Sunday, December 12, 2004

Ghost Wars, by Steve Coll

Ghost Wars must be the most comprehensive book I’ve read about America’s involvement in Afghanistan’s many wars, both civil and against foreign powers, between 1979 and the present. Its detail I found almost exhausting. I’d read twenty pages and have to put the book down and get a cup of tea or something. And it’s some 600 pages long. I don’t know how these authors (Steve Coll is a managing editor of The Washington Post) have the stamina to see these huge projects through. Thank God they do.

After wading through so much messy, messy politics and an ever shuffling deck of friends and foes, I thought, why get involved in Afghanistan in the first place? It’s like a constant battle to keep ahead of the game, and because its war, unforeseen and unexpected surprises keep popping up, bin Ladin being the most famous.

The story of these wars everyone pretty much knows in brief. Democrat President Jimmy Carter, a born again Christian, launched the CIA on harassment operations against the Soviets, who had invaded Afghanistan, trying to bring it into line. Then under Reagan this was escalated to a more aggressive approach, funding the mujahedin anti-Soviet jihad to the tune of billions of dollars.

(To get an idea of how much weaponry had been poured into the country, I quote from the book: ‘By 1992 there were more personal weapons in Afghanistan than in India and Pakistan combined. By some estimates more such weapons had been shipped into Afghanistan during the previous decade than to any other country in the world.’ No wonder civilians were getting such a rough trot, to say the least.)

This was done primarily through Pakistan’s security service, ISI (Inter- Services Intelligence.) The US sent money to them, who distributed it to the mujahedin fighters. Saudi Arabia was also helping to finance the jihad. Finally the Soviets withdrew, but it ended up that the US had been pouring in money to openly anti-American warlords.

Well, that battle was won. The US could be happy that they had won this proxy war. So far off the radar did Afghanistan fall that when the first President Bush was informed about the fighting going on in Afghanistan he asked, ‘Is that thing still going on?’

Not only was Bush senior ignorant of the matter, it appears that almost the entire Congress was uninterested in the secret war in Afghanistan, even at the time when bin Ladin was plotting and at work. The author describes anti-Taliban fighters trying to garner interest from American politicians:

‘Organizers of this nascent anti-Taliban alliance traveled to Washington in the summer of 2000 to ask for American political support and practical aid. Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who was one of the few members of Congress to take an interest in Afghanistan held hearings. Hardly anyone paid attention. Danielle Pletka, who ran the Afghan issue at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cringed whenever she arranged meetings for Karzai and Massoud’s aides because she feared that not a single member would show up, and she would be left red-faced and alone at the conference table. ‘No one cared,’ she recalled. At typical meetings on Afghanistan ‘anywhere from none to two’ members of staff would attend.’

What a vibrant democracy!!! How could they be so asleep at the wheel, when we all now know what was fomenting in Afghanistan in 2000? You’d think the whole American public would be discussing the many twists and turns of the civil war in Afghanistan, and the plots (I know, these were secret CIA plans) to kill bin Ladin. That’s what I find so terrifying about states and their civilian populations. There is just so much ignorance of what governments are doing. And we believe whatever we’re told. It’s staggering that some 42% of the American public blame Saddam Hussein for September 11. It’s like something straight out of George Orwell.

Another paradox of American covert intervention in the region is that Pakistan was all along secretly funding the Taliban. Under pressure from her security service, Benazir Bhutto decided to help the Taliban along. All the while she kept lying to the Americans, saying that she was not doing this. How on earth does an ally fund the Taliban? The Taliban who hosted bin Laden and his training camps? What a strange world.

Ghost Wars reads as a straight line from Afghanistan in 1979 to September 11. America had a smart victory against the Soviets by funding the mujahedin, an army that featured anti-American soldiers and chiefs. Mission accomplished, they simply walked away from the country. Then they learnt terrorists were plotting in training camps in Afghanistan. Time to take out bin Laden. Hence a new focus. Ironically, America’s allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were both sponsors (not officially, but secretly, through sympathetic business men, charities and security services) of the Taliban and anti-American activities.

What does all of this mean? George Orwell wrote, the aim of power is power. I can’t think of any other good reason.

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