Friday, March 04, 2011

I Read Books: Ghost Wars

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10 2001 by Steve Coll

My brother runs tours to South Asia, and he ordered this book. While waiting for him to pick it up I read it. It is an extremely well researched and generally excellent[1] history of what happened in Afghanistan during the period it refers to. It's coverage of the American, Saudi and Pakistani National Security communities, Bin Laden, and the other notable figures and most importantly how they interacted is unparalleled. Coll interviewed many of the players himself for the book, and from the notes has read every document available as well as having foreign interviews translated. If you want to know what happened, this is the book for you.

At the end of the day there are no great new revelations, in part because it was published in 2004[2]. It's nevertheless fascinating, seeing how after the revolution in Iran shockwaves spread across the Islamic world. Later that year many events loosely connected to it occurred including attacks on the American Embassy in Islamabad and the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and inspiring and radicalising many students, including Osama bin Laden. In many ways the coup by the Marxist-Leninist government in Afghanistan was a mirror-image of the Iranian revolution.

There are many, many interesting anecdotes[3]. Which is just as well, as this wealth of detail gets overwhelming. It's not that it's not interesting, but Coll goes out of his way to present just the facts - not making judgements beyond what people said and did, not speculating beyond the evidence - and to write in a clear style. Sometimes I found myself bogged down by this. It's not a popular history. It is a fine introduction to the region and the issues, but it's not written to entice you to read on. To a certain extent we know how it ends[4] which is enough to keep me going, but I did stop a couple of times part way through and take a break (by reading some Rowling and Brookmyre, obviously). So what do I think to sum up?

Read This: If you want to know what happened in Afghanistan, and what Bin Laden and the CIA were up to between 1979 and 2001
Don't Read This: If you have no interest in the region or you just want a brief overview rather than every single detail.

[1] And the Pulitzer board agreed, giving him the prize for general non-fiction in 2005
[2] The edition here is updated with documents from the 9/11 Commission, which Coll says mostly served to improve the precision of the chronology
[3] My favourite being Shortly after William Casey became Director of Central Intelligence. The previous CIA head had kept the place teetotal. Casey sticks his head out his office door, shouts "Two Vodka martinis" and shuts the door, leaving the executive suite puzzled - where do they get two vodka martinis from, and whose job is it to get them?
[4] Actually you don't, because it stops on 10 September 2001.

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