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Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 Hardcover – February 23, 2004

4.5 out of 5 stars 107 customer reviews

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Steve Coll's Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 offers revealing details of the CIA's involvement in the evolution of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the years before the September 11 attacks. From the beginning, Coll shows how the CIA's on-again, off-again engagement with Afghanistan after the end of the Soviet war left officials at Langley with inadequate resources and intelligence to appreciate the emerging power of the Taliban. He also demonstrates how Afghanistan became a deadly playing field for international politics where Soviet, Pakistani, and U.S. agents armed and trained a succession of warring factions. At the same time, the book, though opinionated, is not solely a critique of the agency. Coll balances accounts of CIA failures with the success stories, like the capture of Mir Amal Kasi. Coll, managing editor for the Washington Post, covered Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992. He demonstrates unprecedented access to records of White House meetings and to formerly classified material, and his command of Saudi, Pakistani, and Afghani politics is impressive. He also provides a seeming insider's perspective on personalities like George Tenet, William Casey, and anti-terrorism czar, Richard Clarke ("who seemed to wield enormous power precisely because hardly anyone knew who he was or what exactly he did for a living"). Coll manages to weave his research into a narrative that sometimes has the feel of a Tom Clancy novel yet never crosses into excess. While comprehensive, Coll's book may be hard going for those looking for a direct account of the events leading to the 9-11 attacks. The CIA's 1998 engagement with bin Laden as a target for capture begins a full two-thirds of the way into Ghost Wars, only after a lengthy march through developments during the Carter, Reagan, and early Clinton Presidencies. But this is not a critique of Coll's efforts; just a warning that some stamina is required to keep up. Ghost Wars is a complex study of intelligence operations and an invaluable resource for those seeking a nuanced understanding of how a small band of extremists rose to inflict incalculable damage on American soil. --Patrick O'Kelley


Ghost Wars...is a welcome antidote to the fevered partisan bickering that accompanied the release of Clarke's book. -- New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (February 23, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594200076
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594200076
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.8 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (107 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #217,145 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: 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.
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Format: Hardcover
Coll provides a highly detailed, well written account of the history of the CIA and United States in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion to 9/11. I highly recommend this work for anyone who is interested in how we came to the point we are in Afghanistan post-9/11, and how we inadvertently provided Bin Laden fertile ground for a successful terrorist operation.

Frankly, after reading this account, I became empathetic toward the CIA, Clinton and those in his administration, and the Pakistani and Saudi governments. Clearly their positions and actions lead to the rise of the Taliban. While lots of mistakes and maybe some shortsightedness existed among these players, they were all dealing with intricate and sensitive internal political issues that drove their decisions, or in the case of the United States, lack of action, in post-Soviet Afghanistan.

While Bin Laden would likely have existed without the safe haven he found in Afghanistan, his ability to train and draw followers so freely and with impunity is partially "blowback" from actions taken by the CIA, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia during the Soviet-Afghan war as money and weapons poured into the country.

There is also quite a bit of information about Ahmed Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance. It's interesting to speculate how more assistance to Massoud might have thwarted or overthrown the Taliban and as a result push Bin Laden into less favorable circumstances. But given Massoud's failure as a political leader in his first opportunity, the brutality of his troops, and being an ethnic minority in his country, again one can empathize with why the United States was reluctant to pin their hopes on him.

If you are trying to decide which of the very large number of books about Afghanistan, the Taliban, and Bin Laden are worth reading, this is one of them.
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Format: Hardcover
I have to say that Ghost Wars is probably one of the most ambitious books I've ever read in terms of scope. Coll covers the period from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to September 10, 2001. International terrorism, the Russo-Afghan war, US-Pakistan relations have had whole books dedicated to these specific topics, so I was a little concerned how that would shake out in a single text. To his credit, Coll pulls it off for the most part. However, there is just such a glut of information that the reader will find himself at times overwhelmed when the book goes into new or unfamiliar topics. It's like reading the encyclopedia at times, which is both compliment and a criticism.

I picked up Ghost Wars for insight on the history that led up to September 11, 2001. I learned much more than I was expecting to, and Coll does a good job of sprinkling historical back-stories when necessary. The founding of Saudi Arabi and the brief biography of CIA's William Casey are two good examples. Bin Laden also becomes more than a terrorist mastermind here, and at times I felt I almost gained a little insight to who this guy is and his life. Some would say that knowing these circumstances partially excuse him, but make no mistake: this book's purpose is not to excuse, but to inform. Amazingly, bin Laden faced an assasination attempt by fellow Muslims because he wasn't 'devout enough'. Incredible.

Ghost Wars is a great pre-9/11 history of a complicated, murky and convoluted topic. One who reads this book will be not be surprised any longer by any stories the media releases as new on this topic. Also valuable are the questions this book puts to rest, or at least tries to put to rest. Did we arm bin Laden? How much did we really help to the formation of al-Quada? The answers will surprise most, and will probably end up disappointing those who believe America can do no wrong and those who believe America can do no right.
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