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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