Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars

I will admit that prior to September 11, I paid very little attention to America’s counterterrorist efforts, or even, really, to politics. Seems surprising, considering what a junkie I’ve become, but my youthful politics tended to revolve more around issues of women’s equality and anti-capitalism than foreign policy.

Of course, I’m still a feminist and an anti-capitalist, but it’s almost impossible not to pay attention to foreign policy, especially Middle East affairs, these days. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the history of American involvements in the Middle East is paltry, or rather, it was until I read Steve Coll’s excellent book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Coll’s exhaustively researched and detailed narrative covers American covert involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia over the last 35 years, revealing decision-making processes, relationships between key players, factions and their supporters, and a picture of near endless warfare.

Coll’s well-written portraits of the key players in the region are some of the most compelling things about the book. The same people have been orchestrating events in the region for several decades, and after reading Ghost Wars, I read the current news with a much better sense of who these people are, and what their relationships are to each other. Coll manages to piece together a comprehensive picture from the many convoluted bits, to reveal the mistakes and miscalculations that resulted in the attacks of September 11, and more significantly, to place our current actions within a greater historical context.

I will likely never agree that the United States makes the right decisions in our foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. Reading this book did nothing to dispel my sense that foreign policy is a too deadly game played by men whose only drive is to be the strongest one in the room. So many of the mistakes that were made, and that continue to made, stem from a national character among our politicians and policy makers that isn’t going to change anytime soon. But at least now I have a more thorough understanding of each step in that game, and of all the players making them. And this book will hold a place near the top of my list of recommendations for quite some time.

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