Formal Book Review: Ghost Wars: A Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

From time to time I write formal book reviews on books which I want to remember really well in a few months. Over Christmas I wrote this 1700 word review on the 700 page book Ghost Wars: A Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Thanks to Jesse Berrett and Raleigh Werberger for reading a draft of this.

The more than 700 pages of Ghost Wars are not deceiving: it really is a small-print, immensely detailed, and thoroughly researched blow-by-blow account of the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan, from the days when the landlocked country was last on the list to when it suddenly became the fascination of the average citizen after terrorists harbored by the Taliban struck New York and Washington. Steve Coll, of the Washington Post, is not ambiguous about his core audience. Most of the dates, names, and details appeal only to the CIA desk minion who wants a glimpse at the high level power brokering, or a pundit whose livelihood depends on intricate understanding of the chronological developments.

Nonetheless, Coll opens the book with a story that hooks in the lay reader looking for some Hollywood-style CIA operations on the trail of an ultimately elusive Osama bin Laden. "We’re Going to Die In Here" takes place in November, 1979. While most Americans are focusing on imprisoned Americans in the Tehran embassy, Coll reveals an equally important event unfolding at the same time. Radical Pakistani students, riding burgeoning waves of anti-Americanism, organized a riot outside the Islamabad embassy. The riot turned violet, and soon the armed students tore down the security fences, overwhelmed the U.S. Marine guards, and raided the embassy offices. As diplomatic personnel wired urgent cables to Pakistani police, they began burning important documents. Then, they all huddled in a "vault room" and awaited for police. But it never came. The rioters torched nearly every other part of the building and almost reached the vault until Pakistani police finally moseyed over to see what’s going on. Later that night, after nearly losing his life, a CIA agent leaves the ravaged embassy compound, steals a car (his own had been burned), and barely makes his midnight meeting with the various informants the CIA has throughout the country. Such heroism! The following day, President Jimmy Carter offers his public thanks and congratulations to the Pakistani police for saving countless American lives, even though their negligence nearly caused the highest loss of life in diplomatic history. It’s politics, stupid.

The Islamabad embassy incident introduces a number of themes Coll returns to repeatedly: the disconnect between politics and reality, America’s dangerously murky relationships with countries such as Pakistan (can they really be trusted?), the constant clash between legalities and reasonable military action (if the Marines could have fired their weapons, the riot might have been smothered), and the larger than life personalities who make national security decisions.

One of those personalities is former CIA chief William Casey. Coll takes us inside the Casey’s covert operation to undermine the Soviet communist invasion of Afghanistan. A program that starts as just another leg in America’s overt and occasionally covert mission to stymie Soviet expansion boils into a near obsession by the CIA to provide Afghan rebels with hundreds of millions of dollars of weaponry. All it took was Casey’s unwavering purpose to "wage war against the Soviet Union" – at the expense of everything else. The plan succeeded in 1988 when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. In the meantime, thousands of dangerous weapons provided by the U.S. were circulating in the black market, and with no plan for post-victory reconstruction, the rebel government and the country lapsed into chaos. Sound familiar?

After the Taliban assumed control of the country, Afghanistan had its 10 minutes of attention in Langley, the CIA’s headquarters, and at the White House. U.S. officials turned their attention to other Russian movements, an attitude driven by the appeal of an easily definable enemy. Analysts were blind to growing civil unrest in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries where a hard to pinpoint Islamic jihad was growing against Israel, and by extension, America.

The next few hundred pages chronicle the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan from 1989 to December 1997 and slow but steady realization in Washington that Islamic terrorism is a force to be reckoned with. Throughout, Coll punctuates his text with useful detail that illuminates how Afghanistan was relegated from the focus of attention to being just another screwed up third-world country. Installing good governance and reviving civic institutions is much less sexy than covert commando missions.

Coll’s writing style during this section reflects the reality in the country – slow, meticulous, full of tangents. At times the detail is absurd, at least to a lay reader. Must every person introduced receive a full paragraph about where he went to college and his career path? Coll can get away with such meanderings so long as he occasionally mentions Osama bin Laden and his massive wealth accumulation and growing hatred of America. Bin Laden in many ways is the glue that keeps Coll’s chronological behemoth intact. Readers are anxious to track how this megalomaniac evolved and how he defeated the most sophisticated intelligence community in the world.

Part Three, which covers 1997 to September 10, 2001, is the climax. It takes Coll 366 pages to outline how America evicted one evil yet inadvertently installed another. The attacks in Yemen, the World Trade Center basement, and the USS Cole in the 90’s alarmed the White House that al Qaeda was sophisticated and decentralized. As the drumbeat to September 11 grows louder, Coll details the creation of a bin Laden unit at the CIA in 1996. Finally, the government wakes up! Not so fast. We learn that while the CIA is intent on breaking the infrastructure of the Islamic jihad, President Clinton did not take a keen interest in foreign policy. The posture of the President can drastically affect national security priorities no matter what the CIA is budgeting.

With newfound priority given to the CIA’s al Qaeda and bin Laden initiatives, CIA director George Tenet presented numerous plans to Clinton’s security team to take bin Laden out. In hindsight, the U.S. missed several such opportunities All of Tenet’s plans had significant risk. The CIA was never able to infiltrate bin Laden’s inner circle and the integrity of its Afghan agents on the ground was suspect. Add to this a president embroiled in an impeachment scandal with a vice-president neck-and-neck in a campaign, and one can appreciate the reticence to do anything which involved civilian causalities. Moreover, tight congressional scrutiny over the CIA prevented paramilitary operations to swiftly assassinate bin Laden, as was typical of the 1970’s. At almost every turn the CIA faced legal restrictions that suffocated creativity and options. As the country is again entering a national debate on domestic spying and civil rights, lessons from the late 1990’s show that the legal restrictions imposed on the CIA prevented them from doing their job, and allowed 9/11 to materialize. (And as Daniel Benjamin has observed on Slate, NSA wire-tapping hero James Risen should take note of these lessons before crying foul too loud.)

As we enter the summer months of 2001, knowing what is around the corner, Coll’s tone turns tragic. At one point, the state of fear at the CIA was so high that some officers wanted to quit and go public with warnings. Overwhelming intelligence said al Quada was planning to strike the U.S. at any time. It was just a matter of time. On September 10, President Bush’s daily intelligence brief contained an urgent title: "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."

Coll basically ends the book here, with a short afterword to incorporate the findings of the 9/11 commissions. He does not editorialize or analyze or place blame.  We leave feeling deeply satisfied with a strong grasp of the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan. We can express shock at the CIA’s boneheaded obsession with defeating the Soviets, which had the net result of arming the very insurgents we are trying to defeat now with high-tech weaponry. We can express shock at politicians unwilling to be bold. Alas, there’s also a fair amount of sympathy, too. We see tireless public servants whose lives are devoted to sifting through mountains of intelligence and making hairline decisions that have monumental consequences…only to be blunted by politicians in Washington. Game theory and decision-making scholars must have field days examining the excruciating scenarios our country’s agents endure. If nothing blows up, they’re just doing an unexceptional job. If something does blow up, they’re negligent and subject to endless congressional inquiries. It’s a lose-lose.

The challenge is for the reader to make it to the end. Coll might have taken a  couple of steps to aid the reader in this journey. For one, he plays down several moments of levity. When describing President Reagan’s approach to national security, he notes that since Reagan was "not a big reader" his staff presented key foreign policy information via custom videos or Hollywood movies. This is funny (absurd?), but Coll doesn’t give us permission to laugh amidst a deadly serious treatise. He also could have more closely examined a few of the most interesting military figures. He offers medium depth on a lot of characters, instead of going deep on a few. What was going on in the heads of some of the CIA clandestine officers as they fed the underground rebellion on Afghanistan, or spied on Osama bin Laden’s compound in the mountains? Coll doesn’t want to break out of his newsy Washington Post tone, and this stops him from lightening the load.

Ghost Wars will be useful as a history book in a decade, but its lessons can be applied today. President Bush’s national security team is being blasted for overstepping protocol (and laws) to fight terrorists. For most Americans 9/11 is a distant memory, and other national priorities should come before terrorism. CIA agents, however, continue to sift through hundreds of downright scary intelligence briefs every day. And they continue to war-game various scenarios to take down al Qaeda sleeper cells – none of which can please the Pentagon for military soundness, the White House for political acuteness, the public for minimization of civilian and troop causalities, and the CIA for the advancement of strategic anti-terrorist goals. The terrorist attacks on U.S. interests around the world over the past decade have shown that the rules of war have changed even though arcane laws (which require swaths of Justice Dept attorneys) have not. Coll is not arguing to totally let the CIA loose; indeed, William Casey’s behavior reminds us that some congressional oversight is essential. But Coll presents raw material that can bolster the hawkish reader, too: in hindsight, CIA actions look so obviously right or wrong, but if America is going to defeat terrorists, the public – and especially privacy advocates –  may have to accept opportunistic decisions that do not please everyone.

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