March 10, 2005

Book Review: Ghost Wars by Steve Coll

Ghost Wars describes the over twenty year history of the US government's involvement in Afghanistan. There is nothing really earth-shattering here, just details of historical points where different decisions by the US would likely have derailed 9/11 (but hindsight is perfect). However, decisions were made for short-term gains, not long-term strategy (a problem for all politicians). All administrations get some blame over the course of this era: Reagan and Bush I for ignoring the problem (of course, the Soviets were collapsing, and what was Afghanistan compared to Poland or East Germany?), Clinton for focusing on domestic politics exclusively in his first term and getting so caught up with sexual scandals in his second that he couldn't really govern ("Wag the Dog" meant he couldn't use force against al Qaeda because he would look like he really was trying to divert attention: except there were - possibly - a couple of times where we might have been able to get Bin Laden, and Clinton flinched), and Bush II for utterly ignoring terrorism as an important issue for his first nine months. In that sense, the book is non-partisan.

The book starts just before the Soviet Invasion (in 1979) and ends on September 10, 2001. It is not a history of Afghanistan, or even a history of the violence in that period. It focusses almost entirely on US actions with respect to Afghanistan, and US actions with other players who were influential in Afghanistan in that period (Bin Laden, the various mujahadin, the Taliban, Pakistan's ISI, Saudi Arabia's intelligence services, etc.). In the main, the book details the intra-governmental debates and activities between the White House (mostly the National Security Council), the State Department and the CIA.

The broad outlines of the story are likely already known to people: the US, seeking to punish the Soviet Union, pushed a large volume of money and arms into Afghanistan. This helped the Afghan mujadin push the Soviets out, but also facilitated the rise of fundamentalists who gave Bin Laden space to create al Qaeda. The interesting parts of the book are in the details. The US contributions to the Afghan war were funnelled (except for some cash) through the Pakistani ISI (for quite legitimate initial reasons: the US needed a friendly neighbor to provide physical space to build depots to put the arms before moving them to Afganistan. The only countries that border Afghanistan (in 1979) were the USSR, Iran and Pakistan. Who would you work with from that bunch?). The problem with this is that the US had no real control over what the ISI did with the stuff they delivered. The ISI used the American supplies to support mujahadin leaders they approved of (fundamentalists who could provide stability in Afghanistan - something Pakistan wanted - and training for non-Pakistani guerillas to fight in Kasmir), and starved the ones who didn't toe the Pakistani line. Hence, the rise of fundamentalists: they were the best equipped and supported groups fighting in Afghanistan. It shouldn't have been much of a surprise when they won the civil war that started when the Soviets withdrew. This led, as everyone knows the story, to the establishment of the Taliban and the camps they allowed Bin Laden.

Another big surprise was the relative volume of the US contribution. The fighting in Afghanistan attracted three major anti-communist donors: the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. While the US support reached a high of several hundred million dollars in it's peak years (somewhat less than half a billion, if I remember correctly, in 1990 or so), that amount was equalled or exceeded in just about every year by the combined Saudi and Pakistani contributions (which, of course, were also going to the fundamentalists). Hence, there was a great deal of money going to fighting the Soviets, and from the mujahadin's perspective the US was just one of several important donors. We had no real unique claim on their loyalty.

Bin Laden starts out as just another Wahabi fundamentalist who is trying to funnel money to Afghanistan. The US knew about what he was doing (and supported it in an intellectual sense, not physically) in the early part of the war in Afghanistan. He becomes more and more radical, and gradually more and more worrying to the US over the 1980s. By the time we really want him, he has moved to Africa, and is out of our reach. By the time he comes back to Afghanisan (mid 1990s), we have abandoned the country (their isn't even a CIA officer assigned to monitor the country in the early 1990s) and can't get to him. We spend most of the second half of the 1990s trying to convince ISI to help us get him (who politely tell us they will try, when in point of fact Bin Laden is mostly helpful to them in training Kasmiri fighters), and trying to work out for ourselves how to kidnap (later, kill) him when we have no embassy, no agents, no loyal allies, and hardly anyone who even speaks the language (as you know, we never overcame those obstacles).

Overall, as I noted, there are no real eye-opening revelations. Just a detailed story of one missed opportunity after another, until it was too late. I'll recommend the book, but it is not crucial to an understanding of where we are today (though it does explain why Afghanistan is such a mess today: but since Afghanistan no longer harbors terrorists, we don't really seem to care if it slides back into chaos, so an understanding of Afghanistan is moderately useless). Recommended.

(PS: Funniest anecdote - In 1992 the Soviet installed Afghan leader (Najibullah) is clinging to Kabul and power because the various mujadin are fighting themselves as much as the official government forces. The US decides that what the guerillas need is better armor and artillery to fight real battles on real battlefields (not just the guerilla hit-and-run stuff of the Soviet period). Where is the US going to come up with tanks and cannons that can't be traced back to us? Remeber this is 1992. There is a huge pile of slightly used tanks and cannons on the road from Kuwait City to Basra, abandoned by Saddam's army on the "highway of death". The US sweeps it up, refurbishes it slightly, and ships it to the ISI, who distribute it to their favored leaders. Next offensive sees ex-Iraqi tanks push the mujahadin into Kabul and the war is over (the real civil war starts immediately). Yah gotta admit, that's some efficient thinking.) Posted by baltar at March 10, 2005 03:16 PM | TrackBack | Posted to Books