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Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 Paperback – December 28, 2004
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"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
“The CIA itself would be hard put to beat his grasp of global events … Deeply satisfying.”--The New York Review of Books
“A well written, authoritative, high-altitude drama with few heroes, many villains, bags of cash, and a tragic ending—one that may not have been inevitable.”--The Washington Post
About the Author
Steve Coll is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars and the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and from 2007 to 2013 was president of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington, D.C. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and previously worked for twenty years at The Washington Post, where he received a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1990. He is the author of seven other books, including On the Grand Trunk Road, The Bin Ladens, Private Empire, and Directorate S.
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Ghost Wars is divided into three main sections, each dealing with a different time period in the story of how what happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1979 onward led to 9/11. Part one deals with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and how the U.S. & Pakistan helped the Afghans defeat the Red Army. Part two covers the chaos surrounding the Soviet withdrawal and how this (perhaps more than U.S. aid to our enemy's enemy) laid the groundwork for the Taliban's grab for power and the creation of a safe haven for al-Qaeda. Part three details bin Laden's growing strength and the U.S. efforts to stop him leading all the way up to September 10, where the book ends.
While the total of this story is the sum of many characters, the ultimate protagonist in Ghost Wars would have to be Ahmed Shah Massoud. Coll does more to help illuminate Massoud's plight to hold Afghanistan together than perhaps anything else in Ghost Wars. America's relationship with Massoud is a microcosm of the larger relationship with Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion leading all the way up to his assassination on September 10 by al-Qaeda (in preparation for the war they knew would come to Afghanistan), in that America never really gave Afghanistan the thought and attention it deserved. The Soviet's wouldn't have been expelled from Afghanistan had it not been for our efforts, but we were content enough to walk away from what was left of the country as well. The consequences of that policy are perfectly clear and it is nothing short of shocking that the U.S. continues to pay far less attention than it should to Afghanistan (even early on in the Obama administration).
The other underlying theme to Ghost Wars is that Afghanistan cannot be dealt with or understood in the absence of Pakistan. The amount of influence Pakistan exercises in Afghanistan far outweighs anything any of Iraq's neighbors have managed in Iraq since 2003, and Coll makes that fact startlingly clear. It's shocking really that events in these two countries since 9/11 haven't been much worse than what they have. Every book I read on the subject makes it seem like something bad is on the way. As I write this review during the economic crisis of 2009, I can't help but wonder how quickly events in these two countries could make the problems America faces today look like a walk in the park.