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Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (Penguin Books) [Paperback]

Steve Coll

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Book Description

31 Dec 2004 Penguin Books

The news-breaking book that has sent schockwaves through the White House, Ghost Wars is the most accurate and revealing account yet of the CIA's secret involvement in al-Qaeada's evolution.

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 bn 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 terrrorism in the years leading to 9/11 - and its devastating consequences.

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Product details

  • Paperback: 712 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (31 Dec 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143034669
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143034667
  • Product Dimensions: 20.6 x 13.9 x 3.9 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 885,702 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Amazon Review

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 US agents armed and trained a succession of warring factions. At the same time, the book, though opinionated, balances accounts of CIA failures with the success stories, such as 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 such as 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 criticism 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, --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Certainly the finest historical narrative so far on the origins of al Qaeda in the post-Soviet rubble of Afghanistan . . . "Ghost Wars" provides fresh details and helps explain the motivations behind many crucial decisions."
-"The New York Times Book Review"

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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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. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  182 reviews
223 of 254 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard Copy Easier to Read, but Substance is Same: Superb 19 April 2005
By Robert David STEELE Vivas - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Edit of 20 Dec 07 to add links including books since published.

On balance this is a well researched book (albeit with a Langley-Saudi partiality that must be noted), and I give it high marks for substance, story, and notes. It should be read in tandem with several other books, including George Crile's Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times and the Milt Bearden/James Risen tome on The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown with the KGB.

The most important point in the book is not one the author intended to make. He inadvertently but most helpfully points to the fact that at no time did the U.S. government, in lacking a policy on Afghanistan across several Administrations, think about the strategic implications of "big money movements." I refer to Saudi Oil, Afghan Drugs, and CIA Cash.

Early on the book shows that Afghanistan was not important to the incumbent Administration, and that the Directorate of Operations, which treats third-world countries as hunting grounds for Soviets rather than targets in their own right, had eliminated Afghanistan as a "collection objective" in the late 1980's through the early 1990's. It should be no surprise that the CIA consequently failed to predict the fall of Kabul (or in later years, the rise of the Taliban).

Iran plays heavily in the book, and that is one of the book's strong points. From the 1979 riots against the U.S. Embassies in Iran and in Pakistan, to the end of the book, the hand of Iran is clearly perceived. As we reflect on Iran's enormous success in 2002-2004 in using Chalabi to deceive the Bush Administration into wiping out Saddam Hussein and opening Iraq for Iranian capture, at a cost to the US taxpayer of over $400 billion dollars, we can only compare Iran to the leadership of North Viet-Nam. Iran has a strategic culture, the US does not. The North Vietnamese beat the US for that reason. Absent the development of a strategic culture within the US, one that is not corrupted by ideological fantasy, Iran will ultimately beat the US and Israel in the Middle East.

The greatest failure of the CIA comes across throughout early in the book: the CIA missed the radicalization of Islam and its implications for global destabilization. It did so for three reasons: 1) CIA obsession with hard targets to the detriment of global coverage; 2) CIA obsession with technical secrets rather than human overt and covert information; and 3) CIA laziness and political naiveté in relying on foreign liaison, and especially on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Both Admiral Stansfield Turner and Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski come in for criticism here. Turner for gutting the CIA, Brzezinski for telling Pakistan it could go nuclear (page 51) in return for help against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Although the book does not focus on Bin Laden until he becomes a player in Afghanistan, it does provide much better discussion of Bin Laden's very close relations with Saudi intelligence, including the Chief of Staff of Saudi intelligence at the time, Bin Laden's former teacher and mentor. There appears to be no question, from this and other sources, including Yossef Bodansky's book Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America and David Kaplan's US News & World Report on Saudi sponsorship of global terrorism, that Bin Laden has been the primary Saudi intelligence agent of influence for exporting terrorism and Islamic radicalism to South Asia, the Pacific Rim, Africa, Europe, Russia, and the US. CIA and the FBI failed to detect this global threat, and the USG failed to understand that World War III started in 1989. As with other evils, the US obsession about communism led it to sponsor new emerging threats that might not otherwise have become real. However, the book also provides the first documentation I have seen that Bin Laden was "noticed" by the CIA in 1985 (page 146), and that Bin Laden opened his US office in 1986. It was also about this time that the Russian "got it" on the radical Islamic threat, told the US, and got blown off. Bob Gates and George Shultz were wrong to doubt the Soviets when they laid out Soviet plans to leave Afghanistan and Soviet concern about both the future of Afghanistan and the emerging threat from Islamic terrorism.

The middle of the book can be considered a case study in how Pakistani deception combined with American ignorance led us to make many errors of judgment. Some US experts did see the situation clearly--Ed McWilliams from State ("Evil Little Person" per Milt Bearden) comes out of this book looking very very smart.

The final portions of the book are detailed and balanced. What comes across is both a failure of the US to think strategically, and the incredibly intelligent manner in which Bin Laden does think globally, strategically, and unconventionally. Bin Laden understands the new equation: low-cost terrorism equals very high cost economic dislocation.

Side note: CIA provided the Islamic warriors in Afghanistan with enough explosives to blow up half of New York (page 135), and with over 2000 Stinger missiles, 600 of which appear to remain in the hands of anti-US forces today, possibly including a number shipped to Iran for re-purposing (ie London, Dallas, Houston)

One final note: morality matters. I am greatly impressed with the author's judgment in focusing on the importance that Bin Laden places on the corruption of US and Saudi Arabian governments and corporations as the justification for his jihad. Will and Ariel Durant, in "The Lessons of History," make a special point of discussing the long-term strategic value of morality as a "force" that impacts on the destiny of nations and peoples. The US has lost that part of the battle, for now, and before we can beat Bin Laden, we must first clean our own house and demand that the Saudi's clean theirs or be abandoned as a US ally. Morality matters. Strategic culture matters. On these two counts, Bin Laden is winning for now.

Other books that augment this one:
The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Vintage)
Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush
Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander
First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan
See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism
Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude
Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Exhaustive and Comprehensive 5 May 2006
By David W. Nicholas - Published on
This is one of those books that you'll read, and take away a lot from afterwards. Steve Coll writes with authority and confidence about a number of aspects of the United States' involvement in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion til 9/11. He covers many aspects of the war, from the war in Afghanistan, the subsequent civil war, and negotiations with and between such actors as the CIA, US Defense and State Department, various Afghan groups, and the Pakistani army and government. From spies with suitcases of cash meeting their contacts in the Pakistani countryside to cruise missiles hitting Osama's compound, the book covers every aspect of the conflict itself. From the CIA and the Air Force arguing over who should control and pay for the Predator drones that were used to look for Osama, to Pakistan's various coups and the Taliban's indifference to outside opinion, Coll also pays considerable attention to the political events behind the actual conflicts.

This is a long, involved book that has a huge amount of information in it. It's detailed, carefully written, and very comprehensive. The tone of the book, while somewhat serious and scholarly, isn't really biased in any particular direction. The author, for instance, pays a great deal of attention to Ahmed Shah Massoud, but he doesn't sugarcoat his portrait of Massoud, making clear that he was partially responsible for the Mujaheddin Government's fall in the mid-90s, and also noting that he financed his movement with heroin sales to Russia and Europe. He examines each of these issues dispassionately and carefully, looking at every angle he can think of.

If I have a criticism of the book it's the lack of conclusion. The author appears to want to let history speak for itself, and avoids judgments. This is in some ways good: we're probably not going to be able to make this sort of judgment about the Clinton or Bush administration for years, not objectively anyway. But the book starts in the Carter administration, and even there he presents a narrative of what happened without comment. He also often tells you both sides of the story, recounting first the State department's view of the CIA's reluctance to do something, then giving you the CIA's version of events, so that you're unsure which side he's on, let alone which side the facts are. It's a bit unsettling, though perhaps that's because the events themselves are unsettled, too.

I enjoyed this book, learned a great deal from it, and apart from its length would recommend it. It's relatively well-written and very informative.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshingly objective 28 April 2005
By John Allnutt - Published on
Steve Coll's Ghost Wars is an invaluable history of the U.S. Government's relationship with Afghanistan and other geopolitical players involved in its fate from December 1979 - September 2001. While this narrative about the USG's "war on terrorism" focuses on the intelligence component rather than the law enforcement, the reader learns the political, legal and diplomatic obstacles CIA faced (and still does) in the effort to protect this nation of 275,000,000 from suicide bomber attacks anytime and anywhere, including within the United States. Mr. Coll's book is a welcome addition to the literature of terrorism which should be read in conjunction with the 9/11 Commission Report; and Best Laid Plans by David Martin and John Walcott.

Mr. Coll chronicles Afghanistan's tragic history from the Soviet invasion through the Soviets' expulsion and the fall of the Soviet Union; through the civil strife that followed until the Taliban's rise to power and Al Qaeda's parasitic attachment to the regime. He identified opportunities lost (as well as attempted) that might have changed the course of events leading to the September 11 attacks. From the time of the Soviets' expulsion, many partisan readers will be tempted to hang the bulk of responsibility on any of 3 Republican administrations or a 2-term Democratic administration. Other readers might fully blame the CIA, the NSC, State or Defense Departments. But these would be more examples of blaming the victim, a tiresome political argument Americans have had to endure for two election cycles. I for one, am delighted that Mr. Coll refrained from such an indulgence.

While there is plenty of "blame" to go around as to why our government, in hindsight, did not act on this or that, the activities of the Saudi and Pakistani governments also share in the stock of shortsightedness. Mr. Coll identifies the ways that Saudi and Pakistani officials duped the USG about their relationship with the Taliban but were, in turn, also duped by the Taliban regarding Al Qaeda's activities.

So why should we Americans torture ourselves with how these many components might have played out differently? Would it have saved all lives on September 11? Some? Or might seemingly favorable circumstances between so many conflicting views from different governments have actually cost more lives when aligned with other events? Mr. Coll writes about what happened without speculation as to what should have happened. The reader is more likely to fully appreciate the complexities of terrorism prevention.

Americans have to discuss how powerful and pro-active they want their CIA and FBI regardless of which party controls the White House. It isn't just a matter of "personality clashes" or "turf wars." USG agencies have conflicting missions. There was and will continue to be fleeting foreign government support that varies year to year and ally to ally. The discussion about how these components work together is important enough that the less political posturing, the more successful a discussion about terrorism is likely to be. Mr. Coll's book illustrates that there are no easy answers. May Ghost Wars be part of the historic literature regarding September 11 for decades to come.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shared values vs Shared interests. US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the rise of Radical Islamic Terrorism 15 Oct 2006
By T. R. Santhanakrishnan - Published on
One of the best books written about the emergence of religion based terrorism directed against several causes and several societies.

Steve Coll provides a balanced dispassionate analysis and profound insight into the new menace that is powerful enough to challenge peace everywhere.

United States has two kinds of friendships in world politics:

(a) Friendships founded on shared values

(b) Friendships founded on shared interests

Friendships founded on shared values (such as those with UK, Canada, Australia, Germany and Japan) last forever. The friendship does not leave a trail of destruction behind.

Friendships founded on shared interests (such as those with Iran under the Shah, Philippines under Marcos, Pakistan under Zia, Saudi Arabia above oil) last short periods of time but leave a trail of destruction somewhere.

US friendship with two such shared interests has created a monster that is likely to be a greater challenge to peace and security everywhere than anything humanity has seen so far.

Saudi Arabia has been funding radical Islamic groups around the world to appease its domestic constituency of religious right. Saudi donations helped create radical Islamic groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan to attract, train and equip youth who are willing to kill and willing to die.

Pakistan provided an intelligence service that could orchestrate insurgency against a conventional army; provided a limitless supply of youth willing to die for holy causes; and an efficient supply chain of high tech arms.

The Reagan Administration joined hands with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to contain Soviet expansionism. The mission was successful.

But there were unfortunate side effects. US lost interest in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union. CIA station heads in Islamabad began to dictate US policy in the region instead of the Administration.

The Jihadists, assembled against Soviet Union, did not go home to become investment bankers and stock brokers. They stayed and sought new causes. Fight for Palestine. Fight against America. Fight against the House of Saud. Fight for Islamic rule in Afghanistan. Fight for liberation of Kashmir.

Pakistan had a field day. The ISI could use the jihadists for its favourite causes: Hekmatyar, Taliban, Kashmir. State sponsored terrorism was born. Funding was available from Saudi Arabia and from narcotics trade. State sponsored terrorism gave way to a multinational radical Islamic terrorism when Pakistan tainted every political objective with a religious colour (a lesson learnt from the jihad against Soviets).

It is now possible for a Mullah in a village in Pakistan to issue a fatwah by fax that could motivate a young British Muslim to enroll in an ISI sponsored terrorism training center in Pakistan and undertake a mission to destroy social fabric in a nation that is probably busy with a super bowl.

A foreign policy shaped by shared interests is probably not that good an idea.

This book provides a well researched insight into the rise of radical Islamic terrorism. The best on the subject. Easy to read. Disturbing to think about.

Shall look forward to the next book from Steve Coll.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A well edited reality show 5 Aug 2008
By Yogesh Upadhyaya - Published on
It was a pleasure reading this very well written and researched book. As an Indian, I grew up reading about the defeat of Russians in newspapers. The subsequent battle for Afghanistan between the communist government and the mujahedin entered my consciousness through snatches of news on the radio. So, it was great to get the stories and personalities around people like Masooud.

However, as I reached to the end of the book, I realized that clearly the author was not telling the whole story. Some gaping holes in the book are

1. CIA and the US government remained unaware of Pakistan support to Taliban for a long period. Did they not have sources in the ISI and Pakistan government?
2. Ditto for Saudi support to Taliban.
3. The Israeli agency Mossad is mentioned once in passing in the book. It is difficult to believe that they did not have any intelligence presence in a region which was developing as big threat to their existence. it is difficult to believe that they were a player of no significance in the whole story.

Now, there may be very good reasons for such omissions. However, they left me feeling that the book finally depends on revelations that were very tightly controlled. Obviously there would be control to protect the integrity of sources. But only slightly less obviously, the control can be used to "paint a picture." If you reveal only selected facts, most intelligent readers would draw the conclusions you want them to. I don't know what all has been left out. All I know is that the omissions pointed out above are too significant for me. They make me feel that I am watching a well edited reality show.
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