one against the ideology of Islam, which clearly seeks to dominate the world. It's kind of like reading Mein Kampf, the Koran spells out with great clarity the plans and goals of Islam but the West prefers to bury it's collective head in the dirt and scream about 'the Russians are coming'! ( )
1 vote PCorrigan | Oct 8, 2017 |
Fascinating and depressing read--This is a good one for anyone who thinks that foreign relations aren't that complicated or who misses out on the necessity of knowing a region's history before entangling his or her country in a conflict. ( )
  ProfH | Jan 15, 2017 |
This is an exhaustive review of everything that happened with regard to the CIA in Afghanistan leading up to the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US. When I say exhaustive I do mean exhaustive. There are an awful lot of names and elaborate side-plots to keep track of in a book that covers 1979-2001. As someone who was not alive for the vast majority of this period, I learned a lot about American politics and history by reading this book and feel like I have a much better grasp of the issues. It is particularly relevant to recent international problems surrounding ISIS/L. ( )
1 vote collingsruth | Oct 27, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
Coll has given us what is certainly the finest historical narrative so far on the origins of Al Qaeda in the post-Soviet rubble of Afghanistan. He has followed up that feat by threading together the complex roles played by diplomats and spies from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States into a coherent story explaining how Afghanistan became such a welcoming haven for Al Qaeda.
 
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Prologue:In the tattered, cargo-strewn cabin of an Ariana Afghan Airlines passenger jet streaking above Punjab toward Kabul sat a stocky, broad-faced American with short graying hair.
It was a small riot in a year of upheavals, a passing thunderclap disgorged by racing skies.
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