Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001
by Steve Coll
Release Date: 23 February, 2004
This is one of the most important books I have read in a very long time. It is an amazing eye-opener and is required reading for anybody who wants to understand the terrorist threat we face. This is the only book I have ever read that truly frightened me.
After reading it, I can't help but feel this was inevitable the minute the Soviets fell. "Petro Dollar Islam" simply moved from the "Godless heritics" to the next enemy, the Infidels of the United States of America.
I tell you, with all the money and support they have, we better get serious or we are in for an even bigger disaster!
This book is selling very nicely and obviously has prompted Congressional hearing questions. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same weakness that kept the US government from preventing the September 11 attacks: It has too much information of varying quality, badly organized and poorly analyzed. You might learn more and more easily about US actions in Afghanistan by reading the reviews of this book.
Three years in South Asia clearly gave Steve Coll some personal acquaintance with people, places and events. He combined that with voluminous documentary evidence, and the result is War and Peace Goes To Afghanistan. A reader who slogs through this book will read a lot about the topic, but won't come out with a clear conclusion, and won't gain the most reliable understanding. When I find errors in the discussion of topics that I know about, I suspect that the same sort of errors exist in areas where I'm less knowledgeable.
More understanding of the military, CIA and State Department would have avoided the errors that lard the book's first hundred pages. Throughout the book, Coll misstates the name of the Counterterrorism (not "-ist") Center at the CIA. The 1980 Teheran embassy rescue helicopter crash happened not because the helicopters were "sand-blown" (pg. 55) but because a pilot undertook an exceedingly difficult hover in the high wind and blowing sand at night. Is a British Enfield rifle more powerful than a Russian AK-47 rifle (pg. 58, and no, it isn't) or vice-versa (pg. 66), or did Coll misunderstand when his source told him what was being said to the Afghanis at different times? Who thinks the Secretary of State actually writes a routine briefing memorandum (pg. 62) for the President? The Salang Highway is west, not east of the Panjshir Valley (pg. 115, right above the map). The writing is florid (safehouses were unmarked, what's a fusillade if not gunfire?, and the 1979 Soviet invasion was "hegemonic violence.") Why write that the President "scrawled" his name on a presidential finding that covert action is in the national interest? Occasionally, the adjectives clank ("Soviet bomber-jets", "brass-polish outsiders" and "eye-tearing rivalry"). None of this is very serious except that it all suggests a superficial understanding and a lack of editorial care.
It's clear that Coll interviewed lots of CIA officers, but he swallowed and uncritically repeats self-justifications, allowed extraneous detail to distract him from important concerns, and missed an opportunity to write real history; Instead, this book is journalism (and I intend that to be derogatory.) CIA officers' back-biting comments sold Coll on a dichotomy in CIA between the Eastern snob establishment tennis players and working-class Midwestern bowlers, ignoring the agency's many years of heavy recruiting in America's heartland and the absence of bowling alleys in suburban Washington. The real culture war inside CIA has long been between the cowboys and those who are more careful and disciplined. When Coll mentions "the mundane details of shipping and finance" (pg. 65), one should imagine the private satisfaction of a CIA officer who has just led the journalist right past some sensitive methods and truly covert operations.
There's always a tension between writing an interesting story and reaching for sensation. Without evidence or even an attributable allegation that CIA officers contacted Osama bin Laden, and despite Coll's description of CIA officers' repeated denials and the absence of documentary evidence of such contact, Coll probably ought to apologize for having written that "If the CIA did have contact with bin Laden during the 1980s and subsequently covered it up, it has so far done an excellent job." If the question referred to wife-beating, an individual might get really angry at reading that he had denied doing it, there was no proof that he had ever started doing it, much less stopped, but he might have been covering up anyway.
Many authors acknowledge the assistance of expert readers who have looked over a manuscript and helped by pointing out errors. This book would have benefitted from such help, as well as the services of a good literary and copy editor.
In addition to books recommended by other reviewers here, I'd recommend Milt Bearden's novel, The Black Tulip.