We have on Security Debrief attempted to pass on suggestions for “essential reading” to anybody attempting to understand the evolution of homeland security and our current struggles against violent jihadists and radical Islamists. (The phrase “war on terror” seems a bit too vague to be of real value. When folks use that term, particularly in this Administration, they aren’t really referring to terrorism in general. They aren’t referring to the kidnappings and murders of the FARC in Colombia, for example, even though that organization is every bit the lethal terrorist organization as its counterparts in the Middle East.)
Randy Beardsworth and Stewart Verdery, for example, recently offered their thoughts on Ted Alden’s recent book on the evolution of border security policy – “The Closing of the American Border” – which both suggested was critical reading if you want to understand the successes and failures of American border security policy to date.
If, however, you are looking for an insightful and exhaustively researched work on the direct conflict between America and violent Islamism, then you must read Steve Coll’s book “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.”
Yes, the length of the title does directly correspond to the length of the book. It’s a long book. But don’t let the narrowness of the title – the focus on the CIA and Afghanistan – deter you if you are interested in the big picture. The simple truth is that you cannot understand the big picture of the terrorist environment today if you do not understand Afghanistan. And you cannot understand Afghanistan if you do not understand the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which became the catalyst for armed revolt against not only (initially) foreign invaders but (over time) against Muslims and non-Muslims — individuals and governments — anywhere in the world. And you cannot understand how all of this applies to the United States, specifically, without understanding the intense involvement of the CIA in helping to arm and support Afghani (and, later, Pakistani) mujahedeen against the Soviets as a way simply to hand the Soviet Union its own version of Vietnam. All of these things led at first indirectly and then quite directly to September 11th, and Coll does a commendable job of laying down the history.
Indeed, I would place Coll’s book along side Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11″ as indispensable books for anybody wishing to understand what led to al Qaeda’s murderous attacks on the United States in 2001. (Not to mention the 1993 forerunner attack on the World Trade Center, the 1996 Khobar Tower bombing and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.)
While Wright’s book provides a stronger ideological and cultural history of the lead-up to 9/11, Coll’s provides the stronger history of actions and events. Read them both and you will have most of what you need to know about the existential struggle of our generation. Additionally, you will come to understand that you cannot understand al Qaeda without understanding the critical involvement of our ambiguous allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
The only government funder of the Islamist war against the Soviet Union with deeper pockets than the United States (via the CIA) was Saudi Arabia. And both laundered their money through Pakistan, which became the command central for funding, training and organizing the mujahedeen against the Soviets and, then, doing the same for the Taliban. (All of those al Qaeda training camps we here about today? The training camps were started by the Pakistanis during the war against the Soviets.)
The third great financier was one Osama bin Laden, the J.P. Morgan of the Islamist world. Despite his reputation today as the most dangerous terrorist of our time, he started out as simply a deep (deep, deep) pocketed financial supporter of other more assertive, innovative and charismatic leaders of Wahbabi-inspired organizations seeking to overthrow non Islamic governments in the Middle East (such as Nasser and Sadat’s Egypt) and the destruction of Israel. Like America’s Morgan, entire governments approached the Bin Laden family for financial support and backing, including the Kingdom of Saud prior to the oil riches. The Taliban Government, during its rapid rise and brief, violent and repressive rule, owed much to Bin Laden’s money.
Coll does an impressive job of bringing all of this research and history to life with a lively narrative, particularly during the first two-thirds of the book through the Reagan and Bush I administrations. Perhaps because of the treasure trove of primary documents and previously classified information that was set loose by the 9/11 Commission hearings and investigation, Coll gets bogged down in the Clinton years, detailing in excruciating detail the internal squabbling between the CIA, the NSC, the Pentagon and the other players in crafting (or failing to craft) policy to deal with Bin Laden as he grew from simply a dangerous financier of terrorists to himself becoming the organizer and leader of the most dangerous terrorist network of the age.
In Coll’s mind, the great failing of American policy was the decision to abruptly abandon Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. And he provides a lot of evidence to support his view. During the Cold War era, the only threat to really mattered was the Soviet Union. American policy in Afghanistan went only so far as to humiliate the Soviets; after their withdrawal no thought was given to the wasteland of warring tribes and militarized and radicalized jihadists left in the wake. America largely delegated its own Afghani policy to another country – Pakistan. One need only look to Islamabad today to understand why this was short-sighted.
Even after the end of the Soviet Union, and the early signs of rising Islamic extremism and militancy, the United States seemed unable to address the threat head-on. The Clinton Administration did not fully trust the CIA and ignored the rising sense of urgency over the Bin Laden threat, focusing more on the admittedly dire concern of stability in the nuclear-armed Pakistan and that nation’s tensions with the also nuclear-equipped India. Coll does an excellent job of outlining the near hysteria of the CIA in the first months of the Bush II Administration, and the frustration that developed as the Administration took its time in settling into place and developing a new policy. To its credit, the Bush Administration did indeed reverse the course of the Clinton Administration and began to craft a policy to take on Bin Laden and the Taliban directly. Ironically, this decision took several months (after several years of inaction on the part of the Clinton Administration) and at almost the exact time it made the official decision to take action, Bin Laden struck first.
We know the rest.