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172 of 179 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Immensely Detailed and Fascinating Book, April 3, 2004
This review is from: Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (Hardcover)
"Afghanistanism" used to be a derisive term in the newspaper world. It meant playing up news from obscure far-off places while neglecting what was going wrong on your own home turf.
No longer. Very few countries worldwide have been more important to the U.S. over the past quarter century than this remote, primitive, landlocked and little-understood area tucked in between Iran, Pakistan and the former U.S.S.R. In this weighty and immensely detailed book, Steve Coll, who reported from Afghanistan for the Washington Post (where he is now managing editor) between 1989 and 1992, sorts out for the patient reader one of the most complex diplomatic and military involvements the U.S. has experienced in this century.
The cast of characters is immense, rivaling for sheer size (and personal quirkiness) any novel by Dickens or Dostoyevsky. It ranges from four U.S. Presidents through a platoon of bemedaled generals from five or six countries and a regiment of scheming diplomats down to hard-pressed pilots, miserably ill-equipped guerilla fighters, steely-eyed assassins and suicide bombers. There are more political factions here than most readers will be able to keep track of --- not to mention the factions that spring up within factions. It is all quite dizzying, but also fascinating and important.
Coll is a conscientious reporter. He does his best to keep the reader informed and to make his more important players come alive as human beings. His book is not easy reading, but it rewards well anyone who buckles down and stays with it to the end.
A couple of general impressions: First, Coll demonstrates time and again how much of the really important things that government --- any government --- does in foreign relations is done in deep secrecy, far from the eyes and ears of the average consumer of "news." Secondly, he leaves the impression that disdain and hatred of non-Muslims is pretty much pervasive throughout the Muslim world, coloring the actions and judgments even of those Muslims whom westerners might not consider "extremists."
Another leitmotiv in this almost Wagnerian epic drama is a pervasive lack of interest on the part of American policymakers in the developing crisis in Afghanistan, followed by paralyzing intra-agency squabbles and turf battles once the threat of terrorism became unavoidable. One is reminded of Dickens's satirical governmental invention, the "Circumlocution Office" in Little Dorrit with its famous motto: How Not To Do It.
Coll covers in exhaustive detail the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviet Union; the factional warfare that ensued; the rise of the Taliban from a small cadre of student zealots to a force that ruled most of the country; the emergence of Osama bin Laden; the clumsy and ineffective efforts of the U.S. government to get meaningful cooperation from Saudi Arabia and/or Pakistan in stabilizing and democratizing the region; and the ominous events that led up to --- but did not precisely signal -- the attacks of Sept. 11th. He is especially good on the lack of interest and decisive action by the U.S. after the Russian withdrawal and on the paralyzing rivalries between competing governmental spook shops that caused this breakdown. Action plans would be developed, only to be derailed by fruitless internal debates and objections. "How Not To Do It" indeed!
An additional strength of the book is Coll's knack for thumbnail portraits of the participants. Most memorable are his word pictures of two CIA directors: the religiously driven cold warrior William Casey and the consummate organization man George Tenet. Also well done are his portraits of Afghan warriors like the unlucky Ahmed Shah Massoud (whose assassination closes the book) and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Osama bin Laden himself, though dutifully described, remains necessarily an offstage influence rather than a full-bodied presence. Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia come off in Coll's pages as unreliable allies, to the point of being deceitful in their dealings with the U.S.
GHOST WARS is not beach reading by any means, but those who have the patience to get through it will emerge well informed indeed. Of course, everything changed on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Can a second volume be far behind?
--- Reviewed by Robert Finn
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 29, 2009 10:56:09 AM PDT
LICh says:
Solid

Posted on Dec 3, 2009 5:47:30 PM PST
Your review is what I had been thinking so I will write only a short one. At times I pick up the book to check some areas of interest and place it back in the book shelf. It is a book worth the price and a text book too.

Posted on May 7, 2011 6:25:47 PM PDT
W. Allen says:
Actually it was "beach reading" for me, but I get your point. The cast of characters and how well the story was told was a spellbinding combination (and frustrating considering how Afghanistan was abandoned by the US after the Soviets retreated). I also would recommend "Descent Into Chaos" by Ahmed Rashid, which gives a detailed history of the region since 2001.

Posted on Feb 28, 2012 12:23:26 PM PST
Elaine Charles will preview the audio on bookreportradio.com on Sat 3 & sun 4th March. She is spot on when it comes to buying a good book for me. Most of the books that I listen to lately have come with her recommendation - you must tune in

Posted on Jun 11, 2012 10:53:38 PM PDT
astonishing review, very complete...thank you

Posted on Nov 3, 2012 6:05:15 PM PDT
Scott says:
Nailed it!
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