Friday, June 2, 2017

Book Review: 'Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001' by Steve Coll

Review by Brian (Last name withheld)
When the mob broke in, William Putscher, a thirty-two-year-old American government auditor, was eating a hot dog. He had decided to lunch in the club by the swimming pool of the serene thirty-two-acre U nited States embassy compound in Islamabad, Pakistan. The embassy employed about 150 diplomats, spies, aid workers, communications specialists, assorted administrators, and a handful of U.S. Marines. "Carter dog!" the rioters shouted, referring to the American president Jimmy Carter. "Kill the Americans!" Putscher abandoned his meal and hid in a small office until the choking fumes of smoke and gasoline drove him out. A raging protestor threw a brick in his face as he emerged. Another hit him on the back of the head with a pipe. the stole two rings and his wallet, husteled him into a vehicle, and took him three iles away to concrete dormitories at Quaid-I-Azam University. There, student leaders of Pakistan's elite graduate school, fired by visions of a truer Islamic society, announced that Putscher would be tried for crimes "against the Islamic movement." It seemed to Putscher that he "was accused of just being an American."
With that opening paragraph, Ghost Wars starts out with a bang as it describes the November 21, 1979 looting and burning of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Coming on the heels of the embassy takover in Iran earlier in the month, the author does a great job describing the attack in the context of a world seemingly gone mad. It ended up being the opening salvo in a string of events leading up the attacks on September 11, 2001, which this book describes in well-researched detail.

As the extended title describes, this book is a history of Afghanistan, the CIA and Bin Laden from just before the Soviet invasion until just before the attacks of September 11, 2001. The title was published in 2004, but the author's recent appearance on The Daily Show prompted me to read it. At over 700 pages this is not a quick read, and the dozens of real-life actors necessitated the author to include a listing in the beginning of the book of the principal characters to keep them organized. This came in handy when someone's name popped up in the book who I didn't remember, as I could check the listing to determine their place in the overall story. The author also included a number of maps in the book, but their importance to the story was somewhat limited. I didn't need to refer to the maps to figure out what was going on, but others may find them helpful. This is also a very well researched book, with over 75 pages of notes to support the story coming from public and anonymous interviews and sources.
Overall, I found this an interesting read, as there was a lot of information that came from classified sources and was previously unknown to the public. Much of this new information referred to the multiple attempts to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice as well as the internal policy discussions regarding US foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the multiple actors in Afghanistan, from the Taliban to the leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Massoud. It was enlightening for me to read that there were very heated discussions within the CIA, State Department & the White House regarding Osama Bin Laden and his relationship with the Taliban. Many at the State Department thought that the Taliban could be persuaded to hand over Bin Laden in exchange for official recognition by the USA, while many at the CIA looked at this view as a fool's errand, and pushed for a more hawkish policy towards the Taliban & Pakistan. Ultimately, the CIA lost that argument, the consequences of which this book argues ultimately led to the events of September 11.
While the book is hard on the multiple presidents, from Bush I to Clinton to GWB, who had to deal with Afghanistan policy, a lot of criticism is directed at President Clinton, whose foreign policy in the region was often described as "rudderless." The criticism also carries over to the multiple classified attempts to capture Bin Laden, with concerns at the White House that intelligence wasn't strong enough to initiate any operations, and also that capture operations that ended up killing Bin laden would be viewed by the world as illegal asassinations instead of kidnappings. In many respects, I view the criticism against President Clinton as mostly unfair in the light of 20/20 hindsight. I agree that more should have been done, but with the information that was available in the 90's it was not clear that Bin Laden was a larger threat to the US than competing threats like nuclear proliferation in Pakistan. Even though there were individuals within the government that forsaw the threat he was, the evidence just wasn't there until September 11th.
However, the book offers some helpful suggestions in one of the final paragraphs of the book about what might have made a difference with the information available at the time:
The opportunities missed by the United States on the way to September 2001 extended well beyond the failure to exploit fully an alliance with [the Northern Alliance's] Massoud. Indifference, lassitude, blindness, paralysis, and commercial greed too often shaped American foreign policy in Afghanistan and South Asia during the 1990s. Besides Massoud, the most natural American ally against al Qaeda in the region was India, whose democracy and civilian population also was threatened by radical Islamist violence. Yet while the American government sought gradually to deepen its ties to New Delhi, it lacked the creativity, local knowledge, patience, and persistence to cope sucessfully with India's prickly nationalism and complex democratic politics--a failure especially ironic given the ornery character of American nationalism and the great complexities of Washington's own democracy. As a result, America failed during the late 1990s to forge an effective antiterrorism partnership with India, whose regional interests, security resources, and vast Muslim population offered great potential for covert penetrations of Afghanistan.
In the end, this book is highly recommended if you are interested in the CIA's history in the region, its partnership with Pakistan fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the policy and budget arguments in response to al Qaeda's growing threat in the 1990s. This book can get lost in the weeds at times, especially with the latter topic, but the story is well-told with some colorful characters that make it interesting.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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