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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)
 
 


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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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Editorial Reviews

Review

"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

About the Author

Steve Coll is most recently the author of the New York Times bestseller The Bin Ladens. He is the president of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute headquartered in Washington, D.C., and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Previously heworked for twenty years at The Washington Post, where he received a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1990. He is the author of six other books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller Ghost Wars.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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. He was a friendly man in his early fifties who spoke in a flat midwestern accent. He looked as if he might be a dentist, an acquaintance once remarked. Gary Schroen had served for twenty- six years as an officer in the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine services. He was now, in September 1996, chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan. He spoke Persian and its cousin, Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two main languages. In spy terminology, Schroen was an operator. He recruited and managed paid intelligence agents, conducted espionage operations, and supervised covert actions against foreign governments and terrorist groups. A few weeks before, with approval from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, he had made contact through intermediaries with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the celebrated anti-Soviet guerrilla commander, now defense minister in a war-battered Afghan government crumbling from within. Schroen had requested a meeting, and Massoud had accepted.

They had not spoken in five years. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as allies battling Soviet occupation forces and their Afghan communist proxies, the CIA had pumped cash stipends as high as $200,000 a month to Massoud and his Islamic guerrilla organization, along with weapons and other supplies. Between 1989 and 1991, Schroen had personally delivered some of the cash. But the aid stopped in December 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. The United States government decided it had no further interests in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the country had collapsed. Kabul, once an elegant city of broad streets and walled gardens tucked spectacularly amid barren crags, had been pummelled by its warlords into a state of physical ruin and human misery that compared unfavorably to the very worst places on Earth. Armed factions within armed factions erupted seasonally in vicious urban battles, blasting down mud-brick block after mud-brick block in search of tactical advantages usually apparent only to them. Militias led by Islamic scholars who disagreed profoundly over religious minutia baked prisoners of war to death by the hundreds in discarded metal shipping containers. The city had been without electricity since 1993. Hundreds of thousands of Kabulis relied for daily bread and tea on the courageous but limited efforts of international charities. In some sections of the countryside thousands of displaced refugees died of malnutrition and preventable disease because they could not reach clinics and feeding stations. And all the while neighboring countries—Pakistan, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia—delivered pallets of guns and money to their preferred Afghan proxies. The governments of these countries sought territorial advantage over their neighbors. Money and weapons also arrived from individuals or Islamic charities seeking to extend their spiritual and political influence by proselytizing to the destitute.

Ahmed Shah Massoud remained Afghanistan’s most formidable military leader. A sinewy man with a wispy beard and penetrating dark eyes, he had be come a charismatic popular leader, especially in northeastern Afghanistan. There he had fought and negotiated with equal imagination during the 1 980s, punishing and frustrating Soviet generals. Massoud saw politics and war as intertwined. He was an attentive student of Mao and other successful guerrilla leaders. Some wondered as time passed if he could imagine a life without guerrilla conflict. Yet through various councils and coalitions, he had also proven able to acquire power by sharing it. During the long horror of the Soviet occupation, Massoud had symbolized for many Afghans—especially his own Tajik people—the spirit and potential of their brave resistance. He was above all an independent man. He surrounded himself with books. He prayed piously, read Persian poetry, studied Islamic theology, and immersed himself in the history of guerrilla warfare. He was drawn to the doctrines of revolutionary and political Islam, but he had also established himself as a broad-minded, tolerant Afghan nationalist.

That September 1996, Massoud’s reputation had fallen to a low ebb, however. His passage from rebellion during the 1980s to governance in the 1990s had evolved disastrously. After the collapse of Afghan communism he had joined Kabul’s newly triumphant but unsettled Islamic coalition as its defense minister. Attacked by rivals armed in Pakistan, Massoud counterattacked, and as he did, he became the bloodstained power behind a failed, self-immolating government. His allies to the north smuggled heroin. He was unable to unify or pacify the country. His troops showed poor discipline. Some of them mercilessly massacred rivals while battling for control of Kabul neighborhoods.

Promising to cleanse the nation of its warlords, including Massoud, a new militia movement swept from Afghanistan’s south beginning in 1994. Its turbaned, eye-shadowed leaders declared that the Koran would slay the Lion of Panjshir, as Massoud was known, where other means had failed.

They traveled behind white banners raised in the name of an unusually severe school of Islam that promoted lengthy and bizarre rules of personal conduct. These Taliban, or students, as they called themselves, now controlled vast areas of southern and western Afghanistan. Their rising strength shook Massoud. The Taliban traveled in shiny new Toyota double-cab pickup trucks. They carried fresh weapons and ample ammunition. Mysteriously, they repaired and flew former Soviet fighter aircraft, despite only rudimentary military experience among their leaders.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul had been shut for security reasons since late 1988, so there was no CIA station in Afghanistan from which to collect intelligence about the Taliban or the sources of their newfound strength. The nearest station, in Pakistan, no longer had Afghanistan on its Operating Directive, the official list of intelligence-gathering priorities transmitted from Washington each year to CIA stations worldwide. Without the formal blessing of the O.D., as it was called, a station chief like Gary Schroen lacked the budgetary resources needed to recruit agents, supply them with communications gear, manage them in the field, and process their intelligence reports.

The CIA maintained a handful of paid agents in Afghanistan, but these were dedicated to tracking down Mir Amal Kasi, a young and angry Pakistani who on January 25, 1993, had opened fire on CIA employees arriving at the agency’s Langley headquarters. Kasi had killed two and wounded three, and then fled to Pakistan. By 1996 he was believed to be moving back and forth to Afghanistan, taking refuge in tribal areas where American police and spies could not operate easily.

The CIA’s Kasi-hunting agents did not report on the Taliban’s developing war against Ahmed Shah Massoud except in passing. The job of collecting intelligence about political and military developments in Afghanistan had been assigned to CIA headquarters in faraway Virginia, lumped in with the general responsibilities of the Near East Division of the Directorate of Operations.

This was hardly an unusual development among U.S. government agencies. The U.S. Agency for International Development had shut down its Afghan humanitarian assistance program in 1994. The Pentagon had no relationships there. The National Security Council at the White House had no Afghan policy beyond a vague wish for peace and prosperity. The State Department was more involved in Afghan affairs, but only at the middle levels of its bureaucracy. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had barely commented about Afghanistan during his four years in office.

Massoud sent a close adviser named Massoud Khalili to escort Gary Schroen into Kabul. To make room for cargo desperately needed in the land locked capital, Ariana Afghan had ripped most of the passenger seats out of their airplanes to stack the aisles with loose boxes and crates, none of them strapped down or secured. “It’s never crashed before,” Khalili assured Schroen.

Their jet swept above barren russet ridges folded one upon the other as it crossed into Afghanistan. The treeless land below lay mottled in palettes of sand brown and clay red. To the north, ink black rivers cut plunging gorges through the Hindu Kush Mountains. To the south, eleven-thousand-foot peaks rose in a ring above the Kabul valley, itself more than a mile high. The plane banked toward Bagram, a military air base north of Kabul. Along the surrounding roads lay rusting carcasses of tanks and armored personnel carriers, burned and abandoned. Fractured shells of fighter aircraft and transport planes lined the runway.

Officers in Massoud’s intelligence service met the plane with four-wheel-drive vehicles, packed their American visitor inside, and began the bone-jarring drive across the Shomali Plain to Kabul. It amazed some of them that Schroen had turned up with just a small bag tossed over his shoulder—no communications gear, no personal security His relaxed demeanor, ability to speak Dari, and detailed knowledge of Afghanistan impressed them.

Then, too, Schroen had been known to turn up in the past with bags full of American dollars. In that respect he and his CIA colleagues could be easy men for Afghan fighters to like. For sixteen years now the CIA had routinely pursued its objectives in Afghanistan with large boxes of cash. It frustrated some of Massoud’s intelligence officers that the CIA always seemed to think Massoud and his men were motivated by money.

Their civil war might be complex and vicious, but they saw themselves as fighters for a national cause, bleeding and dying by the day, risking what little they had. Enough untraceable bills had flowed to Massoud’s organization over the years to assure their comfortable ...

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