GHOST WARS - The secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001
Maj Gen Dipankar Banerjee ·       

This comprehensive history of over 700 pages is vital reading for several reasons. As the name suggests, it is the secret history of a secret organisation, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Indeed, not just an intelligence organisation but an empire that has perhaps shaped world history more comprehensively than any other organisation or country in the second half of the last century. The CIA is also the model on which the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan is based, albeit a minor image, with its own minor impact in this part of the world.

There are two successive stories; of the resistance in Afghanistan in the 1980's and the rise of the Taliban and terrorism in the 1990's. It is also a story of the Great Game on search for oil and gas and in arranging its routes to market. It describes vividly the rise of Bin Laden and the terror network he created and nurtured and how it successfully eluded the CIA for over a decade. It is also a story of skulduggery and intrigue, betrayal and back stabbing, of low politics around the world and several other unsavoury things. Finally, it provides a glimpse of Prince Turki al-Faisal the head for two decades of the Saudi General Intelligence Network (GIN), its immense power and reach and its influence in spreading Wahabi Islam in this part of the world through its limitless financial power. Turki was later to be the Saudi Ambassador to the UK and now holds the same position in Washington, DC.

If there is a hero, it is perhaps the true resistance fighters of Afghanistan and Ahmed Shah Massoud, with whose assassination the book appropriately ends. Related to this is the CIA's inexplicable neglect of Massoud, which in turn led to several difficulties.

Steve Coll's background as the Washington Post's South Asia bureau chief and later its managing editor since 1998 qualifies him eminently to write this Book. What is mind boggling is the detailed and meticulous research that provides the book high credibility and interest. Combined with the 9/11 Commission Report, which had access to government documents and testimony from officials, they provide us the backdrop to the Twin Tower attacks. They constitute a major lesson in current history and a study of the failure of intelligence. A compelling read indeed for all policy makers and individuals concerned with security and politics in today's world.

The disastrous decision of the Soviet leadership in intervening in Afghanistan has been covered elsewhere and is also available from recently released Soviet official documents. This indeed came as a godsend to the US. At a low point in its recent history after Vietnam, it provided Washington a rare opportunity to destroy the Soviet Union. Perhaps by then Moscow's demise was inevitable, though it would probably have lasted a few years more. The opportunity was too good to let pass. Its novelty lies in the strategy employed.

The US intervened in Afghanistan through the CIA and not the army, by proxy through the ISI and almost entirely with cash. It had learnt well its lessons from Vietnam and there would now be no "boots on the ground". Its agents were "kingmakers" nevertheless, playing one group against another. Its weapons were bags full of money. Through this the CIA thought it manipulated the levers of power from the background. Actually the more deft manipulators were President Zia ul Haq and Lt Gen Akhtar Abdur Rahman, the Director General of the ISI who manipulated both the CIA and the GIN. They realized early the limitations of US strategy and its potential for advantage to Islamabad and strategized brilliantly. They ensured that every bit of clandestine aid to the Mujahids was routed through it, thus controlling the purse strings, the weapons supply system and through this the entire agenda. It then used the surplus resource for terrorism in Indian Punjab and in Kashmir. It still left the ISI surplus capacity for subverting the internal politics in Pakistan for a decade more. For the CIA it was a very low cost option and hugely successful. But, once the war was over it had no control over the aftermath and its immediate consequence was high tragedy.

The book begins with a graphic account of the attack on the US embassy in Islamabad. It describes vividly the near disaster caused by local government apathy or design and the narrow escape of the Embassy staff. Yet, a country that never forgets a defeat or ever condones the attack on any of its persons, somersaulted deftly when the opportunity in Afghanistan came. More surprising perhaps is why it chose to ignore this a decade later when the immediate proxy war had been won. Ultimately the failures were colossal. Not only could it not interdict Bin Laden even after nearly a decade's effort, but it left behind a rogue regime in Afghanistan that would attack its heartland.

There are several issues of vital interest to an expert reader. The politics within the US government and relations between its various agencies and the way these are affected by personalities, interest groups and lobbyists. How individuals, their attitudes and interests shape decision making. It highlights the enormous power of the US Presidency especially when he enjoys a majority in both houses of Congress or is able to manipulate it. It also provides interesting interplay between offices and people who man the various establishments of governance. Finally, is the question of politics within a large governmental undertaking such as the CIA. These insights are both credible and fascinating.

A curious omission in the book is almost total absence of any mention of India. Welcome perhaps for several reasons, particularly for secrets it would surely have revealed and which would have created many earthquakes in Delhi. But, to find no mention of the Millennium Indian Airlines hijack to Kandahar and its impact and consequences, is not just disappointing but seems a major omission in understanding the character of the Taliban regime and its links with terrorism. Surely the CIA would have known the details.

The book's final value may lie in the glimpse it provides in to the complexity of countering terror in today's world. The shadowy networks that operate with the support and heavy financial contributions from influential regimes and groups. Of governmental collusions in their respective national interests and in their links with religion. For those in South Asia in particular it makes compelling reading.