A wise man would refuse to lug even the paperback version of Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars to bed, for fear of being crushed to death if he dozes off in mid-sentence. However, despite being 712 pages long Coll’s volume is well worth the read for anyone interested in U. S. involvement in Afghanistan beginning in 1979 and spanning more than two decades.
Coll’s book is not a history of Afghanistan, per se, but rather a history of American interaction with Afghanistan from 1979 until September 11, 2001. The drama that unfolds includes a cast of actors that include presidents, generals, mujahedin, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, the Soviet army, and the Pakistani and Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies.
The first part of the book deals with the Soviet-Afghan War (Nov 1979 – Feb 1989), and begins just before the Soviet invasion, as the U. S. began using Afghan warriors to embarrass the Soviet Union. The Americans funneled cash and arms through Pakistan into Afghanistan and managed to succeed in sending the Soviets scurrying back to their borscht. However, the Americans were not alone in funding the war: The United States’ contributions to this campaign were matched and possibly exceeded, however, by those of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The second part of the book deals with the factious aftermath of the Soviet expulsion (March 1989 – Dec 1997). After having covered in detail the humiliating defeat and withdrawal of the USSR, Coll turns to the intramural warfare that followed, including the rise of the Taliban from small faction to ruling party. The reader is given a well-researched and well-written account of Bin Laden’s emergence as a force with which to be reckoned, and of his escape to North Africa.
The third part of the book concentrates on the CIA’s attempts to capture bin Laden (Jan 1998 – Sept 11, 2001). Coll details bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan, where he marries himself to Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Taliban, allowing him to use Afghanistan as a base from which to plan attacks on American assets.
Ghost Wars is crammed full of great stories. Coll’s well-crafted character sketches cover a wide range, including major figures (Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ahmed Shah Massoud, bin Laden) as well as more minor characters: (secret agents, warriors, generals, diplomats, suicide bombers). Without Coll, there are many things that we would not now know. How would we have known that Nawaz Sharif was “an unusually dull, muddled politician” who “seemed to offer a bovine, placid gaze in private meetings where he sometimes read awkwardly from note cards“? Or that , at a meeting with Americans, “None of the Taliban wore shoes or sandals. They picked continually at their feet, the Americans could not help but notice“? Or that Ahmed Shah Massoud (the warlord who refused to be controlled by the USSR, the USA, or the Taliban, and who, by the time he was 30, had fended off six direct assaults by the world’s largest conventional army) “had written his thesis on the battle of Gettysburg” when he studied at Pakistan’s elite officer’s college?
Or how would we have ever known that our own CIA was a publisher and distributer of the Qur’an? During the early stages of its proxy war against the USSR, Coll tells us, William Casey and the CIA sought to smuggle books about Central Asian culture and Soviet atrocities into the USSR, hoping to incite a revolution. The Pakistani ISI, however, argued that copies of the Qur’an would be even better, so “The CIA commissioned an Uzbek exile living in Germany to produce translations of the Koran in the Uzbek language. The CIA printed thousands of copies of the Muslim holy book and shipped them to Pakistan for distribution to the mujahedin.” Oh, dear. I think I’ll leave that one alone.
But perhaps the best sketch of all is Mullah Mohammed Omar. The reader is perhaps already aware that Omar had a big beard, wore an eye patch, and was the political and spiritual leader of the Taliban regime. What they might not have known are the details. Omar, Coll tells us, was an expert with rocket-propelled grenade launchers during the Afghan-Soviet war. He was struck in the face by shrapnel and lost his right eye. (Legend has it that he used a knife to cut his own eye out of the socket.) He believed that his dreams were prophetic guides for Afghanistan and used them to make strategic decisions. In fact, Omar said that Allah had appeared to him in a vision and told him to lead the believers.
And “lead the believers” is exactly what he did. In the spring of 1996, Omar summoned over 1,000 Pashtun leaders and scholars to Kandahar for an assembly. In the background stood the Mosque of the