Ghost Wars – S. Coll

“You are financing your own assassins.”

This week’s book is going to be tough stuff. Don’t get me wrong – the book is excellent, Steve Coll is excellent at creating riveting storylines and explaining complicated developments succinctly.

It’s just that the topic is a bit intense. “Ghost Wars” is the story about the CIA involvement in Afghanistan, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. But – it is a very good book, and I would urge you all to read it. It’s important, and just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we should ignore what happened. In fact, it means that we should look even closer.

To start with – have a look at the picture below. Once you know what it is, you’ll never forget it.

AFG 70s

This is a picture of Kabul in the 70s. Now, surely not all Afghan women were wearing miniskirts – it was a very rural country, with a weak central government and a lot of regional alliances in the provinces.

However, this picture still proves that Afghanistan wasn’t always the hell water place we know it to be now. It was on its way to modernity before it got bombed back to the stone age, quite literally.


Short answer – Afghanistan became a proxy battlefield between the Soviet Union and the United States, and both superpowers flooded the country with enough weapons to sustain a war that has been going on for over forty years now. Add to that the local interests of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, a US foreign policy that sometimes bordered on the naive, the rise of extremist Islamism, you find yourself in an absolute mess.

Thank God we have this book to lay it all out for us. What happened is never pretty, and sometimes it’s hard to swallow, but it is worth knowing.

So, for the long answer, we have to divide the time since the Soviet Invasion (1979) to September 10, 2001, into three eras. (When I say ‘we’, I mean Steve Coll did that, and I’m keeping his rough outline).

A. ‘DONT MAKE IT OUR WAR’ (Nov 1979 to Feb 1989, aka the Soviet-Afghan War)

So in 1979, Afghanistan saw a populist revolt against the Communist leadership that had been in place since the year before.

The United States, under Jimmy Carter, sees an excellent opportunity to make the Soviet’s life harder. So Jimmy authorizes the CIA to support the Afghan rebels, which were mostly local warlords, with money and weapons.

However, because this was the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation was never very far, the US couldn’t outright declare that they were now supporting one side of this war. So, in a decision that would change world history, the US decided to funnel all their help through Pakistan, especially the Pakistani secret service, ISI.

It needs to be said that the official goal of the US was not to help the rebels win the war – the analysts thought that would be impossible – but to ‘harass’ the Soviet Union. Like, that was literally all they wanted. They didn’t care about the Afghans, they just wanted to pester the Soviet Union (and, to some extent, get some payback for the Soviet’s support of the Maoist rebels in Vietnam).

But. That plan backfired horribly, and it took the US only about forty years to realize how fucking awful the consequences were.

Because you see. It wasn’t just the US that was pumping money into this conflict. Every sum given by the US was matched by the Saudis, who were awash in oil money.

Why did the Saudis do this? Well, they were a fairly young country, and they needed to justify their status as the defender of the two most holy sites in Islam. Also, Saudi-Arabia is home to a conservative streak of Islam called Wahhabism, which is all prayer and no fun. And the secular communist regime in Afghanistan was a thorn in their side, so the Saudis buddied up with the US and supported the rebels, as well.

It wasn’t just the Saudi government, however – there were also private donations, and let me tell you, Saudis don’t do small. Anyone who has ever watched a Saudi shopping spree knows that their pockets are DEEP. Of course, private donations are hard to track and audit, so no one really knows how much money was flowing, but somewhere in the hundreds of millions.


So I mentioned that the US couldn’t just funnel their money directly to the rebels, but had to go through Pakistan. This is very important, because Pakistan wasn’t a neutral party, either. Pakistan wanted (and still wants) a stable, preferably Islamic regime in Afghanistan. And hey. If some of the Islamist uprisings in Afghanistan would spill over to Kashmir and … perhaps… cause some trouble for India, Pakistan’s long-time enemy, over there… that wouldn’t be too bad.

So Pakistan had every incentive to stroke the fire of militant Islamism, and the US gave them the money to do it. And just in case it wasn’t enough, the Saudis were happy to bankroll this war, too.

(If your brain hurts, you are on the right track. And I’m sorry, but this is just the beginning. This is Afghanistan, so things are always getting worse.)

In 1984, Jimmy gets sent back to his peanut farm, and Ronald ‘Not the Stupidest Person to ever become US President Anymore‘ Reagan takes over. Now Reagan was, in a lot of aspects, a special kind of stupid, but his Afghanistan policy probably ranks up there in the hall of fame.

The CIA program was working very, very well. The rebels had managed to tie down the Soviet Union in a harsh, no-mercy-given-conflict. Things weren’t great in Afghanistan, and they were about to get a lot worse.

But Reagan, and especially Congress, couldn’t leave well enough alone. So they saw the “success” of the CIA program and decided to throw even more money at it. (This is where Charlie Wilson comes in. Look him up – or watch the Tom Hanks movie.)

Increasingly, the US help was now given directly to the Afghan rebels – with the sums we are talking about now, there was no plausible deniability anymore that the US wasn’t involved in this conflict. The Soviets knew, but couldn’t do anything about it, really.

Things were slipping out of control. All this money meant that the jihad was swimming in money and could spread their extremist views throughout the country – and beyond.

And, for the first time, volunteer fighters from Saudi-Arabia appeared on Afghan battlefields. They saw this fight against the atheistic communist regime as their religious duty. In reality, they added a new layer of complication to the conflict, because they were beholden to none, and often financing their own private armies.

Then, suddenly, without having the basic decency to inform anyone about it in advance, the Soviet Union collapsed. The CIA, with all its money and spies and technology, had NO IDEA what was coming. And that changed things. A lot.

B. ‘THE END OF HISTORY WAS JUST A BREAK’ (aka First Afghan War, March 1989 to December 1997)

Now the Soviet Union is gone, and instead of things getting easier, they get harder.

President Bush the Elder has a lot of things on his plate, like the reunification of Germany, or starting the post-Soviet world order, so Afghanistan dropped off his list of priorities. If it was spoken about at all, it was in the context of ‘self-determination’, which sounds great, but let’s remember that they just spent billions of dollars destroying the place, so it’s also a bit cynical.

With the Soviets gone, the US didn’t really see any good reason to further engage in Afghanistan or perhaps clean up the mess. Nope. The CIA is trying to stay engaged, partly directly, partly via Pakistan’s ISI, but the money and attention go elsewhere.

Then, in autumn 1990, Iraq invades Kuwait, and the whole thing changes again. Because the Saudis allow US troops in their country, the jihadists are outraged. Before, the militants didn’t really care about the US one way or the other, but the First Iraq War changes this completely. Their fight is now becoming inherently Anti-American.

Not that the US would know this, really – the CIA is fighting with the State Department about policy goals in Afghanistan, but again, there really isn’t any substantial interest in this topic. The CIA’s Afghanistan policy in this period can be best described by the monkey emoji covering its eyes. It’s hard to understand now, but in the early ’90s, Islamist extremism wasn’t really on anyone’s radar.

The US was worried about terrorism, but mostly in the context of state-sponsored terrorism, mostly by Iran and Iraq. They were worried that Saddam would get his hands on a nuclear bomb. They weren’t worried about a bunch of unwashed guys hiding in one of the most remote regions on earth.

And so, unchallenged, but still awash with (Saudi and Pakistani) money, the Afghan Islamic cells began to spread in the region. Most of this is spear-headed by Osama bin Laden, who is now a household name, but back then, he was one Arab warrior among many.

Finally, after the first World Trade Center attack organized by Al-Qaeda, the US ends all help to Afghanistan in 1994. They wouldn’t come back for a decade.

And they really picked the worst possible time to leave. Because 1994 marks also the mark of the Taliban. To understand the Taliban, you have to understand that Afghanistan had been at war for twenty years at this point. It’s a civil war now, between various fractions that take and lose cities, kill civilians, it’s a mess.

And then you have these weird bearded dudes showing up, preaching piety and installing some sort of order. Now, the order was mostly to make women disappear from public and install a government based on Islamic rules, but y’know, beggars can’t be choosers, and Afghans in the mid-90s were definitively beggars. Things were THAT bad.

The Saudis, of course, were delighted about the Taliban – as were the Pakistanis. The Saudis saw the piety of the Taliban, which aligned nicely with their Wahhabism. The Pakistanis saw the Taliban as a way to stabilize the country. The US, to the extent that they were watching Afghanistan at all, were just bewildered by those bearded dudes and threw their hands in the air. Not their problem, or so they thought.

Because. Osama Bin Laden had become such a pain in the ass for the US, they opened a new office dedicated exclusively to tracking his movements. Back then, he and his followers were residing in Sudan, until the US pressured the country to extradite him.

The problem was – they weren’t sure what to do with him once they caught him. They couldn’t bring him to justice in the US, because of this pesky thing called “Rule of Law” (they didn’t have enough evidence to bring him to court in the US.) The Saudis more or less laughed in their face when they suggested to send him there – Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen, but he was also the son of a wealthy family. Besides, a lot of people in Saudi-Arabia didn’t see the harm in what bin Laden was doing – because, you guessed it, Wahhabism and Al Qaeda had a lot in common.

So where did bin Laden go? Afghanistan, of course. The country had a lot of advantages: a complete absence of civil society, lots of potential recruits, no laws, and bin Laden’s money could go very far in an impoverished society such as Afghanistan.

And now shit’s really hitting the fan because the return of bin Laden (and Al Qaeda) happens just when the Taliban enter a new phase of power and ambition. A match made in hell, but it happened thanks to Saudi & Pakistani money. And the US didn’t have a clue what was going on.

And so we enter the third phase.

C. “WE DON’T WANT TO DO THIS” (aka the hunt for Osama bin Laden, January 1998 to September 2001)

Bin Laden is now doing his thing in Afghanistan, and the Americans want him. Like me looking at designer shoes, they do not exactly know what to do with him once they got him, but boy do they want him. And so begins the manhunt.

From the start, the advantages lay in Bin Laden’s court. Or rather, the Americans just shot themselves in the foot, over and over again. (This is the part of the book where you want to yell ‘watch out!’ at the various protagonists because hindsight is 20/20 and you know where this ends.)

Because they had no presence in Afghanistan anymore, the Americans had to rely entirely on foreign help to get intelligence on Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Which mostly meant the Pakistani ISI, who of course had no interest to really deliver Bin Laden to the Americans.

The CIA came up with various plans to capture/kill Bin Laden, but none of them were implemented. You can sense the halfheartedness of all these endeavors – the CIA nails bin Laden down (not an easy thing to do, because this dude was raking up some serious miles travelling around the country), they come up with a plan, but by the time they get the green light (if they get a green light at all), bin Laden’s gone again.

There was a serious lack of interest in this hunt coming from the White House – which, now occupied with Bill ‘creepy smile’ Clinton, had other priorities *cough impeachment cough cough*.

And looming above all else was the disconcerting lack of any policy. The White House and the CIA couldn’t even agree who the enemy was. Was it only Bin Laden? Or Al Qaeda, his organization? What about the Taliban? And what about the civil war that was still raging in Afghanistan? Should the US take sides in that? These were hard questions, and they weren’t answered back then. Hell, they are not even answered now. Half of the pundits confuse Al Qaeda with the Taliban, and none of them care about Afghanistan per se. And that is the tragedy of this country, I think – it was hijacked by foreign interests, torn apart by different fractions, and never ever was it about the country itself, only about the use it could be for other countries.

And while the Clinton (and Bush) administration are too busy with other things, the plotting begins. As it is well known now, the CIA picked up a sense that something big was coming – but they didn’t know what, when, or where.

Until September 11.


Because the book is so good, there are only two other things I’d recommend for you to get a better understanding of the topic.

One is “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s road to 9/11″ by Lawrence Wright, which tells the same story, but from a different point of view. Just like Ghost Wars, this book won a Pulitzer Prize, so you know it’s good. (I think it’s a bit more accessible than Ghost Wars, but that shouldn’t keep you from reading either. Read both.)

On top of that, Steve Coll recently appeared on Pod Save The World to discuss his new book. The interview talks about the tensions in the US-Pakistani relationship. It’s about 40  mins. I cannot recommend this enough.


I thought we could try something different this time. Steve Coll has a new book, “Directorate S”, which picks up the story where “Ghost Wars” ends. So if you are interested in this topic, you could read it and then see what I have to say about it next week?

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