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

Author Steve Coll, managing editor of The Washington Post, discusses the findings of his latest book on the CIA's involvement in the covert wars in Afghanistan that fueled Islamic militancy and gave rise to bin Laden's al Qaeda. To view the video feed of the discussion, please click on the "Event Summary" link below.

Date & Time

Feb. 24, 2004
1:30pm – 3:00pm ET


Steve Coll described his book as a "narrative of the history of the antecedents of September 11 as they were located in Afghanistan beginning in 1979 and ending on Sept 10, 2001." According to Coll, he placed a special emphasis on the role of the CIA and Pakistani and Saudi intelligence—all three principal actors in Afghanistan over those 20 years. His book was based almost entirely on 200 interviews with American, Pakistan, Saudi and Afghan participants. He also tried to draw on documents as much as he could but this proved difficult as there is very little documentation during this period. He describes the book as a piece of journalism where he attempted to bring multiple and balanced points of view to bear on controversial episodes.

The story is written in 3 parts. The first section covers the anti-Soviet Jihad of 1979-89, a time when the U.S. collaborated with Pakistani and Saudi intelligence to aid the Afghan Mujahadeen battling Soviet occupying forces. The second phase he covers in the book begins in 1989 with the Soviet pullout and goes through late 1997, early 1998. Here he tells the story of the "American retreat form Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban, the full radicalization of Bin Laden, the maturation of Al Qaeda into a global terrorist organization, and the erosion of common cause among CIA, ISI (Pakistani), and Saudi intelligence." The third and final part of this story begins in the Spring of 1998 and runs right up to Sept 10, 2001. Here Coll focuses on the return of CIA covert action to Afghanistan and the Clinton Administration's mandate to capture, disrupt, or kill Bin Laden, and his lieutenants.

Coll went on to highlight a few of the major themes in each part of the book including the relationship between the Saudis and Bin Laden in the 1980s as well as Bin Laden's evolving relationship with Pakistani Intelligence (ISI) which led to his role in training guerillas for Kashmir and other theatres. Coll also described the CIA/Pakistani collaboration during the late 1980s—"when things got complicated and our agendas were diverging." It was during the late 1980s, Coll related, that the "independent Pakistani Islamization agenda starts to express itself in a way that is quite menacing."

In the second phase of the book Coll focuses on the rise of the Taliban and the Pakistanis' struggle to decide how to deal with them. For this phase of the story, Coll interviewed Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan. He explained how the U.S. almost completely disengaged during this time, seeing Afghanistan as "an old Cold War story" and no longer of strategic importance for the U.S. It was also during this time that Bin Laden arrived in Kabul.

In the third part of his book, Coll describes the CIA's reengagement in Afghanistan and the Clinton Administration's two-track policy to pinpoint Bin Laden's location and to either capture and try him in U.S. courts or kill him while trying. Coll also describes the role of General Ahmed Shah Masood, the creator and leader of the Northern Alliance, who was assassinated immediately prior to September 11, 2001.

Commentators Milt Bearden and George Cave, both retired senior CIA operatives, were not able to read the book as it was just released the day prior to this event. Instead, they each offered insights based on their respective experiences in Afghanistan. Bearden, who had spent 30 years in clandestine services, commented that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was as important, yet difficult to understand today as during the time period that Coll covers in his book. He tells the story of how it was decided that the CIA would go into Pakistan in 1979 after the Soviet invasion and describes the dynamic between the U.S. and the Pakistanis. According to Bearden, neither side trusted or understood the other. He commented that his mission in Afghanistan was very specific---to get the Soviets out—so he did not pay such characters as Masood much attention, although he does not deny that Masood was an important figure.

George Cave, who was sent to Kabul in 1956, commented that the question of the strategic importance of Afghanistan for the United States was a question even then. The specific question at that time was what impact or importance the Soviet influence over Afghanistan had for the U.S. One of Cave's primary jobs was to report back on every agreement signed between the Soviets and the Afghans. He describes the deepening relationship between the Soviets and the Afghans as he witnessed it. He concluded by describing the CIA's initial involvement in aiding and training the Mujahadeen against the Soviets.



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