A six star non-fiction thriller
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 2 October 2016
If you want to understand why the senate voted down Obama’s veto 97-1 last week, pick up this 400 page book and start reading it. It will grip you so hard, you’ll only be able to put it down when you’re done.
It is difficult to discuss “Ghost Wars” and avoid hyperbole.
What we have here is not just a level-headed, comprehensive and exhaustive account of Afghan history from 1980 to 2011. This masterpiece of a book is nothing less than the full and definitive account of the manner in which overt and covert American foreign policy mixed with Pakistani and Saudi domestic politics (and their projection on foreign policy goals) to directly foster the gestation and development of Islamic terrorism as we know it today.
You find out about the events in Afghanistan leading up to the Soviet invasion, the rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s struggles between Islam and secularism, the Soviet invasion, the puppet government the Soviets installed, the Afghan resistance and its protagonists, the pact with the devil between the CIA and the ISI to support the religiously most radicalized factions of the resistance, the donations to the cause that the US actively solicited and obtained in the Gulf on behalf of the ISI, the routing of the Soviets chiefly by Tajiks warriors under Ahmed Shah Massoud, Uzbeks under warlords like Dostum and the Pakistan-assisted Islamists of Haqqani and Hekmattyar and their American-supplied Stinger missiles. Next you move to the almost equally bloody struggles between them all, the subsequent total abandonment of Afghanistan by the West to the interests of Pakistan, all the way through to the disgraceful period when US policy to the region was dictated by inconsequential interests of second-rate players in the oil industry and the misrule the west tolerated in Kabul after the departure of the Soviets.
From there you move almost naturally to the rise of the morally virtuous, home-grown, ethnically Pashtun, Wahhabi-educated, Pakistan-armed and Pakistan-supported Taliban, their intolerance of diversity and the hijacking of their cause by Osama Bin Laden, who not only bought their way into Kabul but very carefully cultivated and won the support of their leader, the one-eyed mullah Mohammed Omar.
After that, the author gives a full account of the terrorist activities of Osama Bin Laden up to September 11 and takes care to set them within the context of other Middle Eastern terrorism, secular and religious, while in parallel documenting in full the CIA-led efforts to fight it. George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, especially, do not come out if this account smelling of roses. Clinton, in particular is accused of first mistrusting the CIA and then of being incapacitated by his need to manage public opinion in view of his personal scandals, but also of his famous tendency to “triangulate” between getting results and keeping a distance from any collateral damage.
It really is all there!
All of the above, while true, is still not the best thing about this book.
What makes this an unbelievable read is that it really gets hold of you. Steve Coll has managed to convert this very convoluted history into a gripping narrative with character development and a clear storyline. By the end of the book, you feel you really know the Uzbeki Massoud, Americans Casey, Shroen and Berger, the Saudi Prince Turki, Pakistanis such as Zia-Ul-Haq, Musharraf and all the heads of the ISI; you get to see a darker side of Benazir Bhutto, too. Special care is given to understanding the motivations of all the players, the multiple levels on which they were acting, the multiple goals they were pursing at the same time and the physical terrain in which they operated.
It is fair to say that there isn’t a single character in this play who’s not having to make a number of compromises. The author tells you enough about everybody so you can judge where he’s coming from. Pakistan’s ISI needed to fight the Soviets, for example, but only if it could be beaten by its own proxies. And it also needed to secure secret bases from which to train guerrillas for its secret war in Kashmir. And all this it needed to do while still receiving financial assistance from the US and while pretending the country was on a path to democracy. The Saudi princes’ motivations are explained in similar detail, as are the sundry resistance fighters’. And you are left with zero doubt that western interests at some point simply went absent without leave.
You ride with all these guys. You climb on their helicopters with them, you dodge bullets with them, you watch them hang their enemies from the high mast, you feel the shrapnel tear through you when they fall.
If this was a novel, basically, you’d find yourself unable to put it down. Except, of course, it’s all documented fact. From the first skirmish at the US Embassy in Pakistan all the way through the development of our now favorite means of delivering “justice,” the dreaded Predator, and to the last chapter of the book (not unlike the last scene in the Godfather, except it’s Osama Bin Laden sitting in the –figurative- opera house while his opponents are eliminated) what you have here is a truly educational thriller.
I have no idea how anybody can put together such a tremendous book within three years of the event that gave rise to what could easily have been a lifelong project for a lesser author. But Steve Coll, managing editor of the Washington Post when he wrote this book some thirteen years ago, pulled it off.
And now I’ve read “Ghost Wars,” it’s clear to me that the US Congress has only really covered half the bases here. An equitable decision would also have cleared the way for US citizens to sue the Pakistani state, perhaps over and above Saudi Arabia.
Then again, the American way is to sue for money. When will we all learn?
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