Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Ghost Wars

I just finished reading Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll, which conveniently ties in quite well with Pat's last post on the CIA, and thought it deserved some comments. While it won a Pulitzer Prize for history, like the last 9/11 book I reviewed the Looming Tower, and has some similarities, it covers a more specific topic, in much more depth, namely the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing conflicts. In this way it is actually similar to another excellent book, Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile.

The book essentially starts at the Soviet invasion, and discusses the US involvement, which is basically the eagerness of the CIA and their supporting politicians to stick it to the USSR, as a sort of revenge for Vietnam. Since Afghanistan is a landlocked country of course, they needed a way to get aid to the Afghans, so they ended up funneling money through the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). While this may have worked out operationally, it led to the obvious problem that the ISI did not always have the same goals as the US government. While truthers often claim that the ISI is under the control of the CIA, the truth is much more complex. In many aspects the ISI was barely under the control of the Pakistani government. The ISI tended to have more Islamic fundamentalists in it, and would use the aid to support the Afghan groups most to their liking, completely outside of any government control.

This became most evident after the Soviets left, and the US basically just forgot about Afghanistan, when the ISI started supporting the Taliban. After bin Laden was kicked out of the Sudan and moved to Afghanistan in 1996, the US suddenly became interested in the country again, and tried to reestablish connections with their old allies, notably the leader of the Northern Alliance, the Lion of the Panjshir, Ahmed Shah Massoud. This led to difficulties though, because the US was ostensibly neutral in the conflict, while the ISI was actively supporting their Taliban enemies. In return for minimal support, Massoud provided occasional intelligence to the CIA, at one point even unsuccessfully attempting to launch a rocket attack against an Al Qaeda camp bin Laden was believed to inhabit.

The whole thing became rather comical after the mostly unsuccessful 1998 cruise missile attack against a couple of training camps. The Clinton administration realized that trying to hit bin Laden with cruise missiles, did nothing other than drum up support for bin Laden. The US, which had to launch these missiles over Pakistan, warned them so that they would not suspect an attack from their Indian neighbors, and most likely bin Laden was gone hours before. After lawyers argued endlessly whether it was even legal to kill bin Laden, the administration came up with a series of half-hearted ideas, including prodding the Pakistanis to create a commando unit to hunt down bin Laden, an idea which died unceremoniously after the coup which brought General Musharaff to power. The idea of dropping US Special Forces in after bin Laden, pushed by Richard Clarke, was also dropped after resistance by General Shelton, himself a Green Beret, who pointed out the difficulty of supporting special operations forces in a landlocked country with unsupporting neighbors, on the basis of sketchy intelligence.

In 2000 the CIA actually began using the Predator UAV (which despite occasional truther insistence, most certainly did not hit the Pentagon) to spy on bin Laden, and even believed they identified him, but they had no capability to do anything about it. According to Coll, when the new Bush administration came in, they immediately began to ignore the situation, but in the summer of 2001 on the basis of vague warnings by the CIA they began to take the threat seriously. The focus of the anti-bin Laden effort actually became to attach the Hellfire anti-tank missile to the Predator, an ingenious idea which unfortunately only became ready for use a few months after 9/11.

On the whole an excellent book, which provides a detailed and fascinating look into 2 decades of secret warfare and subterfuge. Also a book which any truther will avoid like the plague.

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