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4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden
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on 25 July 2017
Briliiant book! Explains in great and unbiased detail how idealogues in the US government in the late seventies and during the Reagan years literally created the Islamist movement in Pakastan and Afganistan. They were so obsessed with undermining the Soviets, they never thought what they were creating in the process. Despite many of those involved doing everything to avoid Vietnam, they did exactly the same thing, underestimating the local "partners" who played both sides (US and Russia) and also misreading the true motivations on the local people. Essential reading for anyone how wants to understand the roots of ISIS and any other extremist organisation. Situations like Afganistan were never idealogical problems, they are social problems and the sooner the Western govenments understand this (especially the US), the sooner some sort of balance is more possible. However, too much damage may have already been done and it is too late.
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on 19 May 2017
I have spent six years back and forth to Afghanistan. I knew the names of the players and their tribal and ideological allegiances, but this critical analysis of what is a very complex context really cemented it all together. It’s a hefty read, but it’s written well with a compelling narrative that kept me engaged. There are so many similarities between Afghanistan and what is happening with ISIS in Iraq and Syria now. It’s a must read for anyone interested in terrorism and global politics. My only complaint is a personal one, that I didn’t read it sooner.
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on 3 March 2011
The author grasps the attention of the scholar with his narrative and analyses backed by key sources. The strength of this book is the presentation of the evolving US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1988 onwards. I gather that the declassification of files in the years to come would not challenge the sources and conclusions of the author.
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on 29 August 2017
Very informative.
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on 27 December 2006
This is truely the most well documented and insightful book I have read on the current and recent political history of Afghanistan and the US's involvement in the region. Coll's access to sorce material as well as politicians is remarkable and he displays a thorough understanding of political and religious currents nuances.

Even more importantly, the book comes across as unbiased and objective yet still throughly analytical. Coll casts so much light on issues important to the region that I would recommend it to anybody intersted in understanding one of today's centres of conflict...not least politicians and government officials.
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on 19 May 2004
Steve Coll's study "Ghost Wars" is the most comprehensive study of the CIA and other secret services operating in Afghanistan covering the twenty odd years preceding the September 11th attack that I have read so far. The account is based on an impressive bibliography and large number of interviews. It is factual, but the narrative is quite vivid and colourful. Personal interpretations and theorizing are prudently limited, which makes this book preferable in my opinion to other 'historical' accounts such as "Le Royaume de l'Insolence" (Barry), in which the author's personal theses concerning Islam for example (although interesting in their own right) tend to be presented as fact. Both books make very good reading for anyone with a special interest in the history and politics of Afghanistan.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 October 2016
If you want to understand why the senate voted down Obama’s veto 97-1 last week, pick up this 400 page book and start reading it. It will grip you so hard, you’ll only be able to put it down when you’re done.

It is difficult to discuss “Ghost Wars” and avoid hyperbole.

What we have here is not just a level-headed, comprehensive and exhaustive account of Afghan history from 1980 to 2011. This masterpiece of a book is nothing less than the full and definitive account of the manner in which overt and covert American foreign policy mixed with Pakistani and Saudi domestic politics (and their projection on foreign policy goals) to directly foster the gestation and development of Islamic terrorism as we know it today.

You find out about the events in Afghanistan leading up to the Soviet invasion, the rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s struggles between Islam and secularism, the Soviet invasion, the puppet government the Soviets installed, the Afghan resistance and its protagonists, the pact with the devil between the CIA and the ISI to support the religiously most radicalized factions of the resistance, the donations to the cause that the US actively solicited and obtained in the Gulf on behalf of the ISI, the routing of the Soviets chiefly by Tajiks warriors under Ahmed Shah Massoud, Uzbeks under warlords like Dostum and the Pakistan-assisted Islamists of Haqqani and Hekmattyar and their American-supplied Stinger missiles. Next you move to the almost equally bloody struggles between them all, the subsequent total abandonment of Afghanistan by the West to the interests of Pakistan, all the way through to the disgraceful period when US policy to the region was dictated by inconsequential interests of second-rate players in the oil industry and the misrule the west tolerated in Kabul after the departure of the Soviets.

From there you move almost naturally to the rise of the morally virtuous, home-grown, ethnically Pashtun, Wahhabi-educated, Pakistan-armed and Pakistan-supported Taliban, their intolerance of diversity and the hijacking of their cause by Osama Bin Laden, who not only bought their way into Kabul but very carefully cultivated and won the support of their leader, the one-eyed mullah Mohammed Omar.

After that, the author gives a full account of the terrorist activities of Osama Bin Laden up to September 11 and takes care to set them within the context of other Middle Eastern terrorism, secular and religious, while in parallel documenting in full the CIA-led efforts to fight it. George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, especially, do not come out if this account smelling of roses. Clinton, in particular is accused of first mistrusting the CIA and then of being incapacitated by his need to manage public opinion in view of his personal scandals, but also of his famous tendency to “triangulate” between getting results and keeping a distance from any collateral damage.

It really is all there!

All of the above, while true, is still not the best thing about this book.

What makes this an unbelievable read is that it really gets hold of you. Steve Coll has managed to convert this very convoluted history into a gripping narrative with character development and a clear storyline. By the end of the book, you feel you really know the Uzbeki Massoud, Americans Casey, Shroen and Berger, the Saudi Prince Turki, Pakistanis such as Zia-Ul-Haq, Musharraf and all the heads of the ISI; you get to see a darker side of Benazir Bhutto, too. Special care is given to understanding the motivations of all the players, the multiple levels on which they were acting, the multiple goals they were pursing at the same time and the physical terrain in which they operated.

It is fair to say that there isn’t a single character in this play who’s not having to make a number of compromises. The author tells you enough about everybody so you can judge where he’s coming from. Pakistan’s ISI needed to fight the Soviets, for example, but only if it could be beaten by its own proxies. And it also needed to secure secret bases from which to train guerrillas for its secret war in Kashmir. And all this it needed to do while still receiving financial assistance from the US and while pretending the country was on a path to democracy. The Saudi princes’ motivations are explained in similar detail, as are the sundry resistance fighters’. And you are left with zero doubt that western interests at some point simply went absent without leave.

You ride with all these guys. You climb on their helicopters with them, you dodge bullets with them, you watch them hang their enemies from the high mast, you feel the shrapnel tear through you when they fall.

If this was a novel, basically, you’d find yourself unable to put it down. Except, of course, it’s all documented fact. From the first skirmish at the US Embassy in Pakistan all the way through the development of our now favorite means of delivering “justice,” the dreaded Predator, and to the last chapter of the book (not unlike the last scene in the Godfather, except it’s Osama Bin Laden sitting in the –figurative- opera house while his opponents are eliminated) what you have here is a truly educational thriller.

I have no idea how anybody can put together such a tremendous book within three years of the event that gave rise to what could easily have been a lifelong project for a lesser author. But Steve Coll, managing editor of the Washington Post when he wrote this book some thirteen years ago, pulled it off.

And now I’ve read “Ghost Wars,” it’s clear to me that the US Congress has only really covered half the bases here. An equitable decision would also have cleared the way for US citizens to sue the Pakistani state, perhaps over and above Saudi Arabia.

Then again, the American way is to sue for money. When will we all learn?
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on 8 February 2011
`Ghost Wars' is a well researched book with abundant footnotes supporting every detail. With so many Arab figures, the author wisely provides a list to allow the reader to keep track of who is who -- though a complicated read it is easy to follow. He exposes the CIAs failures in the days leading up to 9/11, while on the other hand, he eradicates many misconceptions of the CIA including rumors it often works for the enemy. This is an open and honest book of what is for the most part a closed and clandestine organization. Bravo!

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA is an appropriate partner for this book as it defines the environment it operates in. Another well researched book by a former CIA agent Murder in the Vatican: The CIA and the Bolshevik Pontiff does a riveting job explaining why the anti-American Pope who preceded the Polish Pope survived only 33 days in the Vatican.

Get `Ghost Wars' in hardcover for your permanent collection.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 24 November 2012
In 1990 Steve Coll was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism, and since 1998 has been Managing Editor of The Washington Post. Prior to this, he covered South Asia and Afghanistan for the WP between 1989 and 1992 and has a personal knowledge of and insight into the region shared by few other western reporters.

`Ghost Wars' is an extremely detailed explanatory thesis of the complex history of the Af-Pak region between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 through the constant insurgent and civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s, narrated chronologically and ending on 9th September 2001 with the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud to `clear the way' for long-planned attacks on the USA by Salafi jihadists using hijacked commercial airliners as missiles to strike at the financial, military and political power centres of their declared enemy.

Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 Coll reveals the degree to which US policy in the region became muddled and unfocussed, blighted by slashed budgets, inter-agency rivalries and White House indifference. By continually choosing to back Pakistan as an ally the US inadvertently allowed militant Islam to take root in the region, only acknowledging the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and the Afghan-based Wahhabi jihadists following his declaration of war on the US in 1996, and only taking serious action (cruise missile strikes on jihadist training camps, and numerous secretly-planned but failed attempts to kill or capture bin Laden) following the African Embassy attacks in August 1998.

Coll's book focusses principally on Afghanistan and Pakistan but takes in the USSR, Iran, the Central Asian republics, Turkey and other players in the region, plus Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States who played a major part in financing the insurgent war against the Soviets in the 1980s and later bankrolled the Taliban both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coll demonstrates what all informed commentators now understand only too well: the Taliban is essentially the creation of the Inter-Service Intelligence agency of the Pakistani military who worked to produce a militant Sunni-Islamist client state in Afghanistan for `strategic depth' against their arch-enemy India, and to prevent Iranian influence taking significant hold in western Afghanistan.

There are several chapters on the `stranded gas' problems of the CARs and of the protracted political machinations behind various proposed pipeline projects to transport the oil and gas to serviceable ports via Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan or under The Caspian. These ideas were first proposed by the Argentine oil giant BRIDAS, followed later by others such as the small US company Unocal. Unsurprisingly, none of these ultimately unrealistic projects in such a volatile region have ever seen the light of day, nor are they likely to in future.

Coll paints detailed thumbnail sketches of many of the participants in this sorry drama: CIA directors Bill Casey and George Tenet; Gary Schroen, Paul Pillar and Richard Clarke; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jallaladin Haqqanni and other tribal warlords in Afghanistan; Mullah Mohammed Omar; the Karzais; Prince Turki Al-Faisal, head of the Saudi Secret Service who carried millions of US$ into Pakistan in suitcases for the ISI to finance their proxies in Afghanistan; Generals Assad Durani, Hamid Gul and others who headed the ISI and largely guided US policy in the region (and deceived US policy-makers) are a small selection of the major players so described.

`Ghost Wars' is replete with detail and eschews commentary in favour of factual reporting, so could in no way be described as `light reading.' However if you get through its rather intimidating 576 pages you will be better informed than most about how misguided US policies in backing the wrong allies, lack of focus and political neglect led to the rising lethality of Sunni-Islamist jihadism in the 1990s which eventually led to the US being dragged into long, bloody and ruinously expensive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hindsight is always 20/20 but these catastrophies might, with better political leadership, have been avoided.

Coll's book has no illustrations, but does have a comprehensive 120-page notes section citing original sources for further reading.

A recommended follow-up volume to `Ghost Wars' would be Jason Burke's excellent `The 9/11 Wars' which takes up the narrative after September 2001 and explores subsequent developments in the Af-Pak region following the US-led invasion.
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on 30 September 2008
This literary masterpiece from Pulitzer prize winning author Steve Coll will blow your mind.The apparent relentless and exhaustive research that made this book shows Colls dedication to bringing the full story to the reader.Beginning with the US support of the Afghan fighters during the Soviet invasion and finishing just days before the attacks on 9/11 Coll will take you on a mind boggling journey encompassing delicate matters such as:the US support of the taliban,the CIA attempts to buy back Stinger missiles it had given to the Mujaheddin for $150,000 apiece!! hare brained and expensive attempts to remove Osama Bin Laden and constant policy changes and in-fighting within the CIA.Throw in the main characters:an impeached president,a president with no clue on foriegn policy,tribal leaders more concerned with personal enrichment than the liberation of their people and radical jihadists like Osama the world hide and seek champion!!Add to this mix the ineptitude of the CIA and you have an extremely interesting plot.Read this book for the story and you will become more informed on the origins of al-Qaeda,the history of Afghanistan and the entanglement of the US government.Study this book and you will see layer upon layer of CIA incompetence,could 9/11 have been prevented?
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