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244 of 278 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard Copy Easier to Read, but Substance is Same: Superb, April 19, 2005
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This review is from: Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (Paperback)
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
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Showing 1-10 of 19 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 14, 2007 4:27:50 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 13, 2008 2:22:13 PM PDT
Boyce Hart says:
If you are interested in the book I strongly recommend Larry Hancock's Someone Would Have Talked.
Read the unprecedented reviews this book has received. It is the one book that integrates the latest research and simplifies the older reasearch to make it intelligable for someone new to the subject.

Someone Would Have Talked: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Conspiracy to Mislead History

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 21, 2007 12:06:00 PM PDT
I have ordered to book on your recommendaton, and as you said, because of the serious reviews that can be seen at the Amazon page for the book.

I believe we are about to enter an era in which the public has both a digital memory and collective intelligence--sense-making across social networks.

I believe that the various crimes of our leaders will be exposed, and over time, that our leaders will become more honest and moral as a result of collective public re-engagement.

Thanks for the pointer to the book. I find the new comment capability very helpful to both improving my reviews and expanding my reading based on such recommendations.

Posted on Nov 1, 2007 9:46:52 PM PDT
Milesian says:
"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."

Failure, my arse. The whole point of radical Islam is global destabilization to facilitate the old divide and rule strategy. Did that honestly slip your mind?

What was that crack about looking up the skirt of radical Islam to find the Union Jack on its bloomers? In other words, British intelligence created the Muslim Brotherhood. Today it's the same old story, with slightly different perpetrators working for the same banksters so the Brits can play more cricket and drink more tea while the US suffers the PR hit.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 2, 2007 6:15:47 AM PDT
I voted for your comment because it provokes my reflection.

The US has indeed replaced the British as the bad guy, and the British are now a "mini-me" and Tony Blair is called a "poodle" for very good reason.

What you are missing is the lesson learned within the Roman Empire, and then lost: establishing legitimacy and making it possible for people to live in peace and prosperity is the foundation for consensual governance. When you are guilty of virtual colonialism, unilateral militarism, and predatory immoral capitalism that bribes a few in order to loot the commonwealths of the manner, you are on a path to destruction. There are not enough guns on the planet to subdue everyone, and now that the Internet and the cell phone have empowered the bottom up movements, there are not enough big lies on the planet to "last" under the scrutiny of billions of eyeballs.

Posted on Apr 6, 2008 6:53:49 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 13, 2008 2:22:13 PM PDT
Boyce Hart says:

An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King

"Within the first chapter, An Act of State presents enough circumstantial evidence to raise questions about Ray's involvement as the sole assassin"

"Pepper has gathered an impressie array of testimony and evidence that, even to determined skeptics, thows a major doubt over the state's case against James Earl Ray"

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2008 12:43:10 PM PDT
Thank you for the reading lead.

Posted on Nov 22, 2008 5:19:12 PM PST
I don't understand this commentator's obsession with Iran, which is barely mentioned in this book. The take home messages to me from this brilliantly researched and engagingly written book are:
The Clinton administration and Richard Clark missed many well documented chances to take out Bin Laden
Pakistan is committed to the global jihad and not to be trusted under any circumstances
Resolving the tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is imperative
Everyone in power is still too scared to take Bin Laden out because of the perceived consequences from the Muslim world
We are sitting targets and we will be hit with weapons of mass destruction at some point by Al Qeada

Reading this book was enlightening if one is interested in how 9-11 came to be or why we have yet to catch Osama Bin Laden. Steve Coll is a gifted writer who took an unbelievably long list of facts and wove them into a narrative that is challenging in length (588 pages) but gratifying in the thoroughness of it's description of American overt and covert policy. The how of this prelude to 9-11 period is stunning in describing the mistakes our leaders committed and still can't get past.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 27, 2009 10:09:48 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 27, 2009 10:11:18 PM PST
Brian Kodi says:
Mr. Taylor, I echo your comment on Mr. Steele's peculiar and incorrect reference to Iran as one of the key players mentioned in this book. I believe Mr. Steele is confusing this book with another.

Posted on Jan 19, 2010 6:37:01 PM PST
Eric O'neil says:
Why don't you just review the book instead of giving us all the digest version of the book? I don't want to read your opinions about global affairs, I want to read Steven Coll's opinions about global affairs.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 21, 2010 11:58:27 AM PST
Any comment worthy of being answered gets a vote from me. I have over 500 fans whose votes are deleted automatically by Amazon, and a surprisingly robust international network of individuals who appreciate the summary reviews. The summaries are really for my benefit, I got into Amazon reviewing by accident after loading 300 bibliography notes from my first two books one week-end. Now I find that it has been very helpful, and by putting everything at Phi Beta Iota, the Public Intelligence Blog, where you can sort among the 98 categories that I read in, it is much easier for those who want to dig and branch to get value from my efforts.

Here is my "review" written just for you:

Great book, some flaws, some misrepresentation, but on balance, the best story told so far.

I hope you find my "review" useful to you.
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