Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001
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Steve Coll's Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 offers revealing details of the CIA's involvement in the evolution of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the years before the September 11 attacks. From the beginning, Coll shows how the CIA's on-again, off-again engagement with Afghanistan after the end of the Soviet war left officials at Langley with inadequate resources and intelligence to appreciate the emerging power of the Taliban. He also demonstrates how Afghanistan became a deadly playing field for international politics where Soviet, Pakistani, and U.S. agents armed and trained a succession of warring factions. At the same time, the book, though opinionated, is not solely a critique of the agency. Coll balances accounts of CIA failures with the success stories, like the capture of Mir Amal Kasi. Coll, managing editor for the Washington Post, covered Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992. He demonstrates unprecedented access to records of White House meetings and to formerly classified material, and his command of Saudi, Pakistani, and Afghani politics is impressive. He also provides a seeming insider's perspective on personalities like George Tenet, William Casey, and anti-terrorism czar, Richard Clarke ("who seemed to wield enormous power precisely because hardly anyone knew who he was or what exactly he did for a living"). Coll manages to weave his research into a narrative that sometimes has the feel of a Tom Clancy novel yet never crosses into excess. While comprehensive, Coll's book may be hard going for those looking for a direct account of the events leading to the 9-11 attacks. The CIA's 1998 engagement with bin Laden as a target for capture begins a full two-thirds of the way into Ghost Wars, only after a lengthy march through developments during the Carter, Reagan, and early Clinton Presidencies. But this is not a critique of Coll's efforts; just a warning that some stamina is required to keep up. Ghost Wars is a complex study of intelligence operations and an invaluable resource for those seeking a nuanced understanding of how a small band of extremists rose to inflict incalculable damage on American soil. --Patrick O'Kelley

To what extent did America's best intelligence analysts grasp the rising threat of Islamist radicalism? Who tried to stop bin Laden and why did they fail? Comprehensively and for the first time, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll recounts the history of the covert wars in Afghanistan that fueled Islamic militancy and sowed the seeds of the September 11 attacks. Based on scrupulous research and firsthand accounts by key government, intelligence, and military personnel both foreign and American, Coll details the secret history of the CIA's role in Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban, the emergence of bin Laden, and the failed efforts by U.S. forces to find and assassinate bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Customer Reviews:

  • gripping and informative-
    I recommend every American read this book. It most likely won't change your mind about what we should or shouldn't do, or who we should or shouldn't vote for. But it will educate you as to what already happened.

    It is an informative book. It should be mandatory reading for fans of stupid conspiracy theorists like the "Loose Change" idiots, or the "Israel/ Bush planned the whole thing" nutters.

    The book is also a good chronology of the failures of the CIA in Afghanistan. The same Afghanistan that was also the one of the CIA's greatest successes.

    The CIA after years of making mistakes and not seeing the threat did come around, and then it was politicians and the State Dept that foiled the CIA's efforts and failed the people of Afghanistan and the US.

    The Clinton white house engaged Bin Laden the same ineffectual non conscientious way they engaged North Korea. They also ineffectually engaged the genocide being committed by the Serbs in Bosnia, and then later by the Serbs in Kosovo. As well as ineffectually engaging Iraq.

    OBL declared war on the US and all US citizens in the 1990's. It wasn't a secret declaration of war. And it came as no surprise to US allies in Afghanistan who were enemies of the Afghan Arabs and the Taliban. They had been trying to tell us the same for years.

    The CIA told the white house that there was a war declared on us. The CIA was slow, but with each attack;
    The attack on the USS Cole.
    The attack on the Embassies in Africa.
    The attack on the Air Force Barracks in Saudi Arabia.
    Various attacks on CIA personnel in Yemen and Afghanistan.

    With each attack the lower levels of the CIA became more outspoken. After the embassy bombings, one CIA employee tearfully told Tenet that the blood was on his hands. Guys at the CIA knew an attack on American soil was coming. By the late 90's even the reluctant CIA director had come around (though he never endorsed any of his people's plans against Osama or the Taliban). Tenet did warn his buddy democratic congressman to avoid air travel and to not congregate in public at the end of 1999 because of the imminent Al Qaeda threat. They were a big enough threat to warn a congressman that his life might be in danger around large amounts of US citizens that might be victims. But Al Qaeda was apparently not big enough a threat to warrant helping their opposition the Northern Alliance. Not big enough a threat to OK a strike against them.

    Well one of the CIA's many suggestions was taken. A cruise missile attack was launched on the day that the FBI came back with the DNA evidence on Monica Lewinsky's dress. Unfortunately the Pakistanis were told about the upcoming cruise missile attack and they in turn told the Taliban, who informed their main benefactor OBL.

    When the Bush administration came into office, they had in mind to unscrew many of the many many many mistakes of the previous administration (and perhaps some of the mistakes of the administration of the elder Bush).

    As everyone knows, they did not act swiftly enough. And as I read the book that thought loomed over my head. And truthfully, even though Clinton probably understood the CIA when they told him that an attack were coming, there was not much he could do with an uncooperative military, and a congress that did not trust him on either side of the isle.

    Clinton knew the CIA was right when customs had the good luck of interdicting a car bomb destined and capable of destroying a third of LAX. The FBI and other agencies were able to thwart attacks of the new millennium. And Clinton understood when the various agencies told him that it was luck alone that had enabled them to stop that Millennium attacks, and that they would most likely not catch the next one. Even if Clinton had done all the right things at that time, still the attack that was 9/11 was already launched. Killing bin Laden at that time would have unlikely stopped anything.

    When the Clinton cronies left over in the white house told the new occupant, the Bush administration, of the Danger of bin Laden, they did not warm up to the facts fast enough.

    Like the Clinton administration before it the Bush administration were told of the very likely upcoming attack. I think it was Richard Clark who told them; "act now like you are going to act after the attack, treat our uncooperative allies of Pakistan and the Gulf States, as if the attack had already happened". He said that or something like it. From all accounts I read sometimes Clarke was spot on, but other times he was a selfish toolbag.

    Condoleezza Rice did eventually push for all the right decisions to be made. She did finally decide that the Taliban was our enemy, and that it was unlikely that any amount of diplomacy was going to change that. Nor was any amount of diplomacy going to make Pakistan and the various Gulf States realize that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were our enemy with our current policies.

    By the time that Rice decided that Al Qaeda was our enemy, about a decade and a half of various of our Afghan allies constantly pleading to us the same thing. Rice agreed for the CIA to help Ahmed Shah Massoud and a coalition of other Afghan opponents of the Taliban genocide, and their extremist Wahabbi interpretation of Islam. The US finally agreed to help our allies against our sworn enemies, about the same time the Al Qaeda finally figured out how to kill the wily, brilliant and elusive Massaud.

    It should be noted that despite all the rhetoric of the injustice of the Palestinian situation. That was not the cause of 9/11. The Arab jihadists held the Palestinian cause as an afterthought at best.

    Also not a motivation for the attack was any Afghan policy that we had. If anything it was a lack of a US policy in Afghanistan that caused the attack. We stood by and did nothing while the most extreme elements in the Middle East and Pakistan funded and equipped a faction in Afghanistan foreign to Afghans and Afghan history. We even did some standing by while Pakistan used our money to fund our enemies.

    The main motivation of the 9/11 attacks was our policy of containment in Iraq.

    Also I'd like to note that one of the reasons that the Clinton administration did not want to help Massaud, even when it became clear the abuses that the Taliban were inflicting on women, and even after it became clear that Al Qaeda had attacked US already over seas, and was planning an attack on US soil. The main reason that Clinton did not want to help our ally fight our enemy is the pariah of American liberty, the drug war. To compete with the funding of oil Sheikhs, and the funding and assistance of the Pakistani military, Massaud was benefiting off of the number one cash crop in Afghanistan, opium.

    If there is one thing today that will ensure that our enemies in Afghanistan stick around a little longer than they should, it is our attempt at eradicating the poppy fields. We are driving the vast profits of the drug trade away from the legal government, and to whoever will oppose us. We are probably not going to stop a single European drug user from getting his fix, and I don't know why we are trying....more info
  • issues to be informed about......
    Interesting. A must read. I hope Mr. Coll writes the next segment of Afghanistan's history from September 11, 2001 onward.

    The book covers a lot of ground and is lengthy, but is well written and reads quickly. Coll outlines the people and policies (or, the lack thereof) from the Soviet chapter in Afghanistan until the day before September 11, 2001. Throughout the historical narrative, the book covers and addresses scary amounts of money flowing in and out of Afghanistan, the conflicts between the CIA, the State Dept. and other U.S. agencies/policymakers in addressing issues related to Afghanistan, the Taleban, Al Q, and Bin Laden, and who understood what and when related to Al Q, Bin Laden, et al. Coll also critically addresses the roles of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in U.S. policy considerations, and those countries policies toward Afghanistan/knowledge of Al Q and Bin Laden.

    Beyond the headlines, I was not very well informed on the history of Afghanistan. This book will bring the reader up to speed very quickly.
    ...more info
  • Unbeliveable history of Afghanistan
    Don't be scared away by the 600+ pages. It flows freely and is really a riviting historical read. It provides quite a narrative on the history of this area and the difficult political and military situations that the US, Pakistan, Soviet Union and other influcencal Middle East countries had in this area of the world.....more info
  • On very good story!
    This detailed and interesting story will really open your eyes to why 911 happened. It's a fascinating story. Shocking in its openess.
    For another good read check out Eva-Christ...more info
  • Real-life Ghosts/Political Hauntings
    Steve Coll's GHOST WARS isn't a novel so there are no neat wrap-ups or happy endings to the complex situation that is Afghanistan. Instead, this is brilliant journalism with a real world action/adventure/thriller construct. It is the kind of book that takes you well beyond the headlines into the real meat of the story where the sidebars into the recent history of the region expose slabs that are, at times,rancid.
    It's easy to see why Coll won the Pulitzer Prize with his in-depth and scholarly research that will have you liking some of the major players, hating others or scratching your head and wondering just what in the hell were some of the so-called experts thinking.
    Read it just so you'll have a better working idea of what's going on in the region or perhaps what's going right and wrong with our politics and for the war you thought you knew.
    There are no 'Ghosts' to be found but a lot of hauntings as Coll brings into focus a series of turns and events in a troubled part of the world where tribal histories and passions have produced and fueled some very determined fighters.
    This book should be made mandatory reading for any and every member of Congress and those in the Intelligence field. ...more info
  • The fascinating lead-up to 9/11
    In a book that feels more like a novel than an historical account and certainly doesn't feel like 576 pages, Steve Coll has produced perhaps the definitive account of the events leading up to 9/11. It's quite difficult to find credible criticisms of this book as Coll recounts actions under both Republican and Democratic administrations without missing a beat, at the same time earning accolades and recommendations from inside the U.S. government. Ghost Wars is on the State Department's recommended reading list for those interested in joining the Foreign Service and the book is also highly regarded inside the CIA as well.

    Ghost Wars is divided into three main sections, each dealing with a different time period in the story of how what happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1979 onward led to 9/11. Part one deals with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and how the U.S. & Pakistan helped the Afghans defeat the Red Army. Part two covers the chaos surrounding the Soviet withdrawal and how this (perhaps more than U.S. aid to our enemy's enemy) laid the groundwork for the Taliban's grab for power and the creation of a safe haven for al-Qaeda. Part three details bin Laden's growing strength and the U.S. efforts to stop him leading all the way up to September 10, where the book ends.

    While the total of this story is the sum of many characters, the ultimate protagonist in Ghost Wars would have to be Ahmed Shah Massoud. Coll does more to help illuminate Massoud's plight to hold Afghanistan together than perhaps anything else in Ghost Wars. America's relationship with Massoud is a microcosm of the larger relationship with Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion leading all the way up to his assassination on September 10 by al-Qaeda (in preparation for the war they knew would come to Afghanistan), in that America never really gave Afghanistan the thought and attention it deserved. The Soviet's wouldn't have been expelled from Afghanistan had it not been for our efforts, but we were content enough to walk away from what was left of the country as well. The consequences of that policy are perfectly clear and it is nothing short of shocking that the U.S. continues to pay far less attention than it should to Afghanistan (even early on in the Obama administration).

    The other underlying theme to Ghost Wars is that Afghanistan cannot be dealt with or understood in the absence of Pakistan. The amount of influence Pakistan exercises in Afghanistan far outweighs anything any of Iraq's neighbors have managed in Iraq since 2003, and Coll makes that fact startlingly clear. It's shocking really that events in these two countries since 9/11 haven't been much worse than what they have. Every book I read on the subject makes it seem like something bad is on the way. As I write this review during the economic crisis of 2009, I can't help but wonder how quickly events in these two countries could make the problems America faces today look like a walk in the park....more info
  • Ghost Wars
    Ghost Wars is an account of U.S. assistance to the mujahedin during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and U.S. attempts to curtail Osama bin Laden's influence. Ghost Wars focuses on the CIA but author Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered Afghanistan for the Washington Post between 1989 and 1992, also covers the interagency policy making process in Washington.

    The U.S. policy of helping the mujahedin in Afghanistan harass and ultimately defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan was, of course, a success. U.S. officials realized that the contending forces in Afghanistan were unlikely to form a unified national government after the Soviet's departure, but the United States was in Afghanistan to hurt the Soviet Union, not to build a new nation in Afghanistan. U.S. assistance efforts in Afghanistan were advanced by two allies, in particular, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Coll argues that, while the allies' interests coincided in containing Soviet expansion, U.S. interests were hurt by the efforts of Pakistan's intelligence service (the ISI) to strengthen radical Islamists after the Soviet collapse in Afghanistan and by Saudi Arabia's unwillingness to confront radical Islamists at home and in Afghanistan.

    Coll criticizes U.S. policy in Afghanistan on several grounds. First, the United States relied heavily on the ISI to deliver assistance to the mujahedin, despite the ISI's preference for radical jihadists. Second, the United States' reliance on Saudi oil made it too hard for the United States to confront its ally over terrorism policies. Third, the United States missed opportunities to engage India as a democratic ally in South Asia. Fourth, the United States failed to develop "a strategy for engagement, democratization, secular education, and economic development among the peaceful but demoralized populations of the Islamic world."

    U.S. policy toward bin Laden, in particular, could also be criticized for a lack of coherence. Coll's narrative describes a reluctance to give unambiguous instructions to kill bin Laden, even though capturing him alive would have been nearly impossible. Numerous opportunities arose to attack bin Laden but policymakers always demurred because they were reluctant to offend other governments or risk civilian deaths. At one point, referring to bin Laden, CIA director George Tenet announces that "We are at war," but the resources and single-minded determination that this announcement implies never materialized.
    ...more info
  • Current history come to life
    Steve Coll has done an outstanding job in presenting the history of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Afghan freedom fighters and shows how that history foretells what is occurring in the world today.

    Many other books about the rise of Osama Bin Laden are out there but this gives an honest depiction of who he was and is, how he came to power and what he uses to retain that power. It gives the reader a better understanding of the tribal nature of Afghanistan, the machinations of the intelligence services in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and how the Taliban came to rule after the Soviets were chased out. It also shows how the United States in the administration of Bill Clinton dropped the ball numerous times in understanding and dealing with terrorism. From the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 to the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, Clinton did little to forestall further such events. The reader will see what roles Sandy Berger and Richard Clarke played in advising the president and yet the terrorism continued.
    A few heroes are introduced- mainly from the CIA and Afghan tribes.

    Steve Coll is an excellent writer and captures the reader with his excellent prose and command of the players and facts of the times...more info
  • great read.
    I would reccomend this book to anyone who is interested in America's role in the middle east. Steve Cole lays down alot of facts and he does not have a biased opinion. This book says alot about how America's role in recent-history shapes events in it's future to sometmes catostrophic proportions. All American History buffs need to pick up a copy, it's hard to put down once you get into it.

    ...more info
  • A Detailed Account of the Events Leading to 9/11
    Steve Coll offers a fascinating look at the intrigue and internecine rivalries among the intelligence agencies participating unwittingly in the ascendance of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan during the last two decades of the 20th century. In a shadow world where loyalties wear thin and all is not as it seems, American CIA, Pakistani ISI and Saudi GID agents covertly funnel money, arms, and intelligence to both nascent guerrilla movements and warring Afghan factions through the 1980s and 90s. Coll reveals the events leading to 9/11 not only on the battlefields of Afghanistan, but behind closed doors in the corridors of power in Washington, Islamabad, and Riyadh.

    Arming the Afghan mujahideen as they wage a vicious and protracted insurgency against the Soviet occupiers in the 80s seems harmless enough. But the untrained Arabs fighting alongside their intrepid Afghan counterparts fall under the sway of a charismatic young Arab sheik with far greater ambitions than merely pushing the stubborn Soviet Bear back to his den. Though he would demonstrate limited ability as a field commander, Osama bin Laden aroused bloodlust in these guerrilla fighters that would result in the most lethal act of terrorism in modern history. Ghost Wars offers an explanation as to how U.S. arms such as Stinger missiles wind up in the hands of those very same guerrillas.

    After documenting the defeat of the mighty Soviet Army at the hands of the CIA/ISI/GID-supported mujahideen, Coll turns his attention to the intelligence agencies' often misguided efforts to choose sides in an Afghan civil war that eventually destroys much of Kabul and drives many refugees to Pakistan. Incredibly, while American covert operatives support Ahmed Shah Massoud's efforts in the North, our Pakistani 'allies' are funding Pashtun warlords such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the Southeastern part of the country!

    An unintended consequence of these actions - as the intelligence agencies became preoccupied - is the emergence of extreme radical Islam in the form of al-Qaeda. Initially intent only on the overthrow of Middle Eastern governments not practicing a pure form of Islam, al-Qaeda's malevolent aims evolve into global jihad against America and her allies and one audacious plot to strike our country. Bin Laden patiently and painstakingly builds his terrorist organization first in Sudan, then in Eastern Afghanistan while the Afghan civil war rages on. On more than one occasion the spy agencies (and their government sponsors) discount al-Qaeda as a serious threat and eventually pass on opportunities to strike Bin Laden's camp. And at one point a U.S. Tomahawk Cruise Missile attack simply misses its mark!

    It becomes obvious from reading Ghost Wars that American efforts to influence events in Afghanistan subsequent to the 1980s Soviet-Afghan War, largely through clandestine operations, were at times counterproductive. One can easily argue that those efforts indirectly resulted in more, rather than less, instability in Central and South Asia.

    In this ambitious work, Coll captures in precise detail the events leading up to 9/11 from the early days of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan through the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and the USS Cole bombing. For that alone, Ghost Wars is worth reading. Through thorough and meticulous research (there are some 50+ pages of endnotes), the author sets an almost impossible standard in reporting. Most of the interviews Coll relies on in the book he apparently conducts himself. And in an effort to ensure accuracy, he repeatedly checks facts against recently declassified documents, updating the newer printing with the corrected information.

    The reader struggles to keep up with the many characters that move in and out of the murky and byzantine spy world that is the milieu for this 576-page book. However, Coll carefully constructs the most important characters such as William Casey, George Tenet, and Prince Turki bin Faisal, Head of Saudi Intelligence, such that the reader gains an appreciation for not only what these spymasters thought, but how they thought. One is left to wonder how these talented and capable government officials missed so many clues in the run-up to 9/11.

    The detailed character development (including that of Bin Laden) without a doubt is the most satisfying element of Ghost Wars. It is what truly makes the book worthwhile reading. Highly recommend for that alone!

    For future generations of politicians intent on committing our nation's considerable intelligence resources to shadow wars in far-flung backwaters like Afghanistan, a careful reading of Ghost Wars ought to make them think twice.

    A Detailed Account of the Events Leading to 9/11....more info
  • Long telling
    This book is very long in reading. It does not follow any folw to be seen but jumps around. It is informative on a historical view however, to get to the few usfull items the reader has to read one mans musing....more info
  • Well-documented lead-up to 9-11
    "Ghost Wars" is a very good, well documented, presentation of facts leading up to 9-11, focusing mainly on the CIA's involvement in Afghanistan starting with the anti-Soviet rebellion in the early 1980's.

    What comes through very clear is how complex the situation was, presenting very little options which could ever work out well. Probably the USSR would have broken apart even if we weren't involved in Afghanistan. Plus, in the early 80's the US was so paranoid of Afghanistan going communist and therefore a secular society, we were distributing CIA-printed Korans to the Afghan rebels. Muslim jihadis must have been laughing at us.

    As the book points out, the real reason we wanted to be involved in Afghanistan was because of eventual control of a proposed Afghan oil pipeline, where the oil company, Unocal, was front and center in influencing our actions, even wanting in the late 90's to negotiate and partner with the Taliban.

    One thing kind of funny in it is when Bush was campaigning before the 2000 election, reporters/journalists were asking Bush pop questions to see his responses. One journalist mentioned "Taliban". Bush just shook his head in silence. Then the journalist gave him a hint, and Bush said something about repression of women in Afghanistan, but then said he first thought it was a band.

    This book definitely belongs in one's collection of books trying to understand things related to 9-11 and as a basis for understanding the 'War on Terror'....more info
  • Excellant Current History Reading
    Very much an in-depth history of our times. This book describes activities that were lightly or never reported in the news yet had and have extreme bearing on US policy and current conditions in the Middle East. Well researched book with lengthy reference list....more info
  • Great Book, Read Detained Differences
    This was a great novel, go buy Detained Differences by J. Robert Rowe. It is about Detainee Operations inside Afghanistan. ...more info
  • politcal cause and effect
    An excellent book for those interested in the politics of The Afghanistan - Russian conflict and its out come setting the seeds for 9/11. ...more info
  • terrific, extremely informative read
    To think that all this information was available to both the Clinton & two Bushes. Three administrations all ignored the warnings of their own staffs. Makes one wonder -- was there anybody home at the White House
    from 1989 to 2002 (and after)?...more info
  • Hard reading
    Hard book to read. Author uses a lot of big words that were unnecessary, making the reading go really slow. Not like other books of it's kind, where you can't put them down because they are so interesting. Husband actually went and bought another book just after getting this one, as it was not holding interest. Would rate it just ok....more info
  • How "Morning in America" Became "War of the Worlds"
    "Ghost Wars" is an excellent, exciting, and very carefully researched and footnoted documentation of how the United States government, from the time of Reagan, supported and encouraged the forces that became the Taliban. The writer, Steve Coll, is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and writer who was managing editor of the Washington Post from 1998 to 2004.

    This is very important information for understanding why and how international relations have become so very complex and violent, and why simple yes/no and us/them declarations miss the point entirely.

    Should be required reading in high school and college, immediately....more info
  • Kindle edition lacks footnote links
    This book has numerous footnotes which are presented by chapter at the end of the book. It's unfortunate that on the Kindle edition the footnotes are not "hot" - there is no link from the chapter text to the footnote text.

    So if you want to refer to a footnote, it's actually *harder* on the Kindle than it would be in hardcopy. That's a missed opportunity to take advantage of the Kindle platform and a bit of a disappointment for folks like me who actually do read footnotes.
    ...more info
  • Excellant book, well written, excellant references, one of the best I've read on the topic
    Excellant book, well written, excellant references, one of the best I've read on the topic...more info