Feb 27, 2004

Ghost Wars, Special to site

I have just started reading Steve Coll's Ghost Wars which tells the story of the CIA's involvement in Afghanistan from the invasion of the Soviets in 1979 up until the 9/11 attacks. I could not recommend it more highly. The Soviet war in Afghanistan was arguably the most important conflict in the post World War II period, first of all because it revealed the Soviet Army to be a paper tiger, thus hastening the end of the Soviet empire, and secondly because it created the Islamist internationale that has spread jihad and terrorism from Algeria to Manhattan to Indonesia in the past decade.
Yet despite the importance of the Afghan conflict it has received relatively little serious historical inquiry. There are tens of thousands of books about aspects of the Vietnam War, yet the Afghan war has had few historians. Part of the reason is that covering the Afghan war was so dangerous and so much of the war went unreported. Reporters who did cover the war-- Ed Giardet for the Christian Science Monitor, Richard Mackenzie for the Washington Times and combat cameraman Peter Jouvenal--took extraordinary risks for stories that news editors had only a relatively small appetite for. Those reporters who did go "inside" Afghanistan did so for months at a time on foot, eating only rice, with the continual specter of Soviet attacks looming over them. No wonder there were few brave enough to make the trip.

There have been a number of histories of the war that are of interest: Henry Bradsher has written an authoritative book on the military aspects of the war. The French scholar Olivier Roy has written on the changing nature of Afghan warrior culture doing the war. Mark Urban wrote an early history of the military campaigns of the war. Brigadier Yousaf of ISI told the Pakistani side of the war in his book Bear Trap. Robert Kaplan wrote Soldiers of God, which is largely an account of the legendary Afghan commander Abdul Haq. Recently, Milt Bearden who headed the CIA Afghan operation for part of the war wrote The Main Enemy with Jim Risen of the New York Times that recounts his experiences during the Afghan war, while George Crile, a 60 Minutes producer, penned Charlie Wilson's War, an entertaining account of Charlie Wilson, the colorful congressman who was instrumental in getting more US resources to the Afghan resistance.

Yet no one has told the whole story of what was the United Sates' largest covert operation since the Vietnam war, until now. Coll has talked to everyone involved and writes lively portraits of such key players as CIA Director William Casey and Ahmad Shah Massoud.

To be continued...